Deepavalli, more popularly called Diwali in the Caribbean (Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, etc.) and North America. The Hindu festival of light, is celebrated with gaiety and splendor in places where there are large numbers of Hindus. In India, Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad, Fiji, Mauritius, Malaysia, Singapore, Durban, Bangladesh, among other places, it is a public holiday. In these places, Diwali is even celebrated by non-Hindus although they may not light deyas in their homes or go to the mandirs. In Singapore, Chinese are known to visit the temples for Diwali and as guests for dinner at the homes of Hindus or Buddhists who also celebrate Diwali in India. In New York and Toronto and in parts of Florida and other states in the US, the celebration, introduced by Guyanese and Trini Hindus is a big hit. Politicians compete to host Diwali programs in their offices, government buildings, and halls. Even the White House, President Donald Trump, and Prime Ministers Johnson of UK and Trudeau of Canada, Prince Charles of Britain observe Diwali inviting Hindu community leaders and the Indian Ambassador for the celebration. In NY, Guyanese reminisce about the celebration at home, wishing to re-experience it.
As I recall as a child growing up, people of all ethnic groups usually look forward for the Diwali festival because it is a time for invitation for dinners and the distribution of sweets as well as to take in the brilliant fire works and light displays. There was so much and an assortment of food and ‘parsad’ to be had. The children, regardless of ethnicity and religious background, eagerly look forward for the holiday because they get a break from school. They also get an opportunity to take in the spectacular traditional earthen lights or deyas, enjoy the season’s delicacies, and be the judge to the best lit home or best float in the motorcade parade. I remember as a youngster taking packages of delicious items for my mother to neighbors, non-Hindus in particular. My poa, father’s sister, Aunty Bethlyn, for example, having no children, used to get me to run errands delivering packages to Muslim families she grew up with as neighbors in the logies. In Guyana, deyas are lit all over the yard, windows, and stairways – a most spectacular sight, just as it is in NY. Homes are decorated with flickered multi-colored lamp bulbs. Children and adult males visited homes from street to street to take in the night lights in NY as they do in Guyana.
Falling on a Saturday this year, it will be an extended holiday weekend although the Covid pandemic will affect the celebrations making them only indoor at home. How will it be this year in light of covid? People will still celebrate in the privacy of their home and decorate outside the home. The shopping district is teeming with people suggesting people are purchasing items for the special festival.
Unlike in Guyana or several other countries, Diwali is not a public holiday in NY although it is an excused school holiday for Hindu students, though schools are not closed. Being on a Saturday, schools are closed anyway. It is also accorded official recognition for cancellation of parking rules in NY.
The celebrations in NY and Guyana also have some other similarities. As in Guyana or Trinidad and Surinam, Hindus in NY usually began making preparation for Diwali days before the festival to welcome the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi. Houses were given a new look. The lawn was trimmed and tree trunks white washed. New linens and blinds decorated the homes. New clothes were purchased for pooja. People fasted days prior to the festival and abstained from rank (meat or fish or eggs) and alcohol. They acquire new food items and religious paraphernalia (ghee, coconut oil, etc.) including deyas in preparation for the festival. (When Burnham banned several items, including flour, alou, dhal, channa, etc., celebrating Diwali was most difficult as we could not get delicacies like bara, phulourie, sahena, kachourie, dhal puri, etc. Even sweet rice was not possible as Burnham outlawed the consumption of condensed and other canned milk. Alou curry and dhal puri was a favorite but Burnham criminalized its consumption, in a failed effort to deculture Indians).
During the festival period, an aura of celebration in the air in Guyana as it is in NY with homes well decorated. Lights flicker in front of homes and shops. At this time of the year, stores are very busy. The pandemic has not reduced shopping spree as people buy up the paraphernalia needed for the celebration. The business district is also decorated in NY as in Guyana with colorful lights and party decorations. Diwali is significant to the business community because it is the time of the year when they close their business, close out old accounts and open new ones for the new Hindu year.
As I recall growing up in Guyana, in the days leading up to Diwali, temples were visited and Hindus propitiated Goddess Laxmi who represents wealth and prosperity. I used to visit the Port Mourant Shivala for services with the mandir packed to capacity; the kick down door banditry, introduced by a politician who is still around, reduced nightly attendance in mandirs during later years. On the eve of Diwali, Hindus would lit five deyas with one placed in front of the main door of the house and the others distributed on the altar of the home mandir or kutiya and around the home. In Guyana, the youths would pick up deyas the following morning and used these again on Diwali night to light up around the house yard for decorative purposes to be judged in the unofficial competition of the best lit home.
On Diwali day, sweets, mohanbhoog (prasadam) and bhojan (food) are prepared and Hindus exchange gifts, cards, and greetings and distribute sweets and foods to their neighbors, friends and relatives. After havan services and aartee of murthis and the elderly, deyas are arranged in rows and lit up around the house. Every window ledge of the house and every step on the outdoor stairs are decorated with deyas; may homes even mount multicolored designs of deyas in front of their homes as they compete for the title of the most deya-lit home. The same kind of competition exists in NY. Some homes are brilliantly illuminated.
As in Guyana, in NY, the temples would be visited and at dawn, prayers and offerings are made to Lord Ganesh and Goddess Laxmi. My pupa, father’s sister husband, would get a fit if anyone leaves the home for Diwali. As a traditionalist, he felt Diwali must be celebrated at home with the family.
Long before the deyas are out, people would drive around various neighborhoods to take in the spectacular sight. In NY, there used to be a motorcades the weekend before Diwali. This year, there is no motorcade. But there would be a small celebration and lighting a deyas on Liberty Ave in front of Sybil on Friday evening. But the street lights on Liberty, and Jamaica Avenues are up for the season of Diwali, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.