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Diwali has become my American vacation.
I was brought up in a Bengali Hindu family. For us, celebrating Diwali is worshiping the goddess Kali. The mother goddess, with dark skin and wild hair and a necklace of skulls (actually bad guys-she-defeated skulls), Kali is the figure of the woman you don’t want to play with . She is armed and she is fierce, except to those who worship her. (I know a few women like that. I love them too.)
In my room hangs a painting of Kali, made by an anonymous artist from the Madhubani region in eastern India, which was given to me by a friend over 20 years ago.
I am telling you this because Diwali, which is perhaps the only Hindu holiday you have heard of, means different things to different communities.
If your family is from northern India, your Diwali story raises a page in the epic Ramayana story. It marks the victorious return of its royal protagonist, Rama, after defeating a cunning rival from the South. The inhabitants of his kingdom light oil lamps – diyas – to guide him home.
If your family is from the South, Diwali takes care of the other great epic, Mahabharata, telling the story of Krishna completely defeating another greedy tyrant. He is celebrated as Divali in the Caribbean, Deepavali in Sri Lanka, Tihar in Nepal.
Everywhere we celebrate, we light a lamp.
For me, as an Indo-American, raising an Indo-American child, Diwali is distilled to its essence. Diwali is a celebration of light. It occurs on the darkest night of the lunar cycle. It marks the triumph of good over evil, justice over tyranny, knowledge over ignorance. It reminds me that we can help each other in the darkest times.
Diwali comes at a particularly dark time in our country. The United States added more than 177,000 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, another record in a record week. And the incumbent president refused to concede last week’s election, despite his decisive loss.
On Saturday afternoon, my daughter and I will put on our masks and take the bus to our friends’ garden in Brooklyn, armed with snacks and a bottle of Pinot d’Autre Peuple, from Maison Noir. Our host warned me not to bring sweets, which are traditionally savored on Diwali, as she is already stocked. My daughter presented her fanciest salwar kameez. If I’m feeling brave I’ll wear a saree, with thermals underneath because I’m always cold.
We sit outside, seven of us, a safe distance from each other. Our children will light the diyas, so that we can banish sickness and ignorance, so that we can restore justice.
On a dark evening, our children will show us the light.