Come early November, driving past the McMansions of Western Sydney will either leave you buzzing with festive energy or festering like the Grinch. You'll find impressive curtains of multi-coloured fairy lights draped across balconies, boldly lighting up concrete facades.
Oh man, you think, have the Christmas fanatics lost their mind? What sort of indulgent, impatient lack of self-control is this?! But oh no - think again. It's Diwali season, people. The other Christmas. Growing up, this was the absurdly incorrect yet easiest explanation to give people.
Diwali — or Deepavali, depending on which part of the Indian subcontinent your family is really from — is the largest festival on the Hindu lunar calendar.
The basis for celebration differs according to varied regional histories, but most commonly it's the celebration of Bhagwan Ramachandraji's (Lord Ram's) return from exile to save his wife Sita from the ten-headed demon god Ravana who Ram triumphantly slays. To celebrate this victory of good over evil, we riotously illuminate our houses with vigour. Fireworks, sparklers, candles, diyas (clay lamps filled with ghee, imparting a trail of warm buttery smell wafting throughout the house) in every room. Everything to invite Lord Lakshmi into our homes and bless us with prosperity for the coming year.
For me, the start of Diwali is marked by the sound of our doorbell. My parents continuously open the door to excited greetings from family and friends who come with overflowing trays of mithai (sweets) in hand. Chatter drifts up through the house, compelling my sister and me to come down and dutifully greet our guests in a chorus of polite namastes. This in-person delivery of mithai is a central Diwali ritual, which fills our houses with sweets for weeks, causing a seasonal peak in cholesterol among the entire Indian community.
"My parents continuously open the door to excited greetings from family and friends who come with tightly packed, overflowing trays of sweets in hand."
My most iconic Diwali mithai is gujia, India's contribution to the worldwide inventory of dumplings. Also known as ghughra, karanji and a million other names speaking to its ubiquity, gujia is a crescent-shaped, crimped, deep-fried sweet dumpling filled with nuts, sugar, raisins, coconut and khoya (a concentrated milk product made by slowly simmering dairy until the liquid evaporates).
Some other favourite sweets include shakkar pare (deep-fried pastry basted in sugar syrup), and all the countless types of barfi and ladoos, (tightly packed diamond-shaped bars or balls of nuts, raisins, sugar, milk and flour).
Making these stovetop sweets over most years with my grandmother, Ammaji, is always an exercise in lobbying for a raisin-free Diwali (come on, raisins suck). But her speed and mastery in the kitchen, such as dipping her bare fingers directly into ferociously bubbling oil to adjust this and that, is both awe-inspiring and frightening.
Burfi or barfi is a sweet, fudgy Indian confectionary. Quite like its Western counterpart, it is made with loads of sugar and milk, but here it is flavoured with cardamom, saffron, fruit extracts or rosewater. Traditionally, milk solids, ground nuts and different types of flours are also used, but now even fancy versions with chocolate and cheese are hugely popular. For me, Diwali is incomplete without gulab jamuns and some kind of burfi.
Later in the day, close family will gather for puja (prayers) led by Ammaji in our dedicated puja room. As I recite Sanskrit shlok, I am surprised every time that the words come instinctively — after years of Saturday morning Hindi classes in the stuffy demountable classrooms of our local boys' high school rented out by Ammaji (she is affectionately known throughout the community as 'Hindi Ma' for her dedication to passing down our language), she has engrained the words into us. During the puja we 'feed' the sweets to the gods, before we're finally allowed to eat some for ourselves.
Then the proper feasting begins. Front and centre is aloo puri — potato with deep-fried bread which puffs up into delicately crunchy balloons with the most crispy exterior on one side and velvety soft dough on the other. They are saved for special occasions given how luxurious they are compared to our humble, everyday roti. Puri is like the outlandishly rich older bachelor uncle to the sensible and straightedge roti. Amazing, but a bit much for every day.
A range of other savoury dishes followed by even more sweets to cap off another brilliant, gluttonous Diwali.
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