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Whither the warmth?

Aseem Chhabra | October 22, 2008

Last year, during a conversation about her film The Namesake [Images] at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Mira Nair told me that she found Christmas cold and very alienating.

"We had so many festivals at home in India," Nair said.  "We are used to so many kinds of celebrations, but Christmas was something I did not have any association with. Even though I have lived here for many, many years, Christmas lights may be the loneliest thing for me, especially if you mix them up with reindeers and sleighs."

Shubh Diwali

I often think of Nair's comments -- especially now, as we get ready for this year's fall and winter holiday season. This year, Diwali falls on October 28, but where do I find the biggest festival of my childhood and teenage years, even in a city with a fairly large and visible Indian population as New York?

Perhaps at the crowded Diwali Mela at South Street Seaport, with its huge disorganized crowds, crazy mix of food stalls with its unbearably long lines, or in the tacky Bollywood-inspired dances by young performers and the fireworks, so similar to other displays held throughout the summer in the city?

I understand these are shades and elements of Indian culture, but it is certainly not like the Diwali I remember. And the mela is not observed on the actual day of the festival. 

Neither is the other Diwali Mela -- a street fair in Jackson Heights in Queens, even though the lights on the trees stay lit up until the day of the actual festival. The Jackson Heights street fair has blaring Bollywood sounds which can become very unpleasant, even though I am usually favorable to popular Indian film songs. Then there is a huge crowd control issue.  The main strip in Jackson Heights on 74th Street gets dangerously packed with people of all ages -- including the elderly and young children in strollers.  I fear for my life, imagining a stampede of the kind that happens often at Mecca during the Hajj pilgrimage. Despite the stalls selling fresh Jalebis, Samosas and Chicken Tikka Masala, none of this reminds me of the Diwali of my youth.

Diwali around the world

Diwali in India was a time to visit families, eat a lot of sweets (even though my father always watched over my consumption) and generally be in the company of people one loved and cared for. I have memories of walking along the edges of our house in New Delhi [Images], placing candles and lighting them, and the fireworks -- all of which are banned in the US -- and of sitting in the corner of our kitchen where my grandmother had created a makeshift temple. There was the regular puja, followed by a delicious vegetarian meal.

I do mark Diwali in New York, spending some time with my son and watching him pray at his maternal grandparents' place.  And I then make it a point to go out for a meal with a group of friends -- often to one of the eight South Indian eateries in Manhattan's Curry Hill area. It is always a fun evening, but eventually it is a group of Indians -- some single, others partnered, making the best of the situation, attempting to bring the spirit of Diwali in an alien setting. 

One year, after such a meal, I went with friends for a sold out Indian Ocean concert at a local club. The large space was buzzing with Indian accents -- new young immigrants, familiar with the rock band and with the desire to do something remotely associated with India and its culture on this Diwali night. We were looking forward to the show, but it was clear that the audience was there because they had no other way to mark Diwali.

As a journalist, I am aware of these events and make it a point to see what is happening within the Indian community in New York.  But maybe it is a case of having lived in the US for 27 years and missing Diwali in India each year. In America, if I do not mark Diwali, the day can pass with ease.

Last year on Diwali day, I walked up to colleagues at work and asked them to wish me 'Happy Diwali'. And they all repeated 'Happy Diwali', looking perplexed at my odd request. One colleague who is originally from Toronto knew about Diwali. But to others I had to explain the meaning of the festival, putting it in context. "Diwali is like our Christmas," I said, and they all smiled and then wished me "Happy Diwali" again. 

Nair may find Christmas cold, but the spirit of that holiday brings me the kind of joy that I associate with Diwali. There is the consumer aspect of Christmas. The store windows display the latest fashion, and there is a sense of giving gifts to people you love. Tourists in New York City are friendly and the cold in the air adds an extra spunk in the way people walk on the streets. Street vendors sell roasted peanuts mixed with a sweet coating, and the aroma from the stalls blends in with the holiday spirit.  New York is magical during Christmas time, with the lights on Fifth Avenue, the huge star that is suspended with wires on 57th Street, and even a display of lit reindeers and sleighs at the Bronx Zoo.

Not marking Christmas (or even Thanksgiving) can be quite lonely. On Christmas Day, shops and restaurants shut down, streets are empty and there are open parking spots all over Manhattan. People leave New York City to be with their families. Not being with your loved ones can make life appear bleak. 

But I am not giving up on Diwali in the US. The Indian and the Hindu in me still wants to reconnect with my childhood memories, and for that reason alone I plan on marking the festival on October 28. 

Meanwhile I wish the a Happy Diwali.  At least I do not have to explain the context of Diwali here!  

Aseem Chhabra is a New York-based free lance journalist

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

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