My research of the celebration of Diwali and Eid from interviewing early Guyanese and Trini pioneers in America, UK, and Canada reveal it was very small – indoors of hotel rooms and apartments in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Indo-Caribbeans first started settling in the US in the 1960s and in Canada in the late 1970s. They started settling in England in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indian cultural celebrations like Diwali, Eid and Holi did not become institutionalize until decades later when the community grew in size and political influence. Although celebrated in secluded communities during their early presence, Diwali, Holi, and Eid only became a kind of a national festival in the US and UK in the 1990s and in Canada in the 2000s – when they were given recognition by politicians who themselves began hosting celebrations in their offices and in ballrooms or government legislatures for their Hindu constituents.
Outdoor cultural (Diwali, Holi, and Islamic) celebrations in New York was not possible until the 1980s when Americans slowly became familiar with Indian Guyanese culture and many Guyanese had become home owners and began lighting deyas in front of their homes. (The first outdoor Indian cultural program was organized by myself, Bhanu Dwarika of Trinidad, Isherdat Ramdehal, Ramesh Kalicharran, and Gora Singh of Guyana, and others at Rufus King Park in Jamaica, Queens in May 1985 on the occasion of Indian Arrival; prior to that Indian Arrival, Diwali, Holi and Eid celebrations were indoors. The first major Diwali celebration with a Diwali Queens was held at Washington Irving high school in 1984 organized by myself, Nohar Singh, Baytoram Ramharack, Vassan Ramracha, and others – sponsored by BWIA). Electronic lights during Diwali and Eid were not introduced until the 1990s when Indians began to assert their cultural space and political place in society as equals to others. Phagwah was celebrated outdoor with a parade around 1989; prior to that it was celebrated indoor at school auditoriums and in temples. Outdoor Eid celebrations did not begin until the 1990s by Haji Zakir and his Islamic Guyanese group; prior to that Eid prayers and festivities were held at rented halls or ballrooms of hotels; I attended several in my capacity as a community news reporter.
The growing presence of South Asians (Indians from India in particular) helped to popularize Indian (and by extension Indo-Guyanese) culture and non-Indians learn of the significance of Diwali. (Indians began settling in America after 1965 when a law was passed allowing non-Whites to acquire residency and citizenship. Indians were not allowed to become US citizens; and they were only allowed into the country because of a shortage of skilled labor to service industries. And as such much was not known about Indian culture and religious practices until the 1990s).
During the 1960s, no Guyanese owned homes in the US and Canada and only a few became homeowners during the 1970s to facilitate outdoor Diwali or Holi or Eid celebrations. (A few Guyanese purchased properties in England in the late 1960s and more did so during the 1970s and thereafter). Even those who owned homes were fearful or embarrassed to light deyas outside of their homes for fear of being reported to the Fire Department or laughed at by neighbors for practicing “something strange or weird”.
It was not until the 1960s that Indo-Guyanese and Trinis came to NY. They lived in block clusters allowing for informal formation of Hindu and Islamic organizations. They hosted religious in the apartments or hotel rooms. In one instance, a hotel room was jointly rented by Hindus and Muslims, and they took turn hosting religious service. They collaborated in organizing programs for their festivals and preparing parsad, sirni, and meals. Halal food was not possible in the early years except when imams would go to a farm and purchased animals that were slaughtered in his presence. Live meat markets in NY and halal meat became more available in the late 1980s and popularized from the 1990s.
When I came to the US as a sixteen year old to study medicine in 1977, there were block clusters of Guyanese in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. Diwali and Eid or Holi celebrations occurred indoors in the apartments and Guyanese shared eating goodies among friends and neighbors. If Diwali fell on a weekday, not many snack items were prepared as it was a working day. There were the basic dhal puri, bara, phulourie, alou, channa, pumpkin and sweet rice. (Baigan was not always available and bora was not present in the vegetable markets until the 1980s at a high cost). And Diwali or Phagwah dinner was late because it took a lot of time to prepare those various dishes. Neighbors would prepare items and shared in order to lessen the workload. If Diwali fell on a weekend, the celebration was a little more elaborate with other items. Every ingredient was prepared from scratch. The stores had no ground dhal and there were no chowmein or mangoes (for chatney) in the stores. West Indian stores did not open up until the late 1980s when Little Guyana began in Richmond Hill. Prior to that cultural items were obtained from Little India in Manhattan or from a West Indian store on 38th Street and ninth Avenue. Diwali and Holi celebrations at mandirs did not begin until mid 1980s and Eid in Masjid in the 1990s.
At City College, where several Indo-Caribbeans were students, I joined others in organizing Diwali celebrations in 1977 with a prayer and sharing of some sweets purchased from Indian shops. The India Club got $100 from student fees based on its membership size and it was used to organize activities. There was a paucity of activities and much of the funds was returned to the government. The Diwali celebration was hosted by the India Club that was formed by earlier students around 1969. The Caribbean Students Association would have nothing to do with Indian celebrations as they did not see anything Indian as Caribbean culture. For Africans, Caribbean culture was only things that were ‘Black” and reggae and calpyso. Indian related culture, including Indian music and films, or Indian activities and celebrations of Diwali and Holi or Eid were not permitted. So naturally, Indo-Caribbeans gravitated towards the India Club. But Indo-Caribbeans could not relate to Indian nationals in the India Club because of their paucity of cultural activities and their different way (from Indo-Caribbeans) of celebrating festivals. Northern Indians celebrated events differently from South Indians. Celebrations by Biharis and Uttar Pradeshis were different from Tamils and Gujaratis. So Indo-Caribbeans formed their own Indo Club in 1978 and began hosting all Indian celebrations. The India Club some became dysfunctional and dissolved. As the Indo-Caribbean student population increased, Diwali celebrations on campus also grew. There were also Holi celebrations. I was put in charge of organizing Diwali and Holi celebrations. These were massive as I used to rent a hall (for free – Lewison Lounge) on south campus of CCNY that was fully equipped with a kitchen and cooking as well as eating utensils. Every year, I cooked up a storm (dhal puri, phulourie, making parsad, etc and the like) for Holi, Diwali, Easter and Christmas and other special events, the last day before holidays. The club’s programs and festivities attracted non-Indians from Guyana, other parts of the Caribbean and Africa. The Blacks students from Africa knew of Diwali and Holi as it was celebrated in their communities by Indians who had settled in Africa during the 1800s. Indians from India and other countries also patronized our programs. The few Muslims in the club took no interest in organizing Eid or Muharram celebrations although I volunteered to assist. I used to make Vermicelli. Islamic celebrations were initiated on the West side of Manhattan by Indo-Trini Muslims Mohamed Safarally who organized Tadjah and later in Queens by Haji Zakir group.
As Indo-Caribbean acquired homes in growing numbers and established their own communities in Queens, Bronx, and Brooklyn, the Diwali, Holi and Eid celebrations have taken on a life of their own. They have become institutionalized. The invitation of neighbors for Diwali dinner and for puja or Jhandi or Koran Sharief or Christian service helped with the understanding and acceptance of Indian culture. As the meaning of Diwali celebration was explained and how and why it has been celebrated, it was widely accepted by non-Indians. They loved the spectacle of it and the delicious foods. By the 1990s, Diwali became very popular. Outdoor celebrations spread throughout the city and other parts of the country. It was popularized by coverage in the mainstream American media and by public celebrations in Manhattan and various parts of New York and New Jersey. Even politicians began hosting celebrations. Indian celebrations are accepted as normal in these communities. Streets and building are decorated. Politicians and businesses accept them as part of the city’s calendar of events. Programs are held all over the city. People accept them as part of the city’s culture and look forward for them. It has become the tradition of US Presidents from Bill Clinton onwards to issue Diwali or Holi or Eid greetings. It is the same in Canada and the UK where Prime Ministers and other politicians send out Diwali greetings.