At the end of the month, over a quarter of the earth will come together to celebrate one of the year’s happiest holidays: Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Often mistakenly dubbed the “Indian New Year” it’s a festive celebration of light over darkness, good over evil, full of the same gift giving and family coming together that Australians enjoy at Christmas.
And like Christmas, it’s celebrated across the world – not only by Hindus but by Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, who all celebrate their own festivals of light at the same time.
Families give each other new clothes, appliances and jewellery, feasting on sweets and special holiday delicacies, before lighting lamps and setting off patakhis, or fireworks.
Diwali – or Deepavali as we Southern Indians call it – has spread to different societies and cultures, including Australia, where Melbourne’s Indian community enjoy a huge and joyful fireworks display over the Yarra. It’s a national holiday in countries as far apart as Guyana and Fiji, Malaysia and Trinidad, and each of the communities in those countries have as many different Diwali traditions as different countries have Christmas ones.
What we knew of our Hindu heritage was from the half-remembered stories our mother told us, or dog-eared Indian comics our relatives would send us.
But growing up in the assimilationist 1970s and 80s, only a generation away from the White Australia Policy, Diwali was a very different affair. Back then, the small Indian community in Sydney didn’t even have a temple to congregate, much less vegetarian restaurants, so we’d all gather at someone’s house if we were lucky, or light our lonely little lamps if we weren’t, my mother blessing us with a new shirt and a couple of the bungers she’d bought for Guy Fawkes Night to let off on the yellowing lawn.
In those days, we had to disavow our Indianness to embrace our Australianness – although it was never quite enough. We were always reminded, as we were constantly asked where we were really from, that we really didn’t belong – even my brother and I, both born here, only speaking English in Aussie accents. What we knew of our Hindu heritage was from the half-remembered stories our mother told us, or dog-eared Indian comics our relatives would send us.
We had to be one or the other, somehow feeling not quite either.
For many Hindus, Diwali is a symbolic welcome home to Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of the great god Vishnu, and the subject of the epic poem Ramayana, which is still revered in non-Hindu countries such as Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and others as their own national poem.
Retold by countless poets and writers, The Ramayana tells the story of the brave and honourable Rama, the epitome of Hindu manhood, going into exile to honour a promise to his stepmother, then trying to retrieve his dutiful wife Sita (the epitome of Hindu womanhood) from the terrifying demon Ravana, and his decadent clutches on the bejewelled island of Lanka (now Sri Lanka).
That we observed Deepavali was a nostalgic irony: my mother, exiled to Sydney’s outer Western Suburbs, her own far-from-dutiful husband having run off with another woman, striving to assimilate into a new country that didn’t or didn’t really want to understand where she’d come from, even as she tried to hold onto the last tenuous threads to her own culture and identity.
Our little lights would flicker tremulously in the hot Blacktown breeze, before being snuffed out in the night. But was it any different at Christmas time, with no extended family around us, as we ate nut-roast and eggless custard in our little kitchen, the clock ticking away the day?
Our little lights would flicker tremulously in the hot Blacktown breeze, before being snuffed out in the night.
Why did my mum persist in celebrating these holidays?
For many immigrants, the traditions of the past are the only grasp they have on identities they must give up to become who they are in their new country: once Indian, now Australian, even if they’re awkwardly tied together with a hyphen (as in Indian-Australian). But when the Native American artist Jimmy Durham said that “exile is the greatest patriot” he wasn’t clear if he meant for the home they left, or the home they’d made.
When, at 25, I went to India around Deepavali for the first time in a decade, I was astounded by the noise and colour, the same harried parents and excited kids rushing from shop to shop to buy armloads of sweets and presents, the crowds and the joy… everything I’d missed growing up.
Even though I’d always felt as disconnected from the complexity and nuances of Indian culture as I sometimes felt alienated from Australian society, I burst with an incredible, infectious sense of belonging. My heart exploded as the tug of thousands of years of tradition suddenly pulled me into such a noisy, happy celebration.
In his seminal study Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual, Tom Driver says ‘ritual is to make oneself present: not simply a doing but a sharing of a doing, creating and preserving not only social order but community by helping to unite individuals in bonds of human affection, reaching out towards substance, soul, life-feel and the love of participation, bearing more meanings than words can say.’
My heart exploded as the tug of thousands of years of tradition suddenly pulled me into such a noisy, happy celebration.
But what is that community? In a multicultural society like Australia, we often use the word “community” to describe and define particular ethnic groups – the “Indian” community, the “Muslim” community – as though they’re all separate and discrete “multicultures” from the “mainstream.”
But if you walk down the same streets I grew up in Western Sydney, you’ll see the real face of multiculturalism: children, like mine, who have Vietnamese and Lebanese and Maltese and African and Aboriginal and European friends – and family. And all of them, like my children, taking just as much pleasure in celebrating Christmas and Eid and Buddha Purnima and Diwali and Chinese New Year with their family and friends, all of us making new traditions in the place we all call home.
My children make no distinction between Chinese New Year yum cha with their Australian-born Chinese por por and Christmas with their Hindu bappamma, any more than they do between the Anglo, American, Indian, Chinese and other family and friends they have.
And, as I watch their faces as lit up with Diwali celebrations – as they’ll be painted for Halloween the next day – I’ll not only feel a deep and affirming connection to my mother’s rich and ancient culture, but, now I’m a father, to my mum, keeping the lamps burning. “As long as the lamps are lit,” she always said, “Rama can find His way home.”
Just as she always reckoned Santa would find us if she kept the Christmas tree lights on all Christmas Eve.
This Diwali, I’ll be glad that I can call home a country that has changed so much so quickly that I can now not only celebrate one very important facet of my identity without relinquishing any other equally essential aspect, but that we can all celebrate with each other, creating our own very Aussie Diwali together.
That’s our community, and a community worth rejoicing in: not one split by where we once came from but united by who we’re with now.
Diwali Ki Hardik Shubhakamnaye, mate!