Deepavali, Diwali, Me

9 days to Deepavali, or should I say Diwali? I still remember the time that I first went to live in India, in Bombay (which is what it was called in 1988). I had just gotten married and it was my first major geographical shift. Listen, I was born on the west coast (of Singapore) and had not even moved as far as the north-west or south-west of the island! Deepavali used to be a special event for our family. I can never forget the hundreds of lamps we would light by the evening with the help of our friends from the various communities that constituted Singapore. "Happy Deepevaaaali" and I would say "No, it's Deepaaaavali"... and so on..... 

By October 1988, I was well on my way to becoming a Bombayite. When my man Friday asked me one day, "Diwali saaf karne ka hai?", I said "Chalo, kar do!" (Do excuse my Hindi - it's a combination of my terrible memory, bad language skills and the fact that I was imbibing this in Bombay!) And so it began. Two weeks of hard core spring cleaning during which time he even pulled lizards and toads out of my kitchen cupboards! And yes, you guessed right. I stood there with my palms half covering my face, and screaming. 

In those two weeks I also worked hard making various sweets and savoury snacks with my Maharashtrian neighbours. One afternoon we sat on the ground, and grated at least 25 coconuts using the traditional coconut scraper which I just discovered is also known as the 'coconut rabbit'. That day we made the coconut barfis. The next day it was the chivda. And it went on. It was in Bombay that I experienced Diwali firecrackers for the very first time. There was no warming up to those. 

A few years later by which time we had moved to Madras (as it was still known in 1992). I remember staying up an entire night to make a large kolam at home which was well appreciated by family and friends the next day. Though I was back to Deepavali culture, I would gradually find over my years in the South, that Diwali was making its presence felt, as Madras transitioned to Chennai and then into this multinational hub. By this time I was learning that Deepavali and Diwali are quite different festivals in the way they are celebrated. While both involve a lot of food, firecrackers, lamps and other festivities, the rituals appear to vary and also the partying seems to be upped for Diwali, with card playing and gambling forming an important part of the occasion.

Also, there is this aspect of the New Year. As one Chinese taxi driver asked me when we were passing Little India the other day and admiring the gorgeous Deepavali light-up there, "Is it New Year for you or is it not New Year?" He went on to say, "Some people tell me yes, some say no. I'm very confused lah!" Yes, I'm back in the land where Deepavali and Diwali valiantly attempt to co-exist, entwined with questions of race, identity and sub-ethnic binaries in the context of multicultural Singapore. 

So it's not just me who sees the two as different festivals. I'm sure that each community and family has its own unique way of celebrating it too. Even the myths and deities differ from place to place. Krishna slays Narakasura, Rama vanquishes Ravana, the Pandavas return, the Mahabali story - all so male centric. So many times over, I have enacted those stories (through dance) for school children at Deepavali time - the triumph of good over evil, and the lighting of lamps in celebration. I recall always being dressed to portray one male character or the other. 

Wait, the festival is also a celebration of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, who we probably ought to be focussing on now given the gloomy financial forecast. In Bengal and some other parts of India, the empowering Kali is worshipped at this time. 

Now here I am, back on the west coast of the little red dot. I do miss the energy and excitement in India at this time but I am grateful to be spared the loud firecrackers. My heart always goes out to the animals and babies. It can be terrifying. I am no longer the married woman who reveled in making barfis, chivda and laddoos nor the dancer who animatedly told children stories of demon slaying.  

You know what, I am going to light some lamps and incense, make a floral kolam around which I will move, meditate and celebrate the magnificent transformations that are continuously taking place within me.  Deepavali  à la Antarika! 

Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu


Kolam & Photo Credit: Arjun Vadrevu

Kolam & Photo Credit: Arjun Vadrevu