Arriving in a new country can burden a person with a new set of expectations. The burden of assimilating in a new culture, while maintaining old traditions comes to mind. As I began this acculturation while raising my family, I found myself trying to balance – fostering our age-old cultural traditions while shielding my children from cultural conflict. That forced me to reflect on the purpose of traditions that we blindly follow, and the different socio-political context where we now practice them. I wanted to pay attention to the pride that we felt in celebrating our beloved festivals in this foreign land. It can be hard to recreate the atmosphere, sights, and smells associated with a festival when the neighboring community does not partake in the tradition. We had to sparingly choose meaningful traditions without compromising fun.
We routinely celebrated Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi at home, to which we added the festival of Makar Sankranti. This special holiday marks the transition of the Sun into Capricorn (Makar) on its celestial path. It generally falls on January 14th each year and was celebrated at my parents’ home with gusto. The nuances of how it is celebrated dates back hundreds of years, when farmers exchanged their crops with neighbors in the spirit of sharing and committing to friendship.
In the Indian state of Maharashtra, sugarcane, garbanzo beans, carrots, and other crops are harvested in the winter months. Jaggery made from sugarcane is used abundantly in a variety of treats. During my childhood, on the day of Makar Sankranti, I remember filling small clay pots with a piece of sugarcane, a carrot, a few unshelled garbanzo beans, and a sweet ball-shaped ladoo made with sesame seeds and jaggery. I would then visit my friends in the neighborhood to trade these pots with them while saying, “Tilgool ghya ani goad bola,” (‘Accept these sweets and utter sweet words.’) The underlying thought is to forgive and forget the past ill-feelings, resolve conflicts, speak sweetly and remain friends. At that time, it just seemed like a good past time, but as I reflect on it, I think it is a very sweet tradition that reminds us to look beyond trivial quarrels and continue to build those bonds of friendship.
Replicating this tradition in the US presented multiple challenges, so I adopted another tradition, one I grew up with, of inviting female friends to a Haldi-kumkum (turmeric and vermillion) gathering. It was much like a high tea party. Along with tea and snacks, each woman received haldi-kumkum, a flower, tilgool ladoo, a sugar crystal candy made with sesame seed, and a gift. This gift was referred to as “a loot”. Traditionally, back home, the loot would be bangles, combs, bindis, or kitchen tools. In the US, the loot would be kitchen towels, a set of bowls, or similar items, but always included sharing the special significance of tilgool with my friends. My daughter and I enjoyed this gathering year after year.
In Gujarat where I grew up, the local Gujarati community’s tradition is to fly kites on Sankranti. To prepare for this day, children and adults would strengthen their kite’s strings with home-made starch to participate in a “Kite War”! A strong string can defend their own kite while attacking someone else’s as kites soar and glide in the sky from every direction. Early morning, families would gather on terraces, streets, and parks to launch their kites. The skies dotted with kites, the jubilant, full-throated repetitive roar of “eh kattaaaa” (cut!), would echo throughout the neighborhood. As this innocent, triumphant cry echoed all around, kids looking for free-falling kites would dash madly to grab them. Nothing could stop them from invading other people’s homes, gardens, and trees to get their freebies. Even today I remember this day with nostalgia and long to return to my childhood.
My choice to celebrate Makar Sankranti stems from the fact that humans have a natural tendency to belong, to share, to bond with others. The need was there when farmers shared their crops with each other nurturing solidarity; that demand is even stronger today, with our country bitterly divided from the lack of understanding of different cultures creating fault lines within our humanity. When these faults are under stress, seismic waves of doubts and clashes within communities produce fear and animosity. Sankranti can relieve that stress to a degree.
Pondering over my haldi-kumkum gatherings, I wish I had expanded my guest list to include non-Indian friends to share our culture, customs, and traditions. I would have done my small part to find common ground between cultures, and nurture unity among humans. We could belong to a world living under one sky traveling without boundaries, stealing each other’s kites while cheering the loot shared and received. It is not difficult to imagine the change a friendly tilgool can make.
There is a saying in my mother tongue Marathi: If you have just one sesame seed, share it with seven others. It’s the characteristic of the sesame seed to create warmth in one’s body when consumed. On this upcoming Makar Sankranti, let’s share tilgool, and extend a warm hand of friendship.
Kalpana Gokhale is a retired Cupertino Union School District teacher. She enjoys being a grandmother to her four grandchildren, cooking their favorite foods, playing with them, while she continues to read and write for her personal growth.