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A Diwali Message

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October 2003
A Diwali Message

How can we communicate the real message of Diwali

to our children? even as its outward practices continue to fade?

_________________________________________________________

By NAMITA DEVIDAYAL MOTWANE

Amongst the goodies I received in a package from my family in India was a subtle message: nestling with the home-made pickles and papads was a set of four diyas. It was my mother-in-law's feeble attempt at getting me to celebrate Diwali, if only by lighting some wax diyas.

Over the last fifteen years, I have spent very few Diwalis at home. When I was in college in New Jersey, the South Asian Students' Society would mark the date on its calendar and hold a dinner to celebrate the festival of lights, but by senior year it had become a tedious event, and even the seduction of good desi food did not make me want to attend. After college, when I had morphed into a Manhattan yuppy, Diwali meant getting dressed up, meeting up with other Indian friends, and playing some cards. Some of us would light lamps in our home. None of us would bother about doing a pooja.

And thus the Diwali of our childhoods was fading away. Interestingly, this is not just an immigrant's dilemma. The significance of traditional festivals has declined in our lives whether we live in Atlanta or Mumbai. Even for most people back home, Diwali translates into a long weekend, welcomed not for the special halwa or Laxmi pooja, but because it is a time for a quick escape from otherwise hectic lifestyles. The noise activists have virtually eliminated the fireworks; the grandmother who painstakingly planned family get-togethers and all the sweet goodies is long gone; and no one remembers the prayers, so even if you want to get religious, you end up buying a pre-recorded tape of the ?aarti' and switch it on for a quick-fix pooja.

I have potent memories of Diwali and the rich rituals surrounding this festival. I come from a business family, and the Laxmi Pooja?(where we essentially beseech the goddess to continue guiding us in our quest to amass wealth!)?is a big deal. For instance, I remember going with my grandfather on Diwali morning to Kalbadevi, one of the oldest quarters of Mumbai?a crowded, labyrinth-like area filled with colorful little shops and even more colorful stories?to buy the ?chopdis' or account books. This seemingly strange purchase of quaint red and white hand-made books was the crux of our Diwali celebrations. For, they represented the business and Laxmi devi had to bless them. Even when accounting moved on to Excel spreadsheets, this ritual continued and we would do the chopdi-pooja as long as my grandfather was alive.

If I were to even attempt to convey any of these traditions to my children here, I wouldn't be able to do them justice. How could I explain why I enjoyed waking up early just to navigate a filthy by lane and buy strange-looking books, which we then proceeded to worship? Or, how can I possibly recreate the fragrance of fresh halwa, cooked in pure ghee, which we would dream about for days after the Diwali dinner? And what about the annual memories of the wholesale fireworks shop on Mohammad Ali road, where we would negotiate with our father for a few extra rocket-bombs! Now, even children in urban India have been tutored to understand that fireworks are bad because they pollute and they use child labor. For a variety of reasons, the rituals surrounding the festival have been pared to the minimum.

I decide that instead of focusing on the rituals, I am going to try and go back to some of the thoughts and ideals behind Diwali which we tended to forget along the way. According to Hindu mythology, Diwali commemorates Rama's return to Ayodhya. Lamps were lit to welcome the much-loved king on his homecoming after his prolonged battle and ultimate victory over Ravana. This is why we light diyas and decorate our homes with rangoli. As it happens, the festival fell around the same time as the harvest of the winter kharif crop, so there was yet another reason to celebrate. Thus, Diwali grew to symbolize not just a victory of good over evil, but also a time of prosperity.

My grandmother, who was philosophically-inclined, used to suggest that Rama's return actually symbolizes the wiping out of the evil nature of human beings. The ten-headed Ravana represents the ten "indriyas" or sensory organs, and their destruction restored Rama, or God-awareness, to its rightful place?the throne within.

How does Laxmi come into the picture? Well, to extend the metaphor, when you have ?found' Rama, who is none other than Vishnu, his consort Laxmi is sure to follow. The idea, for those of us who are not familiar with religious babble, is simply this: One who is spiritually enriched will always be materially provided for?and even if he isn't, he will surely experience the contentment that riches supposedly bring about.

Over the years, on Diwali we started praying to Laxmi for wealth, without first praying for the wisdom to go with it. This shortcut to Lakshmi is getting us nowhere. As my grandmother would ominously point out, in her typical dead-pan style, Lakshmi without Rama?or money without wisdom?leads not to daulat (prosperity), but to ?do laat' (two kicks)!

It is this value that I would like my children to imbibe as they struggle to cope with their identities?the idea that money is a very useful servant, but makes for a dangerous master.

Today, we have very little time to navigate tiny crowded by-lanes in forgotten old cities. We would rather be cruising along the freeway in search of what we think is a better life. We have come to equate material happiness with well-being. There is no denying the value of material comforts, but they must be seen in perspective. If there is one silent prayer I would like to repeat on Diwali it would be this: Grant me wealth and the wisdom to use it well. And while saying it, I will most certainly light the four little diyas that came from back home.


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