After their first children’s book on diversity, We Are Onewhich was published in 2017, San Francisco Bay area-based mother-son duo Pinky Mukhi and Param Patel are back with their new book on diversity and gratitude I Am Grateful. Pinky, who works as an I.T. professional, loves working with children, teaching them Gujarati, and engaging them with stories, arts, and crafts related to festivals celebrated by different cultures. Her curious nine-year-old son, Param, is interested in arts, computer games, music, reading, and sports.
A simple tale told through bright and colorful illustrations by Devika Oza, the book is a journey into the daily lives of children and what they feel grateful for. The story trails a day in the life of a child, examining all the things he has around him to be grateful for—his parents, grandparents, school, lessons, teachers, art, music, playtime, bath time, books, stars, trees, and flowers—in other words, the little things that we often take for granted.
The book was conceptualized when Param was six years old and is based on a conversation with him about what he feels thankful for. When Param was eight, he along with his mother, added further to the story by imagining what children in different nations may appreciate. They then decided to include in the story some of the countries Param had visited and the continents he had studied about.
The book ends with these powerful lines, accompanied by pictures of children belonging to different cultures, with their palms folded in prayer:
“I am grateful for love.
I am grateful for friends.
I am grateful for Mother Nature.
I am grateful for sunshine and moonlight.
I am grateful for food.
I am grateful for home.
I am grateful for learning and stories.
I am grateful for toys.
I am grateful. I have everything I need!”
After a month of Thanksgiving and Diwali, the book which is sure to resonate with children between the ages of four and nine, serves as a much-needed reminder of optimism and gratitude, especially during these challenging Covid times.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’. You can access all her published work under different categories in various publications here: www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com
From Surabhi’s Notepad – A column that brings us personal essays and stories, frivolous and serious, inspired by real-life events and encounters of navigating the world as a young, Indian woman living outside India.
Dressed in an orange salwar kameez, donning a small black bindi, as I sat on the floors of the verandah in my maiden home in Begusarai, finishing the last bits of the rangoli, it suddenly dawned on me that this was my last Diwali here. I was getting married soon, later in the month of November, and I did not know for sure when I would get a chance to celebrate Diwali in my hometown again. Nostalgia struck and I could see a carousel of images flash in front of my eyes—vibrant speckles of light livening the colony and the entire town, little kids spinning in euphoria around the chakri or ghirni, girls twirling their sparkly ghagra cholis, boys playing around in their best ethnic attires and arrays of sweets spreading the aroma of desi ghee in the air.
As my entire childhood flashed before my eyes, a drop of tear trickled down my cheek and smudged a petal off my floral rangoli. I quickly fixed it and heralded inside to clean up and get ready for the pooja. I decided to enjoy every bit of it, and cherish every moment with my family. We all got dressed, offered our prayers, lit diyas, and burnt a few ceremonious crackers. This was four years ago.
This year, as we gear up for yet another Diwali abroad, I miss home. I miss the smiling faces of friends and families. I miss the special desi ghee laddu and barfi. I miss the ambiance of the festival in the air. But most of all, I miss the quintessential Indianness of coming together as a community.
India’s unmatched sense of community
Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, is celebrated during the Hindu Lunisolar month of Kartika. One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, Diwali symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.
One of the best things about growing up in a small Indian town is that you get to experience the sense of community at an altogether different level. For major festivals like Diwali, the entire town decks up and the air fills with ubiquitous love. Every shop, big or small, is decorated, every house, the poor’s or the rich’s, is lit with lamps, and people all over the town visit each other to exchange sweets and gifts.
One of the aspects that makes suburban and rural India unique and special, is the unmatched sense of community. Sadly, in big Indian cities, the essence of the community is slowly diminishing. Having grown up in a small town for 18 years of my life and then having spent a decade in the national capital, I can say this based on my personal experiences and observations. In the blind race to embrace everything modern (read western), we are becoming more and more closed. We have started living behind shut doors. We question all existing traditions and mock centuries-old rituals in the name of modernity. However, this notion cannot be generalized.
Fortunately, there are still thousands of people who are keeping these traditions alive even while living away from their motherland. I know a lot of Indians, both friends, and families, based outside India in countries like Singapore, the UK, and the US who are actually more traditional than a lot of Indian friends living in cities like Delhi and Bangalore. Only last month, here in Singapore, I was invited to a friend’s place for Navratri celebrations where we offered prayers to Goddess Durga and enjoyed homemade traditional prasad.
On a personal level, I too try my best to celebrate festivals like Holi, Teej, Diwali, and Dussehra with my friends here in Singapore. We visit the temple together, cook traditional dishes, exchange gifts, and bask in the glory of our rich Indian culture. On that note, let me share how I celebrate Diwali in Singapore.
How I celebrate Diwali away from India…
Singapore is a multicultural country with a considerable Indian population. The mecca for Indians like myself looking for specific Indian supplies is Little India. So, naturally, all my festival preparations involve one or two trips to the markets to Little India where I get everything I need- from desi ghee laddu and pooja samagri todiyas and colorful earthen lamps. Besides, whenever I visit India, I make it a point to get sarees for myself and new clothes for my husband, keeping the upcoming festivals in mind.
As the festival approaches, I follow the drill that I grew up watching in my mom’s house. From thorough cleaning of the entire house to replacing old sheets and mats and buying new clothes and garlands for the divine images in my home temple. Following a generations-old family tradition, one night before Diwali, I light the Jam ka Diya. This mitti ka diya is traditionally lit to keep the evil away and invite prosperity and happiness into the house. Lit at midnight, this diya is kept outside the main entrance of the house on a base of five essential grains or anaaj.
A day before Diwali, we celebrate Dhanteras, also known as Dhanatrayodashi. This day is dedicated to Lord Dhanvantari, Kubera, Yama, and Devi Lakshmi. There are several folk tales associated with this festival.
One of the most popular ones is that of King Hima and how his wife laid all her gold and silver ornaments at the threshold of her husband’s sleeping chamber and lit an oil lamp in the evening upon hearing about the prediction of his death. The story entails that when Yama– the Lord of death arrived disguised as a serpent to kill King Hima, his eyes were blinded by the shining jewelry and the brilliance of the lamps. Yama returned without taking the life of King Hima. Another story goes that Dhanvantari-— the Lord of Medicine was born on this day following Samudra Manthan, a cosmic battle between Gods and Demons over Amrit or the holy nectar of immortality.
I get really excited about this pre-festival celebration as we go out and buy gold or silver coins as a sign of prosperity to mark this day.
On the night of Diwali, we deck our house with floral decorations, lamps, lights, and diyas, cook special dishes and offer prayers to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha. I generally get my desi ghee laddu from Kailasa Parbat in Little India and try to make some sweets at home as well. We meet with some of our local friends and exchange gifts. I love dressing up in a saree and taking pictures for the families back at home.
Another key aspect of celebrating Diwali, or for that matter any festival abroad, is video calling everyone back at home and exchanging greetings and good wishes.
The next day, we celebrate baasi Diwali where we clean up the diyas that completely used up the oil and light the diyas that still have oil left in them using the baasi (old or stale) oil. This brings the three-day celebrations to an end and leaves us with lights twinkling in our eyes and smiles on our faces. I feel that as Indians, we are lucky to inherit a rich cultural heritage. Our traditions are thousands of years old and we must take pride in celebrating them no matter where we are. If we look at everything that is happening around the world right now—from natural disasters to health pandemics and increasing crime rates to the unnecessary spread of hatred—I think we all can use some knowledge over ignorance and some light.
May this Diwali enlighten us all with love, compassion, and kindness.
Surabhi Pandey is a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram
Wrinkled brows, scorching cuts and decisive strokes greeted me as I went upstairs a few days before Diwali. We have to get started on our Halloween decorations, said the daughter cutting out a spider. The toddler son was lying on his stomach on the floor, helping his sister by coloring the ghost she had cut out from white paper, white. A cozy, merry scene with the sunlight streaming in from the windows.
When bees create their colonies, I am sure they didn’t care about a little mess. Neither did my bee-lings. I navigated the crayons strewn on the floor and walked past the strands of paper littering my path to peek at the objects of art.
A morose skeleton was being drawn and I shuddered at the image. I hated to damp out their enthusiasm, but I said, “Sorry guys. That weekend is Diwali and I won’t have skeletons and cobwebs hanging off the front door on Diwali.” (This year, Diwali fell on a week-end and Halloween the day after, on a Monday.) A mutinous roar went up. “Amma–Diwali is the opposite of Halloween. It is the festival of lights. You’ll put up those little diyas everywhere and light everything up and then you’ll make everyone dress up beautifully–it is the complete opposite of Halloween”.
I disagreed. They may be celebrated differently, but they are both meant to fight evil. Ward off evil–whatever. The concept is to banish your demons. Even the inner demons. So, Diwali and Halloween are like that Yin-Yang thing. Black and white together. Both are there in us and in the world around us. I felt like a teapot spouting philosophy from my long snout to a couple of trouts in the stream. I sometimes think children must feel we played tag with Confucius and hide-and-seek with Buddha. I tried desperately to gain ground again.
You can always find light in the darkest of places if only you remember to turn on the lights. Do you remember who said that?
Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban
“Albus Dumbledore!” sighed the daughter. “Dementors–yes! Maybe we will do dementors also this time”.
“Also Voldemort–we can draw Voldemort and hang him outside,” piped the toddler son. He has no fear of He-who-must-not-be-named, and his sister beamed with pride at her little Gryffindor brother.
Guys! Guys! I won’t have Voldemort hanging on my front porch on Diwali either. Does Halloween have to be gory? Think of some themes and see if you can come up with decor that does not drip blood. Something positive, a call to action and also save our souls. How about that? I said.
When the daughter said, “Fine,” I left them to their own devices and pottered around the house.
I must say that I was mighty impressed with the resulting effort.
“We picked your favorite theme-nature, amma. So, you can put up some of this stuff for Diwali too. Then after Diwali, the next day, we can quickly put up bats and pumpkins all around and we are set,” she said.
I agreed. On the Diwali rangoli, we placed a large pumpkin surrounded by little lamps. The rain helpfully washed away the rangoli that very night leaving a damp, morose spot for the pumpkin the next day. All very satisfying. Happy Diwali and Happy Halloween. May we learn to take care of our world, the living beings we share it with, and balance our yin and yang for a beautiful whole.
This article was originally published November 3, 2016 and pulled from our archives.
This season of Navaratri brings with it garba, dandiya, music, masti, and hordes of Indian Americans ready to celebrate! Traditionally, garba/dandiya is associated with the region of Gujarat, however, all over America, this practice has been adopted by all. Uttar Pradesh Mandal of America (UPMA) is one such local Bay Area organization that has used the love of garba and dandiya for a good cause. On Friday, October 18th, at the San Jose Convention Center, UPMA held a benefit garba, Festival of Life “Dandiya Dhoom”, with world renowned singer, Falguni Pathak. UPMA has used the money they have raised over the past year from such events to build 10 daycare centers in Chitrakoot and helped 15,000 underprivileged women become empowered and get married. I was lucky to attend such an event on Friday October 18th; it was a night of synchronization, music, energy made unforgettable by Falguni Pathak’s infectious energy.
“Every penny earned [by UPMA] is sent back to India.”
UPMA’s light and energy is sourced from founder, former President, and current Chairperson, Nilu Gupta. Nilu Gupta and Prakash Agrawal co-founded the organization in 2006 when they saw a gap in knowledge and retention of UP culture in the Bay Area.
As a Hindi professor at De Anza Community College, Nilu Ji also runs one of the few college credit Hindi courses in California; she is trying to inspire the next generation of Indian Americans to grasp their native language and keep it alive.
UPMA is not without a team of volunteers and the current president, Ritesh Tandon, is working tirelessly to keep the organization vibrant. Attending events like Festival of Life shows support for Indian culture in the Bay Area and allows us to be civically engaged transcontinentally. To learn more about UPMA, to volunteer, or to find out about upcoming events check out their website http://upmaglobal.org/.
My mother’s eyes sparkled as I knelt beside her. Her white chalk scraped against the entrance to our house, adding wispy flowers between rows of hollow diamonds and peacock feathers on the outer edges of her design. There was something trained about the way that she made rangoli — it was as though her hand was an old friend of the dusky soil, remembering past legends and reviving familiar stories through the imprint of the chalk. As I silently memorized the small, silvery intricacies, my mother handed me a plastic bag of blue sand.
“Why don’t you try this time?”
For centuries, Diwali has been regarded as the epitome of Indian celebration. From rows of incandescent clay diyas lining the driveway, to the sound of fireworks splintering the sky, Diwali embodies the very qualities that make India memorable — its intensity, its vitality, and its festivity. Aptly named the “festival of lights,” this holiday has existed to commemorate our small victories and bring the Indian community together. Thus, when the first brown immigrants trickled across western borders, they brought pieces of this celebration with them.
The American-born Diwali was molded by its new frontier. Older, previous references to the term “Deepavali” were forgotten, as the North-Indian derivative rolled off foreign tongues with ease. Melted globes of gulab jamun wrapped in tinfoil were often traded for plastic boxes of Ferrero Rocher. When well-meaning white neighbors questioned the rangoli patterns inscribed onto the nearby doorstep, brown parents would respond with a trained nonchalance, “Oh, it’s for a festival in our culture. Like an Indian Christmas, y’know?”
Like an Indian Christmas. The uncanny likening between Diwali and the hallmark of every December calendar was almost prophetic. Because as “big business” captured the very essence of Western life, Christmas emerged as one of American’s largest marketing opportunities. Shopping frenzies, radio jingles, ridiculous discounts on washing machines. When its white sibling raked in billions of dollars worldwide, it became evident that Diwali would have to follow suit to survive. The ancient “festival of lights” would simply have to be bigger, brighter, and better.
I question the better bit. I don’t mind watching businesses, from local Apna Bazaars to Indian boutiques, explode with popularity every year. According to data journalist Niall McCarthy, Diwali discounts brought in more than 20 million dollars through e-commerce and online shopping in 2018 alone. Almost any desi beauty parlor offers more than one “Diwali package” for the local aunty. Thousands of mithaidabbas are shipped across the country to sweeten tongues (and industry bank accounts). But amidst the dazzle of materialism, something always feels a bit lost in the celebrations. No matter how bright the lights, I still feel clouded by a strange obscurity.
As an Indian-American teenager, I don’t want to turn one of my favorite holidays into a mere marketing campaign. It’s seductive to turn this holiday into a straightforward, “oh, look at the pretty lights” circus — but it’s equally exhibitonist, and reflects some of the worst aspects of the Indian-American mentality. The original Ramayana that we claim to honor told a tale of heroism, love, and primarily struggle. But the Ramayana of today represents a different kind of conflict: the internal battle with the Indian-American identity. To rescue ourselves from a self-imposed Lanka, we have to celebrate Diwali for ourselves. Not for social attention, not to impress our western counterpart, but for honoring the true spirit and values of Diwali. .
Diwali isn’t an incarnation of Christmas. It’s a narrative of its own — one that is beautiful and utterly Indian in its neglected simplicities.
The paper cone molded into my palm. Nine year old me was nervous, watching grains of blue seeping between the white lines. Rangoli tells tales of lavishness — of exuberance and wild color — but the real art comes through temperance. A little needless spurt of sand here or there, and the design would lose its balance. But the first row of diamonds was complete, its white boundaries fading into the ground like an echo. I was handed a pouch of marigold yellow for the circles in between. And just like that, I was lost in the rangoli, my mother and I, learning to tame the unfamiliar American earth.
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin and the Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. When she’s not doodling or writing poetry, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.
My childhood teacher Rammurti Mishra was, both, a yogi and a Western-trained psychiatrist. He liked to tell traditional stories like the Ramayana from a psychological perspective. He encouraged us to think of the characters and events as if they were parts of ourselves; he suggested that we might seek personal solutions by “actively imagining” the stories. The Ramayana tells the story of a perfect couple, Rama and Sita, who are separated by events and reunited through righteous and dharmic choices. Rama is regarded as a “Perfect man,” the personification of dharma; Ram Rajya has passed into popular parlance as a term for an “ideal government,” a kingdom where righteousness and light prevail.
For those unfamiliar with the Hindu epic Ramayana – Rama’s story turns on a great injustice: instead of affirming his ascendancy to the throne of Ayodhya, his stepmother Kaikeyi claims that right for her own son and banishes Rama into exile for fourteen years. Great sorrow befalls the people as a result of her selfish (though dharmically defensible) action, but Rama forgives her and accomplishes many good deeds while in exile. He restores order to the kingdom of the Vanar people, vanquishes the demon king Ravana, establishing a peaceful and just reign in Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka. He defeats the rakshasas who have been tormenting the forest yogis, and restores life to the woman renunciate Ahalya. Most significantly, he rescues his beloved wife Sita, who had been held captive by Ravana. With his exile completed and wrongs set right, Rama can come home.
Throughout his exile, Rama repeatedly solves problems and resolves conflicts. He is light personified, you might say, and he has a clarifying, enlightening effect on his environment.
“When Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya, it was a moonless night. The people illuminated their homes and placed lamps along the roads to light the way as he, with his beloved Sita and his most faithful brother Lakshman, walked slowly home. When Ram returned to Ayodhya, the light of his inner being overcame all inner darkness. No one lied or stole or harmed another with unkindness or ill will. There was no violence or discord in the city. Night-roaming predators remained in their lairs. Animals forgot their natural enmities; predators and prey became friends. The earth was rich in crops. Flower gardens bloomed extravagantly. Everyone’s heart shone with gladness, and everyone spontaneously cherished friends and neighbors as if they were dear family. Petty jealousies and conflicts disappeared like shadows at noon.”
On Diwali we recall Rama’s return and the pure, joyous state of the people. We clean and decorate our homes, we light lamps and eat festive foods, we give gifts to families and friends, we lovingly remember our ancestors. We banish the shadows of criticism and fear and bask in the light of the Lord’s presence.
But the light does not prevail undiminished forever, even in Rama’s kingdom. After a few idyllic years, suspicion and sorrow began to creep back into Ayodhya. Truth, purity, compassion and charity began to erode. Self-interest and callousness found new footholds. The animals began to quarrel. Crops grew less abundant. In the marketplace, innuendos arose, hinting at a dark side in Queen Sita’s relationship to Ravana. To pacify the people, Rama (knowing that the accusations against her were false) sent her back to the forest, breaking his own heart.
It is tempting to wait for another shining embodiment of light, like Rama, to appear and banish the shadows in our lives. We imagine such people in politicians, entertainers, and spiritual teachers. We may even be fortunate to know someone whose very presence “lights up the room” and makes everyone feel happy and harmonious.
I think that each of us has the potential to be such a person. Maybe if we work together we can come up with creative solutions to make the light stay, if not permanently, then a while longer. Let’s brainstorm the actions we can take, or refrain from taking (I’m looking at you, gossipers in the marketplace!), to nurture harmony and joy in ourselves, our families, and our communities. Every effort in that direction can be a step toward establishing Ram Rajya in our world, a world in which every day is Diwali.
Zo Newell is a writer and certified yoga therapist. Her first book, Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis was published in 2007 and its sequel, Flying Monkeys, Floating Stones: More Wisdom Tales, is slated for publication in spring 2020. She has written numerous articles for Yoga International exploring the interface of asana and Indian mythology. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University.
I once watched a movie which got me thinking about the traditions that I hold dear. I saw Kaadhal, a brilliant Tamil movie, that tackled inter-caste Indian marriages. The story went like this: Rich girl meets poor boy and falls in love. Poor boy resists because he understands the chasm that separates them in terms of class and caste. Rich girl persists, convinces him of a future together and they elope to get married. Rich family finds the young couple in the city and they use deception and kind words to bring the couple back. Soon, they use the full might of their riches to cause serious injuries to the boy and then force the girl to marry another. This story line was not fictional; it was based on a true story. That shook me to the core.
In the movie, the “us” versus “them” theme was in display. Rich versus poor, high-caste versus low-caste, divisiveness between human beings was at its worst.Even though it was a hackneyed theme, this movie was different. There was an undercurrent that asked: what are the identities that you hold dear, and how do you promote them? Are there some identities that should merge?
The sub-text in the movie got me thinking—do I hold an “us” versus “them” set of attitudes? And, the answer came to me almost immediately—in the way I cooked! For every festival, I took great pride in cooking exactly what I had watched my grandmother and mother do. I did not even change the kind of vegetable that I cooked—it had to be raw banana or yellow pumpkin. The list of what “I” did and what “others” did was long. And I treasured the fact that the meal that my children ate was exactly what I had been fed as a child. But in holding these rigid attitudes, I wondered whether I was missing out on learning new ways of thinking; equally valid ways of cooking and celebrating that I ignored because, in my mind, there was only one way to celebrate.
I started to question something that I had always held as sacrosanct. Given the sheer variety of Indian and American cherished food traditions, there was no dearth of recipes to try. I decided to try Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati recipes for festivals, eschewing the tried and tested Tamilian dishes that I was accustomed to.
When I hosted Thanksgiving, I decided to leave out Indian foods altogether. I couldn’t rely on throwing in ingredients with practiced ease. Recipes were consulted and new ingredients found their way into my pantry shelves. The celebrations were just as meaningful. In fact, the festivals that year took on new meaning for me because of the sense of inclusivess I felt.
In a very small way, I moved outside the confines of what I held tightly wrapped around my sense of self—my family, my food tradition and in essence, what was comfortable. It is comfortable to invite friends and family members to festival celebrations. There is a sense of camraderie that is precious and familiar. You don’t have to explain yourself, what you have cooked or what you are wearing.
That sense of familiarity will disappear if you were to try different recipes, while inviting a neighbor from a different culture into your home. Now, more effort will be needed. But isn’t that effort worth moving out of our “tribal” mentality?
Breaking bread around the table is the best way to bring cultures together from time immemorial. Along with the food, will come the flow of easy conversation—not the formal, transactional conversations held in the workplace. The kinds of conversations that build a sense of shared understanding.
As this festival season starts with Diwali, Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, I hope that you will build memories where the unfamiliar becomes familiar and you build human friendships.
You will then receive more than you give. In boxing ourselves into just what is familiar or what comes easily, we lose out on what is truly offered—endless possiblities in life and the chance to make and remake traditions.