So Diwali. It’s a beautiful festival . And as an Indian abroad, I’m expected to celebrate it. Except I was raised Catholic, and in a Christian society to boot, and so Diwali basically meant lots of firecrackers and sweets from the one Hindu family in our colony. I knew very little of the religious aspects of it. Christmas and Easter were the big festivals in my universe growing up, though we participated in festivals like Diwali, Eid and Parsi New Year through exchange of sweets with friends. Again, at a superficial largely food-based level, not really understanding the myths and rituals behind them.
In the forens, one of the ways in which people demonstrate cosmopolitanism is by knowing about other nationalities’ festivals, and Diwali has become the representative Indian one. Or even the representative South Asian one. I’ve always felt a little odd being wished Happy Diwali because well I don’t actually celebrate Diwali. Though I have learned to smile and go with it instead of explaining cultural plurality etc.*
This year, I was asked by Mimi’s school to present about Diwali to the class. Now, I am uncomfortable with this, first, for the reason mentioned above. I am not a stranger to Diwali but neither do I feel qualified to represent it to others. I would feel, let’s say, inauthentic. But also because I resent how Diwali has become the hegemonic Indian festival. Even among Hindus, is Diwali the festival of the year? Please weigh in. For example, when I was younger, I was surprised to realize that kids in the Hyderabad and Bangalore got Dusshera holidays not Diwali.
Anyway, with regard to the school presentation, I wrestled with myself and caved.I gently suggested that maybe Hindu parents would like to take a stab at it, but if not, I was happy to do it. To her credit, the principal apologized for presuming I celebrate the festival, but still wanted me to do it.
It turned out the SIL was coming to Hong Kong and she being an enthu cutlet, I felt only minor guilt at asking her to cart the requisite paraphernalia – which ended up being 40 diyas (!), rangoli colour and stencils and a festive looking kurta for me. I ambitiously planned to do a rangoli with the kids even though I’ve never actually made a rangoli in my life. The trial round at home provided mixed results. Obviously I would only ever attempt this with stencils.
Flash forward to today. Mimi and I donned our finery, and I explained a little about the festival to the kids, including showing them photos of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Durga. Then I showed them new clothes that could be worn on Diwali.I also showed them a diya and they would get their own to paint in art class. Then I intended to show a short video of Ram’s triumph over Ravana, except the Internet stopped working, so I ended up telling the story from a book and then the Internet worked so the kids watched the video and hopefully have that particular myth ingrained in their consciousness (or at least the notion that Indian people have blue blood which was the takeaway of one of Mimi’s pals). Then the finale- rangoli making. I had put the rangoli powder into salt and pepper shakers, which worked well in terms of spreading and I had the kids come up and shake the powders over the stencils, and the results were hardly professional but pretty nice. Everyone oohed and aahed over them and I managed to not get any powder on my kurta which is a Diwali miracle in itself.
In the end, it was quite fun. The kids and the school loved it.And when I looked around the room there were no other Indian kids, so that’s probably why I was asked. I even inspired the sister to do a similar presentation for the kids at my niece’s school in the US.
I began thinking that maybe I should be celebrating Diwali at home, putting out diyas and a rangoli (unfortunately, in Hong Kong, the fireworks part is not allowed, which is probably why I’ve done nothing for ten years – fireworks were synonymous with Diwali for me). I pretty much know I’m not going to, however, because laziness.
What I do know is that I’m probably going to be asked to represent India at the school international day. And I’m thinking that this might be an opportunity to talk about other Indian festivals. Like, I don’t know, Eid, and Christmas, and Holi, and what else? Do tell.
* One year, the husband was leaving work with his Muslim Pakistani colleague when a third colleague came up to them, grinning and wished them both Happy Diwali. They looked at each other and burst into laughter. The third colleague was confused and said mainly to the Pakistani chap, “What you don’t celebrate Diwali?” He laughed and said, “Well, we do send firecrackers across the border.” Then he offered the husband a ride home and they chortled about it some more.