I am six-years old and at my grandmother’s house in southern Sydney to help kick-start my favourite holiday of the year, Diwali.
I can hear the bells ringing downstairs, signalling that the gods have been worshipped and the preparation of sweets is about to begin. To keep us young ones entertained, my nani (grandma) starts the festive celebrations with a story.
My nani tells us a tale from the north of India where one side of my family is from. The legend behind Diwali begins with the exile of Ayodhya’s righteous prince Ram, his wife Sita and brother Lakshman. His 14-year exile drew to a close with his daring rescue of Sita from the demon king, Ravana. After defeating Ravana in an epic battle, Ram and his family head home to welcome their beloved Ram, the residents of Ayodhya lit lamps to light his path and dispel evil.
As a kid, I loved these stories that came with Diwali: epic tales of adventure, villains, deception, true love and triumph unfolds as evil is always defeated.
After defeating Ravana in an epic battle, Ram and his family head home to welcome their beloved Ram, the residents of Ayodhya lit lamps to light his path and dispel evil.
I also remember revelling in the magic of listening to a good tale as I watched the wizardry of celebratory cooking unfold in the kitchen. The experience is something else entirely. My nani could mix four plain looking flours together and create a soft smooth mix that would become a long, twisty piece of sugary jalebi (a sweet of epic calorie proportions); all the while she’d be leading our hero Ram through the forest and into danger.
An aunt of South Indian origins also used to tell the story of Lord Krishna and his consort Satyabhama slaying the wicked demon Narakasura to free the world of his tyranny. In south India, they celebrate Deepaavali, (also known as Naraka Chaturdashi) to mark the triumph of good over evil, and the restoration of freedom to all on Earth. I didn’t learn this story until I was in my teens but I enjoyed knowing that women could also be bad-ass when it came to defeating the bad guy.
Despite the fact that my house is covered in these childhood Diwali memories, my home is not very ‘traditional’. We’re as secular as most Indian families are these days but the five days of Diwali have a way of bringing the family together and reviving traditional customs.
We don’t celebrate each day as it should be: frankly there’s too much involved in each day to be able to do it properly between the regular demands of life, but we do make a point to initiate a few of the more fun Diwali customs together.
We light diyas (little clay lamps) around the house as they signify illuminating the darkness not just within your home, but also within your personal life.
There’s a lot to be said for cleanliness, but around Diwali our house (like others), goes into overdrive. My mother spends hours, if not days, cleaning and brightening the place with decorations, paper lanterns, flowers and lighting. The age old theory is that clean houses are the ones where goddess Lakshmi (her name and incarnation being the Hindi word for giver of wealth, fortune and prosperity) will bless and have her presence felt. It’s also nice to start the New Year on a fresh note and with good vibes.
As Lakshmi is synonymous with gold and wealth, gambling parties among family and friends are common and fun. Bets start small and escalate as the night goes on, alongside laughter, merriment and food. Actually, each of the five days is a feast for the foodies: think deep-fried powdery deliciousness, dipped in sugary syrup (gulab jamuns) or round balls of the finest chickpea flour moulded and shaped with pistachios and sugar (laddoos) or sweet and tangy chutneys to savour with piping hot flat breads.
There’s a lot to be said for cleanliness but around Diwali our house (like others) goes into overdrive.
This year, my family is well into the swing of Diwali: we've purchased some jewelry for an upcoming wedding, my nani has started cleaning the attic and the under sixes have been recruited to help with the cooking and storytelling.
Whether 2016 marks your first or fiftieth Diwali celebration, my festive advice to all is the same: if you are planning to celebrate Diwali/Deepaavali this weekend, arrive on time to fully experience the festival of lights and enjoy all the little rituals involved. Play some cards, gamble your coinage and fill up on some delicious sweet treats as you dance the evening away.
After all, Diwali is the festival of lights, celebration and prosperity. Ensure you bring good vibes and a positive attitude to your party of choice and your hosts will be thrilled.