For all its pomp and flair, Diwali (also known as Deepavali) is in some ways a very personal festival. Each Hindu family follows its own traditions and orchestrates its own drama, preparing festival sweets by hand, offering prayers at the family shrine, and then celebrating with relatives and close friends. For business people, Diwali is the beginning of the Hindu New Year, and they perform chopda pujan, or veneration of their business books.
Though mainstream Americans may just be getting to know this joyous festival, Indian-Americans have wonderful memories of childhood Diwalis. Those who grew up in India often try to recreate those treasured celebrations here in America. In India, Diwali was a kaleidoscope of lights, earthen lamps glowing in even the humblest of homes, exploding fireworks, and mounds of multicolored sweets.
For Ambalika Mishra--a reporter with Voice of America and U.N. Radio who also anchors an ethnic TV program on cable--nothing can duplicate the magical mood and spirit of Diwali during her childhood in the city of Agra.
"In the bazaars, you would be surrounded by myriad of clay gods and goddesses, shining metal utensils, and earthen lamps. It was not about buying things but about being a part of that whole atmosphere. It just cannot be recreated here, and I miss that a lot."
In her hometown of Agra, the houses would be fully repainted for the festival, and the smell of fresh paint always evokes the memory of Diwalis past for Mishra.
"We used to order hundreds of diyas [earthen lamps] and would put them everywhere, and they would light up the night," she said. "My job was to make alpana, or floral patterns on the floor, with colored powders, rice, and flour. This was considered very auspicious, and we would keep a diya burning all night for the Goddess Lakshmi to enter by."
Now in the hurly-burly of New York, she tries very hard to recreate some of the old Diwali magic. She makes sweets at home, and two days before Diwali she observes Dhantheras, when special prayers are offered to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity. On this day, devotees buy token amounts of gold or silver to ensure continued prosperity, and Mishra has continued to observe this tradition for the 28 years she has been in America.
"I'm very attached to my rituals and my customs," Mishra said. "I'm not saying we should look back all the time, but there are parts of me which are very Indian."
Swati Bhise, a classical Indian dancer who now lives in the U.S. but grew up in Mumbai, has vivid memories of presenting her music and dance teachers with mithai (sweetmeat) boxes and touching their feet for blessings. The students would do a littler prayer and dance before returning home. In the evening, there was Lakshmi puja (prayers to the Goddess Lakshmi), food, and festivities. She recalls, "We all wore new clothes and lots of gold jewelry. Even as a young girl, I was given gold bangles and told not to go too far to play, as these were valuable."
Her most vivid memory is of the incomparable smell of utna, ground coconut, which is part of the Diwali ritual in Maharashtra.
"We used to get up in the morning to the smell of utna, even the maids coming to the house to do the chores would be smelling of it," Bhise said. "Washing the hair with this ground mixture and then bathing with a paste of sesame seeds, almonds, and turmeric was part of abanghasnan, or purification of the body.
"We did this bath every day for five days. Your whole body would be glowing, and for me that's the most remembered part of the festival," Bhise said. She still carries on this Diwali tradition with her own children here in New York, and they too now associate the peculiar smell with Diwali time.
For Bhise, Diwali in New York echoes the rituals of the home country. She participates in music and dance festivals at home and at friends' homes, where everyone offers their talent to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, be it a poem or a dance done in the spirit of an offering to God.