The ‘Isms’ of an Immigrants’ Diwali
The stupendous complexity of Hindu immigrants’ conundrum magnifies when they ‘attempt’ to celebrate Diwali in communities where Hindus are a minority.
By Nandita Godbole
“If you date, find a Hindu fellow,” instructions from my doting father, as I left India for the United States in 1995. Given his long tenure in public service, he believed that sectarian differences were less contentious than religious ones, displaying and reading from holy books of different faiths at his work desk, offering a safe conversation space to those who approached him.
Yet, he could not have imagined that although the premise of Hinduism appears inclusive, practicing it imposes subtle expectations on women. When one moves away, and becomes an immigrant, it intensifies their immigrant experience, affects their accent, attire, grooming, food, travel, etc. Along with these shifts of adjustments, the stupendous complexity of Hindu immigrants’ conundrum magnifies when they ‘attempt’ to celebrate Diwali in communities where Hindus are a minority.
Until the late 1990’s the Georgian calendar did not include Diwali and I recall that friends would be taken aback by my ‘Happy Diwali’ reminders. What nuances remained veiled under enthusiastic celebrations in one’s home country, became targeted glaring differences in the new country. Outwardly, the vibrancy and essence of this unmistakably Hindu celebration filter through the lens of a new country and its commercial substitutions. Paraffin votives replace traditional clay lamps, floral wreaths replace fragrant floral doorway garlands, adhesive floor designs replace elaborate forms of rangoli, Christmas lights replace colorful ‘lanterns’, fireworks are limited. A quick trip to an ethnic grocery store freezer replaces the age-old tradition of handcrafting desserts, and spontaneous family visits become a trip to a ticketed ‘Diwali Mela’, if accessible and affordable.
But these are not the problems.
Behind closed doors is a different, socially isolated Diwali—a Bollywood blockbuster worthy epic of negotiating rituals. Hindu festivals are typically religious observances, with their own rules. Managing its practices in the absence of a larger community is testing for young families. It is especially taxing for women given their limited role in traditional Hindu religious observances. Most often, women remain the background ‘doers’: assembling a plethora of nuanced supplies, shopping for and cooking ‘ritual-friendly’ foods, observing religious fasts, singing hymns, preparing the prayer altar and home for the observance. There is an assumption of derived pious satisfaction in these many-layered tasks. The success of a religious ritual/festival is measured heavily through the assumption that all these supporting pieces will come together seamlessly. Paradoxically, it also shifts the burdens onto the doer, the woman, who cannot lead the main rituals. Until recently, women were permitted to lead family prayers only if a male was absent, and they could not perform complex religious rituals alone. Perhaps this practice harbors the seeds of contention between different generations of women, especially in mixed-faith and inter-caste marriages as religious practices and traditions differ dramatically between the many factions of Hindu sects alone.
As a student, and later as a young bride, I discovered that every family defines, interprets, and observes Diwali differently. ‘Friendly’ disagreements about appropriateness and accuracy arose as my husband and I debated ‘sub-cultural’ appropriations while navigating the maze of hyper-individualized rituals. Like microscopic differences of one’s genetics, our regional, micro-sectarian allegiances manifested. The layers of blending became points of debate; language/regional allegiances, hyperlocal preferences, fading ‘social caste’ issues, maternal/paternal preferences, and more—all interchangeable in their hierarchy, albeit, only in theory, created a mess. It took a few years for these negotiations to settle. Meanwhile, our twosome quietly endured, adjusting to a stripped down, minimalist representation of an otherwise unifying festival. I survived until we became a family of three—and then had to repeat the process all over again, this time blending our own traditions with those of our American-born daughter.
I would love to believe that Hindus are continually accepting, growing underneath the shade of an evolving lived-culture doctrine—the essence of Hinduism. But after 22 years of spending my Diwali’s in America, and having spent the last twenty months writing a cookbook about family food-memories, instead of witnessing blended families incorporate a joyous ‘smorgasbord’ of celebrations, Diwali represents a ‘prix fixe’ observance, curated through marriage, geography, and resources, measured on a hypersensitive scale of idiosyncratic acceptability.
As a festival, Diwali represents righteousness, forgiveness, acceptance, and more importantly, coming ‘home’. While the world is falling over itself over cultural appropriation of global food, music, and attire, every religious holiday challenges the South Asian identity, especially if the family’s religious beliefs vary in their own homes. Women nurture their family, contribute to the family income and juggle cultural expectations in the absence of corporate-sanctioned Diwali-centered holidays or comforting family support. Behind the closed doors of their home, they juggle the ticks of regionalism, sectarianism, favoritism and other ‘ism’s’ that overshadow the inclusive message of the festival. Sexism rears its head as women become singularly tasked with navigating, negotiating, and upholding all the blended traditions, or worse, have to choose ‘sides’. Very few people see through cultural hypocrisy and support their spouses as they navigate the celebrations. Their actions shock some traditionalists who critique the ‘erosion of culture’, ‘rebellion’ and sigh heavily, muttering under their breath, venting to like-minded individuals.
Why must we subject each other to micro allegiances or impose superlative and hyphenated and often impractical expectations? Why must our home be a contested space?
As many of us trace our heritage and ancestry, we recognize and become torn between our redefined, bifurcating identities. If we don’t allow the tender gossamers of self-identity to flourish, we create distorted communities, perpetuate falsely hierarchical, sexist cultures, and stifle future generations even though we internally strive for equality. Why must ones’ heritage, a vibrant and ancient living culture become scrutinized under a narrow lens of a self-imposed cultural periscope, a mere kaleidoscope of crafted mirrors reflecting only the patterns from the shards of colorful broken glass and beads? Has being an immigrant magnified a deep-seated cultural problem? Was this the ‘better future’ that immigrants desire for themselves and their families?
If we continue without changing, we may end up virtually imploding upon ourselves.
In our home, we have been attempting to create an environment that balances tradition with our multi-faceted identities, in our second home country. Each year brings new traditions. This Diwali, I will teach my daughter how to make her favorite Son’desh while she decides if she wants to make a new kind of pie and we watch my husband make his favorite Mysore Paak. Hopefully, our Diwali festivities will represent an evolving and balanced celebration of family, equality, and our home.
How will you celebrate Diwali this year?
Look for my recipe for Son’desh, and see what else we made in our kitchen this Diwali here.
Author Bio: Nandita is a food writer, storyteller, and teacher. She is a multi-title indie Indian cookbook author, interested in the representation and consumption of everyday culture. Her latest is a food-fiction called ‘Not For You’, a life-inspired multi-generational tale of perseverance, denial, and migration and its effects on a family’s collective food memories and heritage. She lives in metro Atlanta but her spirit lives on her parents’ farm in India. Find her on IG, Twitter and via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image: Abhinaba Basu, Creative Commons