A festival of light

It’s choti Diwali, the day before big Diwali, the largest Hindu festival of the year.  A new year of sorts.  I grew up in a large family in India, and as a child, I waited for Diwali all year.

When I look back, Diwali glimmers in my memory.  I remember my mom dressed in yellow.  I always thought she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen.  I still do.  Small-boned, wrapped so elegantly in the several yards of cloth that most Indian women wear, called a sari.  She’s dressed in yellow this year too, I can tell from the pictures. 

This was the festival where we lit diyas in the evening.  Small unglazed earthen clay lamps from the local market, Dhangar bazar.  I have this image of my grandmother rolling out the cotton wicks by hand.  Silver platters full of clay diyas, the long white cotton wick soaking in the ghee.  My dad, lighting them one by one, dressed in a crisp kurta pajama, white or cream mostly, I think.  Later, I try to remember what Diwali was about.  The lighting of lamps, I learn, and of welcoming the light.  You pray to Ganesh, the beloved elephant god and the goddess Lakshmi, bringer of wealth and prosperity.  There’s a story about the return of the god Ram from exile, and how lamps were lit to welcome him back.

But today, I am far away.  Diwali in the U.S. – it’s never the same. Mid-November, it’s dark and cold.  This year especially, we have to work harder to find the light. Yesterday, we went to a small gathering at my children’s teachers’ home.  We hardly know Charu, but she is so warm that I am drawn to her as though she is the flame that I am missing.  I feel that I am looking ahead at months of darkness, regressing instead of progressing.  

I wonder what skipped me?  Why don’t I know how to wear a sari.  At Charu’s party, I am introduced to a set of women that I have never met before.  I sit in that crowd of women in bright silk saris – blue, orange, pink – with pretty earrings and sparkling, myriad bangles.  Everyone shares their experiences.  One said she went to work in a hotel as a receptionist and had to wear a crisp sari everyday.  “I’ve never lost the habit since.”  Somebody giggled and said “The first time, when I got married and moved to Bombay, I draped my sari on the wrong shoulder, and everyone thought I was bringing a new style from Delhi.”  Another talked about how she finally now felt comfortable in a sari, although not like her mother-in-law who spends twelve hours in a sari with not a pleat out of place.  I’m feeling closer to home, all the weddings and festivals that I’ve missed where I would be sitting similarly, in a circle of women.  

The first year after my son Agastya was born, Mom came to visit us and we returned home in time for the celebration.  It was my first time back for Diwali in ten years. With enough time to prepare – to buy new outfits, to dress the baby in a little yellow kurta with gold tassels and the sweetest white pajamas.  Agastya sat in my father’s lap at the ceremony and stared at the priest chanting mantras into the glowing fire pit, smoke rising up as my dad poured spoonfuls of ghee into the fire.  The only words I remember “svaha,” at the end of each verse: Svaha who accompanies the fire god, Agni, as his spouse.  

This Diwali, I’m trying to find a ritual that is mine, that Agastya and Vasisht, my two sons, can call their own.  We aren’t celebrating with our friends Sandeep and Prathibha, at their home as we usually do. Both lost their fathers earlier this year.  In keeping with tradition, their home will be dark. My tiny silver Ganesh and Lakshmi are languishing somewhere.  I am embarrassed at how my mother-in-law finds them each time she is here, polishes them to a gleaming shine, and arranges them so beautifully on a tray scattered with rose petals and grains of rice.  I am sure that my sister and all my friends, too, have their rituals set – saris, meals, decorations.  For me, the sari isn’t happening, clearly.  I can’t paint bright red and orange rangoli patterns outside the house which I simply loved doing as a child.  I have no idea where my tea lights are.  I rummage through my cupboards, turning everything upside down in a search for Ganesh and Lakshmi, for an outfit that fits, for those missing lights. 

I step out of the house.  It’s getting darker, the autumn air is crisp and dry leaves stir in the light breeze.  Today there is a farmer’s market outside.  There are baskets laden with newly harvested pumpkins, gourds of all types, green and blue kabocha and patterned carnival and delicata squash.  I see a big display of mushrooms and I draw my breath in – blue purple oysters, orange chicken of the woods, oversize king trumpets with creamy undersides.  Huge heads of white cauliflower in their jackets, the darkest broccoli I’ve seen – so lush, so sweet that I can almost taste it.  Purple red onions with glossy skins.  Orange sweet potatoes piled high with names like garnet, jewel.  Leeks with green tops and bunches of fat nubby carrots, dirt still clinging to them.  I have no idea what I am going to do, but the abundance comforts me.  I come home, my arms full of produce.  Although Diwali isn’t really about that because the home cooking is simple.  Mom usually makes pumpkin, puffy puris, boondi raita and a simple sweet rice kheer.  

Ah sweets. This I know I can do, although it’s going to take hours and plenty of elbow grease.  Even though the recipes are so simple, with barely three or four ingredients in each.  I decide to make an assorted platter: chickpea flour balls called besan laddus, carrot halwa, and marzipan-like cashew barfis.  

Soon, I am cooking all day.  Everyone gets involved. My husband stirs the halwa for the several hours that it takes to cook the milk down with the carrots to make a sweet, stick pudding.  Agastya takes over the cashew barfis, and slaps the sticky dough around to make a large ball from which we fashion tiny ones and dot them with strands of saffron.  The chickpea flour is slow roasted in ghee and then rolled with sugar and cardamom. We create an indent in the middle, like a navel, and fill it with finely chopped pistachios.

At the end, we lay our offerings before the gods, who are finally found.  All featuring yellow and orange.  Like mom’s saris, like the warm flame of the diyas, like my erstwhile rangoli.   

Diwali is here.  

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