I’m the first one on my street to put up Christmas lights, in October. It’s five days to Diwali and I want my house lighted up like a beacon to guide Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, to pay us a visit, for she likes clean homes, brightly lit and decorated with chrysanthemum and mango leaves garlands.
I teeter on the last rung of the ladder, hook the red, yellow, and purple string lights on the gutter above my front porch. A fall breeze, sharp and crisp, brushes my bare legs. A neighbor passing by pauses and squints up to me, “Isn’t it a bit early for Christmas?” I nod and climb down the ladder.
I don’t have time to explain to him that Diwali is to Hindus what Christmas is to Christians. It is commonly referred in America as Festival of Lights but for Indians; it is a celebration of the harvest season, a time of renewal and hope, purging clutter from your house, heart, mind, celebrating your blessings with your family and neighbors, a triumph of good over evil, and the day Prince Ram came home from thirteen years of exile and ruled over the throne of Ayodhya and his subjects, all celebrated by lighting lamps and decorating their houses with flowers.
The Halloween decorations—a plastic pirate skeleton, three glitter-covered skulls, a dozen black bats, assorted Styrofoam tombstones—will have to wait their turn.
Festival of lights trumps festival of fall, spring, death, Halloween.
On Diwali day, as children, my sister and I would string chrysanthemums, interspersed with mango leaves into three long and three short garlands. The long ones were strung on the front door, the balcony door and the kitchen door. The smaller ones adorned Laxmi, Ganesh and Shiva, our family deity. Ma would wrap the garlands in a damp kitchen towel to keep them fresh till pooja time.
In the evening, Papa would drape them around the ornately carved picture frame in which Laxmi sat beautiful and majestic on her lotus, adorned with jewels. He’d chant the ancient prayers, and Ma would light the silver oil lamp. My brother rang the little brass bell, trying to keep the “ting, ting” in rhythm with my father’s chanting.
Festival season in India starts in October with Navaratri (nine days) and goes on until the end of November, culminating in Diwali. I put on a few pounds just looking at photos of all the deep fried, ghee-laden, flour and sugar rich sweets and savories that fill up my Facebook timeline.
Diwali falls anywhere from mid-October to mid-November depending on the Hindu lunar calendar. Every year, I Skype with my parents and parade around my son in his Halloween costume—a soldier, a sniper, a swat officer, a mafia henchman—a boy with a fake gun, plastic cigar, flimsy bulletproof vest.
Ma tells me about the sweets she has made for Diwali and the shopping that needs to be done and how much money my brother has spent on the firecrackers.
Here, in the suburban Texan community where my husband and I have made our home, Fall is the season to celebrate with the last-cut-of-the-year lawns, pumpkins, scarecrows, ghouls and skeletons.
The expat-Indian community celebrates Navratri, nine nights before Diwali celebrations kick in, by coming together every night for garbas: the men, dressed in silk kurtas, watch their wives twirl and dance in ghagra cholis, their long-skirts and blouses a kaleidoscope of red, green, yellow, blue, brocade, mirror and gold. They join the women for the couple’s dances to shuffle, clap and move in synch to the beats of the music on the shiny, hardwood floors of school gymnasiums and carpeted party halls.
It’s a distant echo of the earthy ceremonial dancing around a sacred bonfire under the stars, back home.
I have already reneged on Rakshabandhan—that day when a sister ties a sacred thread, a rakhi, on her brother’s arms as a symbol of her love for him, and the brother pledges to protect her and her honor. By the time my rakhi arrives by international post, my brother’s friends have already taken theirs off. He tells me he still wears it for a few days, but I can tell he wishes he had got it when it mattered.
I vacillate between putting up Halloween decorations, taking out my silk saris and stringing Diwali lights on the porch.
“Can’t light oil lamps here,” my husband knocked on the wooden banister of our apartment balcony. “Too dangerous.”
It was my first Diwali as a newlywed. I was dressed up in my wedding sari, a five-yard peacock blue silk and brocade affair and all the gold jewelry I owned, which wasn’t much.
I was happy to celebrate my first Diwali, just the two of us, no pesky relatives, no nosy neighbors, no early morning religious rituals.
Next year, I bought votives and tea-lights, in bulk, that I bring out once a year.
Now, they line my porch and walkway, landing lights in case Laxmi decided to fly-by-night and visit.
Now, oceans and continents away, sitting at my kitchen table in a Dallas suburb, I can barely hear my parents on Skype over the din of fireworks going off outside their home. In the corner of the computer screen I can see the clay lamps all lit and arranged on the balcony’s wrought iron railing, glittering like jewels.
We used to sit on the cool tile floor, my sister and I, a pile of soft cotton in front of us, shaping wicks for the clay lamps soaking in a bucket of water. We’d rub strands of cotton in our palms, twisting and rolling them into wicks—pointed and thin at the ends, fat in the middle.
We helped Ma fill the water soaked, rust-brown terracotta lamps with oil and float the cotton wicks in it, pulling one end over the spouted lip. She would place the lamps on a large platter and direct us to place them all over the house, on the balcony, and the boundary walls. We placed two lamps on the Rangoli—intricate patterns of squares, diamonds, triangles and crosses filled with red, yellow, blue and green sand—we had drawn earlier. As the wicks soaked up the oil, Ma would light the first lamp and use it to light the rest of them. One by one, as they all lit up, our house was encircled in flickering dots of gold.
The lighting of lamps symbolizes the banishment of dark with light.
It’s just Ma taking care of the lamps and the cotton wicks, now. Pappa tells me the house has been freshly painted and I can almost smell the limey smell of the blue-green wall behind him. Wearing her new silk sari, patterned in red and yellow paisleys, bordered with golden zari, Ma goes in and out of the screen as she attends to the constant stream of neighbors and relatives who come to visit.
A while later, she tells me she must go on her round of visiting neighbors and takes off.
I look up from my laptop to find my twelve-year-old son pretend playing with his toy gun, an inevitable and clichéd side effect of living in Texas. This year, Diwali is on a weekday. Unlike India, there is no national holiday. I had classes to attend at the university. I wear a handstitched zari bordered green shirt over blue jeans. Later, I pick up my son from school and we indulge ourselves by eating chocolate ice-cream before dinner. My husband couldn’t take off work. I don’t like that it is just me and my son in the big house. We both wish for him to come home early. It is almost evening, but the darkness is moving faster than the hands of the clock.
I get up and turn on all the lights in the house, banishing the approaching darkness.
My friends and I plan a Diwali potluck dinner every year.
I volunteer to bring:
Kheer: boil milk till reduced one-fourth, add ghee-roasted vermicelli, sugar, infuse with cardamom and saffron, garnish with golden raisins, toasted cashews and slivered almonds.
Shankarpalli: take equal parts flour, sugar, ghee and milk, knead the dough, rest for ten minutes, make small balls, roll them into thin round disks, cuts strips on the bias with a sharp knife, cut again diagonally, deep fry the resulting parallelograms.
Sparklers: For the kids.
Playing Cards and pennies: For the adults. It’s considered auspicious to gamble with cards on Diwali day. We play three card poker and iterations of it and use pennies for currency.
Another Diwali memory: Papa hooking up a red and yellow stained-glass airplane under the bulb on my Aaji’s front door. Dada, my grandfather, had brought it from Russia, along with a set of nesting Russian dolls and a wound-up brown teddy bear for me. While the other neighbors hung paper aakash kandils, sky lanterns, that swayed in the gentle breeze, I believed ours, casting a red and golden glow on the stairs below, could take off in the air.
Last year, I found some red mason jars in Target’s dollar section. I strung them with jute rope on tree branches in my front lawn and dropped tree lights in them. Every evening, for five nights of Diwali, my son and I lit the tealights and watched their amber glow hanging in mid-air and sighed.
He was three-years old when we visited India during Diwali. He remembers lighting firecrackers with his cousins and lights, lots of lights, “like Christmas!”
Five Days of Diwali:
- Dhanteras: Celebrated on the 13th lunar day of Krishna Paksha by buying gold, silver or kitchen utensils.
Ma buys gold earrings or bangles or a necklace, depending on her fancy and budget. I go to Marshall’s and buy a tea-strainer.
- Naraka Chaturdasi: Celebrated on the 14th lunar day by getting up before the sun and taking a bath or risk going to narka, hell.
As kids, we’d be up with the rest of the house, wide awake with all the activity around us, as the women of the house rounded up the men—Pappa, my grandfather, uncle—and oiled and massaged their backs and hands before their hot baths.
Now, my husband wakes me up, we drink chai while our sleepy son wakes up, watches TV and slowly eats his cereal before getting ready for school.
No time for oil massages or showers in the morning on a school day.
- Lakshmi Puja: The day of Diwali, when Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is venerated, cards are played, and sweets, and small gifts exchanged with relatives and neighbors. In the evening, lamps are lighted, rangoli drawn on doorsteps and bright yellow chrysanthemum garlands strung on doorframes.
Now, I try to be content with putting up Christmas lights and mason jars.
- Padwa: The day after Diwali, to celebrate bonds of love between husband and wife. Papa gifts Ma a sari that she selected a few days ago. My siblings and I get comic books or color pencils or ink pens, sometimes new clothes.
Now, we buy our son a Lego set. It is a bigger one than the one he gets for Christmas because Diwali trumps Christmas, because we want him to be excited about Diwali, because it is not the same celebrating Diwali in a brightly lit house on a dark street.
- Bhai Duj: To celebrate the bond between brothers and sisters. (Not to be confused with Rakshabandhan celebrations.)
My aunt invites Papa and all of us for lunch. There is food, lots of it, and three kinds of sweets. Papa sits cross-legged on a low stool. My aunt, his sister does aarti: a brass plate with a silver oil lamp lighted, a few kernels of rice, vermilion paste, a gold ring. She dips her thumb in vermilion paste and traces it on Papa’s forehead from the middle of his brows to the hairline, a straight oblong, sticks rice on it, rotates the gold ring on his head, clockwise, counterclockwise, does the same with the brass plate, the light flickering in the dark kitchen. Papa puts some money on the aarti plate.
I stare at the laptop screen and watch my dad eat the sweet and savory goodies arranged on the coffee table tray. As usual, he has forgotten to log off Skype and is blissfully unaware that I can watch him surreptitiously eating the snacks reserved for visitors.
In the background I can see the street of my childhood alight with clay lamps and paper lanterns. Sitting in my pajamas, I hold back my tears and suppress an urge to buy a plane ticket to India.
I walk out to the mailbox and see the dark street lined with cookie cutter houses and neatly mowed patches of lawn. Our potluck Diwali party, so alien yet so intimate, will start in half an hour.
I turn on my porch lights and the string lights hooked on the gutters. Tea lights in their votive holders line the walkway of our house. Mason jars swing in the trees, clicking against each other, ting, ting, ting.
I change into a silk sari, my husband and son wear kurta over their jeans.
The three of us go in and out of the house, turning on the lights in all the rooms, lighting the tea lights, surrounding our house with dots of flickering gold. Our house stands shining like a lantern in the dark.
It is morning after Diwali in India. The street sweepers must be out, collecting the trash left by firecrackers and going door to door for their share of sweets and yearly tips.
Diwali is the celebration of triumph of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. The day Prince Ram returned to Ayodha after killing the evil king Ravana, the day his beloved people lighted clay lamps and dressed up in new clothes to herald his return after fourteen years of exile. Ram didn’t choose to be exiled from his homeland, the country of his birth.
I have embraced it willingly.
Jaya Wagle is a former Indian expat, current US citizen. Her fiction and non-fiction work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrel House, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Rumpus and elsewhere. She is the non-fiction editor of Rejection Letters. Jaya lives in Fort Worth with her husband and 14-year old son.