Diwali Is, As Diwali Does


I do not quite know what Diwali is, even though I am Hindu. By that I mean I have never properly celebrated the Hindu holiday anywhere. I have certainly never celebrated Diwali the way I have grown up celebrating Christmas. I have learned from reading children’s books that Diwali is the festival of lights, celebrating the victory of light over darkness in the face of the approaching winter. The Hindu Goddess Laxmi representing abundance and prosperity is worshipped. The majority of Hindus celebrate by decorating their homes with lights, performing prayer rituals, lighting fire crackers and sparklers, dressing up in new clothes and exchanging gifts and desserts with family and friends. There are region specific traditions as well, but overall the idea is a spectacular celebration. Growing up in America, the reason I never experienced Diwali was not because of where I lived but because Diwali is not a Bengali Hindu Holiday. At least it wasn’t when my parents emigrated in the early 1970s from Bengal. Bengali Hindus celebrate the much more formidable and complicated Goddess Kali through what is known as Kali Puja around the same time frame and while there are some firecrackers involved, I don’t ever recall having nearly as much fun as people celebrating Diwali seemingly have. My husband and my in-laws are of North Indian origin and should ideally celebrate Diwali, except they only mobilize for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I was actually once in India during Diwali and was even invited to celebrate with my husband’s aunt and uncle who were planning a Diwali extravaganza at their home but was forced to decline because my mother insisted I spend the evening visiting her relatives in a depressing steel town in West Bengal where Diwali is ignored. While there, I was also discouraged from going to the local Kali Temple for Kali Puja because my mother’s family fears crowds, cold, dust, phlegm and pickpockets. We sat home and on television watched people all over India celebrate Diwali. I watched the most glamorous Indians I had ever seen dressed in silks and sequins getting together, popping firecrackers and having the time of their lives. For me, it was a special kind of torture.

Diwali was a club I could not enter as hard as I tried. Sure, I had been to one-off gatherings a week before or after the holiday thrown together by friends looking for an excuse to have a party. But I never did anything on the actual day except to thank people wishing me a Happy Diwali.

After I had children, I decided we would create our own Diwali tradition in our home. We made Rice Krispie squares in lieu of the puffed grains I had read about in that same children’s book and carried a lit candle from room to room humming a hymn to which we only knew the first three words. It all felt very steeped in tradition until the children complained that they were sure no one else did this. How is it possible that even they knew this was fake? I could only translate this to mean that there was really no sense of connection here and it felt no different from the way Diwali has always felt, which is entirely foreign. My mother-in-law and I once again told one another, “Next year we should do something together for the children.”

And then this past year, came a forwarded EVITE from my husband’s patient. This particular patient had told my husband that she was attempting to reach out to Americans of Indian origin in town, in efforts to teach our children about our culture and traditions. My husband, usually averse to anything that detracts from football this time of year, was all too happy to hand over my email when he learned the gathering was to be for mothers and kids.

I did not know a single person on the address list including the host but the fact that this was to be a real live Diwali party with the children, on Diwali, right in town, filled me with excitement. The invite encouraged ethnic wear. Ethnic wear at four in the afternoon on a Friday is daunting but I agreed, necessary. I wore a new salwar kameez I had hanging in the closet. My daughter wore the same maroon hand-me-down from our cousins in California that she insists on wearing to every Indian occasion, the baby a smocked dress and my son, a Gap polo. Nine-year-old boys who don’t know too many other Indian boys, no longer succumb to ethnic wear.

We drove up a wooded lane that is sort of a nether land. It is not backcountry, mid-country, south of the village or any of the illustrious parts of town the wealthy like to call home. While not an obviously non-wealthy street of small homes on small lots like ours, this neighborhood, if it can be even called a neighborhood, is neither here, nor there. Just a bunch of new mcmansions someone has built in the woods. It is one of those areas its inhabitants are always calling something else but nevertheless, impressive and not at all surprising. As a culture we adore big flashy homes. I would like one too but I am a location snob. I would want my big flashy home south of the village, essentially meaning I will never have that home. So I continue to be trapped in a small home in an up-and-coming neighborhood. No other peoples of Indian origin have ever lived in a house as small as mine or a neighborhood so quaint. All these stupid thoughts had already flashed across my head as I herded my three children up the gravel circular driveway.

A super-sexy woman in her early forties wearing a shimmery orange sequined sari answered the door. She looked just the way a person celebrating Diwali should look. It was her home and yet she awkwardly ushered us in. My baby scooted up to another baby squealing in delight. That baby’s nanny confirmed that the children did truly know one another from a gym class and weren’t just acting like amorous bunnies for no reason. I had never personally attended the gym class because she is my third child, and more so because I had a consulting project for once which afforded me some help and also the luxury of not having to attend baby gym classes. My older daughter who is normally shy, found a friend. My son was still pouting in the corner until another nine-year-old boy showed up wearing the identical Gap shirt. There were several career nannies sprinkled around the premises so I decided it was safe to leave them for a bit.

Having situated my children, I began to scan the room for a familiar face and also a drink as it was Fri afternoon. My husband’s patient whom I had met once before was in the kitchen arranging hors d’ oeuvres and not quite sure that there would be or should be wine. Thankfully, a white guy in an Indian outfit instantly brought out a very good looking bottle. He then introduced himself and welcomed me to his home with a lovely glass of pinot noir while his wife and the other organizer were still trying to determine how they felt about wine at a gathering with children that was loosely inspired by a religious holiday. Armed with a glass, I started to wonder which little group I could infiltrate. “Where did you get the wine?”, allowed me to infiltrate them all but I didn’t have much to offer, knowing so little about Diwali and even less about banking and funds. This is the annoying normal in all parts of town among men, but not at all what I was expecting at what was essentially a dress-up playdate. One woman piped, “I’d like to stay home with my children, but you know, I can’t because I have an MBA.” I don’t know why this made me so angry. Well, I know. I wanted to say, “Listen, Dumbass. That is an odious statement and I have one too but I choose my children over money (completely unlikely I would make in Marketing what they made in Finance, even in 2010).” Instead, I threw in that I work sometimes. I then asked the hostess what she did, which incidentally, is something I would never do anywhere else, but it seemed de rigueur. She answered, “I am a CFO.”

“Oh,” I said. To her credit, she too seemed uncomfortable.

All the guests lived in town and had their children at a mediocre overpriced private preschool that coincidentally contained the word Indian in the name. Many of these mothers were meeting for the first time, since the nannies did all the picking up and dropping off. I too had the baby-nanny gym gig, I reminded myself.

I fielded several questions about my children’s free International Baccalaureate school. I don’t know what gave away I was a public school mom but I am sure they would all be able to tell you. Normally, I would be feeling yucky but I kept empowering myself by looking at the new watch I bought myself for my 40th birthday.

Soon enough the customary doctor discussion ensued. The Patient announced that I was her doctor’s wife and this suddenly propelled me to wield expertise and power, albeit late in the game. I shamelessly wished she would have announced this sooner. Thanks to my husband, I am an insider in the local medical community, despite having not taken a single science class past the twelfth grade. My exclusive status drew several interested parties and my stock rose rapidly.

One woman in particular was quite talkative like me and laughed a lot and seemed warmer than the rest. She ran her own fund and lived up the street from my friend Beth. She was shocked we had never met. I was not. But the wine had finally kicked in and I was sort of enjoying my Diwali. I did keep waiting for Diwali with a capital D to start. I don’t know, an invocation, a prayer, a moment of silence, heck, even a toast. But it didn’t come. Instead, dinner was served. Catered Curries, Kormas, Biryanis. Sumptuous fare. Strangers gobbled their food while watching the Diwali episode of The Office on a mega screen TV. We laughed in unison at Steve Carrell. The nannies fussed over children eating chicken nuggets and meatballs. I looked over from time to time at the CFO and felt genuine admiration for her ability to open her home in this very generous way to us. Maybe she and I could be friends since our babies and nannies already were. She was a little quiet and she clearly worked a lot but I felt she could still be in my tribe. She would be a beautiful and smart addition to my imaginary tribe.

With the end of the Office episode, it was time to go home. Just like that. It was six-thirty and already a half hour past the end time typed on the EVITE. Diwali had come to an end. People scrambled to exchange emails on their blackberries. Someone suggested a girls’ night out. Whereas I had walked in the door searching for a connection for my children, I was now open to finding one or two new friends myself. I went to thank the CFO and her husband but I could tell she was getting a little anxious that the party had gotten a little chaotic and had gone over and I didn’t want to mooch anymore than I already had.

And then there was Fund Mama — I really liked her too. So, I asked her last name and she only gave me her first name. So, I asked again, and she said, “That’s it. One name.” She then proceeded to give me her business card which read one name, (as in Madonna or Prince). As I piled the kids in my car, a voice in my head said, “Stop. Just stop.”

I high-tailed it home down the gravel road and googled the mystery guest in search of her last name the minute I got in. What if it were Rockefeller or Kennedy? Maybe she is just modest or as an old friend suggested, fucked up. I stalked her on LinkedIn, not caring that she can see that I looked. Logging in, I could see that several people in the previous half hour had already anonymously searched my profile. Fund Mama’s first name came up with an X after it, as in Malcolm X. Point taken.

Later that evening, I called my mother-in-law to give her a run down of my first real Diwali . But according to her, it did not sound a thing like Diwali. Apparently, for starters, there should not have been meat or wine and she went on from there to tell me everything Diwali wasn’t. While that left me continuing to wonder what then Diwali truly was and what it should feel like, I knew I was just tired of wanting and trying. After putting the phone down, I sort of surrendered myself to the realization that whatever Diwali was, it was just not mine. Not ever. And for the first time, that was ok because my life was filled with plenty of traditions and people that were mine and had always been mine. I needed to stop. Just stop.