Image Description: close up of lit diya lamps for Diwali
Despite the cultural complexities that I have faced growing up as a British Indian woman in the UK, Diwali has always been one of the family traditions that has made me feel connected to my Indian heritage. It has always been a momentous occasion in my family. Raised in a Gujarati household, I have many vivid memories of family get-togethers. As a child, I would get ridiculously excited about seeing family during Diwali, being spoilt rotten by my aunts and uncles and stuffing my face with Indian sweets and my grandmother’s famous curry. Each year I’d wear my best salwar kameez and would always end the night with a crooked bindi halfway down my face having gotten up to no good with my cousins. When we lived in a dingy little flat above my dad’s shop, my mum would help me to light little lamps and draw pretty designs outside of our front door, which our neighbours would always enjoy. I’d watch the flames flicker in the wind and marvel at the bright colours of our rangoli blending together. One particular Diwali, we went over to my grandmother’s house twenty minutes away. I remember feeling chilly pressed up against the glass backdoor, watching my dad and uncle set off fireworks in the garden. As my little sister would shriek at the crackling sounds of the Catherine wheel, my mum would finally let me jump outside and write my name in the sky with sparklers. These were such fun times, we were all so merry and appreciative of our time together as a family. I find myself pining for these blissful memories every now and again!
For those who don’t know, Diwali (or Deepavali) is a five-day celebration known as the festival of lights, which is observed globally by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists. The name comes from the Sanskrit word, Deepavali, meaning ‘row of lights’. During the five days it is custom for households decorate their homes with divas (clay lamps) and colourful patterns, made from fine power, known as rangoli. While there are a number of stories that have been attributed to this occasion, including King Rama’s return to Ayodhya after defeating Ravana and goddess Lakshmi’s prosperity, Diwali is generally commemorated as the triumph of good over evil. Across the five days families gather together to attend prayer services, eat amazing food and watch fireworks, among other traditions.
In this midst of this terrible time for everyone, I hope to inject some happiness at home and to maintain unity with my community
Even when I moved to Oxford and couldn’t always return home during term-time, I tried to celebrate Diwali in my own way. I’d have my little prayer service in my room; some years I would go out for a nice meal with my friends and explain to them some of the traditions that I celebrated back home. Last year was particularly special. Finally, schedule permitting, I attended the Oxford University Hindu Society’s Diwali Ball in Oxford Town Hall with my boyfriend. It was amazing to see so many students celebrating the event in one space: the food was incredible, the dance performances were fantastic and we both left the night feeling like we had the best time of our lives. A few days later, I had my own Diwali meal with my housemates and introduced them to the significance of Diwali.
Sadly, these traditions that I have deeply cherished can’t happen in the same way this year. Now that we’ve entered a new Lockdown, cultural celebrations like Diwali have been put on hold or have had to adapt to a virtual climate, at the very least. After what has seemed like an eternity of being away from loved ones it’s no surprise that the extra time away from family and friends has been overwhelming and upsetting for many. No doubt, observers of Diwali all over the world will be feeling isolated at a time in which community is prioritised. I get it, I really do. Diwali has begun this year all I can think about is my family. I’m very fortunate in the sense that I have great housemates around who want to celebrate Diwali with me. But like many, I looked forward to all of the festivities this year and the thought of reuniting with family members who I only see a handful of times a year.
With more of an idea about what to expect in Lockdown, I feel more prepared to weather the storm and honour Diwali in my own way.
At the same time, the first Lockdown taught me that while these feelings are very much valid, the best thing I can do is to make the best of a bad situation. It’s easier said than done, I get it. But not having the chance to see people in person has made me think more deeply about how I can connect with others when options are limited. Whether that’s been engaging in endless virtual pub quizzes, posting Instagram stories (which usually spark conversations with old friends!) or sending my family memes via our new WhatsApp group chat, I’ve really benefitted from taking some time out in my day to touch base with loved ones. Sure, spending so much time on my computer and phone screens has been draining, but being able to communicate with others via technology has kept me going during this rough time. What’s more, it’s heartening to know that some cities have tried their best to connect people across their computer screens. Birmingham and Leicester, for instance, have decided to stream music, storytelling and fireworks displays, giving hope to those who didn’t think it was possible to celebrate Diwali at all. It’s not the same, it never will be. But it’s something, and it represents a little piece of hope that we all have to hold on to.
Because that’s what the festival also represents: hope. Diwali has always been a time for family. But it also has a strong message of joy and optimism. In this midst of this terrible time for everyone, I hope to inject some happiness at home and to maintain unity with my community, even if it has to be via Zoom. During such uncertain times, we need this more than ever.
A second Lockdown has certainly been difficult, but I’m determined to not let the pandemic suck the fun out of my life. With more of an idea about what to expect in Lockdown, I feel more prepared to weather the storm and honour Diwali in my own way. That means skyping my family, going through the family photos, making exquisite Gujarati food from the comfort of my Oxford home and imparting these new experiences to my housemates who are eager to learn about my culture. I’ve already ordered rangoli powder and lamps to display by the front door and on Saturday night my housemates and I intend to feast on delicious Indian food! I can’t be with my family this year but I can celebrate Diwali with a different kind of family who no doubt are missing their own families.
Since the message of Diwali is, above all, the triumph of good over evil, I choose to see this year’s Diwali celebrations as just that. I choose to triumph over sadness and isolation. I know that I’m in a privileged position to do so. So rather than focusing on what I don’t have, I want to always be grateful for the ‘small things’ in my life.