Growing up in India, Diwali was my most favourite festival. India, truly a land of festivals, has something to celebrate every other week. A few holidays, have the entire country-all age groups and all religions, in their grip, as does Diwali. It is also the loudest and the brightest celebrations- thanks to the bursting crackers and shimmering lights.
So when I left India, as a young girl, excited to be a world traveller, the one-day that I missed my homeland the most, was Diwali. Every year I longed for the bright and the ‘real’ Diwali. I have now spent about half of my life outside of India. And, for years I waited for a Diwali that matched the memories of my childhood, when the preparation started not weeks, but months before Diwali.
I lived in Botswana and the US before moving to Fiji. One year I even spent a few days in London, UK during the Diwali season. In Botswana, since the Indian population was sporadically spread throughout the country, I never got the feeling of a consolidated community, like we have in Fiji. The artificially created Diwali in the US seemed more like a high school function, only with a higher presence of grown ups. Yes, there were streamers and catered food, and we did dress up, one Saturday evening to gather either in a school or a community hall to commemorate the passing of Diwali, but we did not exchange home made sweets, nor did we contemplate and discuss for weeks, the colour of our Diwali outfit with our friends, nor did we get numerous Diwali cards in our mailboxes, nor did I ever hear of “Diwali cleaning”. I cannot truly comment on celebrations in London, but for sure, when I visited about ten days before Diwali, the nation was not gripped in Diwali spirit, like it was in India.
Oh, how I craved the long extended Diwali preparations of India, that continued for weeks and the actual celebration lasted for almost four days. The day before Diwali, when we ‘almost’ celebrated Diwali, was labeled ‘Chhoti Diwali’ meaning ‘little Diwali.’ On Choti Diwali, we dressed up, just not as bright as for Diwali, we had fire works, not just as loud or for as long, we ate special sweets, just not the ones that were being offered to the deities, which waited in front of the makeshift shrine that we had created. We were just preparing for Diwali. Almost, as people do in Fiji.
So, not until the Diwali of 2006, which I celebrated in Fiji, did I feel the thumping of my heart for the festival of lights, with the same intensity as it did in India. The Diwali of 2006 almost replicated the Diwali of my childhood. Except for one year when I arranged my vacation in India to coincide with Diwali, I can say that the last Diwali was the best, the brightest, and the most colourful of all the Diwalis of my adult life. Just like the Diwali of my childhood there was also a building up to the final celebrations. Slow, gradual, extended, and with much anticipation and hope.
Although there were no Ramlilas being staged/enacted (I was told that it does happen in rural Fiji), followed by the burning of effigies of Ravana and his brothers, I first felt the warm electric spark of Diwali when the lady at the Hare Krishna restaurant, right across from USP, dropped the plate she was serving me in, to rush to the balcony.
“What, what, happened??” I asked panicking.
“Oh, she loves fireworks!” exclaimed the other hostess at the restaurant, as she ran out as well.
I followed the eager spectators, nearly tripping on the side tables. I shared their joy as they revelled in the faint sounds of fireworks about half a mile away—and just smiled in reminiscence. The bursting joy, the cracking sounds, the fragrant memories, the flickering magical lights of the Diwali of my childhood had returned.
That was almost three weeks before Diwali.
Slowly, over the next three weeks I would see symbols of celebration spring up.…bhajans (devotional songs) replaced boisterous bollywood songs, the stores in Suva were beginning to sell Diwali Paraphernalia—diyas, in all sizes, and colours, family size packets of incense, camphor and other puja (prayer) material was at display. Special hand-painted Ganesha and Lakshmi, the two deities associated with the New Year, that follows the night of Diwali, adorned the sales windows of Indian shops. Bright lights went up on houses and shops, temples decked the idols in new and even brighter clothes, visitors to temples had increased….(ah, the long forgotten God!!), and there was a general air of happy anticipation around. And something that I had not witnessed anywhere else but in India, Diwali ads on FijiTV. Although they were quite consumption oriented, I dropped my critical thinking skills and just enjoyed the fact that I was in a country, where I did not have to explain to anyone what Diwali is. Never had to answer, “Diwali, what?”
I knew then, that I was in for a memorable Diwali.
That I was invited to the nine day affair of Navratras, when women dance in temples for nine straight nights was surprising enough, but the fact that I had invitation to the celebration at three different venues was unbelievable. Even in Delhi, where I grew up, I had never attended a Garbha dance. I chose to attend the function at the Lakshmi Narayan temple in Suva, as that was the closest to my home. I only intended to take pictures for my collection. Almost three weeks before Diwali, women of all ages were already dressed in their finest threads. To top it all, these delicately and richly clothed women danced with such poise, that I almost forgot to take pictures. I would take a picture or two and then just be mesmerized at their graceful movements and wondered if I was really somewhere in India.
Suva’s Indian Association, almost a week before Diwali, had a celebration similar to that in the US, at the Kshatriya Hall, on Devoux Road. The program that evening, a collection of song and dance performed by local children and adults, reminded me of one odd evening in the US that we save to commemorate Diwali. But, it was the morning that set the celebration as typically Indo-fijian. Instead of busily ironing sarees, reading newspapers or watching morning cartoons, men, women and children were gathered the morning of the celebration at the Kshatriya Hall to cook food for the evening. The food that we ate that evening, was cooked by people who had known each other for decades. I overheard stories of new brides who were now mothers of twenty year olds. “When you came to Fiji from India, the rumour was that you the only one in Fiji who knew how to carry oneself in a saree with grace.” “Oh, you were so tiny when I saw you first, now look at you, after four boys.” It was so similar to family functions in India when relatives shared old stories that would be retold every year for generations to come. Being an outsider and a new comer to Fiji, I had nothing to share, but all to imbibe. All communities have those times when its members consider it overbearing and want to distance themselves from it. But no community, no family is sustained and maintained without those stories that are told repeatedly, and relived anew with sillyness and joy that every new generation brings. That morning in Suva, I got a whiff of that long sustained Indian community in Fiji. But more importantly, that evening, when I saw young Indo-Fijians dancing along with Fijian and Chinese children, I knew that this small island country is not just maintaining the old, but working very hard to incorporate the new and the different into its present.
A week before Diwali, women on the USP campus started to look increasingly ethnic. The spirit of Diwali is such that even non-Indian women could not resist jazzing up their attires. As people dressed more and more festive, ads on TV and radio announced sales, radios played more Diwali oriented songs, friends invited me to Diwali Puja, or joyfully shared their stress of pre-Diwali cooking, I could not but feel the welling emotion to join in the celebration.
The day before Diwali, I was in town to run an errand, and was awestruck to see almost everyone on the street dressed in bright clothes. Ah, its Diwali—I had to capture that day so I rushed home to get my camera. That day was one of the most memorable shopping day for me. I got served by women clad in silk and chiffon and adorned in intricate jewellery. The bank teller, the hostess at the restaurant, the helper at the shoe store, and even the woman selling me vegetables, were all dressed like Bollywood actresses. I almost felt like I was on another planet or part of a Disney movie, where everything was picture perfect. The Diwali fever had spread to non-Hindus as well, Fijian women wore salwar-kameezes, Muslim women wore shinier Hijabs that matched their outfits, well held by fancy brooches. It really was not a religious holiday. Diwali seemed synonymous with celebration.
All through the years outside of India, I had created my own traditions, my own rituals of celebration. But this time, after years, I was finally in a place where the entire country resonated my feelings about the festival and so my festivities were that much more meaningful. So much so, that throwing the expense of electricity to the wind, I kept the colored lights at my house turned on for about four hours everyday till a month after Diwali.
The Diwali day itself, was just as busy, bright and boisterous as I remember in India—phone calls from friends, gifts-boxes of home made sweets, Rangoli outside the houses!! And it is a national holiday!! Finally Diwali was Diwali, celebrated on the actual day with great pomp and show—complete with the sound of firecrackers and the smell of gunpowder, which in the States, I got only on July the fourth.
I was actually excited to slip into my brocade and silk, and well prepared for the Puja instructions that were broadcasted live on radio, for which ingredients were announced days before Diwali. This was a unique phenomenon, something I reckon does not even happen in India, because Puja celebrations are taken for granted. But, it was a great help to someone like me who has never followed the proper prayer procedure. In the US, for the last few years I had followed ‘virtual puja’ instructions sent to me by a friend. It was not as elaborate or specific as the ones on the radio. The computerized version simply said “click on the diya to light it, now click on the flowers to place them at the feet of Goddess Lakshmi”. Following instructions from the radio was not that different. Although, instead of clicking, I was actually performing the action-not virtual anymore.
Later that evening, my friend Kirti, who is an Indo-Fijian took me for a Diwali drive to see the lights and we took plates of home made sweets to our neighbours from New Zealand. We visited her parents and ate delicious home made food, and we took pictures.
In Fiji that year, I became a ten year old again. Excited at every sound, smell and taste of Diwali, and yet sad that within a few hours it would all be over. So, I kept awake, till late listening to the fire-crackers. I lay on my couch, with the contentment of a well-fed, well-gratified person—for my craving for a real Diwali had been appeased.
But it was months after Diwali, when I truly acknowledged what a unique experience I had had, when in mid December, I saw a sign at the Prouds in Suva. The sign, bright and red, pasted on the window, where a huge idol of Ganesha was displayed, simply said, “We wish you a merry Christmas”. And to the memories of my ideal Diwali, another image of the beauty of unity in celebration, regardless of religion, had been added. Only in Fiji.
Author- Charu Uppal