My large, extended family in Malaysia get together every year to celebrate Diwali, or Deepavali as we call it. The name comes from the Sanskrit words deepa (light) and vali (row). Houses are lit up with rows of diyas, clay lamps filled with oil. These are said to help Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, find her way into households to bring blessings and prosperity.
Diwali festivities involve family, friends and feasting. The religious part of Diwali includes prayers or pujas in our own homes. The next day, celebrations begin, with my dad's brothers and sisters taking turns to host each year. These are whole day affairs, starting at breakfast and lasting long into the night. Sometimes, when I was younger, Diwali was a weekend at an uncle or auntie's home far enough to warrant overnight stays. These Destination Diwali events were my favourite, as they meant hanging out with cousins, aunties and uncles for a whole weekend.
Food is the focus from dawn to dusk, but our feasts have morphed over the years to become potluck events, with each family bringing a dish to share rather than the host bearing the burden of all the cooking.
A typical Diwali celebration starts with one of my aunties volunteering to make a breakfast dosa, a savoury crepe made from a lentil and rice batter. This is a labour of love, a tough job when there are many hungry mouths to feed. Breakfast flows into lunch as more family members arrive, each with a pot or tray of something delicious. Even though for many families the Diwali feast is vegetarian, our Diwalis always include meat.
"These are whole day affairs, starting at breakfast and lasting long into the night."
Many of my aunties and uncles have signature dishes, which they've honed over the years. Some family favourites include a famous fish curry that makes your tongue tingle, a mango curry that's the perfect blend of sweet and sour, dry-fried mutton that keeps you going back for more and yellow rice decorated with cashew nuts, sultanas and fried onions that's so much more than a side dish.
We also relish sweet and savoury snacks, or palaharam, to sample all day long and to offer to friends and neighbours. These homemade treats, such as banana chips, halwa, coconut candy, murukku and steamed fruit cake, are made in large quantities so there's enough for everyone to take some home.
Soon after lunch is cleared, a huge pot of tea is boiled on the stove. It's spiced, sweet and satisfying. Then begin the languid hours between meals, which we use to watch a movie, play in the garden or find a cosy spot to chat to catch up with family.
"These are really delicious and one of India’s favourite little desserts. They are traditionally made with reduced milk but as that takes a lot of time and effort, many of us make them with dried milk powder instead. They are easy to make and the only two tricks to getting them right is a soft dough and frying them over a very low heat so they cook all the way to the centre.” Anjum Anand
Don't assume that we've already had enough food by this time. Before long, dinner is laid out on the table. This usually involves leftovers from lunch plus more dosa, idli and perhaps an extra vegetable dish or two.
Children race outside with sparklers, drawing colourful patterns with the flames to brighten the night sky. There are squeals of delight and lots of photo opportunities. We take the obligatory group photo, squeezing everyone in the frame to capture this precious moment in our family's history.
While I miss those family Diwalis from Australia, we've been lucky enough to find friends here with whom we can share Diwali traditions. We gather to share prayers, potluck feasts and gulab jamun. And, of course, we always have sparklers.
This year, with Sydney out of lockdown, it's beginning to look a lot like Diwali. I hope a small celebration will be possible, because frankly, we could all use a festival of new beginnings. Coming together will be a true triumph of light over darkness.
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