A day or two before Diwali 2021 I hung up a string of lights at the entrance of our home. Soon after, while out for an evening walk around dusk, a neighbor commented on the beauty of the twinkling lights. While we agreed on their effect I elaborated that they’d been put up for a special occasion, Diwali, which piqued her curiosity. Then began a conversation I have had numerous times since becoming an expat. It goes something like this.
At first, a short summation of the story of Diwali
First, I share an explanation of why Diwali is the festival of lights as best as I can. In short, it is the night when Lord Ram returns home victorious after defeating Ravana, and according to the lunar calendar the night he reaches his kingdom’s capital falls on a new moon night or amavasya. Such a dark night warrants some light. So, in a grand welcome – for he is metaphorically returning home to all – people light the entrances of their homes and in turn, cities and streets with oil lamps and string lights. Homes and businesses start decorating in the lead up to Diwali. Campaigns to spruce up residences are begun because the lord cannot return to a dirty home. Needless to say business flourishes for decorators and painters. On Diwali night itself, children and adults light firecrackers and sparklers which invariably leads to a fog that often lasts a few days over most urban centers.
Then, a little contextualizing as a Sikh
Next, as the conversation continues I usually add a caveat that though a Hindu festival, Diwali is celebrated by us, followers of Sikhism, for slightly different reasons. Though not well known beyond Punjab until recently, the release of the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind, from Gwalior fort where he’d been held captive by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir coincides with Diwali. Sikhs mark the day as Bandi Chhor Divas. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is decorated and the night ends in a fireworks display.
Finally and crucially, Diwali’s personal resonance and secular draw
And, then I come to the third and what to me is the most important point: Though the festival is rooted in the retelling of Lord Ram’s exile along with his wife Sita and brother Laxman, recounted in the epic Ramayana, Diwali is more than a religious festival. It’s a major autumn festival in India heralding a new year for some communities and preparing the rest of us for colder winter nights. For our household that always meant the process of making heaps of besan ke ladoo. While in college I always returned after Diwali break with tins (two at a minimum!) of these ladoo made by my mother, and if she was visiting then my dadiji would pitch in too.
Laying claim to the epic with a caveat
Here again is another caveat: As an epic tale retold variously in different regions of India and beyond, each version differs slightly in its details or which characters find prominence. I am no expert, I am not even a nominal Hindu who can claim knowledge of the epic as might be passed on within families. But I can lay claim to the epic because of my cultural status as an Indian.
In the days leading up to Dussehra – the day Ram vanquished Ravana – a days long play called Ramleela is performed across the country particularly in the Hindi belt of northern India. It used to be and perhaps still is the case that neighborhood troupes would assemble and include performers drawn from different religions and castes. If you’re familiar with the Indian actor Shahrukh Khan, then you’ve likely heard him share his experience of being raised in this multi-religious secularism I am reminiscing. That to me is the biggest, most important aspect of being a secular Indian.
Much like him many of us were enrolled in schools established and still run by Christian missionaries where we learned Christian hymns and returned home to our respective families’ religious practices. And, when neighbors extended invitations – for Kanjak (also called Kanchke or Kanya Puja) when I was a young girl, or for Eid – we shared in their practices too.
Diwali and beyond: Honoring childhood traditions
With this background in mind you can well imagine what ensued when another neighbor asked about Diwali just a few weeks ago. I launched into my explanation of why I celebrate a festival that isn’t mine by religion but is mine because of my cultural identity. How it is a phenomenon that goes beyond the epic and translates into fun and games and famously the tāsh parties of Delhi which we wrote about in one of our newsletters. And come Eid I shared with her that I will do the same – reflect upon the passage of time, share greetings with friends, and make a dessert like sewiyan, which stereotypical as it might be, is associated with memories of a childhood spent in the midst of various religious celebrations.
Carrying forward their meaning and adopting new traditions
The myopia of nostalgia is a strong thing. It can paint everything in rosy hues while also helping bring into focus the aspects of a tradition that held meaning. As I finish writing today, Dussehra has come and gone, and in twenty days the lord’s return will be celebrated as Diwali. In the lead up to it I will make besan ke ladoo, maybe a namkeen and perhaps engage in some much needed decluttering.
I will also start thinking about and planning for Thanksgiving. We’ve adopted this American holiday as our own. Our’s is a “Friendsgiving” to give thanks for the friends and relationships we’ve been fortunate to build in our new country of residence.
In addition to Diwali, it is a Fall celebration I look forward to. While there might not be the same hustle and bustle of Indian towns and cities, Fall is most certainly a festive time. Something common between the two countries I call home. And when people from India ask about this new holiday, I can dive into a similar kind of explaining!