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Is Diwali Dead?

Is Diwali Dead?

November 10, 2009

What does Diwali mean to NRIs? It’s one of the world’s biggest festivals so shouldn’t we make a much bigger fuss?

I couldn’t help but ponder this as the festival just swam by this last Saturday and nothing really seemed to happen. Could it be that the NRI values this as an important celebration, but is too mature to bother with fireworks? Or perhaps he or she is just too eco or health conscious to fuss over sweets and unnecessary expenditure? If you lived in my household, you’d definitely find this to be the case. I’m sure it’s the same for a number of NRI households across the world (made up of ‘members of a certain age’ – shall we say). We did of course light candles and aim to eat together – but it didn’t really stretch beyond this. I thought maybe because we didn’t have a gathering of children about the place there was less of a need to create a fuss. Of course you could draw parallels with Christmas, but it always seems that people make so much more of it. Although this is to be expected growing up in the west.

Ideally, I’d like to make Diwali a momentous occasion; it’s got a lot to compete with at this time of year. There’s Bonfire Night and preparations for Thanks Giving in America. With all of these occasions however, there’s usually an organised community event – and it’s what I’d really like to see more of with Diwali. I have, in the past, been to an organised Mela, but these are fast disappearing. Could it be because of a lack of sponsorship, community sprit or perhaps people are just finding it too cold outside? In India things are very different, the fervour of the festival sweeps the country like a rash. I remember my dad telling me stories of how he’d long to play with fireworks but was just too young. When he came to this country, he managed to live out that fantasy by buying hundreds of pounds worth of badly packaged Chinese fireworks. After the fireworks however, everything would seem like a bit of an anti-climax. There weren’t any presents and there wasn’t a special movie on the television. If you were lucky Blue Peter or the News may give it a mention, but it hardly seemed worth tuning in for.

Personally, I think we can revive Diwali by adding structure and inventing our own traditions. Traditions are of course cultural trends that become habit – most people may introduce a new piece of kitchenware, but I need something I can get a bit more excited about.  I would also like a routine, knowing that I can expect to eat all the good stuff at a convenient time of day would also be quite joyous, maybe like Christmas, where you know what to expect. Above all of this, however, we need a stronger, vivid reminder of why we celebrate Diwali.

There aren’t very many plays, nursery rhymes or films that have successfully carried the Ramayana through the Anglo/Indian language barrier. Going to a predominantly Indian school, we performed it once, but its relevance was never brought up as a factor when shooting off fireworks, eating kebabs and drinking beer. The relationship between the story of Rama and Sita needs to imprint itself in modern psyche if it’s to live on and be recognised. We are celebrating the victory of good over evil, of light over dark – but all of this pales into nothing when there is something better to do.

People observing Christmas or Hanukkah will have entrenched methods of celebration that have been going on for centuries. As NRIs, we’re fairly young in our new worlds, so one could argue that we haven’t really established what Diwali fully means in today’s age. I believe it is still evolving. It will of course be stronger where there is a bigger sense of community, but we’ll have to do our very best to inject it with as much fun as possible. This is especially important considering that places such as Delhi are now announcing that fireworks aren’t to be permitted after 10pm. Will people revert to oral tradition and folktales once they move away from the lights? Perhaps that’s when we’ll consider that the story of Ram and Sita didn’t end so perfectly, but that we can still learn a lot from. That may also be the time that we decide that Diwali really isn’t dead, it just needs some good medicine.

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