“Like An Indian Christmas”

My mother’s eyes sparkled as I knelt beside her. Her white chalk scraped against the entrance to our house, adding wispy flowers between rows of hollow diamonds and peacock feathers on the outer edges of her design. There was something trained about the way that she made  rangoli — it was as though her hand was an old friend of the dusky soil, remembering past legends and reviving familiar stories through the imprint of the chalk. As I silently memorized the small, silvery  intricacies, my mother handed me a plastic bag of blue sand. 

“Why don’t you try this time?”

For centuries, Diwali has been regarded as the epitome of Indian celebration. From rows of incandescent clay diyas lining the driveway, to the sound of fireworks splintering the sky, Diwali embodies the very qualities that make India memorable — its intensity, its vitality, and its festivity. Aptly named the “festival of lights,”  this holiday has existed to commemorate our small victories and bring the Indian community together. Thus, when the first brown immigrants trickled across western borders, they brought pieces of this celebration with them. 

The American-born Diwali was molded by its new frontier. Older, previous references to the term “Deepavali” were forgotten, as the North-Indian derivative rolled off foreign tongues with ease. Melted globes of gulab jamun wrapped in tinfoil were often traded for plastic boxes of Ferrero Rocher. When well-meaning white neighbors questioned the rangoli patterns inscribed onto the nearby doorstep, brown parents would respond with a trained nonchalance, “Oh, it’s for a festival in our culture. Like an Indian Christmas, y’know?” 

Like an Indian Christmas. The uncanny likening between Diwali and the hallmark of every December calendar was almost prophetic. Because as “big business” captured the very essence of Western life, Christmas emerged as one of American’s largest marketing opportunities. Shopping frenzies, radio jingles, ridiculous discounts on washing machines. When its white sibling raked in billions of dollars worldwide, it became evident that Diwali would have to follow suit to survive. The ancient “festival of lights” would simply have to be bigger, brighter, and better. 

I  question the better bit. I don’t mind watching South-Asian businesses, from local Apna Bazaars to Indian boutiques, explode with popularity every year. According to data journalist Niall McCarthy, Diwali discounts brought in more than 20million dollars through e-commerce and online shopping in 2018 alone. Almost any desi beauty parlor offers more than one “Diwali package” for the local aunty. Thousands of “mithai dabbas” are shipped across the country to sweeten tongues (and industry bank accounts). But amidst the dazzle of materialism, something always feels a bit lost in the celebrations. No matter how bright the lights, I still feel clouded by a strange obscurity.  

As an Indian-American teenager, I don’t want to turn one of my favorite holidays into a mere marketing campaign. It’s seductive to turn this holiday into a straightforward, “oh, look at the pretty lights” circus — but it’s equally exhibionist, and reflects some of the worst aspects of the Indian-American mentality. The original Ramayana that we claim to honor told a tale of heroism, love, and primarily struggle. But the Ramayana of today represents a different kind of conflict: the internal battle with the Indian-American identity. To rescue ourselves from  a self-imposed Lanka, we have to celebrate Diwali for ourselves. Not for social attention, not to impress our western counterpart, but for honoring the true spirit and values of Diwali. . 

   Diwali isn’t an incarnation of Christmas. It’s a narrative of its own — one that is beautiful and utterly Indian in its neglected simplicities. 

The paper cone molded into my palm. Nine year old me was nervous, watching grains of blue seeping between the white lines. Rangoli tells tales of lavishness — of exuberance and wild color — but the real art comes through temperance. A little needless  spurt of sand here or there, and the design would lose its balance. But the first row of diamonds was complete, its white boundaries fading into the ground like an echo. I was handed a pouch of marigold yellow for the circles in between. And just like that, I was lost in the rangoli, my mother and I, learning to tame the unfamiliar American earth.

*Diwali/Deepavali – Indian festival of lights; *rangoli – art form from India in which patterns are created on the floor or the ground using materials such as colored rice, dry flour, colored sand or flower petals; *gulab jamun – milk solid based sweet; *mithai dabbas – boxes containing sweetmeats, *Apna Bazaar – is a one stop for all your South Asian grocery needs. , *Ramayana –  is an ancient Indian epic,


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