time for family
While many of my friends, expats like me from India, and Hindu’s in particular are preparing for the festival of Diwali, this year we take a pause. With my fathers’ passing this July, according to Hindu custom, for one year we remain a house in mourning.
My father loved festivals, and after Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali was his favorite one. As a child, he had a complex relationship with Diwali. So when he married my mother and she orchestrated celebrations around it, he truly felt happy, for many reasons.
Diwali at our house meant that my mother combined her own Gujarati traditions with what little she could understand of my fathers’ Maharashtrian traditions. This was primarily because of the overall cultural resistance towards mixed-subcultural marriages or integration. But this did not stop her enthusiasm. She made loads of his favorite eats and treats, as well as some from her own family.
My policeman father was always ‘on-call’ or ‘on-duty’, but he would really try to take some time off for her, take her shopping for a new silk saree or three, so he could spoil her a little. Sometimes we went along to pick out new clothes or we were going to get money for books. When he rose in rank, and sometimes was 'on-call', he would sometimes take mom in the police jeep to the market, embarrassing her no end. If nothing else, there was always our trusty white Fiat, nice and shiny and clean, and dad would drive all of us out to our favorite stores. Garlands and lanterns were put up, homes and stoops cleaned, dusted, and made pretty and all the copper and silver polished. It was Diwali, and it was time to spoil all of us silly.
Each of the five days during the festival has a special significance. As kids, this meant mom had woken up extra early to clean the house and to dress the front door with fresh garlands and prepare a special breakfast. No matter how groggy we were, we woke up at the crack of dawn for the first prayers, and took special baths with potions and fragrant ‘utna’ or pastes made with sandal wood powder, turmeric and milk that my mother readied for us. Once cleaned up and awake, we stood side by side with everyone in our home to say our prayers, light lamps and receive blessings, to break the fast by eating together, and then when we were all done, raced out to light fireworks and sparklers before the crack of dawn with friends who had done the same.
Diwali also meant that everyone came to visit my father in particular, even if it was for a brief few minutes. It meant that he got to laugh with his friends and family - he loved to laugh and his mischievous smile was infectious. Diwali was a time to forgive sparring colleagues and sending them boxes of mithai’s from his favorite vendor, Dayaram Damodar, of Dadar TT circle. Our home-made treats were saved for those who came to visit us. Some of father’s friends got Sutterfeni, others got malai pedha, some received a box of badaam halwa . . . . the selections were endless. My Kakaji, fathers’ brother would always send us the best oranges from Nagpur. Some special friends sent us treats from their home towns via courier, and that was always extra wonderful.
Assortments of mithai, dried fruits and later on, chocolates flooded our home and from our home to friends. Cards were sent and received, token gifts exchanged and phone-calls placed to everyone in our little phone diaries, quite literally everyone. We tipped the mailman, the milkman, the maid, the sweeper, the newspaper boy and the man who meticulously ironed our clothes for us. Some of mothers’ regular staff got new clothes, others received token sums of money. Everyone exchanged some sort of gift or treat with whoever they met. By the time Diwali and the Hindu New Year had come and gone, we had met and mingled with everyone, shared our triumphs through food and fortunes, whether they celebrated it or didn’t. But mostly, the smell of gunpowder and the sight of my fathers’ smiling face lit in the glow of the New Years’ aarti is etched in my mind as the essence of my parents’ Diwali.
When I first came to the US, my mother reminded me of Diwali and New Year. When I wished a fellow Indian classmate, “Happy Diwali”, he shot me a befuddled look and muttered, “Is it Diwali?? Oh.”. Another friend took me to an annual Diwali celebration put on by the Indian Students Association, and I felt awkward celebrating it with strangers, sharing a large communal table for a ticketed dinner, with no one that I knew, except my shy date for the night. There were no lights or lamps in my house or special eats, or even fireworks. One year I went to a professors’ home – and I was supposed to feel happy celebrating a family-centric festival with people I had never met before! There was singing and dancing, glossy sweets and spicy treats but I was tongue-tied, with two left feet to match, and desperately alone.
The years have gone on, and now being married for 16+ years, away from my parents’ Diwali, many traditions in my home are molded by what I saw in their home.. reflecting on how they celebrated their sense of being together. There were rituals, sharing and welcoming, of all people, of all ages and kinds, of all religions and sub-religions or sub-sub-cultures. It was something we did throughout the year as well. No one was turned away or critiqued for being themselves: either their beliefs, or mother-tongue, their rituals, skill of confection or what they wore.
Though I’ve spent some Diwali’s either being alone or without family in the US, this year is going to be different. I am not missing the clothes or the treats – I am missing our family-centric rituals. Apparently when a Hindu house goes in mourning, extended family will drop in to check, and bring some treats to you, to brighten the day. But since we are so far away from everyone, we are not expecting guests or visitors. In the past few years, mom would send a box of her holiday goodies, but not this year. The US Postal Service put out Diwali stamps, and I purchased a sheet, without any immediate need for them.
And the most ironic part about this Diwali - I wrote an article in a local Indian magazine on Diwali treats, in a year we were not making anything special. Such is life.
This year, I am taking a pause from the traditional festivities. I will brave up to make a version of chiwda to remember my father by, and also because Uma will be home very briefly during Diwali. And I will tidy up the house, to honor the spirit of the season.
At its core, Diwali celebrates the truly joyful moments and people in your life – celebrating togetherness with people who love you for being you and always choose you over another, unquestionably. If anything, this year has taught me how important this is.
Incidentally, the Hindu New Year is timed with Halloween so there will be candy for the Trick-or-Treaters’ who come to our door, atleast the tradition of distributing sweets will remain intact. But instead of the gory pumpkins for Halloween or my festive painted ones, our painted pumpkins are themed for 'Day of The Dead'.
And instead of lighting a lamp in every room or having a fresh Rangoli on our doorstep each day of Diwali, I will light two lamps at the front door and hope that they will be enough to mark the occasion. For it will not take more than that, to let us reflect on and appreciate what our tiny little family truly means to us.
Wishing you all light and love this season -
Past Diwali related blog pieces include: