» Getahead » My first Diwali away from home

My first Diwali away from home

By Chaya Babu
October 23, 2014 12:09 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

Desis in the US recall their earliest celebration of the festival of lights on American soil. Chaya Babu reports.

Shweta Katti's first Diwali in America was just last year.


Now a sophomore at Bard College in upstate New York, Katti, 19, arrived from Mumbai to start her freshman year last August. By late October, she had a group at school with whom she celebrated the Hindu festival.

READ Shweta Katti's inspirational story here!

"I'm not a social person, so it took me some time to make friends," she says.

"There are a few South Asians who I did become friends with.

"But I didn't meet all of the South Asians on campus or anything, and there are some students from India -- there was a guy who was from my same batch in Mumbai.

"I didn't expect anything though; I didn't know who I would end up meeting or becoming friends with. It was totally new. I didn't know what to expect."

Like many universities in the US, Bard has a campus Diwali celebration put on by the South Asian Students Association.

It was a party with Indian food and Bollywood beats -- an affair that Katti said reminded her of home, albeit in an indirect way, and got her excited.

Back in Mumbai, her family hasn't celebrated in a long time.

She used to relish getting new clothes, and her sisters would do a puja, but mostly she enjoyed the time off from school.

Compared to that, the Bard students' celebration is a much larger event than anything she's done before for Diwali.

The party was large, with a mix of different types of people -- not limited to South Asians at all.

But it was still an opportunity for Katti to experience parts of India that are not a part of her day-to-day life at Bard.

She wore a sari and danced to the Hindi music that isn't played at college parties on an average night.

"It made me a little homesick," she says. "Well, actually, I was already homesick at that time. But it reminded me of home."

Katti remembered that it was eye opening to see how young Indian Americans choose to celebrate the festival, particularly considering the quiet, modest way it was done with her family in Mumbai.

"It's not really normal for me because in India we didn't have anything like this," she explains.

"It was surprising. But I really like the idea of celebrating different cultures -- like we have a Navaratri puja tomorrow and there's other stuff like that here.

"I think it's good because we all get together and still have our culture with us.

"Because it's a totally different country and you don't have our family with you, but then you have friends you can celebrate with.

"It's a great thing to create your own family on campus."

As someone who is only a year into her life in America, how Katti continues her Diwali tradition here remains to be seen -- as well as whether or not she even remains stateside.

But for now, the Bard South Asian Students' Association's Diwali party is coming up.

Is Katti planning to attend?

"Yeah definitely," she says. "If there's good food, why not?"

'A big part of Diwali got left behind in India'

Not surprisingly, what Meghana Subrahmanya misses most about her Diwalis in India is the firecrackers.


Since moving to the US three years ago, the 13-year-old has had to give up a tradition that defined the spirit of one of her favourite festivals.

Though there are aspects that are the same between the two places, she feels that she lost something in the transition.

A big part of Diwali got left behind in India.

"It's kind of boring here," she says. "It's not as fun as in India."

Meghana and her family moved to Flushing, Queens in October of 2011.

Her father is a priest at the Hindu Temple Society of North America there.

She has a few Indian friends at her school.

But they don't get that excited about Diwali.

And since the school doesn't recognise the holiday, they don't have any days off.

Basically, it's somewhat unceremonious.

"What we do is very different here than there," she says.

"In India, on the first day, we put oil on our bodies and take a shower in the morning and then wear new clothes.

"My mother makes a variety of foods.

"We light the lamps and keep them everywhere in the house.

"And in the end we fire the crackers and have fun."

Just weeks after she arrived in America, there was a Diwali celebration in Battery Park.

It was also meant to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

People were invited to come out and light 3,000 candles -- but Meghana, upon travelling to downtown Manhattan from Flushing, says she found this experience lacklustre.

"We lit the diyas, and they were electronic and not even real, and then we went home."

There were plenty of other Indian families at that public celebration, but to Meghana, new to the US, it was of course not the same as the community she had at home.

She mentioned that in Bangalore, there was a sense of merriment that's lacking here -- she was in a joint family and they came together with neighbours and friends; their celebration in Queens is only her, her 17-year-old brother Sumanth, and her parents.

"There everybody is celebrating in the streets together, we see lights in their houses, and everything is colourful," her brother Sumanth added.

With a father as a priest at one of the most prominent temples in the New York area, the Subrahmanyas of course attend to the prayer services as well.

Sumanth said that the religious aspects of Diwali are important to him.

His father conducts the prayers at the temple, but more privately he leads Meghana and Sumanth in asking for blessings for good grades, good health, and a good future.

Meghana doesn't know exactly what festivities her family will participate in this year.

One thing she knows for certain is that she's longing for her favourite wish to come true -- the one about hoping to return on a trip to India one day.

"Diwali is the festival of lights and the fun was always in the firecrackers," she says. "I miss that a lot."

'Diwali is pretty huge here'

Nihar Naigonkar recalls his feelings of celebrating Diwali at Cornell University as a graduate student in 2011.

It was his first year in US, and he had no idea that Indian Americans go all out in their party planning.

And a college campus festival means choreographed performances as well as music, dancing, and lots of food.

More than that, the enthusiasm about the holiday palpable in the students made Diwali at Cornell truly memorable for Naigonkar.

"It was great, he says, "but I was missing my parents and childhood friends, obviously."

"And the main thing I missed was the fireworks. That's definitely a major thing there.

"But it was fun here because I wasn't expecting so much.

"You come with the idea that people would celebrate less in the US, but it's really done in a fun way, especially in the school setting."


"At the university (in India), Diwali was something that you looked forward to for a long time," he says.

"As soon as you started a semester, Diwali was this mini break coming up.

And here, this one day of sudden festivities and seeing everyone excited about it is a refreshing change from the usual routine of life.

"It really felt alive."

Naigonkar, who now lives in the Bay Area with his wife, was getting his master's in computer science at Cornell.

His wife flew out to be there with him for the Diwali celebrations, which included a campus-wide event as well as smaller ones organised by the separate schools within Cornell.

Naigonkar attended the engineering school's party too.

"It certainly beat my expectations, but I would say there's a pretty big difference between how we celebrate Diwali back in India compared to here.

"There, it starts up early in the morning, you have your oil bath, you light your first fireworks and have a competition with your neighbour about whose house looks more of a mess from bursting them.

"That's not something you can do here. Still, it was much better than I thought it would be."

But out of all the merriment, what stands out the most in his memory of that first year is house hopping to taste dishes being made by different friends.

He and his wife sampled delicious home-cooked Indian meals; he can even name his favourite from that day.

"The steamed modak was absolutely something I remember and done really well. I loved it. I'm Maharashtrian so it reminded me of my mom's cooking."

That -- his mother's food -- is another main element that's missing from his Diwali experience in the US versus in India.

But his wife is skilled in the kitchen too, he said, so this year she will be preparing a lot of dishes at home even though they already have three or four invitations for parties at friends' places.

The community they have with other Indians in their area has made Naigonkar's experience with Diwali in the US, and his life here overall, exceed his expectations.

"In the Bay Area, that really makes me feel at home.

Apart from the other festivals like Holi and even American holidays, Diwali is pretty huge out here.

You meet folks you've never met before, and you feel connected to them.

"I think that's what Diwali has done for me here."

It's a full circle

It was 1968.

Dr Pravin Shah had just come to the Bronx from Mumbai for his intern year at Fordham Hospital.


Like many who were emigrating at the time from India, Shah was training to be a surgeon, which meant little time went to anything else.

Laughing, as he recalls his version of a Diwali party in his first year in the US, he paints a picture of young, tired medical residents throwing together a makeshift fete in the small kitchen in a dormitory near the hospital.

"I remember this only because I was going through some old photographs recently.

"I saw one of all of us eating together in there.

"It was a great time and a good memory.

"We were all residents, and I was from Mumbai and Gujarat, and there was a girl from the south and another from Bengal. And it was a way of bonding together between us Indians -- it was Diwali and there were only a few of us there, so it was like a new festivity we created."

Shah says that there were about ten people total at their gathering, and a few people had cooked some Indian dishes to contribute to the feel of their cultural celebration.

It was a simple affair, with the melange of different types of Indians just being grateful to have the time and a few others with somewhat common roots -- which likely felt more similar 8,000 miles from the subcontinent -- to share the special day with.

"It wasn't religious for me but it's a fun holiday and a good reason to celebrate. It was mainly just to get together and bond."

Shah, now a retired vascular surgeon in Purchase, NY, was already married then and had a good group around him, made up of the other residents, and remembers he didn't feel lonely or at a loss in putting aside old customs that were dear to him India.

"It is interesting to realise that when we came to the US we were eager to embrace western culture.

"But as we have grandchildren now we have come full circle -- along with Western culture, we are going back to our roots exposing our grandchildren to Indian traditions and culture!"

Anika, 8, and Grayson, 4, his daughter's kids, plan to head up from Manhattan to spend this year's Diwali with their grandparents and a few other families in what has become a tradition that didn't exist before.

The children, along with their friends, will do a dandiya raas dance, light sparklers -- other firecrackers, which are a mark of Diwali festivities in India, are not possible -- and enjoy the food of course.

Shah says they delight in the treat of dressing up in Indian clothes and doing a small puja.

"This is us passing ourselves on to the third generation, even though the second generation didn't celebrate that much.

"We do this in a big way for them. It's a quite a change since that first year."

Diwalis like India

Thirty one years ago there was no problem. Everyone got a green card," says Vijayamani Venkatarao, 85, about coming to New York in 1983 to meet her oldest daughter, who had arrived shortly before her.


It wouldn't be long before her four other children joined them as well.

Venkatarao was 54 at the time.

Having lived much of her life in India, certain traditions were like second nature to her.

Even the massive change that moving to America presented couldn't take those out of her.

She recalls her first Diwali on American soil -- and every one since then -- as almost exactly the same as all the years prior in India, save for some minor details.

"It's not so different, but there are some restrictions right in America?

"They're not so liberal about the firecrackers, and that was the big part of the celebration there.

"Of course, sometimes we took permission, but still. And there we would celebrate for four days and here it's only one."

She was living with her daughter and son in Brooklyn at the time, and they used the festival as an opportunity to gather with other people and engage in the warmth and joy of a celebration with a new community.

She did what she would have done if she were back home in Mysore.

She got up early in the morning, cleaned the house, took an oil bath, wore new clothes, and had a puja in which she offered the sweets she made to the gods.

"In that first year it was the whole family and all our friends too," Venkatarao recalls.

"It was a grand celebration for Diwali in our house. That year I remember I made so many sweets and snacks."

All of this, which was spread out over a few days and included the fun of firecrackers, was consolidated into one day.

But Venkatarao says this didn't feel like a big change or as if she had lost something; it was simply a part of her migration from India to the US and she was able to hold onto the meaningful aspects of the holiday.

She dedicatedly follows the same rituals: Wearing new clothes, which she does with her family to this day, the lighting of lamps to symbolise darkness leaving the home -- here she simply lights two diyas at the entrance of the house -- and worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses to invoke blessings for prosperity, good health, and more.

"Every year for the festival I do the same thing.

"Now also I'm doing everything.

"Because of the grandchildren -- they have to know, right?

"But now they're all in college; that's why our celebration is not so big."

Over the years, Venkatarao has moved around between the homes of her children, and has lived in Queens, Long Island, and now New Jersey.

Some years they were allowed to do firecrackers outside, which brought back fond memories of India, but for the most part that has been left behind.

"No, no, no," she says, when asked if she feels that she gave something up. "According to our new circumstances, we have to adjust."

'Hey, it's Diwali, what are we doing?'

Nagesh Hatti's feelings of nostalgia shine through as he tries to gather a clear memory of his first Diwali in the US, despite the fact that it was characteristic of a young person mostly alone in a strange setting.


It was 2004. He had just come from Bangalore to a Marysville, Ohio, a city 65 miles outside of Columbus as part of job as an IT consultant for Tata; and he lived with two other young men who, he imagined, could have been the only other people nearby who observed the holiday.

"I don't remember exactly how we decided on what to do," he says, considering what happened a decade ago.

"I think, living there, there weren't really any other options -- or at least not that we knew about.

"There weren't 'Indian' things to do, if you can say that, or things that involved Indian culture.

"It was a predominantly white place, and it's a small town, and we were the only Indians.

I mean there were probably a couple more, but that's it."

Hatti, 36, describes their evening, which was not on Diwali because it fell on a weekday when they all had to work.

They waited for the following weekend to drive to a temple about 45 minutes away, stop at an Indian restaurant on the way back to have food that reminded them of home, and then called it a night.

"We used to go to this temple every month or two, so we were like, 'Hey it's Diwali, we should do this,'" Hatti says of his roommates, one from Hyderabad and another from Kolkata.

"But that was pretty much it. So my first one wasn't that exciting. It was pretty quiet."

But Hatti's situation in the US shifted dramatically within his first year, so his second Diwali gave him a taste of how he could celebrate with a bit more fanfare even though he's far from his Indian roots.

He left his job at Tata and moved to Dallas, Texas to pursue his MBA at Texas Christian University -- he still lives there currently, working at American Airlines as a supply chain analyst.

It was easier to make friends in the school environment, and on top of that, his girlfriend-now-wife already lived there and had cultivated a circle of friends with whom they could start a community and share their culture.

The two of them took two non-Indian friends to a temple, all of them dressed in Indian garb, lit sparklers there, had dinner at an Indian restaurant, and then ended up at an Indian bakery for the kind of sweets they might have made at home themselves back in Bangalore.

Hatti says their friends were curious about Diwali, and his answering all of their interested questions made him feel closer to the meaning and rituals of the festival.

Now, Hatti and his wife have a three year old and hope to continue to celebrate in a bigger and bigger way each year, as they build more connections and a vibrant community in the US.

"This year, they plan to spend the special day with another family they've grown close to.

"That first year it just felt like it gave a whole new meaning to being with family because you're so far from home that the friends you make are your new family."

'I do it deliberately, consciously. I want my kids to understand the importance'

What we do now is just an extension of what I used to do," Ruchi Sharma says of her 10 years' worth of Diwalis in the US.


"I've never celebrated any other way.

"I don't even know what other way there is to celebrate Diwali."

Sharma came to Edison, New Jersey from Mumbai in early 2003.

She and her husband, a computer programmer, moved in with her sister, who had already been living here and thus had an established community and social network in the area.

This meant quick connections and friendships for Sharma.

So that fall, when Diwali approached, Sharma, her husband, and her sister threw a big party at the house.

"We played cards, we gambled a lot and made a lot of traditional Indian food.

"It was a very big party; we invited a lot of people over.

"That's all you can do right? We did rangoli and lit diyas.

"And everyone was traditionally dressed; we were all wearing Indian clothes."

Sharma remembers the gathering was reminiscent of home in some ways, despite the fact that in India, she never had or went to parties for Diwali.

In India it had been a smaller affair -- with just her family, revolving around the new clothes ritual, the puja, and of course firecrackers.

The food in particular was what made her feel closest to her roots.

She cooked traditional Indian dishes that she has had every year on Diwali at home: Aloo, Dahi Vada, and curried pumpkin, which she explains is the typical North Indian dish to make during the festival.

"Everyone insisted on bringing something too. We had too much sweet stuff!"

Since then, Sharma and her family -- she now has two children, ages six and seven, and lives in North Brunswick -- celebrate mostly the same way each year.

The past few years have not included a party because it was too difficult when the kids were so small.

But the food, the new clothes, and the puja are always a constant.

"These are the hallmarks," she says.

This year there will be no celebration at home as her mother-in-law passed away recently.

But she still plans to do the Lakshmi puja, which she does every year no matter what.

After paying their respects this way, the Sharmas will likely go back to their new Diwali tradition, which includes parties and, to the delight of the kids, doing rangoli.

She showed them how to do it last year, which resulted in a mess and some ruined outfits, but lots of fun that made it worth it.

"Everything else we do properly -- the way it's supposed to be done. And I do it deliberately and consciously.

I do want my kids to understand the importance and realise the meaning of it all.

I want them to have a certain sense of identity that relates to India as well as here.

It's always good to know where you come from.

After all, they weren't born in a vacuum -- they have a history and background and they should know about it."

Don't miss all our Diwali features here!

Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
Chaya Babu