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New Twist on an Old Festival

October 2005
New Twist on an Old Festival


Ask any nonresident Indian what he or she misses most about being away from the home country and you will hear one unanimous answer. "We miss the festivals, the fun, the food, the colorful celebrations!" they say. In secular India, where religion is intimately mixed into the flavors of daily life, it is impossible to go through any month of the year without a significant religious celebration of some sort.

Towards the end of October, when darkness starts creeping into the day and the air holds a slight chill within its folds, it is time for the annual Hindu festival of Diwali, the Festival of Lights. My images of Diwali, frozen in my memory for more than a dozen years, are comprised of many traditional rituals. After a thorough cleaning, each home is involved in the concoction of several mouthwatering, Diwali-specific delicacies. Elaborate designs called rangoli are drawn on the ground outside the door and decorated with myriad colors. Small clay pots, with cotton wicks dipped in oil, are arranged in and around the house for illumination. The sounds of Diwali celebrations arise from the lighting up of firecrackers or as they are called in India, "crackers."

After being a longtime U.S. resident, when I returned to India, I eagerly anticipated the festival of lights. I looked forward to introducing some of these traditions to my daughter as a hands-on orientation to the festival.

My new hometown, Hyderabad, located in south central India, is famous as the city of pearls. It is well known for its unique multicultural heritage inherited from its long Mughal history. Today it is the self-touted new cybercapital of India. As Diwali approached, strings of lights appeared (almost like pearls), wrapped around trunks of trees that lined wide roads where gigantic billboards proclaimed "Hitec City" and "Genome Valley."

As residents cleared their houses in preparation for the impending festival, even the city looked clean and litter-free. I naively presumed that this effort was meant for a public celebration of Diwali. It was only when I saw the huge arches welcoming some important foreign dignitary that I understood. It seemed to me then that the festival was being used for welcoming political or business leaders who are treated as emissaries of Goddess Lakshmi to help shower wealth and prosperity on the worshipping citizens!

I shopped around for diyas, shallow clay pots of a size to fit snugly in the palm of your hand. It took me a while to figure out that it was easier to buy colored candles instead. "This is what people want these days," explained the checkout clerk in the brightly lit department store. "They're not fragile like the clay pots, no need to mess with wicks and oils. If you really want diyas, I have some fancy painted ones with wax already poured in. Just light the wick and you're done," he insisted. So much for the traditional lamps for illuminating the Festival of Lights!

Another unique aspect of Diwali is the tradition of lighting up a range of fireworks. As a child, I remember quarreling with my brother to ensure my fair share of the firecrackers purchased for the family. I leaned towards the attractive flowerpots which spewed out a sparkling fountain of light while my brothers preferred the so-called rockets and the ear-splitting bombs. Now, with rising levels of environmental pollution, a small but significant movement is afoot to inform lay people about the harmful effects of firecrackers which add to the dust, smoke, and noise. This movement is being targeted towards the education of school children who are the main consumers of these products. On the other hand, there is a counter move by some parties to encourage people to light up fireworks so that their sulfurous fumes could help to eliminate mosquitoes and other disease-carrying organisms. Given this situation, it was no longer simple to indulge in the familiar task of purchasing firecrackers. The spirited family debate took most of the fun out of the venture.

At least I could decorate the doorway to my house by making colorful rangolis, I thought. To polish my skills I fished around for the pattern book inherited from my mother, but my mother-in-law informed me that my effort was unnecessary?she had already outsourced that activity to the daughter of our maid, the creative teenager who comes periodically to put henna designs on my daughter's tiny hands.

As my list of traditional activities shrank in size, I considered the one item that appeared to be untouched by modern India. An amazing array of sweets, both home-made and store-bought, was still within my reach. Although children today prefer candy bars and sodas, recent news reports about worms in candy and pesticides in Pepsi turned out to be a boon for shops specializing in traditional goodies. I did not think too much about making these goodies at home: I happily shopped at the neighborhood store. So I have had my fill of Diwali sweets. I think I will worry about the warnings of high-calorie, high-sugar foods after the festival season ends.

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