In India, this week is the largest Hindu celebration of the year. Stories, sweets, gifts, fireworks and lights dominate every neighborhood for the Diwali festival. But if you are an Indian American, the desire to celebrate takes more effort since it is a much smaller community. Here in Evanston, Diwali is an important time to gather, tell stories, give gift, light lights and share connections.
Bindu Reddy, proprietor of Berry Pike Cafe at 1100 Davis St., shared descriptions of some of the key activities that keep the traditions alive for her family and friends. Each year she attends her son’s school (years ago it was day care at the YMCA, now it’s elementary school) and tells the stories of Diwali. She prepares gifts and small mementos to give each child.
“Every year around October or November, on the darkest lunar night, people around the world celebrate the festival of lights that stretches back more than 2,500 years,” said Reddy. “One of the common tales in India associated with Diwali is about King Rama. When an evil king in Lanka captures Rama’s wife, Sita, he builds up an army of monkeys (vanara) to rescue her. The monkeys build a bridge over from India to Sri Lanka and they invade to free Sita and kill the evil king. As Rama and Sita return home, millions of lights are spread out across the city Ayodhya to welcome them.”
Lighting lights has long been one of the ways that Hindus celebrate Diwali. Not only to remember the story of the lights leading home, but also to symbolize light over dark and good over evil.
Diwali is celebrated over five days. The first day, Dhanteras (November 2 this year), the custom is to clean and decorate rooms of the home. Rangolis, elegant designs, might be created with rice flower. Gifts would be something precious, like gold or silver.
The second day is Naraka Chaturdashi, also called “Choti Diwali.” It is a festival dedicated to the Lord of Death, called “Yamraj,” to ward off untimely death.
The third day is the main day of Diwali. On Diwali, this year it’s on November 4, it is believed that the goddess Lakshmi will enter homes and bless people with good fortune. Tiny oil diyas, candles and electric lights are placed around the homes. Families gather to exchange presents and to burst crackers and light fireworks. Many gifts and sweets are exchanged.
For the fourth day, Govardhan puja, some celebrate the revered animal, the cow.
And the last day is Bhai Dooj, where sisters invite their brothers for a lavish meal and pray for their long and happy life.
Reddy and family emulate these traditions by gathering friends at their restaurant for sparklers, lights and sweets. Or they may take baskets of gifts and sweets to friends’ homes, especially since they cannot gather due to COVID-19 risks. But memories of prior years of sparklers, telling stories to the children and celebration keep the traditions alive in Evanston.
Reddy’s son is invited on day five to his cousin’s house for Bhai Dooj, since there are no brothers and sisters in their small families. To make the events seems larger, invitations to Indian students at Northwestern fill out their joyous celebrations.
Happy Diwali to our Indian American and Hindu friends. Light over dark, good over evil; something for which we all can be thankful, and hope for prosperity in our communities.