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Letter From India

November 2007
Letter From India

My five-year-old son wrote the following in his essay on Diwali: "Hindi people celebrate more festivals than English people. I don't know why we celebrate Diwali, but I think it is the way we pray to God."

When we were living amidst "English people" in Atlanta, we did not celebrate as many festivals. Ganesh Chaturthi and Janamashtami would pass without any recognition.

I am happy to be in India this festive season. As the air cools off, it heralds a sense of excitement. This time around, Diwali isn't a solitary celebration. I don't have to explain to the neighbors why the jack-o-lantern at my front door is swiftly replaced by an ornate festoon, or, the significance of diyas and rangolis. (Swastikas fashioned with flowers once prompted a friend to ask if I had a predilection for Hitler). Thankfully, I do not have to drive out of state to buy firecrackers and worry about the neighbors calling the police. It feels normal again.

But there is some explaining to do. My son has questions about: the practice of eating with hands; numerous visitors arriving unannounced; the number of Gods we worship, and why there are so many festivals. And of course, there is the whole "Hindi people"- "English people" business. In a world still a bit uncomfortable with multiculturalism, I introduce him to diversity. I teach him to appreciate different colors of skin, different traditions and ways of worshipping. I reserve the challenges of peaceful co-existence for a more mature time.

While fundamentalists continue to battle over a God that none of us has ever seen, India embraces diversity. Our calendars are punctuated with myriad religious festivals – from Pongal to Id-Ul-Fitr, Guru Nanak Jayanti to Parsi New Year and Christmas. We celebrate them all with gusto, often dancing to blaring Bollywood numbers on the streets.

A decade ago, I wrote a magazine article titled "The United Lights of Diwali." Now, it helps me ponder on the amazing changes in such a short time from then.

In spite of the cross-border tremors of 9/11 and numerous terror attacks at home, India continues to remain united and secular. The most obvious change is the growing social conscious and confidence. There is a willingness to participate in the country's future, to nurture its newfound success and to upgrade our way of life. Extensive media coverage and internet access, economic progress, better education and information are galvanizing citizens and making them instruments of change. Though still a part of the nation's fabric, corruption, nepotism and Mandal Commissions are being put to trial.

This Diwali, instead of recycling mithai dabbas, some are making donations to charities on behalf of friends and family. Others have chosen a patakha-free celebration to be environmentally friendly and to oppose child labor in the fireworks industry.

Changed and charged, India is shining bright. Chak De! is the latest anthem.

P.S. I assured my son that there will be turkey on Thanksgiving in Mumbai – for we have come to be both "English" and "Hindi" people.

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