Iyer grinds the lentils with drops of water in her food processor and places a ball of the dough inside a thin cotton cloth with a hole in the center. Then she begins to create art by pressing out a stream of dough into a three-inch circle directly over hot oil, drawing pretty loops around the circle without pause.
Hard work? You bet. These saffron-colored jhangiris, which will be soaked in sugar syrup, are a gourmand's delight at South Indian celebrations. For daredevil cooks like Iyer of San Jose, Diwali is a time for dishes bubbling with sugar, spice and sentiment.
In the Bay Area, where 125,000 Indo-Americans make their homes, the weeks around the big day pulsate with colorful garbas (dance groups) in community centers, daily music concerts in temples, trips to Indian sweet stalls and elaborate cooking, eating and partying at home.
Back in India, it's the year's biggest holiday, and traditions vary by region. Families in Chennai on the southeastern coast wake up at 3 a.m. on Diwali morning. They light a lamp at the altar, and the oldest member of the family dots everyone's forehead with vermilion and gives them new clothes to signify a new beginning. Kids slip into their finery and rush out into the courtyard to light firecrackers until daylight.
Food plays a central role in the celebrations -- from the fried lentil patties called thattai in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu to the kheer (sweetened rice pudding) and fudge-like sweets of Uttar Pradesh in the north.
Iyer remembers her grandmother, who lived in Calcutta, laboring over special dishes for her grandfather every Diwali. "My mother did the same," she says, "and I follow suit."
Here in Northern California, expatriates from all over India are creating unique celebrations, adding their own touches to the traditions they brought with them.
"For Diwali, I can use my imagination, unlike for other festivals," Iyer says. "Perhaps because it celebrates the conquest of good over evil, our forefathers gave us the freedom to do anything we wanted, and that means experimenting with new sweets and savories."
In the Fremont home of Charu Prakash -- who throws an annual Diwali bash for 150 people -- house lights blaze all Diwali night to guarantee that the Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, enters the house to bless its occupants.
Diwali was always really big in Prakash's childhood home in Delhi. "We looked forward," she says, "to receiving many cash-filled envelopes from our elders, to visiting all our cousins and friends over a course of three or four days and taking gifts and sweet trays to every one of them."
Prakash, who conducts multi-cuisine cooking classes at the India Community Center in Milpitas, devotes a full month to her party preparations. Just the descriptions of her mithai table are enough to evoke a sugar high: two dozen burfis (made of almond, tofu, carrot, fig, date, coconut and more), rasmalai (Indian cottage cheese soaked in sweetened, condensed milk), and deep-fried gulab jamuns stuffed with pistachios or cashews.
Getting together with friends and family on Diwali night is the most meaningful part of the holiday for many Indians. Anjali Jhangiani of Fremont takes off work on Diwali day and her daughters, 13-year-old Simrin and 9-year-old Samica, skip school. By 6 p.m., they're dressed in flowing sequined skirts and ready at the door to welcome guests.
On the appetizer menu is Indian street food -- chaat -- of many kinds, including bhel puri, a salad of the thinnest lentil noodles, puffed white rice, peanuts, onions, and tomatoes topped with date and coriander chutneys.
"Homemade chaat is such a treat for us Indians that I decided to offer it on Diwali night," Jhangiani says. So she stands by a pan of hot oil, frying more than 500 mini-puris (small, deep-fried wheat rounds that puff up in the hot oil) for 150 people for her Diwali night get-togethers.
Throwing an annual Diwali gala for close family and friends is Jhangiani's way of affirming her culture. Raised in the United States, she recalls growing up in Skokie, Ill., witnessing grand celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah but missing out on the most festive aspects of Hindu holidays. "There were very few Indians around us," she says, "and my parents didn't celebrate Diwali with much fanfare."
Like Jhangiani and Prakash, large numbers of Bay Area Indians get together at friends' homes or community centers and begin the festivities with a prayer to goddess Lakshmi. Indians believe that offering flowers and coins at her altar and singing songs in her praise will bring peace and prosperity to their homes and businesses.
"Diwali brings back memories of how 50 of my family members got together to do a Lakshmi puja (prayer) on Diwali evening at my father's huge house in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh," says Amita Srivastava of Santa Clara.
For her celebration, Srivastava makes the dishes that her mom and aunts made back in Lucknow, and she often invites family and friends to share them. On her must-have list are dahi vada (ground lentil patties soaked in a spicy homemade yogurt sauce), gujhias (fried pastry stuffed with seasoned milk fudge) and five kinds of vegetable dishes.
"Cauliflower, carrots and peas used to be seasonal back in Lucknow," she says. In California, though, with more types of produce available in the fall, she isn't as constrained by what's in season. "I can be more creative."
As for me, laughing and eating with a happy bunch never fails to ward off my homesickness at Diwali. This weekend, I will pile, along with 20 Indian families, into one little home in Santa Clara.
We'll visit, eat festive foods -- including hostess Shobha Agarwal's sugary homemade dumplings known as white rasgullas -- and play cards for hours. Sometime around 4 a.m., we'll straggle home. Those who have won the most at cards will consider themselves lucky in more than money.
`We believe," Agarwal says, "that the one who takes the most money home after a card game will be blessed by goddess Lakshmi all year round."