Diwali – The Festival of Light (And Sights, Sounds, And Smells!)

It’s Diwali time and your thoughts are naturally turning to the home you left behind in India. You are probably thinking of Diwalis past – of the rows of diyas, or earthen lamps lighting up the night in the neighborhood, the gorgeous fireworks, the melt-in-the-mouth sweets, the new clothes, the fun, gaiety and much more.     

You are not alone in indulging in nostalgia during this festive season. Millions of other Indians around the earth are replaying the past just as you are – unless, of course, they are the lucky ones who have actually managed to head home for Diwali.  

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Whether you are in the US, the UK or Nigeria, the inner child in you is awake and dreaming – of the aforementioned diyas, the spinning chakkars or sparkler wheels, the blossoming flower-pots and the crackling hand-held sparklers; not to mention the boom, bang and crackle of assorted fireworks (with the accompanying acrid smell of gunpowder that lingers long into the night). And how could you leave out the mouth-watering mitthai, or sweets –  the ladoos, halwas, jalebis, gulab jamun, kheer (depending on which part of the sub-continent you come from), or the colorfully patterned rangolis that are drawn in front of every home with colored rice, dried flour, flowers and even colored sand and which depict simple geometric shapes or elaborate images from mythology and folklore.  

There is also the memory of wearing new clothes and of welcoming family, friends and relatives into our spruced up homes, of exchanging gifts, of laughter ringing in the air, pranks being played and conversations being drowned out by the ear-splitting sound of yet another chain of crackers exploding in the front yard. 

As an expatriate you probably have your family or friends or the local Indian community – or all three – to help celebrate the occasion. Maybe, as in some parts of India, you would have commenced the celebrations a couple of days earlier. If you have children around you, you might even be telling them the stories of long ago associated with Diwali, just as your elders once told you the same stories when you were a child agog with festive excitement.  

You will remember and recall the stories of the gods, goddesses, demons, kings and sundry others, all of them involved in the eternal struggle between good and evil that to this very day has been going on since the dawn of time.  

You might tell them of the Ayurvedic physician of the gods, lord Dhanvantri, in remembrance of whom the home is cleaned and decorated and the family bathed (often with oil) and dressed up on the first of the five days, ‘Dhananteras’, that mark the Diwali season.  ‘Dhan’ means ‘wealth’ and ‘Teras’ refers to the thirteenth day of the dark Lunar month. So on this day the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, is also invoked to bless the household with prosperity. You will narrate the legend of the god and the goddess emerging on this day from the ocean when it was churned by gods and demons alike for the nectar of immortality with the mountain (no less!) called Mandara.  

The young ones will surely love the story of Lord Krishna and Goddess Kali killing of the feared demon Narakasura on the second day, Naraka Chaturdashi (also called ‘choti’ or ‘little’ Diwali) and thus banishing fear from the world. The third day is, of course, the one every child looks forward to – Diwali. It is the day when the years-long gloom over the ancient city of Ayodhya is said to have been lifted with the return of  the rightful and righteous ruler of the kingdom, Lord Ram, along with his wife, Sita, and brother Laxman from their fourteen-year old exile in the forest.  

There will be stories, too, of the day following Diwali, Bali Padyami, when the demon king, Bali, thanks to the generosity of Lord Vishnu, is allowed to appear for that one day each year to visit his subjects on earth, after having been banished to the nether world eons ago by Vishnu himself; and more stories than even you would know of about the fifth day, Bhai Dooj, which celebrates the eternal bond between sisters and brothers.  

No doubt the festivities in your expatriate community may not be as grand and detailed as those back home. Instead of earthen lamps, only metal ones (of the same size and shape) may be available. So what?  Diwali, the Hindu New Year, is all about change, isn’t it, when light triumphs over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance? So be creative.  Host a pageant that retells one of the old stories; play night-long games of cards as is the practice in some parts of India. Burn a couple of demon effigies. Or host a pageant. Or even a haute Diwali do. It’s the spirit that counts.  

Happy Diwali!