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.
But there certainly are differences between Diwali there and here. Indu Jaiswal is a dietician and community activist who was recently cited in Congress by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy as "Citizen of the Month." A transplant from India, she's lived in New York for more than 28 years. She says with a chuckle, "When new neighbors moved into my Long Island neighborhood, my husband and I were introduced as the people who put Christmas lights up two months ahead of time. What they didn't realize was that we were celebrating Diwali."
In India, Diwali meant a monthlong orgy of card parties, pujas, celebrations, and fireworks. Here the holiday is much more muted, and Jaiswal starts just two days ahead. She says, "In India, when Diwali comes, it really comes--it's in the air. Here, Diwali comes, and you fit it in with your work, and you're able to do things but not as much as in India."
For many years, Jaiswal used to make her own special sweets, but now the presence of dozens of mithai shops in New York makes it unnecessary, although many women still make some token sweets at home to keep an old tradition alive. Indeed, as the Indian community has burgeoned in America, stores selling Diwali accoutrements, sweets, and jewelry have multiplied. In Jackson Heights alone, there are close to 200 merchants, and thousands of pounds of sweets and gold jewelry are sold.
For early immigrants, Diwali was a lonely time when they felt cut off from the joyous celebrations in India, where entire towns and villages are transformed into glittering fairylands with millions of diyas in every nook and corner. However, as the community has grown here, the public celebrations have magnified. Jaiswal points out that three weeks before Diwali is the huge Deepavali Mela fair at New York's South Street Seaport, followed by many street fairs, Diwali balls, and festive lunches.
Now she celebrates with her husband and two sons, lighting up the house and inviting friends. She says, "There was a time when I had to hand-make my greeting cards. Now everything from cards to clothes is available here. I do miss certain traditional sweets like patashas and shakarparas, and the small sugar animals, which I used to buy with my mother!"
As a young girl, Jaiswal's job was to decorate the entire house with lights, and she would even put the earthen lamps on top of the roof. She says, "All the neighbors, all the friends, would come over--it was like an open house--it was religious and at the same time very joyous. Here we do have relatives, but they are all at a distance--you have to plan ahead of time."
As Diwali draws nearer, even though it falls on a weekday, the crescendo of celebration is building with silken saris and outfits of green and red and gold being bought, sweets being prepared, and parties planned. The Gods in temples and home shrines are also getting glittering new clothes, and every house is going through a frenzy of cleaning.
As Swati Bhise recalls about the Diwali of her childhood: "Everything was absolutely cleaned, and the front doors kept wide open because it meant you're letting in Lakshmi. And the backdoors were kept shut because it was believed that Akabai, the lazy sister, signifying poverty, comes in through the backdoor."
So turn on all the lights, open up the doors--and welcome in goodness, peace, and prosperity for yet another year.