“But … but … but,” sputtered my son as I yanked the covers off him on a cool morning in October. “You’re not even religious!” He was protesting my early morning diktat of hair-oil massage and bath that used to be the Diwali tradition in my parents’ house.
And he had a point. Raised by religiously lax parents, my tenuous links to Hinduism have been further worn down by immigration to the United States. The lonely idols in the corner of the kitchen, surely installed by a visiting grandmother, gather layers of dust till the autumn of every year, when a sudden surge of religious fervor makes me clean them. The brass lamps, tarnished by neglect, resist my vigorous attempts to restore their luster.
Perhaps it was crossing the mid point of my life, perhaps it was the infectious enthusiasm of co-workers and friends, but this year I resolved to pull out all the stops. Hazy memories supplied some of the more memorable parts of bygone Diwalis—the South Indian tradition of pre-dawn hair baths, the rice flour geometric patterns that I clamored to be allowed to draw, the sweets and savories forbidden to us till after the lamps were lit, and the post-snack stomachache from gluttony. What were lost were the prayers and the significance of the rituals. Even the purpose of Diwali has been reinforced by Amar Chitra Katha comics zealously preserved for the next generation.
To my surprise, the kids cooperated with the hair massage and bathing ritual with minimal grumbling, no doubt to humor their whimsical mom. The new clothes (from Target) were welcomed, the sweets (microwave recipes) sampled, and my daughter and I even sang a bhajan in front of the newly clean idols, though it was accompanied by a Beethovan sonata being practiced by my son in the background. Later in the afternoon we drew a rangoli pattern on our doorstep (with chalk), and decorated it with (battery-operated) lamps from the neighborhood warehouse store. We finished the day with contraband fireworks left over from July 4.
Reflecting later on what can only be described as a traditional Diwali day (American-style), I wondered how I could reconcile my lack of religiosity with the love of all the rituals that accompany religious observance. Then I recalled how much my family had enjoyed the improvised celebration that day.
For my American born children, family togetherness may come to be signified by gathering around a roast turkey at Thanksgiving, or sipping mulled cider around a present-laden Christmas tree, but I hope some of the wonder and delight of Diwali that I carry from my childhood gets handed down to them as well.