'Tis the Season to be Jolly

The nip is in the air. It's Diwali time again.

Can a nip in the air foretell coming events?

As soon as the weather turned cool and crisp in Delhi and women brought out their pashminas, the children knew something wonderful was brewing. And day by day, the big event of the year, the grand 3-D extravaganza of Diwali came closer and closer. It started with a beginning hustle and bustle, houses being repainted, silver being polished, curtains being changed. Slowly the momentum built up, until the marketplaces were studded with myriads of clay diyas and images of Hindu Gods, and brand new metal cooking pots; the sweet shops gleamed with a dizzying array of multicolored mithai; and the jewelry stores were flooded with glittering gold and diamond sets. And oh, the fireworks! Children salivated over the rich arsenal of bichus and anars and phatakas, trying to build up a stock for the big day.
Each day the cool nip in the evening air became more pronounced and the delicious feeling of anticipation grew. At the festival of Dusshera, the family would head out to the Ramlila Grounds in Old Delhi, loaded with homemade treats. Swaddled in sweaters, we would see a wonderful dance drama of the Ramayana on an open-air stage, as stars twinkled overhead. Handsome Ram, the beautiful Sita, and the devoted Lakshman – could anything be more dramatic? This was before TV turned Ramayana into a soap, and our unspoiled eyes reveled in classical dancers performing as the army of monkeys, as the giant bird Jatau and the awesome ten-headed demon Ravana.
But what we really relished was seeing the fiery demise of Ravana and his notorious brothers Meghnath and Kumkaran. These giant effigies, their huge bellies stuffed with fireworks, stood for days before Dusshera on the open Ramlila grounds in Old Delhi and then on the tenth day, as huge gleeful crowds gathered, were set ablaze. Good had triumphed over evil, and when evil was finished off with such a big bang, it was certainly satisfying in children’s eyes. In fact, it whetted our appetites for the enormous Diwali celebrations that were drawing ever nearer.

As the countdown to Diwali began, Delhi lit up like a magical city, which had been switched on by an unseen hand. Neon lights decorated official buildings and literally hundreds of oil-lit earthen lamps covered balconies and ramparts, stairs and yards of homes. I recall a drive outside Delhi on Diwali, and we passed village after village lit up like a fairyland, with hundreds of clay diyas.

There were family treks to crowded, neon-lit temples where the bells chimed unceasingly; there were visits from relatives loaded with sweet boxes; there was the Lakshmi puja in my father’s sparkling jewelry store where once the children sat still through the rituals, they were rewarded with a pile of silver rupee coins. A fortune!

The puris that ballooned like golden globes, the crunchy fried pakoras of spinach, onions and coriander, the crispy alu-tikkis, and the mellow yellow makhni daal were the traditional foods served at our home at Diwali, along with a plethora of rainbow hued mithais – the chumchum, the barfi, the gulab jamun, the jalebi, gleaming like jewels on the silver plate.

From early morning impatient little hands would set off occasional firecrackers, but in the evening it would reach a grand crescendo as thousands of multicolored fireworks lit up the sky, as just about everyone from street urchins to business CEOs, and every child on the block, set their booty aflame.

And for the three nights of Diwali, the lights were left on in the hall, so that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity would enter and bless the house. That was a must – to turn off the lights was unimaginable. And going to bed, with the light flooding the hall, one felt reassuringly close to the heavenly powers.

As I squint my eyes and look back, I can feel the October nip, smell the smoke of the extinguished firecrackers and see the blurred lights of the bejeweled city. That’s what I was reduced to doing 20 years later as my immigrant family landed in America, a place where Diwali barely existed.

In the 80’s Diwali in America was just another school day and if you wanted sweets you had to generally make them yourself. I would trudge to work in Manhattan and see the thronging masses in the subway all absorbed in reading, chatting, napping. And I would marvel: none of them knew that today is Diwali and none of them cared.

We were like lost children, trying to find our way back to Diwali through the frenetic neon-lit maze of America. A few immigrant families, all equally at sea, would meet at each other’s home for Diwali, bringing in potluck dishes, some homemade mithai and would try to reconstruct the magic of the festival back home. How could you when you weren’t even allowed to light a firecracker? A friend recalls how she would purchase small clay pots from the gardening supply store and fill them with oil to make homemade diyas. When she strung the multicolored lights outside her home a month before Christmas, neighbors thought she was a bit strange. But as the Indian population has grown in America, so has the visibility of Hindu festivals. Almost every major metropolis has a temple and Indian Americans from neighboring towns drive in to pray and celebrate the festivals together, from Navratri to Diwali. Ten days before Diwali mark Karva Chaut and Bhai Dhooj, and to celebrate these very personal rituals there are family and friends to join in the revelry.

Finally, there is community.

Diwali may not be a public holiday – yet – but in some schools Indian parents take in sweets, put up performances and explain the symbolism of the festival. The annual Deepawali Mela at South Street Seaport attracts thousands of people with food stalls, dance performances, music and fireworks. Pop a golguppa into your mouth as you stand surrounded by desis unlimited, and yes, you could be back in Bombay or Delhi.

The Jackson Heights merchants also organize a street fair which transforms mundane 74th street into a rousing neon-lit carnival, with eats, music and more. With the explosion of the desi population, there are now also scores of dance parties and private card parties, all geared to Diwali celebrations.

All across America there are hundreds of temples where Hindu families can go and celebrate. An immigrant arriving today would feel the ache of nostalgia less because there are so many celebrations here now. Diwali has come into full focus, and friends stand in for missing family members, although as time goes by, and immigrants set roots here, some relatives often join them and life goes on.

Hardly has the last gulab jamun been eaten up that the stores are full of Halloween candy and the children of immigrants embark on that delicious American adventure – trick or treating on October 31. As little ghouls and witches take to the streets of suburban neighborhoods and city apartment blocks, all America turns generous host with chocolates and candy for these spooks and spirits. In fact, millions of dollars worth of candy is sold at Halloween, and increasingly Indian Americans are joining in the fun as neighborhood children ring their doorbells for their loot.

Hardly is Halloween over that preparations start for that marathon of over-eating – Thanksgiving. Indian immigrants have embraced this purely American festival wholeheartedly, for giving thanks is something plain universal. Families reunite at Thanksgiving and immigrants have given the festival a nice Indian twist, adding spice and pizzazz to the rather bland turkey.

Some immigrants even cook the bird in the Mughlai way, smearing it red with tandoori paste; others spice it up with Indian condiments. And yes, there is vegetarian ‘turkey’ too and many desi feasts where purely Indian vegetarian food is served, adding in just the typical Thanksgiving desserts like apple or pumpkin pie. The prayers that are invoked at Thanksgiving are in many tongues, but the sentiment is all the same.

For those Indian immigrants whose children are in intercultural marriages, or who have many friends in the Jewish or Christian communities, Hanukkah and Christmas become days of celebration too. As one wraps presents or sips eggnog, one can’t help thinking that celebrating more than one culture is so much more enriching, so much more colorful.

The truth is Indian Americans have embraced the mainstream in many ways. There are families with Jewish daughters-in-law or Christian sons-in-law and so every festival is now seen from the inside out, rather than viewing it from the outside as something that other people, strangers, celebrate.

And even if one is a new immigrant, all alone in the big city, the festive air at Christmas and the glowing holiday dÈcor of the stores and streets, with powdery snow falling often just before Christmas Day spreads a kind of white magic that is just so seductive that one is happy to just be a small part of this picture perfect postcard. For Indian immigrants the festive season is not just about Dusshera or Diwali, but through and because of their American born children it is also about Thanksgiving, about Hanukkah, about Christmas. Each holiday is a chance to connect and to celebrate life with family and friends.

Yes, immigrants’ lives are bittersweet, about loss, but they are also about gain. About new friends made, new experiences shared, new extended families created and about the weaving of new memories to be shared with their children. And if one accepts that life is about change, about not standing still but moving on, then surely one can look forward to this coming holiday season with anticipation, a gift package just waiting to be opened, with all its new possibilities and promise.  

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