Apparently, according to the disgruntled old Punjabi lady at the sweet shop, the Livermore temple got it wrong when it “declared” the 27th of October as the date for Diwali. And so, ironically, a lazy agnostic like me trumped the devout yesterday!
Diwali as a day for celebration has been creeping up on the Bay Area for the last few years. Of course Indian Americans have been doing their best to observe it at home, replicating the customs of their childhood with the help of lamps and sweets bought at price-gouging desi stores. But it has been slowly entering the larger public consciousness.
Credit to this must go to a few pioneers like jeweler Mahesh Nihalani and his friends, who successfully persuaded the Cupertino city council a few years ago to allow an official celebration. From all accounts the last few celebrations, including artistic performances and food fairs, have been great successes and the 10 percent Indian population of that city has managed to bring Diwali into the mainstream.
I experienced this first hand when my daughter’s 1st grade teacher ( in Fremont) approached me to do ‘something fun’ for the kids for Diwali. Bucking the general trend in the semi-Indian-ghetto neighborhood where we live, her class has only 3 Indian American kids, so any event would be novelty for the majority.
We dressed in our best Diwali morning and arrived at school carrying our supplies. The kids sat in a circle expectantly. The teacher, who has been encouraging the kids to learn how to say “good morning” in various languages, asked my daughter to go around the room greeting her friends in the traditional way. I had a lump in my throat as I watched her circle the carpet. “Namaste Anthony,” she began, folding her hands and bowing. “Namaste, Lori,” he replied, doing the same. “Namaste Clarissa.” “Namaste Lori.” “Namaste Sammy.” “Namaste Lori.”
I then read the Diwali story(ies) to the kids. It was a learning experience for me too as I had quite forgotten that there were so many stories associated with the long celebrations. The kids then colored the clay pots and rangoli designs I had brought with glitter and sequins. We ended with a small snack that one of the other Indian moms had supplied.
Back home, in the evening we drew and decorated a rangoli with colored chalk and lit lamps. The kids met their friends for some bootleg fireworks saved from July 4th, praying like we do every year that the neighbors wouldn’t rat us out. Our prayers continue to be answered, though there was a tense moment when a new firecracker unexpectedly exploded, making the classic rat-a-tat sound. We all held our breath for a moment as we watched the clouds of noxious smoke pollute the sky.
It is not hard to see why Diwali can capture the imagination of the open-minded American. Sitting between July 4th and Christmas, it captures the best of both events, combining the fireworks with the lights to make a memorable event that bridges the celebratory gap. Maybe one day we will see public fireworks on the scale of independence day celebrations and more houses will be lit up on our street. (After all, the lights put up now can stay on the house till Christmas – what a labor saver!)
Till then, a very Happy Diwali and good wishes for the year ahead to all.