Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
I grew up in Mumbai in a culturally Hindu but religiously nonobservant family. My elders did not dwell on the religious significance of Diwali. To the young me, it was all about firecrackers, food, new clothes, and rangoli.
Rangoli is the art of adorning the entrance to the home by making decorative geometric patterns with colored powders. When I was about ten, I would draw a new rangoli on each of the five days of Diwali on the small veranda of my parents’ home. In the beginning, I drew small patterns (6-10 dots per row/column) that required only straight lines. As I became adept, I started making more complex motifs—30-dot squares and using curved lines.
The local stationery stores sold small booklets of intricate patterns. But, it was up to the rangoli artist to choose the combinations of colors to bring the rangoli alive. The finishing touch was the glitter sprinkled on top and the oil lamps placed at the four corners of the pattern. The flickering flames added a sparkly oomph to the pattern.
In a childhood in which schoolwork was deemed to be my paramount responsibility, there was no room for hobbies such as music or art or sports. It is only as I am writing this that I am realizing that rangoli was my only creative pursuit.
Interestingly, it was an exercise in geometry that also fostered accuracy and concentration. I would buy a large sheet of brown paper and, using a ruler and pencil, draw parallel lines, thirty across and thirty down. I would then use the smoldering end of an incense stick to burn tiny holes at the points where those lines intersected. This would become the template for the dots that guided the rangoli pattern.
Lacking a compatible Indian community nearby, my husband, children, and I were like a little Noah’s Ark. It was difficult to create the festive feeling all by ourselves. When I tried drawing rangoli on the porch of my house in New England, the cold fall winds, often accompanied by rain, simply blew the colors away. Not to be maudlin, but it did seem like a metaphor for connections and traditions cast to the wind.
But, a lesson I have learned over the course of four decades lived away from the mother culture is this: It is up to each individual to build community and create meaning. Indeed, doing so with joy and intention is one of the hallmarks of Creativity.
An Indian Muslim friend who lived nearby called to wish me “Happy Diwali.” Saira talked about how much she was missing being with her family in India that day; they had all gathered, sans Saira, for the Diwali vacation. So what if it was not their festival? A holiday is a holiday and when family members gather, it is a celebration. I could relate to her missing her family during the holiday, for I missed mine in the same way. I felt touched that she’d thought of me on one of my cultural holidays.
In wishing me “Happy Diwali, ” Saira was acting on a sentiment that comes instinctively to good friends–thinking of the friend and honoring the event in which they know the friend is immersed at the time. Saira expressed the hope that I’d enjoy the day that’s important to me.
Over the years, my family’s observance of Diwali became more and more low-key. One year, it was near the end of October, and we had invited six friends over for a potluck dinner. None of them were Indian. Even though it was Diwali, the dinner had not been planned around the Hindu holiday; indeed, we hadn’t mentioned it at all. And yet, imagine my surprise when two of the guests wished us “Happy Diwali” as they walked in. One of them had come dressed in a beautiful Indian-inspired outfit. The other had brought an Indian dish for the potluck.
Their spontaneous greeting made me feel understood, loved, accepted—at home. My Diwali was special that year– and every year since as I recall those experiences — because of my friends’ thoughtfulness and generosity.
So what if my rangoli colors fly away in the wind?!
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.