Wednesday October 26, 2011, Noon
Diwali is a major holiday in India, known as the "festival of lights." Diwali is a contraction of the Sanskrit Deepavali, which means "row of lamps." It is principally a Hindu festival, is celebrated by some other Indian faiths, and is a public holiday coinciding with breaks from school throughout all of India.
Diwali falls on October 26 this year, and so Radio Tropicale will celebrate Diwali during the noon hour this coming Wednesday with Indian music and guests.
Bruce of Radio Tropicale has asked for recollections of Diwali from Indian friends and UVa students to be posted here to better acquaint WTJU listeners with this major Indian holiday. Enjoy reading!
Diwali in the city of Bombay (west India) makes me think of my dog, Canny, quivering violently through the evenings as explosions shook the air. He was a black-and-white short-haired mutt we adopted from the streets, and his sensitive system never did get used to the annual assault on his eardrums. The fireworks started earlier and earlier every year. When I was a child they were just on Diwali night, and by the time I was 23, they began two or 3 weeks before Diwali and continued relentlessly until the actual day. They also continued later into the night each year. So, the ordeal for Canny began weeks before Diwali and ended only when the blessed festival got done and celebrated.
For me, knowledge made the fireworks endurable. I knew what Diwali was, I knew how it was celebrated in Bombay, and I myself partook of fireworks until around my preteens, when we moved to a building whose compound was too small for fireworks, and there were no neighborhood kids my age that I knew of. By the time we moved to a more spacious suburb, I was out of the fireworks habit.
Diwali fireworks seemed too crowded and busy, noisy and dangerous. Every year the newspapers carried stories of mishaps--fires, accidents, deaths. But the news never deterred anyone. Young children with shining eyes burst forth excitedly, year after year with sparklers and firecrackers, fire fountains and fire-spinners, with friends and family, for the night-time play. I must say that I, too, had fun in the building compound and on the terrace of my childhood building, completely unsupervised, with just my friends, playing with fireworks. But they were a phase. I think fireworks are like smoking: you don't mind the smell of smoking, and the sound of fireworks, when you're in the thick of it and doing it yourself, but as soon as you quit, it's just too smelly to smell the clothes and second-hand smoke of others, and too noisy to hear firecrackers set off by other people that go on and on. When I was older and living in the Bombay suburbs, the noise was so intrusive in our second-storey flat, which we normally kept open and breezy, that we had to shut the doors and windows, and busy ourselves with our evening, tuning out the din as much as possible.
On Diwali day itself, though, we observed all the more pleasant aspects of the festival. Every year, I helped my mother trace a six-pointed star with corn flour, in front of our door, to mark the occasion. She made delicious treats, like appam, a kind of cup-shaped solid doughnut with flecks of dried coconut in it, to be had with home-made white butter; and murukku, a spiral-shaped savory which was, like appam, deep-fried. There were laddus, of course, those balls of sweetened lentils or sesame that doubled as both sustenance and dessert, and payasam or as it's more commonly known here, kheer.
Neighbors and friends, dressed to the nines, showed up with gifts of nuts and dried fruit, or, sometimes, more expensive things like clothes and jewelry. We had our own gifts to give them in exchange. My father did special prayers at the kitchen shrine at home, with vibhuti (ash) stripes on his upper arms and forehead as is customary, before we feasted on homemade treats.
Diwali is the day when Rama, of the Indian epic the Ramayana, is supposed to have returned triumphant after 14 years of exile from his own kingdom, with his wife Sita and brother Laxmana in tow, having just defeated Sita's abductor, Ravana, and rescued his wife from the demon's clutches. In honor of his return the town was lit up with lights and the tradition has continued in India ever since.
Since coming to the US, my continuity with Diwali has lapsed. I cannot recall celebrating it in the US, in part because I was not deeply involved in Diwali shopping or preparations at home to begin with, and in part because I was eager to adapt to America and its own festivals of July 4th and Christmas, Halloween and Thanksgiving. However now that I am settled in the US, with two small children who will not have the luxury of being immersed in India, I want THEM to have some sense of their mother's roots. So, I have come full circle. This year we celebrated both Navratri, a 9-day festival that precedes Diwali, and we'll be celebrating Diwali itself, with a hundred Indian families in my town (Boston). There will be lights, Indian clothes and jewelry, music, and, perhaps, fireworks.
And the next day, I will celebrate Halloween.
As a child, Diwali was synonymous with lanterns, sweets and firecrackers. School semesters in India end a few weeks before Diwali and so the mid-year break was popularly called ‘Diwali Vacation’.
All the kids in my neighborhood would be busy making paper lanterns in the run up to Diwali. There used to be unofficial competitions as to who makes the biggest or the most colorful lantern.
During this period, my mother used to be occupied too, making various sweets and other preparations that are specific to Diwali. The traditional custom was that during Diwali, we would have guests coming over to our place, or we used to go to visit friends and relatives and partake of the special foodstuffs prepared at each of our homes.
Around this time, roadside stalls selling firecrackers would be seen all over the place. We as children would go over and admire them and then go home and pester our parents to buy us the best ones
About a day prior to Diwali, there is a custom of drawing a colored mosaic outside your door, to sort of serve as a welcome to guests. This mosaic, called ‘Rangoli’ was another aspect that used to lead to fierce competition during childhood days. Kids would gather at the playground and brag about the Rangolis at their places.
Nighttime in Diwali is a breathtaking experience. All around, the houses would have earthen oil lamps lighting up their porches. Paper lanterns would be hanging out the windows. The sky would be covered with fireworks. Noisy firecrackers would be going off all around. It is a great time to be a kid!
One of the religious significances of Diwali is that it is the night that the Goddess of wealth, Laxmi ,is worshipped. And so the merchants in India who still follow the traditional Indian calendar start the new financial year this day. The adults gather to play cards overnight. It was the most amazing thing to be a part of as a kid.
As I got older, my fascination with firecrackers got lesser. I started to look forward to Diwali more as perhaps the only time during the year that I will really get to have a conversation with old friends and cousins whom I get to see only during the festivals.
The Indian student community at Darden Business School in my class is pretty close-knit, and we have planned some celebrations in our own small way for Diwali (one that does not include the fireworks, the sweets and the decorations, however, just a night of playing cards).The thing that I miss the most about Diwali is probably the people back in India that I enjoy spending Diwali with.
I have lived out of India for 18 years now. The first 8 years were wonderful and I did not feel too homesick because we lived among a large and vibrant Indian community in Wisconsin which celebrated most every festival of India and we very happily participated in these festivities. Every weekend we got an occasion to cook for a potluck, wear our saris and lehengas, feel the motivation and enthusiasm to be a part of all the fun. For the last almost 10 years, we have lived in a small town called Charlottesville, an hour and half away from DC and an hour from Richmond – Does not seem like a very big commute, but on a weekly basis with 3 kids, wearing the several hats that most moms in the US do, it is next to impossible to consider commuting back and forth to a big city – thus we settled to a quiet and sober life with everyday being the same, a sad apology for an Indian association, fragmented by divisions which I always believed every Indian shed when they moved to another country – Not south Indian or North Indian, but just Indian – There is also a big difference in the mindset and attitude of Indians in the mid-west – who are warm, welcoming, and inclusive – Whereas in central Virginia, nobody could give a fig! Given this situation, the best thing that happened to me was blogging – I get my cultural fix thanks to my food blogging – I am enjoying the virtual treats and visual eye candy J But I have learned to safeguard our traditions and culture for the sake of my children and also for my pleasure and that of my husband. If we don’t we may just as well give it all up and forget about our roots. I cannot allow that to happen—We are approaching Deepavali and it is as always a weekday and business as usual for my hubby and kids –but like we’ve learned to do over the many years we await the weekend to celebrate at least with family – On the day of, it’s usually it’s me & my baby and the walls that surround us!!! I am planning countdown for Deepavali, much like I used to starting a month ahead of the date when I was growing up in Pondicherry, east India – we could not sleep for the excitement of the morn – The loud burst of crackers, the garland crackers (oosi sarams) the oil baths, the sambrani, the new clothes, the bakshanams (food, sweets & savories), the Lakshmi pooja, the wonderful smells of food all the way down the street, the visits to the neighbors for sweets and savory exchanges, the matinee shows, the evening gala with flowerpots and rockets – Ah those were some memories – I still can see my parents sitting in their chairs in the Verandah as they watched us go gingerly to light the sparklers over the flower pots! I want to leave behind a legacy of our rich culture and traditions for my children so that they may pass it on either in entirety or at least in a somewhat diluted form. I hope that sooner than later, I will be back in India for good to reclaim those wonderful occasions and relive them with my husband, children and my brothers and sisters families. So I end on a more positive note - Festivals are what we make of them and I want to make this one my kids will remember long enough to share with their kids... Happy Deepavali to all!