Diwali: A Lost Love! Tradition, celebration, and nostalgia

Diwali decorations at Patel Brothers, Jackson Heights, New York. Photo courtesy Ketana Gosalia

Begin a talk of Diwali, and there would hardly be anyone who would not go nostalgic talking about what the festival time was “back home”, and how they have not had any time like that since those days.  It is a different thing that they would also agree that the festival had lost its charm and importance as they grew up “back home”.

If you were brought up in a city like Bombay, you would remember lights everywhere, on house-fronts, on shop-awnings, on rows and rows of chawls while getting home from a gold shopping trip with your parents.

Dr. Jyoti Desai of New Jersey has very fond memories of Diwali at her home in Bombay.  “The Maharashtrian community in Dadar, Girgam road, and Thakoredwar used to have special displays of paper lanterns for Diwali and we used to go to watch that,” Desai told News India Times in an interview.  “The highlight of Diwali day was our family going to Mahalakshmi Temple at four in the morning of Diwali,” Desai said.  “We would come back at five just in time for ‘dhol’ and ‘sharnai’ performers who visited each house in the neighborhood and got money gifts for that,” she said.  “We also went to Madhav Baug Temple on New Year’s Day,”  Desai said.  Her family used to buy gold during the ‘guru pushya nakshatra’.  “Zaveri Bazar looked so festive and bright with lights, full of people from everywhere, including villages, who came to buy gold,” said Desai.  “The ‘ronak’ or glitter we saw then doesn’t exist anymore in India. Here in the U.S., we don’t get the feel of Diwali at all except a little in temples and stores,” she said.

Diwali was a festival when mothers were busy making special snacks of Diwali – ‘chevdo’, ‘sev’, ‘farsi-puris’, ‘ghughra’ or ‘gujjia’, and many other things.  Sangeeta Pandeet of Valley Stream, New York, has vivid memories of Diwalis of her childhood in Pune, Maharashtra.  “Diwalis were always spent at my grandparents’ house in Pune,” Pandit said in an interview with News India Times.  The day after their arrival would begin the cooking festival, according to her.  “All the ladies of the house, including extended family, aunts, sisters and wives from both the parents’ side, would join in and then would begin a non-stop party of fragrance and flavors,” Pandit remembers happily.  She and the other children were given the work of pounding the dough or some such work or making miniature sweets to be part of the cooking party, she said.  Diwali day was a special lunch of ‘aamras’ if available, ‘shrikhand’, ‘puri’, ‘masale bhaat’, ‘aamti’, ‘usal’ and other items, she said.  Pandit has been celebrating Diwali here at home by cooking various items and doing ‘puja’, and inviting friends over.

Diwali Rangoli stickers on sale at Patel Brothers’ store in Jackson Heights, NY. (Photo: Courtesy Ketana Gosalia).

Ira Bannerjee’s memories of Diwali of her young days in India are mixed with loving memories of her mother.  “Ma used to gather up energy and items to make sweets for our large family, and I used to love helping her.  We were not supposed to eat any before the ‘bhog’ but we stole some and ate them any way, pretending to be helping all the while,” Bannerjee remembers.  “The lights and the festivities were there but the whole family in a joyous mood is what remains in my memories of those days,” she said to News India Times.

“In those days, there was no tradition of just walking over to the shops and buying the fried snacks whenever you pleased, my aunt who visits me often in the U.S., told me,” said Harsha Parikh of New Jersey. “My aunt said those fried snacks were kept limited to the festive days of Diwali in most households, and were not seen again for a whole year, making the simple lifestyles healthier,” Parikh said to News India Times.

Reshma Shah, a licensed social worker in New York, follows the Jain religion.  She told News India Times of her missing the happiness that Diwali celebrations in India brought to her.  Shah remembered.  Shah also remembers the cooking parties of ladies, and the visits to each others’ homes, the seeking blessings from elders and getting gifts of money.  Her memories also include the hard work.  “I remember how much cleaning we did of the house.  It would start fifteen days before Diwali and go on until a day or two before ‘agyaras’ (the eleventh day),” she said.  “It used to be a competition of sorts with the neighbors who would talk to each other how much they had accomplished, ”

“Things have changed now even in India,” Shah remembered sadly.  “Chopda Pujan no longer exists the way we used to celebrate.  Most people do not make any of the fried snacks or sweets for health reasons.  Only the elders in the family still make a small amount as a token, as ‘shukan’,” she said.  “Everyone goes away on short trips to Matheran or Lonawala,” she said.  Here in the U.S., there is no feel of Diwali.  “People still celebrate Diwali ritually at home.  Or how are the children to learn about it?,” Shah expressed concern.

Diwali Gift Boxes on sale at Patel Brothers’ store in Jackson Heights, NY. (Photo: Courtesy Ketana Gosalia).

Rita Parikh’s memories of Diwali are almost similar, of cleaning the house, buying new clothes, cooking, eating, and having fun.  “There used to be excitement about Diwali earlier,” she said, “Although people still clean their houses and buy gold but people go away on trips in Diwali, she said.  In the U.S., Diwali does not have much importance, according to her.  “You may not know it is Diwali if you don’t have any Indians in the apartment building.  Diwali here is limited to going to friends now and to the temples,” she said.  “Ladies have double duty here, of home and of work, and even then they try to make some nice dishes for Diwali.  “The responsibility of teaching our children about our traditions is on us now,” Parikh said.

Diwali was not celebrated in similar fashion for Nirmal Munshi of New York and her Sikh family in India, she informed News India Times, explaining that it was a day when Guru Hargobind and fifty two prisoners of the Mughal king Jehangir were released, to celebrate which the Golden Temple was lighted up.  “We went to the Gurudwara for the Diwali prayer.  People brought sweets for ‘prasad’,” she remembered.  “At  ‘langar’. we ate the regular ‘roti’, ‘sabji’, and ‘kheer’ at the ‘langar’, she said.  Minnie Pujji, has almost similar memories.  “Diwali was generally celebrated at the Gurudwaras in Delhi where I grew up.  Most people went there for Diwali,” she said to News India Times.   “My family celebrated Diwali at home.  We lighted ‘deeyas’, had ‘mithais’ to eat and lighted firecrackers on Diwali day,” Pujji said.

Ketana Gosalia of New York, misses rangolis from her young days in Wakaner, the princely state in Gujarat near Jamnagar.  “Those days were about talking long into the nights and doing ‘rangolis’,” she told News India Times. “Our special dish for Diwali evening would be ‘lapshi’, (a sweet dish made of cracked wheat, ghee and jiggery) and ‘mug’ (mung beans),” said Gosalia, who follows the Jain religion.  “On New Year’s Day, we used to get up early, visit friends and neighbors, and eat a lot of sweets without which you could not leave their homes,” she said.  To counter the sweet taste, her family ate ‘Undhiyu’ and ‘Khasta Kachoris’ in the evening, she said, adding that everyone cooked together for the New Year’s dinner.

Here in New York, she still maintains her enthusiasm for Diwali.  She begins to make sweets and ‘farsans’ well before Diwali, finding time for cooking whenever she can, and distributes homemade sweets to her neighbors, including non-Indians who all wait for her ‘sweets’, she said.  She also makes special dishes for all those days, ‘lapshi’ for ‘Dhan Teras’, ‘Dahi Vadas’ for ‘Kali Chaudas’, and full lunch with a sweet dish for the New Year and, once again, shares it all with her neighbors, she said.  She said she enjoys making everyone a part of her Diwali celebrations.

Dr. Deepak Desai remembers that Diwali had started losing its importance for most when he relocated to the U.S. in 2002.  “Earlier, it was a lot of fun, especially if you were young,” he said.  He said he also feels that not much of Diwali exists here.  “All we do is to go to some function or program,” he said.

But in childhood’s heaven, the days were special with fire crackers every night, and mothers drawing ‘rangoli’ late into the night, and getting up very early in the morning around four on the New Year’s Day to buy a packet of salt from vendors who loudly invited all to buy ‘sabras’ as you stayed in bed listening to the song of ‘sabras’.  Then would come the song of ‘toran’ in a fine melody that put all the stress on the second syllable.  The sellers would come, tie the fresh flowers’ ‘toran’ at the door, get paid by the mothers, and leave.  Then would come the delivery person from your regular grocer bringing a gift of five grains and jaggery, in typical Bombay tradition.

New Year’s Day was the day of dressing up well and then going to neighbors’ and friends’ to wish ‘Saal Mubarak’.   Every Gujarati greets each other even today with a ‘Saal Mubarak’ wish.  The phrase ‘Saal Mubarak’ is the gift of the immigrant Parsi community who landed on the shores of Gujarat from Persia long ago.  As in the historical story of their promise, they ‘melted’ and became inseparable from Indian lives.  According to Dr. Nilufer Bharucha, a visiting Professor at the Temple University, Pennsylvania, who has written many articles and books on Parsi diaspora, Parsis adopted many Gujarati customs.  Speaking to News India Times, she said, “Some of the Gujarati wedding rituals have become part of Parsi life, including a ‘garba’ at the wedding.”  ‘Saal Mubarak’ is a Parsi or Persian word and it has become a thankful and loving New Year’s gift of the Parsis to the Gujaratis who have been using it for a long time to greet each other on their Hindu religious festival of Diwali and New Year.

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