I woke up this morning and lit the lamp, and had my conversation with the divine as usual. As I sat with my tumbler of coffee, warming my hands and waiting for my son’s call, my mind rolled back to decades ago when Diwali was a big deal at home.
Ours was a joint family and we went all the way with traditional celebrations. A week before the D-day, my uncles would sit together and make lists of things to buy, argue over the menu of sweets and savories. They would decide who should tackle which list and get going. There would be gifts to buy for the family and relatives who visited, new clothes to choose, ingredients to source for all the exotic things on the menu. Because imagine not including one new thing each year!
The day before Diwali would see my Mom managing the kitchen—my aunts were quite happy to let her do it. I understand now that not only was she a great organizer but one who had a solid sense of humor. She had this knack of making everyone feel they were doing what they were doing voluntarily, which is why I guess she was great and beloved in her profession as a teacher.
I can still see her sitting on that short stool, stove with the huge wok in the middle of the room, and waving the huge ladle and laughing without inhibition. She was so full of love!
There would be music playing, interspersed with loud conversation and laughter. My grandma, eyes twinkling, would gently offer advice and mock-scold, and her dimples would give away the fact that she was holding back her laughter, too.
Right now, if I close my eyes, I can still feel the aroma of frying and all the happy noise.
It would be 2 am by the time everything was satisfactorily packed away and ready for the next day’s celebration. After a heated discussion over which set to wear, new clothes would be laid out in trays for everyone. Naturally those who went to work would want to dazzle in them on their next working day.
We would go to bed, and be up by 3.30 am again to boil water for bathing. The special oil with herbs would be made and portioned out in cups for massaging on the head and body. That’s one of our traditions—an “oil bath”. Especially homemade herbal shikakai powder would also be portioned out to wash away the oil while bathing.
I still remember how I would massage my uncles’ heads—so much laughter! My eyes fill up to think that only one of them is still alive today. I don’t know another family where the siblings loved one another so dearly.
After everyone was bathed and ready in our new clothes, we would assemble at the altar in the puja room to eat a small ball of the special “Diwali medicine” made from herbs, called the “lehiyam” to keep our tummies healthy when we gorged on all the sweets and delicious food throughout the day.
As my aunts got busy in the kitchen to cook lunch, the family would help and do their thing. Around 9 am, we’d start having visitors bringing sweets and the day would go in a daze.
By evening, we would all get together for high tea and listen to songs on the record player—some relatives would stay over. Of course, after sunset we would barely be able to even hear each other speak because of the noise from the firecrackers outside. But we would be happy yelling over the noise to be heard.
After tea, numerous packages would be made for distribution to the homeless street people and we would set off cheerfully to find them, near the railway station, outside the temples, at the slums.
And thus would a pleasant day together with family end – tummies and hearts full!
Did you notice I did not mention firecrackers? We did not buy them. I do remember enjoying that box of “tablets” which when lit would spew out a snake like thingy. During my childhood, I also recall enjoying the flower pots. But all that changed when I learned that children make these at Sivakasi.
Over the years, we toned down our Diwali celebrations. In 1987, when I moved to another city on a job transfer with my Mom, we decided that henceforth our revelry would be low-key. We did cook and make sweets because we enjoyed having friends over and visiting, but that’s where we drew the line. We pledged to donate something to commemorate every festival.
And now I have made that a family tradition, with the full support of my son and husband. I don’t let the jibes from neighbors and extended family bother me.
Yes, we do enjoy Diwali, the festival of lights.
And yes, while we light lamps–because who can resist pretty terracotta lamps that are also eco-friendly–we prefer spend with a focus on lighting lives, not lamps.
I took a pledge in 2010, the year my Mom passed away to purge all our extras and it has been a slow process, taking a lot longer than expected. But then, that’s natural–when it takes years to accumulate, everything can’t be decluttered overnight. However, I am pleased that I have minimized buying and maximized giving away. To date, I have given away furniture, clothes, gift items, toys, books, utensils, kitchen appliances and other miscellaneous stuff. I have sold some things and have added that money to my donation box.
Ongoing giving is in the form of food, because there is never a dearth of hungry people on the streets. I consider myself fortunate to be able to continue my Mom’s tradition of never ignoring someone who’s hungry, and in fact, seeking them out. Easy enough, when we do a round of the temples in the area, as they always have people sitting outside.
Sometimes it is heart-breaking to see that some elderly people belong to families that just won’t care for them. They let them out and lock up before they go to work, telling these elders to return around 7 pm, when they get back from work.
My goal in life is to constantly strive to make a positive difference in as many lives as possible in whatever way I can, especially with children.
To fulfil this, I am associated with some of the welfare homes in our area and make sure I donate my blog earnings—which, to me, may seem like an income, but for those homes, a tiny drop in the ocean. I am blessed to be a part of their lives.
We do not celebrate Diwali the traditional way—as in buying new clothes, and making sweets and feeling obligated to do all the things we are expected to do. Instead, we prefer to visit the local welfare home and contribute meals, funds for their medical expenses, take care of their education expenses and help them celebrate in the way they want. It certainly brings us more joy. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve never been fans of firecrackers so that has never been part of our festival of lights.
So here is how we are making this year’s Diwali celebrations memorable:
- Cleaning house—inevitable with all the construction and renovation work going on in the neighborhood
- Collecting bags of things to give away
- Writing checks for donations
- Giving away books, clothes and toys
- Visiting our welfare home; having lunch, if we can, with the 80-odd kids there
- Wishing all those associated with us good health, love and happiness
Yes, this Diwali we will focus on lighting lives, not lamps.
And oh, in the middle of writing this post my son did call and after we wished each other a Happy Diwali, he requested me to make a contribution on his behalf to the welfare home.
What can I say? My heart is full. I like to think we’ve raised him well. I know my Mom would be happy to see how we are celebrating today.
How are you celebrating Diwali?
What did you do today to make someone smile?
Did you smile today?
What an inspiration. I look forward to reading about the Festival of Lights. Happy Diwali!
Very nice story Vidya. Happy Diwali.
Happy Diwali Vidya and it’s the best way to celebrate by bringing smiles on the faces of less fortunate. I am dead against firecrackers that scare animals and destroy health, the planet. Stay blessed always.
Loved your way of celebrating Diwali. Happy Diwali lighting lives☺
Ah, these are the stories I love the best on your blog–stories of travel, family, tradition. What a rich life you have led, Vidya, and continue to lead. Loved this!
As an aside, one of Oregon’s worst wildfires was ignited earlier this year when some teens were lighting prohibited fireworks in the national forest along the Columbia River Gorge. I was hiking with some friends downwind from the fire and by the time the smoke drove us back to the trailhead, the rangers were evacuating the area. The fire destroyed tens of thousands of acres of beautiful scenery and forest trails.
Has Diwali come soon this year? Just jesting…Diwali is one festival one remembers with happy memories right from our childhood…of all our elders who are no more…those sweets and savouries…the smell of new clothes and as you mentioned the oil bath and shikakai…I am drifting off to dreamland specially one person….