Diwali is probably the most important Indian festival celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs the world over. Depending on one’s religious persuasion, the events / myths that are celebrated are both varied and various. The 5-day festival that marks the end of the Indian lunar year is often likened to Christmas. With the Indian diaspora being so widely dispersed globally, many of Diwali’s traditions and rituals have been adapted to fit around non-Indian cultures but the observance continues strong. And, for many immigrants, their homeland memories of this Festival of Lights continue to burn bright.
This year, the Storyacious Team reached out to a few friends and family members and asked them to share what they remember most vividly from their many Diwali celebrations in India. Below are some of the responses and, because, a few people asked for names to be withheld, we decided to do without any.
My earliest memory, and my favorite one, is from my childhood in Kenya some 50 years ago. My father was the chief accountant at some sugar plantations owned by an Indian millionaire. Every Diwali day, all the employees would gather in the big hall to participate in the “chopda poojan”. The ceremony involved setting the old and new year’s business ledgers and account books before the deities Ganesha and Lakshmi. Inside the books for the new year, there would be 2 words inscribed: “Shubh Laabh” (meaning “Good Fortune”). The symbolic offering to these particular deities would be accompanied by a Maha Pooja – prayer and worship rituals for a prosperous new year. Most employees brought along their children, though the wives, inexplicably, stayed at home.
After the Maha Pooja, the big boss would go around handing out boxes of mithaai to everyone. And, the best part for the kids was when he also gave everyone, employees and kids alike, handfuls of shiny new shillings. We’d cup our palms together and hold them out. And, he would fill them to the brim with coins. Of course, my brother and I handed the coins over to our father eventually, but the thrill of watching the coins rain into our tiny palms and counting how many more we got compared to the prior year and each other was enough for us. It may sound like a weird and, possibly, demeaning custom now, but it was meant well and done with great respect and care towards the employees and their children.
[Note: This financial-books-offering ritual continues to this day in most parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, except, now, physical ledgers have been replaced with laptops as businesses are increasingly using software programs to manage their financial accounts. And, the relatively more discreet Diwali bonus tradition has replaced such ostentatious displays of giving.]
It’s curious how, as you grow older, faint or forgotten memories suddenly return with such immediacy as if the events only happened a week ago. One such 50-year-old memory recently came back to me.
I was a young bachelor then. One of my older brothers had bought a large home in the city. To celebrate, the entire family, my siblings and their respective families, had gotten together at the new home. There was the usual varied assortment of children of all ages running around. It was after nearing evening and the adults were gathered together, talking and laughing, while the children were playing about.
A 7 or 8 year old boy, one of my several nephews, decided to bring in some of the deeyas (lamps) from outdoors as a wind had started to rise up, causing them to start going out. Back then, we still lit the traditional hand-made clay lamps with oil and cotton wicks. As he was bringing one in, he decided to shield it from the wind with his shirt. And, before he realized it, the flame had started licking his bare skin just above the belly-button. This image is seared in my memory because I was the first to notice it, yell out and grab the lamp away. It took some time to work out various home remedies to soothe his burn and calm everyone down. Within moments, all the fun and laughter had turned into something very serious and it was some time before we regained the carefree, relaxed ambience.
What I remember most is having to wake up very early on Diwali day. How Mom would come wake everyone up with the same admonishment: “Up, up. If you don’t get up early on this day, of all days, you will never make any progress in your life.” I have always gotten up early on Diwali day. Talk about conditioning.
My memories are mostly sensory: the smell and noise of fireworks, brightly flickering and wavering deeya lights, the heavy scent of incense and marigold and rose flowers for Pooja (freshly delivered just that morning by our regular street vendor-florist), the delicious smells from the kitchen all day of sweets and other delicacies being cooked and served to family members and visitors. The cooking that would start several weeks before the feasting. In large families, it was quite the social activity for the women as they gathered in the kitchens through the days leading up to the Big Day, chattering away as they planned and exchanged recipes.
The regular procession of service providers all day long that started early, before any Pooja. One after another, all the various and regular vendors / delivery people – milkman, trashman, florist, cleaner, paper-guy, postman, produce vendor, watchman, istri-wala (from the local ironing service) – would get their annual baksheesh or bonus from the many homes they serviced.
If a kid opened the front door to one of them, we’d know to call for one of the parents to hand out the envelopes of carefully-counted cash. There was a pecking order among these service providers and we had to be mindful of seniority and length of service as well. They would accept their envelopes with profuse thanks, some would even touch the feet of the parent who presented it.
This baksheesh-giving ritual was essential for ensuring prompt and uninterrupted services throughout the year. And, it continues to this day in India.
I remember collecting all the bright, garish Diwali cards that would start flooding in from early-to-mid-October onwards. As kids, we’d try to call first dibs on the ones that we liked the most. These were the non-commercial ones from family friends because the commercial ones from local businesses were usually rather bland and had the business names stamped across the front and inside rather prominently. There was also a preference for English language cards over others. We’d trade these amongst ourselves for mithaai (sweets) or fireworks. They were our social currency during the Diwali season till we got old enough to get real money from our parents and other close family and friend visitors. By mid-November, of course, this currency would lose all value.
The many and varied gift-giving rituals. Diwali sales would often start a few weeks before, shops all over decorated garishly with decorations and sale signs. Not unlike the pre-Christmas sales in the West. But, gifts weren’t just for family and friends. If you did business with someone on a regular basis – whether as vendor or employee or employer – and you had the means to do so, you’d give them a gift. These ranged from mithaai boxes to envelopes stuffed with cash to new clothes. There were unspoken protocols that only the grownups seemed to know. And, if someone gave you a gift and you’d forgotten about one for them, you rushed out to get one quickly. Just like Christmas.
Shiny new clothes! We’d start planning our New Year wardrobes before Diwali, urging our parents to get us the latest fashions. Back in the day, when shopping malls weren’t quite so ubiquitous, we went to our family tailors and picked out both Western and Indian styles from various worn-out catalogs. This was the busiest time of year for the tailors and you generally had to pay a bit extra to get ahead in the queue so that you got your clothes in time, particularly in case they needed some last-minute alterations. Over time, department stores and shopping malls replaced tailored clothes, but the tailors still continue to find this to be their busiest time as even store-bought clothes need to be altered to fit better.
Fireworks. My earliest memory of these was when I found myself, quite suddenly, right in the middle of several that were starting to go off. I must have been about 8 years old. Our Doberman jumped into the fray, quite fearlessly, and somehow got me out. Yeah, it is part of family legend now.
At school, just before Diwali, there would be a lot of plotting regarding who would dare to set off some fireworks during class and which particular teacher would be the target of our prank that year. There would be intense, secretive debates on this before the unanimous winners – both for prankster and victim – were picked. Then, inevitably, before our nominated prankster could carry out our genius plan, another class would beat us to the punch. Of course, the trick was to never get caught. So, the teachers, frustrated with being unable to pin the prank on a single culprit, would investigate and discipline all the classes/students in closest vicinity of the incriminating evidence. Good times.
On the last day of the 5-day Diwali celebration, we’d have Bhai-Beej. This celebration is somewhat similar to Raksha Bandhan, though the mythology behind it varies. One popular story is that the God of Death, Yama, visited his sister, Yami, on this day. She welcomed him with a great ceremonial feast, along with garlands of flowers and they exchanged gifts. On leaving, Yama declared that any brother who has been so welcomed and blessed by his sister will prosper and live long. That started the ceremony of brothers visiting their sisters on this day, with the sisters preparing rituals and feasts for them. In return, the brothers give their sisters gifts (most often, cash) to thank them for their blessings and prayers.
In present times, this day has become more of an opportunity for adult siblings to get together and have a smaller, intimate post-Diwali celebration with their respective families. Often, the evenings are spent playing games — cards being the most popular.
Visits and visitors all day long. If you were having a special Pooja in your home that year, you’d announce this to family and friends ahead of time and invite them to stop by. There would be an endless stream ebbing and flowing all day as people stopped by briefly to participate in the prayers and exchange some celebratory wishes and gifts before moving on to the next home on their list.
During the years when you weren’t having a special Pooja at your home, you might wear your finest clothes and, as a family, do these whirlwind visits, going from home to home of family and friends.
While the adults would catch up on pleasantries, the children would discuss their new clothes and collect the best mithaai from each home for their personal stash. At some homes, in addition to mithaai, the kids would get a little bit of cash and this was added to the personal stash as well. At the end of the day, mithaai and cash would be counted, traded, eaten or stored away carefully as feasible. And, we kids would go to bed with filled stomachs aching and busy minds calculating future plans for our new treasures.
The unspoken competition across the neighborhood for the most unique Diwali decorations, particularly Rangoli – the bright, colorful hand-made designs laid out near home entrances, in living rooms or courtyards to welcome Hindu deities into the home for the New Year, so that they may bless it with luck and good fortune.
Patterns range from small to large, simple, abstract art to extremely intricate scenes from Hindu mythology or folklore – many of them handed down through the generations in families. The materials used, dry or wet, used to be those commonly-found in most Indian households – colored rice, dry flour, chalk powder, sand, flower petals. And, of course, ornate deeyas or lanterns.
These days, there are official Rangoli competitions. And, instead of the painstaking, freehand style, now, there are stickers or pre-made fabric or plastic versions to re-use year after year. Still, many who prefer the Rangoli art and skill of the old days, so, even though crayons and acrylics have become more common, the hand-made versions still rule.
Fireworks, of course. These were the best part of the Diwali season. They were also the most stressful time for adults and children alike.
As kids, we’d gather in courtyards with our bags of the latest and greatest firework goodies. The most difficult one were the rockets. We’d place them in empty bottles, pointing up and then light the wicks for them to take off. But, depending on the direction of the wick, they didn’t always fly straight up. Often, they shot out at random angles and went straight into a neighbor’s home. Or, worse, if someone had forgotten their washing hanging outdoors, a rocket might easily tear through the fabrics, leaving charred black holes in its wake. Whenever something like this happened, all of us kids would scatter in various directions, not wanting to be caught. Inevitably, over the coming few days, the parents of the kid who set off the offending rocket would learn of the destruction caused and, in the spirit of seasonal goodwill, send the child over with an apology and a replacement.
Getting up early and taking an oil bath to purify before the Pooja. Eating all day till almost sick with the feasting. Spending the evening with friends and fireworks, which had only just been bought the day before. Unable to sleep most of the night because of the noise of fireworks going off till the wee hours of the morning. Waking up the next morning to smoky, acrid streets everywhere.
Do you have memories of Diwali traditions that you cannot forget, even though you may not observe them anymore?