The holiday is in full-swing with the start from Friday and the official New Year this coming Tuesday. In my family, this is the most important time of the year, and warrants a big deal in Chicago.
What is Diwali? For the purposes of this post, I will give a very brief synopsis: Diwali is the “Festival of Lights” (“Deepavali” translates to “row of lamps”) and marks the end of the fiscal year in India. The festival occurs in October or November every year in accordance with the lunar calendar. The Hindu mythology behind this festival is open to interpretation, depending on the community’s history. Generally, these stories surround the adage of “good triumphs over evil”. One story that depicts this is from the Ramayana in which Lord Ram defeats Ravana, the demon king of Sri Lanka, rescues his captive wife Sita, and they return to their hometown of Ayodhya in North India. Diyas, or small lamps, are lit during this time of year to bring out the inner light, or goodness, in all of us. I invite readers to add their interpretations in the comments section.
I have heard from several folks that celebrating Diwali in India is akin to our Fourth of July celebrations, with fireworks, sparklers and parades in the streets (how cool is this photo?!). I have yet to experience this. Given that in the US, we do not have vacation time during Diwali, we have to limit our celebrations to the weekend with close family an the goings-on at the temple. We would decorate the entrance to our house with toran, or doorway decor, and light our candles for each night of the festival. My mom would indulge in cooking special treats as most families do during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Some of the delicacies included lapsi and ghughra. Dinnertime would finish with Indian sweets brought from joyous family, friends and the temple.
In 2006, Diwali fell on the same day as the Chicago Marathon. My family hosted “Diwali Carbo-Load”: a pasta-eating party for the runners and visiting family. The next day, my team and I ran 26.2 miles throughout the city of Chicago. It was definitely the most unique and unforgettable Diwali in my lifetime.
Last year, I spent the holiday with friends from the Metro South Asian Deaf Association in Washington, DC. Mingling with Gallaudet friends and their families, raiding the kitchen for delicious, home-cooked food, and observing the men glued to the Redskins game, I felt at home as if I were with my own family. The (un)expected discussion on politics between staunch Republicans and Democrats sealed the nostalgic deal.
This year, another Washingtonian is celebrating Diwali in style: President Obama is on his Asia-tour with his first stop in India during Diwali. While he gets to enjoy the celebrations, security measures banned the exuberant fireworks that residents usually take on their own accord. Here is a video of the First Lady showing off her moves with a children’s performance group, and her husband trying to find his own.
This year, my husband and I hosted Diwali at our modest apartment here in Portland. In traditional fashion, we invited close friends to come and eat to their hearts’ content, and play silly games such as “Catchphrase” (not as awesome as “Taboo”, but still a lot of fun). One of our friends even made gulab jamun for dessert! I experimented artistically in creating a rangoli out of various kinds of dal to greet the new year. Not too shabby for a rookie attempt with limited resources.
Once upon a time, the Diwali greetings across two hemispheres meant a fight to the finish of “who will call our house first”. For me, the conversation went something like this:
Relative calling at 5 am: Sal Mubarak!! Happy New Year!!
Me: Grumble grumble…Sal mu…snore…
As cell phones, email and Facebook became the norm across generations and time zones, our greetings have become a bit more subdued. This year, I’m combining old and new traditions: lighting diyas and writing this blog post.
Light your candles and enjoy celebrations with loved ones and great food.
Here’s to new beginnings: Sal Mubarak and Happy New Year!