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Festival o Lights - Diwali in NYC


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I never remember this event.

I am home sick around this time. I crave India around Diwali.

I miss the parties, the taash (card games) and the mithai and pakwans (sweets and savory treats) and of-course the beautiful lights that illuminate all homes (rich and poor, pretty and ugly) and transform India into a shimmering beauty that may never be seen but that night.

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DIWALI

It was an evening in mid November, a few weeks after the end of daylight savings time when overnight the dark of winter gets the upper hand and night seems to fall all at once, like the blackout of ‘66. It was raining hard and it had been since the day before. The gutters were choked with leaves and the flooding was so bad that you couldn’t cross some streets without getting your feet wet almost up to your ankles. Geoff was sitting in the corner of the couch in the living room of his and Kabir’s apartment. The room was dark except for the lights that glowed from inside the two large aquariums standing against the fireplace wall. The lights gave the room a kind of watery bluish cast as if it were under water like the city outside.

Geoff was alone, hunched over a box of slender, cream colored candles. He was ripping off the plastic wrappers and laying the stripped tapers on the table next to him. When he looked up to say hello, his face looked stony and impenetrable as if the time change had sapped him of sunlight, as well.

“Hi,” I said, pulling off my coat, the fabric heavy with rain, and hanging it on the coat tree in the hall. I walked into the living room and took a quick look into the kitchen on the way in, then sat down next to him on the couch.

“Where’s himself? I was expecting to see him in the kitchen, still knee-deep in pots.” I palmed a couple of candles from the pile and began to unwrap them.

Geoff grimaced, not meeting my eye. It looked like he was about to say something, but then thought better of it. In the end, he just nodded his head towards the bedroom and said, “He’s in the shower.”

We worked in silence. I didn’t know what was bugging him and I didn’t spend time trying to figure it out. If this had been Kabir sitting next to me, he would have given me the whole story, whatever it was, right up front, without my even asking. But I knew Geoff. He was a man who lived according to traditional male virtues like self-containment and self-sufficiency. He would speak, or not, when he was ready and I’ve never had much of a problem respecting that in him.

Geoff stood up from the couch and put one of the candles in a holder on the floor to the left of the fireplace.

“You want to help me with this?” he asked. “Put the tapers in holders wherever you find them. There are some pillars here that don’t need holders – just put them wherever there’s space, all around the apartment.”

The two of us walked through the rooms, setting up the candles. We must have set up 25, all told. We put some oil lamps out on the deck, too and Geoff put one on the table in the hall outside the front door. When he came back into the apartment I moved to close the door behind him but he motioned me to leave it open. Then he pulled out a lighter and began lighting the living room. I sat down on the couch to watch the show. As the tiny flames caught, the room fell into shades of light and dark, brightness and shadow. We sat together in a rich silence in which time slowed and widened around us.

I turned to see Kabir walk into the living room. He was dressed completely in white: linen pants and a short sleeved, button down shirt, tails out. He didn’t usually wear white and it struck me that in this outfit it looked almost as if he were wearing a costume. A memory of something he’d said to me once about white ceremonial clothing started to come into focus but then I was distracted by the sound of his hands clapping.

“Wow!” he said. “Geoff! It’s so beautiful!”

He looked over at his partner, a smile of open delight on his face. Geoff met his eyes for a moment with that closed up look he was wearing and then he turned away. I saw Kabir wilt. He looked young and vulnerable, standing alone in the middle of the room. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

“You’re angry at me.”

Geoff looked up at his partner. Irritation and frustration played across his face. He crossed his arms over his chest like he could wait a while, if need be. “Yeah.”

I could see that he was enjoying making the younger man squirm.

“So what have I done?”

“What do you think?” Geoff responded in his driest voice. “It’s, Diwali, your New Year’s Eve festival. What have you done to prepare? Almost nothing. You celebrate everything so extravagantly. Why not this?”

It looked for a moment like that was all he had to say. But he went on. “You think I don’t know you? You think I don’t know that this holiday, this celebration of hope and new beginning that is one of the most important Hindu holidays, is important to you? That makes it important for us, too. But no, you’re too depressed to celebrate it because you’re living here in America. What a jerk. So don’t tell me the room looks great – if you’re not going to help me honor your tradition, I’m not interested in your gratuitous approval.”

“And what about Christmas?” Kabir threw back at him. He was mad now. “You’re so cheap you won’t even celebrate your own holidays. So I do Christmas for you every year, buying presents for everyone, making sure we have all the special foods we like. I think you do Diwali just to get even with me. This is so American of you. You can’t just be generous. You have to keep score. Excuse me. I’ve got to go check on the food.”

Kabir walked out, furious.

I was going to say that watching them made me sad but it didn’t really. What they were doing was a waste of time and wasting time doesn’t make me sad. Mostly it annoys me. Here they were, the two of them, each refusing for some reason to celebrate his own holiday. Instead, each had gotten the other to celebrate it for him. And then the two of them got angry at each other about that. I didn’t know what they had going about their holidays but it was clear that each had some personal internal conflict. They’d just managed to set it up so that they fought with each other rather than sort their conflicts out for themselves. And like I said, that’s a waste of time.

Geoff got up to put some music on. I followed Kabir into the kitchen. He was setting the small table for three with fancy, gold rimmed china and stemware. The elegant tableware looked incongruous in the workaday clutter of the kitchen but I’d gotten used to that peculiar marriage of formality and chaos that is typical of Kabir.

I walked over to the stove to put my nose into the various dishes and pots assembled there.

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“Put those two on the table, will you?” Kabir said, gesturing towards a dish of potatoes swimming in a thin tomato sauce, and another that held stir-fried butternut squash speckled with black mustard seeds. Then he picked up a saucepan of something that looked like small doughnuts sailing in a white yogurt sauce and began plopping the “doughnuts” into a round serving dish. He poured the sauce over them, covering them completely.

“Don’t put those out yet”, he said, rummaging around in the cabinet to the left of the stove. The cabinet was crammed with jars of spices. He pulled out several jars and unscrewed the lids.

“What are they?”

“They’re lentil dumplings. Now watch this.”

He took a spoonful of a tan colored powder out of one of the jars and used the spoon to draw parallel lines of the powder over the yogurt. When he couldn’t add any more lines to the direction in which he was working, he picked up a jar of orange-red chili powder and began making parallel lines of it to cross the cumin. I sat down to watch him. He had a lot more patience than I did for this kind of tedious work.

He spent the next five minutes covering the whole of the yogurt with colored geometric designs made from the cumin and chili powders, a dark brown powder that he said was garam masala, chopped cilantro, a brown tamarind-date chutney and a green mint chutney. The decoration reminded me of sand paintings of mandalas I’d seen made by Tibetan monks.

“It’s not just for looks,” Kabir said, standing back to appraise the finished work. “The spices and herbs and chutneys add flavor to the dish, too.”

He dumped a saucepan of chickpeas with their thick tomato sauce into another serving dish and gave it to me.

“You remember these chickpeas? You like them.”

I did like them. But what I remember most about the chickpeas is that that was the day that I found out that Kabir uses ketchup in his cooking. He loves ketchup and eats it like a chutney: that is he slathers it on some foods, or dips other foods into it. I hadn’t said anything to him about it but I had been horrified by the ketchup. I don’t know what’s worse, having my arrogant French cooking sensibility offended or finding out that I had romantically attributed a level of aesthetic purity to Indian cooking that didn’t exist.

Geoff appeared at the doorway of the kitchen. He had changed his clothes. He took in the scene and faced Kabir.

“How much time do I have before we eat?” he asked. “ Can I make a phone call? I’ve got a client who needs a call back; I could make him wait but I’d love to get it over with.”

Kabir looked up from the oil he was heating in a two-handled metal pot. The pot was shaped like an Asian wok but there was something about it, maybe just the simple design etched around the edge, that clearly identified it as Indian. I saw Kabir’s mouth tighten at the corners.

“I was about to start cooking the pooris and they must be eaten hot…,” Kabir said. The two men stood and looked at one another. It was a long moment.

“But no, go ahead,” Kabir acceded, all at once. “We’re in no rush, we’ve got all evening. Go ahead and make your call.”

They continued to look at one other as if some question still remained between them. Then Geoff gave Kabir a small but distinct smile. “Thanks,” he said, and left the room.

Kabir turned the fire off under the pot of oil. He sat down at the table, took a deep breath and let it out. It was as if a tension he’d been living with all evening, one that had defined him so completely that he’d almost forgotten about it, had drained out of him. And suddenly there was nothing left for him to do.

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A moment passed and then I nudged him with my foot under the table: “Tell me something more about Diwali. It’s the Indian New Year, right? But you also call it the festival of lights. Why is that?”

Kabir turned to me like a dreamer, his gaze unfocused.

“It’s our Indian New Year. It goes on for five days, actually”, he said, and I could see him beginning to return from whatever internal landscape he’d been inhabiting. “Each day has its own myths – its legends and tales. The fifth day is the last day of the festival, that’s today, and it marks the beginning of our new calendar year.”

Kabir went over the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of a pink, milky liquid. “Do you want some of this?” he said. “It’s a fruit punch.”

“Sure,” I said and he poured us a couple of glasses. It was sweet and rich and creamy – more like a milkshake to me than a punch.

“Diwali is dedicated to the goddess Laxmi – she’s the celestial consort of Lord Vishnu the Preserver and the goddess of wealth and prosperity. People leave the doors and windows of their homes open at night during the festival so that she will come in and bless their homes with good fortune. And they decorate their floors with colored powders, rice flour and flowers, making geometric patterns – like what you saw me do on the yogurt sauce. The idea is to cover an area of the floors completely; they look like a woven Indian blanket. Then we put oil lamps and candles on the floors amongst the colored patterns. The floors in Indian homes are marble, you know, so we can decorate them and then just wash them clean again.”

He was gesturing with his hands as he talked, as if laying out a design from memory.

“Every day, at sunset, we offer prayers to Laxmi. Ganesh, too.”

“Ganesh…is he the god that is an elephant? Or has the elephant head?” I asked.

I was embarrassed not to know this about his culture. I must have looked it because he said, “Don’t worry about it – there are so many gods…why would you remember? But yes, the elephant. Ganesh is the god of good luck. He opens the way for new beginnings. We turn to him at the start of any new venture. When you begin a Hindu prayer, no matter what god you’re praying to or what the occasion, the first prayer is always an invocation to Ganesh. You start by saying “Shrie Ganesh”. Anyway, after the prayers are finished, which is not long after sunset, the flame that was used in the prayer is used to light the oil lamps. Those, in turn, are used to light the insides and outsides of the homes, as you and Geoff did tonight.”

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“Diwali is called the festival of lights because at bottom, it is a celebration of light and illumination. Diwali is a Hindi word but it comes from the Sanskrit Deepawali, which means “a row of light”. The holiday symbolizes for us the vanquishing of ignorance that overwhelms human life and spirit, and the driving away of darkness with the light of knowledge and hope. We celebrate Diwali in order to embrace hope and the positive values of this life and to leave behind those thoughts and memories that cloud us in darkness.”

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Diwali is a Hindu holiday, right? But it’s celebrated throughout India. By other faiths, too?”

“You know, we all live right next door to one another – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs…. It’s just social custom to acknowledge and even celebrate each other’s holidays. Yes, Diwali is a Hindu holiday. But when I was growing up, we often had Muslim friends and family come join us for the feast and celebration. And we would go to their homes to celebrate their holidays with them.”

“In theory, Hindus are tolerant of other religions. Hinduism is meant to be a personal journey – it’s between you and god. There isn’t one text, like the Bible or the Koran, so there aren’t a lot of rules and restrictions. Hinduism says that religion is in your heart, so every form that religion takes is justified. We grew up decorating a Christmas tree every year.” Kabir looked up at me “And my grandmother had a picture of Jesus Christ on the table where she displayed her Hindu images of gods and goddesses. She also had images of Buddha, Mahavira, Sikh leaders and a few Christian saints there, even a picture of Mahatma Gandhi.”

I didn’t entirely believe the rosy picture he was painting. “Hindu culture certainly has it’s share of rules and restrictions: rules about cleanliness and vegetarianism…and what about the caste system? That’s hardly tolerant.”

“The caste system was dismantled very recently, by law.”

“Like slavery was abolished in this country 150 years, ago?” I looked up at him skeptically over the top of my glasses.

“Well, the caste system is not true to the roots of Hinduism, anyway. The Brahmin class developed it during the Puranic era – and no, don’t ask me when that was,” he said, watching the question forming on my lips and dismissing it with an imperious wave of his hand, “it was sometime long ago, before Christ. That was the time at which Hinduism got written into a text. At that time the norms and rules of the culture were changed in order to give the power to the priestly class, the Brahmins. The caste system was a political gambit – it was created to legitimize the power of those who had it: the Brahmin caste was said to be created from the head of god because they had the intelligence, the ruling class from the shoulders of god because they had the strength to rule, and so on.”

Kabir picked up a potted plant that lived on the kitchen table and took it over to the sink to splash water onto the soil. This was his ginger plant – tall, bamboo-like stalks, only a little more slender – sprouting from a piece of gingerroot that he’d planted in the pot several months ago. Kabir had planted the ginger for cooking. As the plant grows, the root grows too so that, if you’re conservative, you can cut off pieces of the root and it will keep rejuvenating. Kabir mostly refused to cut the root, though –he wanted to let it live, he said – so the plant just kept growing taller and taller.

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“Ancient Hinduism was very different than the religion as it’s practiced today. For example, Hindus weren’t originally vegetarian. The highest sacrifice possible to the gods was human sacrifice (cow sacrifice was second), which people ate in order to worship the gods. But thousands of years ago, before the birth of Christ, the major Hindu texts, the Vedas, were very secular. By that I mean that they talked about the five elements: fire, water, wind, earth and ether, not rules of worship. The idea was that life was dependant on the elements of nature. By worshipping these elements, you protect yourself. Like all primitive peoples, early Hindus were fearful of nature and religion was primarily an attempt to mitigate its power.”

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He finished with the plant and walked over to stand by the table.

“Many Hindu texts were written about the religion but you’ll find that they contradict each other – the rules of worship are not defined. Them, with the coming of Islam to India in the 10th century, Hinduism began to rigidify and get more tightly controlled, presumably to protect and differentiate itself from Islam, a religion that is so strictly codified. But in general, I think that Hinduism thrives on a lack of rules.”

Kabir went out into the hall where he stood a moment, listening in on Geoff’s phone call. Back in the kitchen, he said, “I’m going to start rolling the pooris now. Geoff should be off soon.”

He pulled off a piece of dough and rolled it to a thin, perfect round with an Indian rolling pin. Slightly shorter than a western rolling pin, his is about one-quarter the width at the center and tapers at both ends. He set the round on a cookie sheet and started rolling a second.

“From what I can tell, Diwali seems to be to Hindus what Christmas is to Christians. It hasn’t been commercialized, exactly, but the meaning has changed subtly: today the holiday is all about abundance and entertaining. Family and friends go from home to home, meeting with friends and exchanging gifts of sweets, clothing and firecrackers. There’s lots of food…crackers like these that I made today”, he pointed to a plate of large, round crackers that looked like large sugar cookies, “are served to guests with the families’ best pickles and tiny, dry, cocktail-size samosas: little deep-fried pastries stuffed with spiced lentils.”

“That’s it, we can eat”, Geoff called from the living room. Kabir turned the fire back on under the pot of oil and we got on with dinner.

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The three of us were standing on the roof looking towards downtown Manhattan. The rain had stopped. Patches of clear night sky were emerging behind fast moving clouds. In contrast to the dark sky, the clouds were colored a luminous white-gray by the high-voltage lights of the rescue operation going on at the World Trade Center.

“I think I’ve come up here every night of Diwali to look at the flood lights,” said Kabir. “I miss seeing the oil lamps lit in the houses in Delhi. We used to forget for a night or two how much poverty and pain there was. All houses, rich and poor, looked beautiful in the glow of those lights.”

I thought Geoff was going to slug him if he kept on in that vein.

“I’ve found myself thinking this week about the Hindu teaching that we must go through darkness in order to appreciate the light – we must embrace death in order to celebrate life. And I’ve had the notion that these floodlights celebrate the spirit of Diwali, even now, during this darkness and tragedy. Laxmi is blessing us with that light and if we can stay open to open to her blessing, she will enter and bring us her wealth. I’ve watched New Yorkers find many ways of renewing their faith through their pain in the last two weeks and that process of grieving the tragedy and having the hope of finding new life after is what Diwali is about.”

“That’s the Hindu in me – forever hopeful. But there’s another part of me – or maybe it’s the sum of all of the parts of me – that doesn’t know what to believe about hope any more. I used to feel so sure of myself in my identity as a Hindu. I’d look at someone like our friend Meera, who is so torn between her shared Indian and American heritages, that she’s made a mess of her life – she doesn’t have the satisfaction of either and now she’s in a miserable marriage as a result – and I’d feel sorry for her and a little superior, because I knew who I was. But after the last few weeks, I don’t think I do know anymore. I feel that I know what she’s going though. I can’t point to one or another culture as my home. I can’t side with anyone in this political climate and I don’t know that I feel a lot of hope – for myself or for the world.”

And then, Geoff reminded him it was Diwali, time to open the doors of the home, so that Laxmi could come in when she so desired. Kabir found at least some momentary hope. We went down to our own apartments. I changed forever since now I knew why I found peace in those words that Kabir spoke. And even in the tragedy that surrounded my thoughts since 9/11, I had seen in his words a ray of hope. I wished he could see such light for himself in his own beliefs. I wished he was as restorative to himself as he was to all that knew him. I wished him Happy Diwali without even being in his presence. I believed he would get my wishes.

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  • 4 weeks later...
Suvir-

Thank you.  wonderful posts.  I experienced Deepavali in Singapore and found it to be an especially joyous celebration.

Thanks for your kind words! :smile:

And yes Deepavali is indeed a joyous occasion, much like Christmas or even Meethi Id and several other such festivals across cultures and religions...

And I have always enjoyed the great food that is connected with them.... Yummmmm:biggrin:

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Sweet Diwali

The above is an article that our very own spicegirldc wrote for India New England News.

Below is an excerpt.... Sweet Diwali to all! :smile:

Sweet Diwali

Cookbook author shares recipes for holiday treats

By Monic Bhide

Close your eyes and picture this: You are on a hilltop, looking at a dark moonless sky. The dark night suddenly bursts with brilliant light. Colorful sparkles light up the sky as the emit a magical dust.

You sense a glow, you look down toward the earth. A stunning view awaits you. Lights as far as your eyes can see, in every shape and size, from small terracotta lamps to large, colorful light bulbs.

The smells of delicious rice pudding and mouthwatering carrot halwa penetrate your senses. You hear the children laughing, the bells in the temple chiming, the sounds of chants and prayers being offered. You feel a sense of warmth and well being. Then you feel as though a gentle hand has patted your head. You, and those around you, have been blessed — it is Diwali.

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Spicegirldc,

What are you cooking today? What recipes would you reccomend I try from your book for this occasion... I may try one or two... Any ideas??

And do you cook all vegetarian food today or does it not matter? I know many Hindus keep this day a vegetarian day. Not sure what others on eGullet do... :rolleyes:

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Spicegirldc,

What are you cooking today?  What recipes would you reccomend I try from your book for this occasion... I may try one or two... Any ideas??

And do you cook all vegetarian food today or does it not matter?  I know many Hindus keep this day a vegetarian day.  Not sure what others on eGullet do...  :rolleyes:

I dont usually cook very traditional mithia or Indian sweets... Today, I made the "no cook Indian icecream" -- my humble version of the awesome indian kulfi, and the saffron fruit custard and finally at the end of the day, after all is said and done, our family tradition is to sip saffron tea ("no tea leaves tea" in the book). Let me know what you try and how it turns out.

Our Diwali is vegetarian till someone opens a bottle of scotch, I can still hear my uncles back home yelling "where is the real food"..

A very happy diwali to all of you. May all your dreams be touched with magic!

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All sounds wonderful.

What savory stuff are you preparing?

Simple snacky things, making bite size chickpea pancakes to be served with Cilantro chutney, Indian Chex Mex and steamed channa dal spice cakes! I am getting hungry already!!

What wonders are you cooking up Suvir... I wish I could taste them!!! If wishes were horses....

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All sounds wonderful.

What savory stuff are you preparing?

Simple snacky things, making bite size chickpea pancakes to be served with Cilantro chutney, Indian Chex Mex and steamed channa dal spice cakes! I am getting hungry already!!

Chickpea pancakes - Are these what we call Cheelas? Made with Besan (chickpea flour) and they also have onions, cilantro and green chiles? I had some Thursday... Delicious!

Indian Chex Mex - What is your recipe? Do you buy it or prepare them?

Chana Dal Spice Cakes - Are these Dhoklas or Chana Vada?

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All sounds wonderful.

What savory stuff are you preparing?

Simple snacky things, making bite size chickpea pancakes to be served with Cilantro chutney, Indian Chex Mex and steamed channa dal spice cakes! I am getting hungry already!!

Chickpea pancakes - Are these what we call Cheelas? Made with Besan (chickpea flour) and they also have onions, cilantro and green chiles? I had some Thursday... Delicious!

Indian Chex Mex - What is your recipe? Do you buy it or prepare them?

Chana Dal Spice Cakes - Are these Dhoklas or Chana Vada?

Similar to the Cheelas... my parents spent a lot of time in Jaipur and my father taught me to make these. I make my own Chex mix, but I do LOVE some of the store bought ones. My recipe is simple, I use a plain corn flakes, roasted peanuts and a variety of powdered spices.

And yes it is Channa Dal Dhokla, I do make a variation sometimes with sooji idlies, stuffed with achari masala, steamed and tempered with mustard seeds and green chilies. Another great variation to tempering this idli is to coat it with egg wash and then either deep fry or saute it.

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