Growing up in India, Diwali, or Deepawali, meaning festival of lights, was the most anticipated day of the year. Diwali meant new clothes, lots of delicious treats, lighting lamps/lights, setting off a gazillion fireworks, a sparklingly clean home and vacation from school that lasted around 10 days.
There are multiple religious stories that signify the origin of Diwali. The one I heard in my family was that Diwali marks the return of dear Prince Ram from his 14 years of exile in the jungle where he led a sage-like life, devoid of any luxuries. His wife, Sita, and younger brother, Laksman, accompanied him in exile where they fought a demon who had abducted Sita, leading to the epic Ramayan. So on the day of Diwali when the Prince returned, the commoners illuminated the entire city with oil lamps, cooked lavish feasts and sang his praises to celebrate his return. Another aspect of this festival is that this is the day Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) visits her devotees; we therefore do pooja in the form of worshipping everything that is valuable, from regular money to gold, phones, wallets, house keys and cars. The main day of Diwali occurs on the third day of a five-day sequence of festivals. Every year it falls on a different day as the festival dates are based on the Hindu calendar, which is primarily lunar.
Over the years Diwali has changed for me since I am not in India anymore. It’s hard to feel it is Diwali, living in a country that does not celebrate it. For the past seven years, I have decided to take that day off because you cannot fit in a festival on a work day. As I have been away from India for over 12 years, I don’t even remember all the things we used to do.
But now that I have a toddler whom I am raising as a practicing Hindu, I have to relearn traditions or at least create our own Diwali rituals, which hinges on what I can accomplish in my already limited time as a working mom. In India, families cook together, household help manages the inside-out cleaning, and everyone has time off from work (which actually has decreased drastically for people in India). In the U.S., we do our best to clean the weekend before. If can move furniture and dust every single corner, we do. If not, at least the beds have clean sheets and the most visible areas are shining, de-cluttered, vaccummed, mopped, smell scented and have fresh flowers.
As for cooking, I used to make only a small quantity of the special Diwali treats (being health conscious and all), but now that my little girl is showing a strong preference for sweets, I decided to cook few things but in big quantities this year. For fireworks, since we are not able to set off all types of big and small firecrackers as in India (no fire codes to follow over there!), we do sparkle sticks and roll cap crackers.
On the day of Diwali, we bathe early, wear clean clothes, cook treats, make rangoli (a powder based floor art), and wait for the evening. In the evening we wear new/fancy clothes, start the pooja, light lots of oil lamps and motif candles, eat a lavish dinner of poor, paneer-aloo subji, rajma, pulao, bhajiya, ladoo and custard, and set off fireworks. Then the phone calls begin to family and friends all over the world wishing them a joyous Diwali and wishes for a prosperous New Year.
Over the years Diwali has taken on new meanings for me from a little girl who bounced around to now a mom of a little girl whom I hope gets equally excited on Diwali. Although challenging to create the same atmosphere for Diwali in the U.S., we are determined to pass on our culture with as much integrity as possible.