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
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.
Nishka Ayyar was named Daily Point of Light Award Number 6213 by Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service. Nishka Ayyar received this recognition for her ongoing commitment to working with elderly seniors and promoting inter-generational connections between youth and seniors in her community.
Music Buddies is a student run volunteer initiative founded by Nishka Ayyar of Saratoga, CA. Inspired by the relationship she shared with her own grandparents and their positive influence in her life, Nishka started Music Buddies to bring companionship and joy in the lives of elderly people who live alone or in senior communities, separated from their families. Her organization enlists student performers from middle and high schools across the Bay Area and puts together fun weekend entertainment programs for the senior citizens. The program typically runs for about an hour and includes music, dance, stand- up comedy etc.
“I am delighted to receive this award and honor. I feel very fortunate to live in a community where volunteerism and service are highly valued and many parents and kids participate enthusiastically. The Music Buddies experience reinforces my belief that by bringing our oldest and youngest citizens together, we can mitigate many social isolation issues of both the seniors and the youth alike, and build healthy and happy communities everywhere.”
Daily Point of Light Awards are given five days a week in the United States and the United Kingdom to honor individuals and groups creating meaningful change to meet community needs; efforts which often lead to long-term solutions and impact social problems in their local communities. President George H. W. Bush was the first president in American history to institute a daily presidential recognition program from the White House, conferring 1,020 Daily Point of Light Awards on citizens and organizations making a big difference in other people’s lives and solving community problems. Points of Light continues the recognition and honorees receive a signed certificate from President Bush. The 5000th award was presented at a special ceremony at the White House with President Barack Obama and President George H. W. Bush co-presenting. The nonpartisan award was adopted by former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron in 2014, and the tradition has continued with his successor Theresa May. More than 6,500 Daily Point of Light Award recipients have been recognized in the United States and the United Kingdom.
“The Daily Point of Light Award recognizes exceptional individuals who are using their time, talent, voice and treasure to improve the lives of others,” said Jaqueline Innocent, Vice President, Recognition Programs of Points of Light. “These points of light, like Nishka Ayyar, make an impact on individuals while also helping build resilient communities.”
“We have a lot of requests from senior centers all over the San Francisco Bay Area and we are constantly looking for student performers to join us. We invite student performers from all over the Bay Area who are interested in participating, to join and help us celebrate our senior citizens and bring joy in their lives through these interactions and performances. Interested performers can join by submitting the student performers form on the website.”
To learn more about Nishka Ayyar’s work, visit www.musicbuddies.org or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Points of Light
Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, mobilizes millions of people to take action that is changing the world. Through affiliates in 250 cities and partnerships with thousands of nonprofits and corporations, Points of Light engages four million volunteers in 30 million hours of service each year. We bring the power of people where it’s needed most. For more information, visit www.pointsoflight.org