By: Sai Siddhaye
With almost 70 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, the festive cheer that autumn usually brings has been thoroughly extinguished. Though quarantine is a necessary measure, it has caused significant turmoil as families are unable to reunite for the holidays. For children of immigrants, it is already difficult to juggle the two sides of a split cultural upbringing when apart from family; the inability to celebrate cultural holidays means an even greater separation. This year, Diwali landed in mid-November, preventing the Indian festival from being enjoyed to its fullest extent. The increasingly strict shelter-in-place orders meant that millions of people were separated from traditional Diwali festivities this year.
“It just doesn’t feel the same this year,” admits Rohan, a graduate student at UCSB. “I usually look forward to seeing my friends and family during Diwali, not to mention the amazing food. It just feels like a time where I can really come back to my roots. This year, Diwali just felt a little flat; I didn’t see any point in celebrating on my own, so I just felt a little sad and lonely the whole time. Even without all the decorations and the dressing up, the thing I miss the most is being with my family.”
Diwali, known in English as the festival of lights, is a Hindu holiday that commemorates the victory of good over evil. Its theological origins stem from The Ramayana’s tale of the return of King Rama to Ayodhya after his defeat of the demon Ravana. To embody the symbolic triumph of light over dark, the festivities revolve around lights of all kinds. Diwali is extravagantly celebrated; it is the Christmas of Hinduism, if you will. Though this festival is primarily observed by Hindus, many Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist communities in India also recognize the holiday. This year, it took place from November 12-16, smack dab in the middle of a surge of COVID-19 cases in both India and America.
In India, Diwali is integral to morale, spirituality, and economy. It is celebrated by nationwide parades, religious ceremonies, and large family gatherings. Fireworks can be seen lighting up the sky for days, and puja, or prayers, take place in many homes and temples. To honor the importance of light overcoming darkness, most people decorate their homes with diyas (clay lamps), paper lanterns, string lights, candles, and rangolis. These decorations, aside from bringing a positive spiritual atmosphere to homes, also account for a sizable portion of India’s business. In fact, spirituality and economy during Diwali to the point that “stock exchanges remain open during non-market hours for a special trading session called Muhurat, scheduled at an astrologically significant time on the evening of Diwali”¹. People are more likely to buy new clothes, jewelry, electronics, and even cars during this time. Just like Christmas in America, sales skyrocket during Diwali.
This year, however, India’s economy is locked in a fierce battle with COVID-19. Many large markets, anticipating vast crowds, have closed, but India’s economy relies on the sales made during Diwali, so the majority of stores and markets remain open. India was second only to the U.S. in its number of coronavirus cases before Diwali, at 8.5 million cases ¹. With currently over nine million coronavirus cases and 138,000 deaths ², Diwali’s festive frenzy seems to have taken its toll on the overall health of the country.
Diwali among the diaspora, on the other hand, is quite different. The melting pot of America contains a steadily growing Indian-American population of approximately four million³. Therefore, Diwali is still a widely recognized holiday, but is generally limited to religious centers and household parties rather than nationwide events. However, many people still use their elaborate decorations to show their cultural pride. Diyas, paper lanterns, rangolis, and string lights–some homemade, some store bought–still adorn many homes during this time. Indeed, an easy way to spot an Indian home is if their Christmas lights come up a few months early. Many families hold large group gatherings to celebrate amongst their communities, bedecked in traditional Indian clothing and jewelry. Firecrackers are common at such parties as well, although they are much smaller than the ones seen in India. Amid the children waving sparklers and the wide arrays of Indian food, it is easier to feel connected to Indian culture despite the physical distance.
Predictably, the pandemic has brought massive changes to the way Diwali is observed in America as well. Most religious and community centers did not hold public celebrations due to health and safety concerns, and many people are deciding against extravagant parties. Though this might make it easier to mitigate the damage of COVID-19, the festivity and togetherness of Diwali have been effectively squashed. Nobody has felt this isolation more, perhaps, than the children of Indian immigrants who no longer live with their families. Those who are not able to travel home for Diwali are separated both physically and emotionally from the traditions they likely grew up with, which can have harmful effects on their connection to their cultures. Just as people often lose fluency in their mother tongues after leaving home, cultural practices must be repeated to be maintained.
Shreya, a student at ASU, says she felt the separation from her family. “ I Facetimed my parents while they were doing the puja and everything, even though they didn’t have any parties. Celebrating Diwali through a screen really doesn’t feel like Diwali at all.” When asked whether the physical distance from her family affected her closeness with Indian culture, Shreya said “Absolutely. Diwali is usually one of the only times during the year that I can be fully proud of my identity and not worry about what white people think of me. It’s so validating to be around a bunch of other Indian people who I love and don’t have to whitewash myself around. Not having that this year definitely felt like a blow. I hope next year will be normal, but if it isn’t, I want to have my own celebration just to have that feeling again.”
Others have a more positive outlook on Diwali during COVID-19. Amita, who moved to California from India in 1997, says “I celebrated Diwali with my husband, daughter, and father-in-law. It was small, but it still had that core feeling of togetherness. We made an akash kandeel, a paper lantern, and put diyas around the house. Even though we didn’t want to risk breaking our quarantine to have a party, it was still lovely to be able to wish everyone through group Zoom calls. Technology really has made the distance between our friends and extended family more bearable.”
Just as Diwali celebrates finding light among darkness, perhaps the way to survive this uncertain time is to find a spark of hope and optimism in the bleak isolation.