Diwali – Celebrating an ‘Indian Christmas’ in the UK

A Feature Story

The story goes that once, when a little English girl asked her mother, “Mummy, what is Diwali?”, her mother replied, “It’s a sort of Indian Christmas, my dear.” 

Indeed. Like Christmas, Diwali too, celebrates a season of light and hope in the world.  

I live in London with my family. Another Diwali is approaching. And, as usual, I’m letting myself be carried along by my wife and children’s seasonal enthusiasm for the festival.  My wife insists we observe all the five days of Diwali, however perfunctorily. This involves the lighting of lamps in the mornings and evenings ,the pujas, the drawing of the rangoli – the coloured and intricate patterns drawn by the women in the front yard to welcome the goddess of wealth, Laxmi, into the home – the shopping for new clothes and the special provisions for the Diwali food we and our friends will consume, and lighting the diyas, small earthen lamps, in the evenings. By the time Diwali dawns on the third day of the festivities, I’m caught up in it all as much as the rest of my family are.   

Meanwhile, an Indian friend is taking his family to India for this Diwali. Lucky chap, I tell him till he confesses to me, ‘You know, strangely, now that we have decided to go to India for Diwali, both Suja and I are already missing Diwali celebrations here.” 

I can understand. While there is nothing like celebrating the festival back home in India, Diwali festivities in England have over the years acquired a flavour all their own.  

When I first came here in the 1980s as a student, Diwali and other Indian festivals were celebrated by a small group of expat Indians in one of our homes – a couple of diyas or traditional earthen lamps outside the home, some gaiety and not a little nostalgia within it. Over the years, as the Indian population grew so did Diwali celebrations, albeit within the homes of the Indian community largely.     

Today, in England, it is no longer so. Today Diwali Dhamaka (loosely translated, it means Diwali Explosion) has moved froom the privacy of the home to the public space. It includes, apart from the Indians, the larger Asian and other expatriate communities with a sizeable number of the local population thrown in, too.  

Ever since 2009, when former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, hosted a Diwali reception at his residence in 10, Downing Street, to the chanting of Vedic (Indian ritual) hymns, successive British premiers like James Cameron and Theresa May have hosted Diwali receptions at the official residence in the following years.   

But those were exclusive events. Today, Diwali is celebrated in this country in the way it was always meant to be – as mass festive gatherings that anyone, whatever their nationality, colour, religion or ideology, can participate in. Thus, no less than 35,000 people are expected to attend the grand celebrations hosted by the Mayor of London at the iconic Trafalgar Square this year. The city of Leicester is pulling out all stops for its “Diwali Lights Switch On” event that will light up all of Belgrave road and will feature traditional music and dance, a Diwali village, a Mela Rangoli exhibition culminating in a grand fireworks finale in the evening.  Wembley Park will combine its Diwali celebrations with its annual Bonfire Night. Birmingham, Manchester and other cities with a sizeable Asian population will all celebrate the festival of light, though not all of them necessarily on 27 October.    

City boroughs, schools, clubs, famous and little-known Asian restaurants, resident associations, even the National Maritime Musuem at Greenwich and the University Women’s club, Mayfair, will be hosting their own Diwali dos. Each of them will commemorate, in their own way, the day on which according to Indian tradition, celebrations broke out across an entire kingdom when its rightful and righteous king, Ram, his wife, Sita, and brother, Lamxan, returned to the capital after fourteen years of exile in the forest and after the defeat of the demon king, Ravan. Ram’s return symbolised the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. It is a universal message and not just one for Indians alone. In this respect, it’s wonderful to hear that even the UN and the EU are celebrating Diwali these days. The more the merrier, I say.  

A couple of years ago, my now 12-year-old daughter insisted on having coloured lights ‘on Diwali day, at least!’. My wife reluctantly agreed. She, however, drew a line at her plea for a Christmas tree, too.  My wife’s ‘but that’s only for Christmas, beti, not Diwali,’ was met with a typical, ‘so what?’   

Diwali celebrations in the UK and elsewhere have changed with the times and rightly so. At our annual Diwali gathering of mainly family and friends, we not only play traditional Indian bhajas, classical and folk songs but, as the evening progresses, modern Bollywood music, too. Dancing ranges from the bhangra to, again, Bollywood-style gyrations. This year’s public celebrations of Diwali will include not only traditional dance and music, rangoli exhibitions, puppet shows, storytelling sessions, food festivals and firework displays ; there will also be hip-hop and R&B music and stand-up comedy acts by well-known British Indian artists, and workshops on the art of henna and face painting, among others.  

As I said, the more the merrier. For, after all, it is the spirit that counts. Happy Diwali! 

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