Diwali is observed in several societies around the globe because of the presence of Hindus (Indians originally from India) in several countries including in the West, Pacific, the Caribbean, Africa, etc. I may be among a few individuals who observed or experienced Diwali celebrations in the Indian diaspora (countries where Indians or Hindus are settled) through my wide travels for research on their lifestyle. The festival is spectacularly in countless cities around the world where Hindus have a significant presence. Initially, it started indoors and as the community grew in size it began to be celebrated outdoors and at government offices, workplaces of private businesses, and at parks and in the streets. I have been fortunate to experience Diwali celebrations from Singapore and Malaysia to Durban and New York as well as in Trinidad and Guyana.
The observance of Diwali began a week before the actual day (November 14, 2020) in NY and elsewhere with the big event observed on that Saturday which is similar to that in Guyana and other societies where it was a holiday. In spite of COVID, the festival was celebrated with gaiety and splendor as in India, Surinam, Trinidad, Fiji, Mauritius, Malaysia, Singapore, Durban, Bangladesh, among other places. In all of these countries and the city of Durban, it is a public holiday. In all of these places, as in Guyana and Trinidad, Diwali is even celebrated by non-Hindus although they may not light deyas in their homes or go to the mandirs. Those familiar with the celebrations, look forward for it. I was very fortunate to experience Diwali in India in the cities and in rural villages from where Guyanese migrated during indentureship, Singapore, Durban, and Trinidad. It was extremely colorful in these places. Multi colored lights lit up the evening. In Singapore, ethnic Chinese were seen visiting the Hindi temples for Diwali and as guests for dinner at the homes of Hindus or Buddhists who also celebrate Diwali in India and in some other county. 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 among non Indians. Politicians of all ethnicities compete to host Diwali programs in their offices, government buildings, and in public halls. Even the White House, President Donald Trump, and Prime Ministers Johnson of UK and Trudeau of Canada observed Diwali inviting Hindu community leaders and the Indian Ambassador for the celebration. Prince Charles of Britain also sent out Diwali greetings. Messages were issued by politicians in America and other societies. In NY, Guyanese reminisced about the celebration at their homeland, 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. The same is true in NYC. There was so much and an assortment of food and ‘parsad’ to be had in Guyana and in NY. In India, food was distributed to the public for Diwali.
In Guyana as in India and other societies, 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 and the electronic lights and enjoy the season’s delicacies. The children were also the judge of the best lit home or best float in the motorcade parade. NYC also has motorcades, an idea borrowed from Guyana since the early 1990s. No other countries have motorcades although it was introduced in Trinidad weekends ago. The lights and decorations in India and Singapore are perhaps the best whereas the Diwali Nagar in Trinidad is unique; no other place has that kind of expo. The nagar is beautifully lit up with the most spectacular fireworks. India also has lovely fireworks.
The tradition of sharing foods and sweets is also practiced in all the societies. 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. The same is done in NY, Trinidad, Singapore, Durban, and India. In Guyana, deyas are lit all over the yard, windows, and stairways – a most spectacular sight, just as it is in NY and elsewhere. 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.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 elsewhere, 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).
In NY homes were well decorated. Lights flickered in front of homes and shops and in front of Jhandis or flags where West Indian Hindus reside. Around this time of the year, stores are very busy. The pandemic did not reduce shopping spree as people bought paraphernalia needed for the celebration. The business district was also decorated in NY as in Guyana with colorful lights and party decorations.As I recall growing up in Guyana, during 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 collecting a fat pension, reduced nightly attendance in mandirs during the 1980s. 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, 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. The same is done in NY and other countries. And as in Guyana, on Diwali holiday, after havan services or rituals 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 and other countries. 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.In Guyana before the deyas are out, people would walk around their neighborhoods or drive around to take in the spectacular colorful sight. The same is true in NY, Trinidad, India, and elsewhere. In NY, there used to be a motorcades the weekend before Diwali. This year, there is no motorcade. But there was a small public celebration and lighting a deyas on Liberty Ave in front of Sybil. But the street lights on Liberty Ave in Little Guyana, courtesy of Guyanese businesses, and Jamaica Avenue were up for the season of Diwali, Thanksgiving which is next weekend, and Christmas.