Why I celebrate Deepavali

Written by Harrini Ratnanesan, Illustrations by Carrie Feng

Diwali. I write Diwali but my mind thinks Deepavali[1], the former is instinctive if I’m talking in English and the latter if I’m speaking in Tamil. Just one of the many small quirks that comes with growing up South Indian in a country where India, for the most part, has been and is most associated with things like butter chicken and Holi, but dosas and Pongal[2] will earn you quizzical looks. Much like its varied pronunciation, Deepavali can mean a lot of different things for a lot of different people. Universally, it’s known as the festival of lights and a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, but the more detailed why’s come in a multitude as diverse as India itself. For some, it signifies the day that the Lord Rama defeated evil and returned home in the Indian literary epic Ramayana, for others it is a celebration of welcoming Lakshmi, the goddess of luck and prosperity, into the home – just two of the many different interpretations and origin stories that exist.

For me, the meaning of Deepavali has considerably shifted and changed over the years, and in many ways has reflected my journey of identity. When I was a child, it was something small that was celebrated at home that I had never really cared for. Sometimes I would wish we’d celebrate something more ‘normal’ like Christmas, so that I could share stories with friends. Having to step out of a school uniform and then being wrestled into a silk pavadai[3] for events like Deepavali was taxing sometimes, and not just because of my mother fussing over whether the skirt was sitting right or my jewelry was in place. It was the mental act of having switching gear, trying to reconcile that the fact that the me at home celebrating this ‘foreign’ event was the same me that was trying to become as ‘Australian’ as possible to fit in with classmates. The feeling of indifference, sometimes annoyance, fluctuated throughout the years until high school. As the festival became more well-known however, Deepavali became that one time of the year where suddenly it was cool to be brown. Feeling like the Patil twins at the Yule ball – minus that horrendous pink and orange concoction they were forced to wear – I began to bask in my temporary popularity once a year, fielding questions on exactly Deepavali is – I wish I’d paid attention to my mother – , what we do – no we will not be setting off fireworks in the backyard – , and all the delicious food that would be made – no chicken tikka masala – I’m vegetarian remember? – but yes there would be gulab jamun.

My complex relationship with Deepavali, however, has never stood in the way of the time-tested traditions of my household. Regardless of what year it was, the weather or the general state of things in the world, Deepavali has been a staple celebration for my family, that almost always follows the same script. It starts with the fact that I’ve never actually known exactly when Deepavali is. Somewhere around October/November, I’ll come home to a kitchen covered in besan flour and pots of ghee and depending on how anxiously my mother thumbs through recipes and how desperately my father tries to avoid going anywhere near the kitchen, Deepavali is either a week away or in two days. Soon tins start filling up with sweets and snacks – melt in your mouth mysore paks, crunchy murukku, golden yellow laddus – but wandering hands beware, they’ll get slapped away before they manage to grab anything. You’d be mistaken here if you assumed all this food was being made for the family. It’s in fact a competition of hospitality, race against the clock with family honour and status on the line, to create masterpieces to deliver fresh and hot to the neighbours and friends who celebrate, BEFORE they turn up at your doorstep with their own parcel of sweets to deliver. It’s not Deepavali if your fridge doesn’t end up containing only a fraction of the stuff your family has made and largely a mismatch of collections from around the neighbourhood

Then comes D-day.

It begins with a 6am wake up call. Bleary eyed, the family is stuffed into traditional ware – the best stuff, handpicked days in advance to leave the highest of impressions on the crowd that’ll see it at the temple. It’s a well acknowledged fact that temple walkways double as both spiritual pathways and fashion runways. At the temple I’d often play real life minesweeper, dodging questions from the many Uncles and Aunties on what I exactly it is I plan to do with my life before making the rounds with all the Gods and Goddesses – praying for fame and fortune as I always do. With that now done and dusted, we’re back home again and shooed away from the kitchen as a feast is prepared for lunch. One too many servings of rasam and at least four different types of curry later, my father assumes the traditional posting of all ethnic fathers after a big meal – arms crossed and fast asleep on the couch. At this point my mother will have taken up residence near the phone, calling up friends and relatives to compare with their Deepavali menus – the rava laddus didn’t quite work this year, how did you manage to make them so perfectly Aunty Kavitha?. The festivities come to an end at night with the sizzling crackle of sparklers lit up in the backyard, featuring slightly panicked looks when a stray spark goes flying near the grass, and the sight of small clay lamps – deepams or diyas – softly filling up a darkened house with light, warmth, and laughter.

In many ways I’ve come to realise that for my family – much like many others I’m sure – Deepavali signifies a chance for my parents to preserve and safeguard a little corner of their world and culture for their children. It’s a slice of home for two people who left theirs to come to a foreign land and culture that was completely unlike anything they’d experienced for most of their lives. As I’ve grown up. I’ve become increasingly more appreciative of the fact that we do celebrate festivals like Deepavali, and that I have a chance to feel connected with heritage and home even thousands of miles away. Over recent years especially, Deepavali has become increasingly popular and more well known. An example of this being just a few days ago when I saw little primary school children walking to school dressed to the nines in their finest Indian wear– sparkling pavadais, colourful lehenga cholis, and dazzling kurtas – on Deepavali eve. With the past two years being marked by isolation and fear, it seems to make a lot of sense that festivities like Deepavali, which features the banishment of darkness and the idea of connectedness and unity at its core, might gain a bit more notice than usual. We’re all the better for it. Despite Deepavali coming to an end, and my blood sugar levels probably at an all-time high, fortunately the Indian festivity calendar never rests and the next chance to celebrate is only around the corner with Karthigai Deepam[4].


[1] Just different spellings of the same word, Diwali is the pronunciation and spelling traditionally used in northern Indian states where Deepavali is more common in the south.

[2] A multi-day harvest festival mostly celebrated in south India.

[3] A traditional dress worn by young girls, mostly in south India, that consists of a top and a skirt.

[4] A south Indian celebration sometimes considered ‘extended Diwali’, which also has a variety of different meanings (for some a celebration of the god Murugan, for others a celebration of the legend of a competition that took place between the gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu) where lots of deepams are lit up around the house to dispel evil. Related to Kartik Purnima (celebrated in northern India).

Published by asianaustralianproject

The Asian Australian Project: events, stories and insights run by and for the Asian-Australian community.

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