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Essay: Fond memories of the festival of lights

As a child in India, I could hardly sleep the night before Diwali

Diwali offerings of foods and other sweets at

Diwali offerings of foods and other sweets at the Baps Shri Swaminarayan temple in Melville in 2017. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

After I came to this country in the 1970s, celebrations of the Fourth of July, especially the firecrackers, never failed to remind me of Diwali back when I was growing up in India. As a child there, I could hardly sleep the night before Diwali because of the excitement that awaited the following morning, much as Christian children feel at Christmas.

The 2010 U.S. census counted 56,000 people of Indian descent on Long Island, and no doubt most will observe the holiday, which celebrates the victory of good over evil. In India, the nearly 1 billion Hindus are a multitude of linguistic and caste-based communities, and each group celebrates in slightly different ways.

In my Tamil-Brahmin community (coloquially known as the Tam-Brahm) in New Delhi, which has its roots in southern India, an oil bath (head-to-toe oil smearing followed by a bath) is customary before sunrise on the festival’s main day, which this year falls on Sunday to coincide with the new moon. Then, we wear new clothes and enjoy mouth-watering savories.

An early morning fireworks display is a major marker of the festival everywhere. Neighbors vie to make their shows first, loudest and longest. Days before Diwali, shops in India stock a multitude of fireworks, which shoppers buy as quickly as possible so they will not be deprived of a considerable stash.

On Diwali morning when I was 11, my father had spread out our firecrackers on a steel plate over the stove so they would be crisp and have maximum effect when exploded. Then, while he got busy with other chores, the firecrackers overheated and went off on their own. The racket created panic among family members. Everyone scampered for safety. Dad quickly put out the fire with a wool blanket.

This near-disaster gave me a life-long fear of firecrackers. In some ways, I am happy that Long Island laws prohibit fireworks for personal use. Then again, I see more and more people breaking this rule on July Fourth, Labor Day and other civil holidays.

No matter how well assimilated an immigrant might be, sometimes even for the next generation, the tug of the home country is strong, and reminders of the past are cherished.

After my husband and I had started a family in Oceanside, we sent our two boys, still toddlers, with my mother one year to visit India to experience the authentic, real-deal Diwali. To this day, I cherish photos that show their glee as they, my father and my younger sister entertain each other with sparklers.

 Reader Rohini B. Ramanathan lives in Oceanside.

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