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Musings: What Does Diwali Mean to You?

By Anju Gattani Email By Anju Gattani
November 2012
Musings: What Does Diwali Mean to You?

Is Diwali the celebration heard from a distance, through the snap and crackle of firecrackers? Is it the excitement of shoppers in frantic search of the perfect diyas to light their homes with? Is it the fragrance of honey-dripping mithais cooking on the stove? Or is it the feel perhaps, of a crisp, new garment running over your skin? Maybe it’s the sound of people wishing each other with a genuine hope for prosperity to fill each other’s homes and hearts?

The celebration stems from the Ramayana, marking the return of Sri Ram after a fourteen-year exile. It is the triumph of good over evil and the celebration of Sri Ram’s coming home.

But here we are, in this day and age, celebrating Diwali with as much euphoria as they probably did back then. How do we rekindle the same spirit year after year wherever we are?

Having grown up in Hong Kong, I remember my mom making us help her clean the house for the festival, including cupboards and drawers we’d forgotten even existed over the year. As if that wasn’t tiring enough, she would then spend almost a week at the gas stove, cooking sweets and namkeens because no ready-made Indian snacks were available in the market. Still it wasn’t the mouthwatering dishes or the night’s dinner that we looked forward to the most. Neither was it the phone calls to family in India, or the postdinner get-together where we’d all meet at the local temple, and then hop-scotch to each other’s homes and drown ourselves in sodas, sweets and savory snacks offered at everyone’s place.

The annual highlight was the Diwali Ball.

Our Indian community (about 300-strong at the time) always scheduled a stellar Diwali celebration at a five-star hotel: a two-hour cultural program of dances, skits and plays followed by an elaborate buffet dinner and raffle. There would be rehearsals every weekend for a month or two, and since Mom usually took charge of the event, visitors dropped in frequently to finalize their choreography and performances. It was a chance to showcase our childhood talents to the community. After the night was over, the wait would begin, for the next Diwali to come around.

Then I married, moved to Mumbai, India, and saw another facet of the same celebration.

The Diwali cleaning was still an extensive ritual, but with so many Indian sweets and savory snacks readily available, the quest wasn’t to make but have sweets made from the mithaiwalas and delivered to the homes of numerous family and friends in time. Diwali puja and dinner, followed by phone calls to family and friends, were still an elaborate affair. However we didn’t hop-scotch from one friend’s place to another as we did in Hong Kong, but met most of the family at a Diwali get-together and the majority of friends at community events scheduled well ahead of time. But the biggest bang in India had to be the firecrackers. They’d begin shooting and crackling well before dawn and continue all day, well past midnight, until your ears were sore.

And what about Diwali in the USA?

Diwali house-cleaning is still a big thing and without the help of servants it requires a lot more planning and organization than in India. The Diwali dinner is an elaborate affair here, too, with dishes prepared at home from scratch despite ready and packaged products in the market. Diwali puja is still followed by phone calls to friends and family in India and abroad. What about the firecrackers? With easier laws (than in Hong Kong but not as lax as in India) we shoot the evening sky with blazes of color from our driveway.

With another Diwali just round the corner, I can already smell the mithais cooking and honey-golden syrup bubbling once again. I can hear the firecrackers shoot to burst in the night sky and the phone beginning to ring off its hook. I can hear cries of “Happy Diwali!” ringing in my ears and I don’t have to think about recreating the spirit of this festivity again.

I know it will come alive as it does every year, because every Diwali lights with a diya no matter where you are and stems from the heart!

Anju Gattani is a freelance journalist and author. Duty and Desire is her debut novel.


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