Two years back, a few months into my marriage, my husband and I celebrated our first Diwali as a couple. As we lit the diyas or earthen lamps in our Hyderabad apartment, little did I know that would be my last Diwali in India. Shortly after the festival, my husband landed a new job and the two of us in California, USA.
Growing up in Delhi, India’s capital meant that my Diwali began days before its actual date. Crackers of all shapes, sizes, luminosities and decibels flooded the markets, along with idols of Ganesha, the god of good fortune and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. What tempted me more were the variety of sweetmeats on display—pethhas, laddus, batashas galore. This was one occasion on which parents didn’t mind giving in to their kids’ demands and pampered them with crackers, sweets and new clothes. And the results were heard on the streets. Literally. Crackers boomed from playgrounds, alleyways, and even from some main thoroughfares at times.
The day of Diwali, however, took the celebrations to unprecedented heights. As the evening sky darkened without a trace of the moon (Diwali being celebrated on a moonless night), the earth lit up with a thousand lights, shining off houses decked with diyas, candles and electric lights.
As a child it was my delight to assist my mother in lighting the candles that were stuck on our boundary walls. Then, we would take our booty of crackers and join neighbourhood friends to burst them.
From the glittering sparkles of the phuljhari to the fountain-like fire show of the anaar to the circling whizz of the charkhari and the straight or crooked flights of the rocket—the crackers held us spellbound for the time we burnt them. This was, of course, followed by delicious food—gujiyas and jalebis, laddus and kaju barfis.
For me, this festival marked a two-way celebration. As Bengalis, our family observed Kali puja or the worship of goddess Kali on this day. The celebratory aspect remained the same as the North Indian Diwali—lighting of lamps, preparing sweets and other treats, bursting crackers and singing songs.
So last year, when I reached the shores of North America from North India, I had reasons to be concerned. Festivals, just like language and cuisine, are what lend distinctiveness to cultures. Now, in a country and culture so different than my own, I wondered if I would feel that burst of joy pulsating through me when a festival like Holi or Diwali came nearer. To know the answer I would have to wait for a few months.
I wasn’t disappointed. California’s Bay Area (where we were), being a hub if IT professionals, was home to a large South Asian community. All major festivals—from Holi to Durga Puja and Diwali to Eid—were celebrated with sincere devotion and typical enthusiasm. Close to our home, there were at least three Hindu temples and four to five gurdwaras.
Like in India, my first North American Diwali too started days ahead of the actual festival. We received invitations to potluck dinners from several friends. Though new for me, this seemed a good way to celebrate an occasion—meeting friends and their families, relishing and cooking home-made food, playing silly games and singing songs late into the night. Sometimes, friends with dancing talent added extra spark to these get-togethers. Children too rejoiced with the adults and didn’t shy away from displaying their singing, acting, dancing or even storytelling talents.
On the day of Diwali, we visited a Hindu temple to join the festivities. It was here that the community facet of the festival shone in its full glory. Throngs of devotees gathered at the temple, which was beautifully decorated. Rangolis, designs made of colored, powdered rice flour dotted the temple floors, while diyas and candles were lit all around the temple.
Children fluttered about in traditional outfits like ghagra-choli and kurta pyjama and were matched by the grown-ups in dazzling saris, salwar kurtas and sherwanis.
The temple priest carried out the puja or worship ceremony with noticeable devotion. Outside the main temple halls, a mela or fair of sorts had sprung up—with several stalls displaying jewelry, mehendi or heena, traditional arts and crafts, games and a whole variety of foods.
As I look back at last year’s Diwali, I remember missing the joy of burning crackers. But I didn’t miss any of the fun or festive spirit associated with Diwali. This year, having moved yet again, this time to Greater Toronto Area (GTA), I await the brilliance of the festival of lights with eager anticipation.
By Bhaswati Ghosh