Some Thoughts On An Alt-Diwali That Is Inclusive Of Everybody

Posted: October 22, 2014

How can we celebrate a more inclusive Diwali that is about reaching out beyond caste, class or religious boundaries? This post reflects on an alt-Diwali.

Diwali has turned into one of the biggest South Asian festivals across the world. It can really no longer be claimed as just a Hindu festival, especially because it has also become an event for celebration across the South Asian diaspora, which has come to view its celebration as an opportunity for cooking and eating vegetarian food together, some fun and dancing, the bursting of crackers and the consumption of that great national unifier Bollywood (with subtitles).

The celebration of Diwali organized typically by an Indian and Hindu diaspora has come to signify a non-religious reunion across a creed of South Asians that replays the dream of secularism among commonwealth countries outside South Asia, where foreigners to it may come as those invited to it, to watch, learn and appreciate performances of cultural difference, as spectators of integration and the discourse of ‘unity in diversity’ that Indian politics pretends to have achieved.

It is believed and gently expected of these spectators that while they are consuming ‘us’ at ‘it’: that is, our frenzied display of unified South Asian diversity and difference from foreigners: our many languages, songs, dances, clothes and foods, they would finally rid themselves of their ‘othering’ gaze towards us. It is hoped that they would sympathize with our daily and fumbling struggle with what we understand as their life of ease: their homogeneous language (which actually has a lot of dialects), their unchanging culture (which actually has as much internal diversity as ours).

What results out of it all is a lot of misunderstandings on both sides and a lot of empty nationalism that is  really quite misleading. We end up portraying a picture that is inauthentic and hurtful and that actually produces anger. And the root cause of all this remains simpler in intent in the meanwhile: loneliness and the human need to celebrate and share and be together.

I have felt through the years that we either need to share better or then give up the things that we cannot share as a mark of solidarity; as an outstretched hand extended towards those, whom we don’t intend to discriminate against.

For example, the Lakshmi puja part of Diwali becomes relegated to the home for the select participation of close friends and relatives, so that the religious Diwali may become freed from the secular Diwali so as not to exclude the non-Hindus. At the same time this exclusion remains inherent in the very way this Lakshmi Puja, itself a part of Diwali originally, is separated from the secular and public Diwali and privatized within Hindu homes, outside of non-Hindu and usually intra-caste contact. This itself becomes a mark of discrimination, though the intention of separating Lakshmi Puja and relegating it to the home from a secular Diwali celebration in public spaces is originally aimed to reduce discrimination.

If we are really secular, we need to give up the divisions of religion and caste within our Lakshmi Pujas itself; not just neatly separate the religious realm from the non-religious and then simply carry these distinctions abroad, insisting that we have become secular.

If we are really secular, we need to give up the divisions of religion and caste within our Lakshmi Pujas itself; not just neatly separate the religious realm from the non-religious and then simply carry these distinctions abroad, insisting that we have become secular. We have not become secular by dividing our Diwali into religious and non-religious zones. We are only making a big performance of our secularism for foreigners, while ‘privatizing’ our communalism.

I was speaking to a Bangladeshi boy on my first Diwali celebration in Germany about the exuberance of celebrating an Indian festival abroad as we both sat next to each other during the cultural program of ‘Diwali Night’ in one of the German cities where I first studied and taught. He grew restless, irritated and confided in me about how this was the first Diwali he had ever celebrated in his whole life, although he had studied in India before this for several years. He felt angry about Diwali because never in India had he ever been included by any of the Indian students or their families before in the same way as he was being included over here, though he had to pay a nominal entry fee.

He called the bonhomie of the Indian secularism of Diwali celebrations an NRI pretense in Germany that he said bitterly they had organized to inveigle themselves to the Germans in direct competition against the Muslim and Chinese immigrants to Germany as workers. The NRIs in Germany were behaving, he said, as if they had just discovered Diwali and the huge South Asian togetherness for 10 Euros per participant for the first time, knowing fully how much Germans loved culture and tradition and all things exotic that came from the East and Hindu India that had Sanskrit roots, especially.

He felt Indians organizing quasi Hindu festivals under South Asian cultural banners in Germany, wherein they made different regions and religious communities from South Asia invisible, were only rounding up brown-skinned persons in their programs to showcase the extent of the brown majority to increase the exotic, powerful and acceptable content of their own contrast against the German mainstream so that they could dis-empower the Turkish and other Asians. No interest was being taken to include any North East persons or Muslims in these festivals for instance because neither being Indian or celebrating Diwali was of any importance to a Muslim in India or persons from the North East for instance, who only understood Diwali as molestation by the Indian Army. And that is where the great delusion of the Diwali celebration that was projecting some crazy secularism of India faltered as inauthentic.

He said that Bangladeshis for instance could not organize any cultural events on their own without interference from Indians, because all the Indians (other Bengalis) would cry foul about discrimination if kept out from joint cultural events, because Bengalis obviously shared culture in South Asia and secondly, if it was a Muslim festival, Germans would not accept its cultural richness with so less a threat perception as they did a quasi Hindu festival, because Germany and the western world had problems with Muslim immigrants after 9/11.

I remember being angry with him and asked him to leave if he had so many problems with an Indian event that included so many others. But he said that he was lonely and watching a film, eating some South Asian food, even if vegetarian, watching some song and dance and a film all for 10 euros after all was not bad. It made the memory of all those years spent during lonely Diwalis in India more bearable.

He told me of how extremely lonely and lost he had felt during those Diwali days looking at other families shopping together for the three years he had spent in India when he had no money to go home, since he had only a meager scholarship.

He went on to recount the lack of sensitivity, friendship and intense loneliness he faced in Mumbai as a student during Diwali, when most of the students left the hostel and returned home to their own families for festivities and celebration during Diwali. He told me of how extremely lonely and lost he had felt during those Diwali days looking at other families shopping together for the three years he had spent in India when he had no money to go home, since he had only a meager scholarship. To my utter horror he told me of how on one such Diwali, he was even tempted to go to a wrong kind of a woman out of utter loneliness. For the ‘real’ India he said bitterly, Diwali was all about a huge market place, excluding all others that did not belong to Hindus and associated clans, drinking, gambling and partying and buying and noise and air pollution and food and a time when everybody remembered and discovered their family for the first time. You were dead without a family in India on a Hindu festival though this was not the same on a Muslim festival. Many Hindus attended Muslim festivals and shrine Urs in India and Bangladesh. But no Hindu ever invited you for a Diwali bash at his residence in India. Hindus, he said with venom, discover Indian Muslims, only as NRIs, to increase their count.

It was true that you were dead on an Indian festival without family in India as any kind of minority, though I did not want to believe him there and then, when the Indian friends I knew in Germany were making such an elaborate performance of the nation and its secularism! It felt heady!

Many years later as I went through a painful divorce, I understood my Bangladeshi friend better and wished him well for having opened my eyes a little. I came to understand what eviction from an Indian clan came to mean in terms of its implication on Indian festivals that celebrated the very clan that evicted its women. I could imagine what he went through, while watching families shop and celebrate together as I sat tired and alone at a busy traffic signal on a hazy polluted Diwali evening at the back of a taxi, on my way home from a dreary office meeting, watching some children in a slum on the wayside hopping happily over some crackers, knowing that only a darkened and empty apartment awaited me. Everyone had someone to celebrate with!

Yes, you were dead without a family in India on festivals unless you were an NRI, who had the leisure to perform secularism and national integration for foreigners; who had the urgency to display their treatment of the homeless, evicted women, orphaned children, the poor and destitute and people from marginal groups as far from authentic. That is when you still had the gall to say that you were trying to treat them as anything better than the clan-less social pariahs that they were in India, when at the same time you had the capacity to forgive your politicians established violence.

For myself, I decided to give up hegemonic Indian festivals that celebrated the clan and denigrated the clan-less that evicted its women, harboring no love or respect for her person or labour that she ever gave it, once the eviction was done and over with. I denounced the very concept of the Indian festival that excluded and created the ‘other’. Even while I searched my childhood for positive aspects of the celebration that I could cling on to, in order to celebrate the great Diwali festival, I actually found nothing really special. I remembered the scared eyes of my dog, who refused to come out from under the bed and whined continuously and my father’s asthmatic wheezing as a grizzly pall of smoke covered Delhi amidst the betting and gift giving of our business-class friends that my Bengali family never really became part of. I remembered the brave attempts of my mother, who kept up the festive mood of her only child, while she worried about the health of an asthmatic husband. I laid my Diwali to rest. And it gave me peace.

Can Diwali be about us reaching out to others?

But I am writing this article because many of us women can make such an enormous difference to the celebration of Diwali in our own homes in India. Let us reach out to those who have been marginalized in our own lives, even if we cannot do official ‘social service’ like visiting orphanages, old-age homes or women’s shelters or various handicap homes. Such one-time visits that are not sustainable are moreover not advisable in any case.

We can however keep some things in mind that the sharing of the experiences above bring immediately to attention. Please let us remember to not make our domestic help slog during Diwali. Let us remember, she has a festival too and let us remember, that we need to share some of our joy with her and her family as well, since it is because of her that we have the time to pursue our professional goals and life dreams. Remember, everyone makes the domestic help slog especially hard during Diwali and she has many responsibilities during a festival when all clan members collect in every home that increases her work burden manifold. Its a very very hard time for her, which only just makes celebration in her home possible and some accumulation of a nest egg for the future year. We all need a buffer and please let us view this compassionately. Please let us share all her work with her and make a double payment for her possible without complaints. I am sure she will also appreciate gifts in kind as well. Please let us share freely.

Remember, everyone makes the domestic help slog especially hard during Diwali and she has many responsibilities during a festival when all clan members collect in every home that increases her work burden manifold.

If your child lives in a hostel, do make an effort to invite his/her friends over, who are not going home or not able to go home this Diwali to your home, irrespective of the religion or region or country that these friends belongs to. Give them a nice holiday too by including them in your family and feed them up with whatever you can manage to prepare or buy. Remember these children live away from home and all the affection and friendship you can manage on a festival will go a long way for their happiness and safety in a life away from home. Also remember, there will be a time when your own child will leave home and you will feel very grateful when some family in a foreign part or country will show friendship and kindness towards your child, when s/he feels homesick or lonely.

Let us not just necessarily visit family this Diwali. Let us all visit friends and friends of friends as well and keep our eyes and ears open for all those ‘who may not be able to make it’ for your party. Lets make a special move towards them, keeping ourselves sensitive towards why they might feel shy and out of place in our get-togethers that assume married and mother-of-children homogeneity.

Let us try and make as many people more comfortable as we can in our own circles, in our neighborhoods or offices. Please ask that single woman in your office about what her plans this Diwali are, even if she seems to fob you off initially. People withdraw because they feel awkward, overwhelmed and lonely in big clans that ask all single outsider women intrusive questions about their looks, clothes, or why they don’t marry or have children. Single women feel even more lonely in family get-togethers and the situation conspires to make it into more of a passive aggressive situation for them. Please make sure that they will be safe from emotional intrusion in your home. Finally protect adolescents and unattached single guests from drunken members of your family if you are having a party.

Remember Diwali celebrations are not just a symbol of national integration for NRIs. That only breeds anger for those visitors to your home, who compare the experience with extreme selfishness, casteism, parochialism, communalism, regionalism, and discrimination against women who are treated as outcastes and those who are poor and exploited for labour.

Happy Alt-Diwali!

Lights image via Shutterstock

Originally published at the author’s blog

Deepra Dandekar is a feminist historian working on narratives of religion, community and violence in

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