My parents moved from the South Asian subcontinent to the North American continent in the mid-1960s, never to again celebrate Diwali in the country of their birth. But over the past 50 + years, they’ve never failed to light diyas, do pujas, enjoy mithais, and convey Shubh Diwali to their loved ones.
This is how Mom and Papa conveyed their sense of Diwali to me: As detailed in the Ramayana, one of India’s two magnificent epics, a royal couple – Prince Rama and Princess Sita – are banished from their homeland, Ayodhya. With Rama’s brother, Lakshmana, they spend 14 years in exile during which Sita was kidnapped by Lanka’s demon king, Ravana. The arc of the story is how the brothers, supported by well-wishing devotees such as the monkey God, Hanuman, rescue Sita and return home to Ayodhya. The jubilant citizens of their homeland excitedly welcome Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana by lighting diya oil-lamps on the night of the new moon, Amavashya. Sweets and gifts are distributed as Ayodhya celebrates with firework and dance. This is the delightful, somewhat facile story of good triumphant over evil. There are alternative narratives, including those which privilege Sita’s perspective, Lakshmana’s role, and Hanuman’s point of view; there is even a reading which is sympathetic to Ravana’s plight. Also quite interesting is how other goddesses and gods make their way into the celebration. As the victory of good over evil is said to bring prosperity, the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi, is worshipped. And with King Rama rightfully back on his throne, Lord Ganesha represents a new start for Ayodhya. But for the diasporic traveler that I am, the story of Diwali is ultimately about desh and pardesh – home and away – and how we reconcile the two.
Bombay Baby and Calcutta Maybe
Although my parents had a comfortable life in Bombay (not yet called Mumbai by English newspapers), Papa left for Ontario, Canada in early 1965 as a scout of sorts, to get a lay of the snowy-white new land that would pave the path to more prosperity. Mom stayed back in Mulund, Bombay with her four children, awaiting the green light to move the family across the kala pani, the dark waters that her father insisted would result in familial fracture. While that feared fracture never quite happened, India and Pakistan fought yet another of the subcontinent’s internecine wars which ended days before Diwali, 1965. With our parents separated by an ocean, my brothers, sister, and I tried to make sense of our changing world: windows of our apartment flat in Mulund were darkened with brown paper to ensure that Pakistani fighter planes could not see the light inside our home; my elder brother, who was then not yet ten years old, had to fight his way home from school one day when all the trains and buses stopped, causing great worry for Mom; and my five-year-old self fought with inner demons at night as I would sleepwalk throughout our 3rd-floor flat looking out of our balcony for my absent father.
I imagine that Papa and Mom telepathically communicated all these troubles along with their more hopeful visions in the way of young people in love separated by long distances. While it seems inconceivable to me that Papa sent any poems to Mom during festive nights away from home and family, perhaps we can do a bit of revisionist history and dream that he sent a few lines from Vikram Seth’s “Diwali” (1981):
Home. These walls, this sky
Splintered with wakes of light
These mud-lamps beaded round
The eaves, this festive night,
These streets, these voices…yet
The old insensate dread,
Abeyant as that love,
Once more shifts in my head.
After the war was over, on the eastern side of India that makes the shape of its map look like a woman holding a sari aloft on her outstretched arm, there was a girl about my age who was celebrating Dhanteras, the first day of Diwali. While the rest of her family members in diya-lit Calcutta had their eyes closed during the Lakshmi puja, praying to the Goddess of Wealth, this bold lass saw her mother’s jewelry on a silver tray and quietly hid the jewels so as to protect them from anyone who might not be a well-wisher for the family’s prosperity. But as open as that girl’s watchful eyes were, they could not have been as open as my own eyes when Mom prepared me for our flight to Canada.
Our stay in Chatham, Ontario was a makeshift one, with the only other South Asian family in our town being the Hasnains from Pakistan. In those early years there were no Indian grocery stores close to home, though there was an uncle who owned a French-Indian restaurant in a nearby city. My memories of Diwali celebrations in Chatham are blurred by the struggles of my parents making their way in the world. Both would work multiple jobs including picking tomatoes as farm hands, Mom sewing clothes as a tailor, and during an economic downturn Papa, trained to be a procurement manager, was laid off from a multinational firm and took on odd jobs as a security guard and then as an orderly at a mental hospital. All I can really remember about India was the pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal and blue aerogrammes to and from family back home in Rajasthan.
For those of you not old enough to know about aerogrammes, kindly follow these instructions:\
- Find a thin, lightweight piece of blue paper approximately the size of 8 ½” x 11” printer paper.
- Fold into three sections as if you were enclosing it in an envelope (if you are too young to know what an envelope is, please proceed to the Silicon Valley part of this article).
- The top fold is for parents to pay respect to elders in India, write that “all izz well” in Canada, and for special holidays wish everyone “Happy Diwali,” “Happy Holi,” or “Happy Raksha Bandhan.” Just keep things joyous, suggesting that Goddess Lakshmi is smiling upon us in this land of milk and honey. Hidden from family in India are the hardships, the hard facts of our cold Canadian Diwali; no time with an uncle who was too busy with his restaurant, no agarbati to fill our home with sandalwood incense, no exploding firecrackers to let neighbors know about “our Christmas,” no flickering diyas to guide Lakshmi to our home, no shining new jewelry or dhan except the maple-leaf pennies that my parents earned; all we had were the six of us performing the puja around a silver coin of Lakshmi safeguarded from India, our foreheads dotted with kumkum powder carried in Mom’s suitcase as a vermilion reminder of our ancestry, and our mouths sweetened with saffron-less rice pudding pretending to be kheer with wrinkled black raisins substituted for plump golden ones.
- The middle fold is for more serious matters: replying to previous requests to send more money; sharing news about children’s educational accomplishments; and deferring the visit home to Rajasthan with a “we will soon return when we have accrued enough vacation” (while never disclosing that Goddess Lakshmi’s smile has been a bit pinched, and we don’t have funds for tickets to fly back to India; the illustration of an airplane on the front of the aerogramme is as close as we’ll come to a flying machine for almost a decade).
- And squeezed into the bottom fold on the inside of the aerogramme is space for the elder two siblings to write their pranams; inevitably the respectful salutations bow down to the end of the page and climb over to the other side where the younger two siblings (my younger brother and myself) write in larger font to grandparents, uncles, and aunts whose fully-fleshed memories slip away into two-dimensional black and white photos.
- Lastly, the address section on the front has Papa’s confident upper case hand-written memory of his or Mom’s village homes, before the gummy edges of the paper are moistened with parental saliva, pressed together, and the aerogramme is dropped in a mailbox.
After Papa was laid off from his job, he explored an opportunity in Chicago. In the same year that Apollo 11 made like a powerful Diwali firecracker and rocketed the first men to the moon, our family made like Diwali phuljharis and sparkled our way to the United States. While the Windy City was as cold as Ontario, its Midwestern heart felt so much warmer. Cosmopolitan Chicago had universities with graduate students from India, had a group of Gujarati friends that reminded Papa of Pravin Parikh, his best friend in Bombay, had a Patel Brothers grocery store to cater to the growing Indian population, and even had a Hindu temple.
In Chicago, Mom found other women who wore saris everyday, just as she had in Canada and would continue to do for decades in the United States. But these were not Indian women whose jet-black hair flowed down to their waists over the saree’s pallu. They were fair-haired wannabe gopis of the ISKCON movement. But no matter, my parents had a temple, albeit a temple shared with former hippies chanting “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama.” And we had a place to go on Diwali, before returning home to feast with newfound friends and dance in dandia circles.
Just as Papa and Mom built an Indian community that enabled them to recreate a semblance of what they had left behind, their children turned toward another community, playing baseball with our American friends and singing rock-and-roll songs that our parents did not appreciate. Filial piety demanded that we attend family pujas, but while Mom and Papa celebrated Diwali with their friends, we rolled our eyes during prayers and began to surreptitiously make fun of our parents’ friends’ funny clothes and oily hair, and, out of adult earshot, mimicking the thick Gujarati accents in a way that presaged Hank Azaria’s diminishing Apu character on The Simpsons by a couple of decades. We were becoming defiantly Americans while steadfastly remaining loyal to, and protective of, our parents’ core values.
As the years went by, it appeared that Yankee defiance might win out: Blue jeans left no space in our closets for kurtas and pyjamas; Hollywood pushed Bollywood into the distant background; and for a while it seemed that television families like “The Brady Bunch” were the norm that we aspired to. The so-called “boob tube” delivered cultural context and our Americanized tongues became more comfortable saying “Happy Thanksgiving” rather than “Shubh Diwali.” While my parents did not overtly show anxiety around cultural loss, it must have seemed to them that their Diwali diyas could not hold a candle to Nat King Cole’s Christmas lights accompanied by chestnuts roasting on an open fire; while the former was easily extinguished, the latter illuminated much more of our Midwestern zeitgeist. It was as if Vikram Seth’s poem about Diwali was describing the cultural conflict between my birthright and the ascendant West’s claim on my impressionable teenage years.
Macaulay the prophet of learning
Chewed at his pen: one taste
Of Western wisdom “surpasses
All the books of the East,”
And Kalidas, Shankaracharya,
Panini, Bhaskar, Kabir,
Surdas sank, and we welcomed
The reign of Shakespeare.
College was a turning point. The summer before my freshman year, our family returned to Rajasthan to celebrate the weddings of my two older siblings. I returned to the U.S. with a commitment to learn about India, to be more of an Indian, to never remove my janoi, the sacred thread with which I had been invested days before my elder brother’s wedding. At college, only the Indian graduate students seemed to know anything about our shared heritage. There were three other undergraduate Indians in my freshman class, and all of them were on the right side of the Indian-American hyphen. It was only through coursework in Indian history, political science, art, religion, and anthropology that I found my way back to my own Indian identity. And then there was Satayjit Ray’s Apu Trilogy that clinched the deal with its masterful cinematic verisimilitude. On my road to self-discovery, I discovered Pather Panchali, the Song of the Little Road. I fell in love with village India and with the Bengali aesthetic. I saw Diwali through Apu’s eyes in Aparajito (The Unvanquished), the second of these three classic films. I found a way to vanquish my years of exile from India.
Upon graduation from college, I returned to India for my own wedding. I married Mangla, that not-quite Bengali girl who in the mid-1960s had safeguarded her mother’s jewelry on Dhanteras. Through the years, my wife has taught me more about Diwali then all the professors, books, films, and years that preceded her. Like so many mothers before her, Mangla has safeguarded much more than shiny baubles. She has kept alive the traditions of our ancestors and passed them along to our children and their spouses like a treasure that can be held only in one’s heart.
It is true that we no longer wait twelve days for our Diwali letters to cross the ocean and do the postal handshake/namaskar. Yes, we’ve been blessed by Silicon Valley innovations like email, Skype, and WhatsApp that enable us to have our Diasporic Diwali dreams delivered to us in an instant. And for those of us who are old-school, we now even have a Diwali stamp should we be inspired to send our loved ones Diwali greetings that consist of more than ephemeral bits and bytes.
Of course, the number of Indians in North America has gone up exponentially through the years. Unlike my parents and the Hasnain family of 1960s Chatham, Mangla and I have nearly a dozen Indian families living within walking distance from our Palo Alto home, each celebrating their own vision (and each other’s version) of Diwali/Deepavali; North India, South India, East India, and West India all centered around our California abode. Despite our neighborly friendships, our past has its hold on us and we hold on to vestiges of ancestral tribalism with our RANAs (Rajasthan Association of North America), GCANAs (Gujarati Cultural Association of North America), TANAs (Telegu Association of North America), CABs (Cultural Association of Bengal), and more.
To be sure, there have been some clunker Diwali celebrations like the RANA function in the early 1990s when I read aloud every word of Vikram Seth’s “Diwali” poem, leading almost the entire audience to head for the food before it was ready (I think Mangla was the only one who listened to me! ) But we’ve come a long way, crossing the bridge between here and there. Here might be Morgan Hill, and there might be Mt. Abu. Perhaps here is modernity, and there is tradition. And courtesy of our multiple and virtual Silicon Valleys that are anywhere, here and there could be everywhere, facilitating the building of our own Rama setus, our own bridges to (re)discover the loves of our lives. And we merely need a diya to light the sky, to show us the way back home to make peace with our disquieted heart.
It holds me-till the strain
Of exile, here or there,
Subverts the trance, the fear
Of fear found everywhere.
“But freedom?” the notes would sing…
Parole is enough. Tonight
Below the fire-crossed sky
Of the Festival of Light.
Give your soul leave to feel
What distilled peace it can;
In lieu of joy, at least
This lapsing anodyne.
“The world is a bridge. Pass over it,
Building no house upon it.”
Acceptance may come with time;
Rest, then disquieted heart.
Rajesh Oza truly hopes one day soon to celebrate Diwali in India, perhaps with a grandchild in tow. As Founder and President of OrganiZationAlignment Consulting Group, Inc., he specializes in helping senior executives better align their organizations to achieve success.