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A New Yorker's very first Diwali

By Maria Giovanna in New York
October 25, 2006 18:23 IST
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I learned about Diwali around the same time I discovered Hindi movies -- in 1997 -- through television ads for local Indian shops on the Saturday morning filmi shows in the New York area. From seeing them, the diya became an instant visual shorthand, in my mind, for the holiday. When I heard mentions of it as the 'festival of lights,' it gave me pause, as that was a phrase, as a Catholic-raised New Yorker, which was used nationwide here to describe the Jewish holiday Chanukkah, always celebrated some time in December, before Christmas.

When I asked Indian friends at work about Diwali, they told me about the customs of the many lamps being lit, new clothes and gold bought, sweets shared and consumed, and, often recalled by the guys, firecrackers being set off. On a Hindi language CD-ROM at home, I learned a snippet of a song that went Deep jalao, deep jalao, aaj Diwali reKhushi-khushi sab ansate aao, aaj Diwali re

I innocently assumed that this song was commonly known among Indians, but after seeing the quizzical looks I got upon reciting the lyrics, I realised that I had not happened upon the Hindustani Jingle bells, but rather the equivalent of the more obscure Christmas carol Here we come a-wassailing.  Oh well. This was all part of learning that when it comes to Bharat Mata -- aside from responses to basic questions like "Who is the prime minister?" and "What is the capital city?" -- more often than not, there is not one answer, but many. And, most of the time, that's part of the fun.

From snippets of Indian television news reports showing people out shopping before the holiday, I could see cities and their streets decorated with many lights, reminiscent of Christmas illuminations on New York's Fifth Avenue and Dublin's Grafton Street that I'd known since childhood, and it all felt very familiar, if slightly different.

When I read up a bit and learned about the association the holiday has for many with the Goddess Lakshmi, and her relation to prosperity (and the new financial year for some), I found it remarkable that people could actually openly pray to a god for this, because by contrast, when I was growing up, the Catholic church often taught us about certain saints and their link to certain things (St Blaze was whose feast day you celebrated if you were prone to sore throats, St Francis of Assisi was the one all the animal and nature lovers honoured, and so on), but I never recalled hearing about us having anyone like Lakshmi. I've since learned that St Matthew, because he was a tax collector, is the patron saint of people like bankers, accountants, etc, but still, he certainly isn't tied to such a widely celebrated holiday as Diwali.

Or should I say, Deepavali.

Six years ago, when I met and eventually fell in love with a Tamil Brahmin boy (imagine how thrilled the family back home were with that news!), I was taught to stop with this 'Diwali' business and say it properly. He had come here from Chennai and settled in New Jersey after grad school, working at a start-up, and from him I learned volumes more about the North Indian versus South Indian nuances that a taxi driver had once mentioned in passing.

Having been an avid consumer of mainstream Hindi movies up until then, the year we met, my local cinema ran a special showing of Rajiv Menon's Kandukondain Kandukondain, and as I watched the southern re-imagining of Emma Thompson's Pride and Prejudice, I was introduced to the bouncy cadences of Thamizh, a language I would study a few years later, and come away realizing that Hindi was not that difficult after all, when compared to the Dravidian tongue of Thiruvalluvar.

The first few times that Deepavali came and went, the boyfriend and I didn't celebrate it too much. I was away one year, and another I came home to find he had lined the indoor staircase from the front door to the living room with small tealights from the local Bed, Bath and Beyond (a US home furnishing chain). We did usually manage to adhere to the tradition of gifting each other new clothes, once leading to a philosophical discussion by the dressing rooms in Express (popular clothing chain) over whether or not boxers would qualify for that particular holiday custom.

One year, we agreed we'd do it right. 

The week or so before the actual day, we went to the now disappeared Panchvatee on Oak Tree Road (New Jersey) and bought kumkum, small brown-red clay diyas, and a turmeric cream (with 24k gold, no less) as a substitute for turmeric paste.  Deepavali was on a Saturday that year, so we woke up really early, something like 4 am, and after the preliminary baths and oil, I got to experience my feet being anointed with a kumkum paste, then the turmeric cream -- both firsts for me.  After years of seeing women onscreen celebrating Karva Chauth and touching their husbands' feet, it felt funny to be on the receiving end of such ministrations.

I've heard different explanations for why this custom is done, ranging from 'it's for the long life of the wife,' to the kumkum and turmeric are Krishna's trademarks and one reason Deepavali is celebrated is because Krishna killed a big snake by dancing on its head, and by putting on the kumkum and turmeric, it helps the wearer to defeat evil.

After my tootsies had been duly administered to, and red and yellow washed off, we filled the clay diyas with oil and improvised wicks, and lit them. The smell had an acrid bite to it. Never one to miss an occasion to light candles, I also put a match to any and all wax items containing a wick that I could lay my hands on, and I think I even extricated a string of white Christmas lights from a box in a closet, and strung them up after plugging them in. That's always the smallest detail of the Christmas rituals that warms my heart: the lights on the tree. The sweetest part of each day during the season comes before bed, after I've turned all the lamps off and just admire the lights glowing on the branches and reflecting off the ornaments in an otherwise dark living room.

I think by that point in our morning, overcome by sleepiness, we made coffee and had a bite or two of some sweets, then settled down to get a start on the weekend The New York Times, while that week's AVS show of Bollywood news and ads played in the background. 

If it all sounds like a bit of an anti-climax, I suppose it was. There was no family, extended or otherwise, joining us. I think the possible future in-laws would have been grim at the sight of me -- someone so beyond the pale of who they ever envisioned sitting cross-legged in front of a fire while naadeswaram and mridangam heralded her union with their son -- attempting to celebrate Deepavali.

As much as I love Indian dance and music, I've never mustered up much curiousity to attend the annual Diwali mela at South Street Seaport, New York. I'm sure there's good food and fun, or at least shopping, to be had, but it seems to me that without the starting point of having family and friends at home with whom to celebrate the festival of lights, it would ring hollow to do it at a New York city mall and tourist destination.

For me now, the rhythms of each year include the anticipation of the colder weather of autumn and the arrivals of Diwali, then Chanukkah, then Christmas, all festive times laden with the baggage of images of happy families sharing food and presents in the warm glow of live flames, and wrapped up in the neat bow of familial love and good will. Personally, as a diehard filmgoer who is no longer joined to a Tamil Brahmin boy, the Diwali holiday is a time of much anticipated movie releases, and a happy excuse to send greeting cards to friends in India and here, and it has replaced Thanksgiving, in my mind, as the kick-off event of the holiday season.

Maria Giovanna writes about Hindi movies, old and new, on her blog


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Maria Giovanna in New York