Monthly Archives: May 2013

Diwali and the Ramayan

Pallavi, my friend and suitemate, is a freshman international student at USC studying Business and Accounting. She is from an Indian middle class family in New Delhi, with working parents who have separated. Although she is technically Punjabi, she does not speak that language and instead speaks Hindi. Her family is also Hindu but they are not strict practitioners of the religion, although they still follow and perform and take part in major festivals

Here, she discusses the traditions she observes around the festival of Diwali (a festival of lights), which she identifies as somewhat of a Christmas equivalent in her culture that takes place around early November (this year it will be November 3, 2013). However, she particularly emphasizes and relates the mythological background of the festival, a story that is firmly rooted in the Hindu epic of the Ramayana, or the “Ramayan” as she says (the added “-a” anglicizing the title).


The Ramayan:

“Diwali, the story behind it…it comes from a mythological story which is that Lord Ram came back from 13 years of vanwas [in Sanskrit, van means “forest,” and was means “to live,” so “living in the forest”], from exile, and he was exiled to the forest, basically. When he comes back from exile, that’s the day that Diwali happens. Because he was actually the heir to the throne. There were four brothers, but they were all brothers from different mothers, and the king was the same. And Ram was the eldest son, so he automatically got the throne, or he was supposed to get the throne, but one of the wives of the king – her name was Kaikeyi – so what Kaikeyi did… The king had three wives and four sons, Ram was the son of the eldest wife, or the first wife, and he was the eldest son also automatically. And then he had two more wives, and I think the middle wife was Kaikeyi. And she was not a bad person, but there was this whole drama going on with her handmaid or lady in waiting. So that woman was very shrewd and she wanted Kaikeyi to be the top wife. So she kind of poisoned Kaikeyi’s mind, and Kaikeyi was relatively gullible so she was swayed, and she convinced the king to send Ram to the forest for vanwas. And it was 13 years of vanwas. And he said okay. So Ram was “summoned” to the forest, but because Ram was the most loved by all his brothers, the second brother, the second eldest, who was Lakshman, was like “because my bhaiyabhaiya is brother, and bhaiya is usually elder brother – so, because my bhaiya is going to the forest, I cannot let him go alone, so I’m going to go with him.” So even though he was married, he left his wife back, and he went with Ram and his wife (Ram’s wife Sita). So all three of them went to the forest, even though Lakshman was not exactly told to go to the forest, he still went. And so Kaikeyi’s son got the throne; but because he also loved Ram and he was very upset with his mother for staging all this, he never actually sat on the throne, in fact, before Ram left, he asked for Ram’s sandals and he always kept his sandals on the throne instead. And even though he was, in effect, he used to help his father – because his father sort of retired after that – so he would still run the kingdom but he never sat on the throne because he’s like “I’m just guarding it for my brother, when he comes back.” ”


Celebration of Diwali:

“And when Ram actually came back, that is when Diwali is celebrated, because it’s like light coming back, that’s why it’s the festival of lights. There are a lot of crackers [firecrackers] and it’s difficult to breathe nowadays. Lot of smoke. The beautiful part is there’s all these really beautiful diyas – lamps, like terra cotta pots, in which you put some oil and a wick that gets lit [they look almost like clay petals that hold oil and are adorned with designs] – there are like really pretty ones. In elementary school, we’d have diya decoration competitions and stuff. Different designs. I like this part more. Even though when you’re kids, you like the crackers and stuff more, as you grow older… this [the diyas] part is very– Because people’s houses look beautiful…. They make rangolis in front of their house because it’s a positive…

[Showing me images of rangoli via Google Images] They’re made up of…this one seems petals…but rangoli usually is made up of colors, ground up colors, you take color and you sprinkle it [into designs]. It goes right in front of your main door. And everyone has that. These are getting more modern so people have, like, the “tattoo” kind of things, so they’ll get a whole rangoli thing but they’ll “tattoo” it so if people walk over it, it doesn’t spoil, but that’s [pointing to a an image of one made with the colored powder] the traditional thing. Lakshmi is worshipped also. Lakshmi is the goddess of money…fortune, money…and that [pointing out another image of rangoli featuring a goddess figure] is a rangoli of her. She’s related to amavasya – the new moon. The new moon day in October – Diwali is based off the new moon, that’s why it’s not a fixed date. During the new moon, Lakshmi’s destroyer form is active. And you worship her.

It’s basically like purification of sorts, because Lakshmi is the goddess of money and fortune, but on this particular day you worship to her destroyer form. So all the gods…they all can take ‘forms,’ so like, for example, Lord Shiva, he’s “the Destroyer,” but he has many roles. He’s the Destroyer, but when Maa Kali, who’s considered to be the most ruthless, or the most angry goddess of all, when she gets mad or when she’s angered, Lord Shiva, he goes under her – this is also, like, a myth, or an understanding – whenever she gets mad, she, like, goes crazy and then Lord Shiva goes under her and lays down underneath her while she’s standing or whatever, getting angry or whatever. And he takes all of her negative energy; otherwise, if she goes very crazy, she’ll destroy the world. Because Kali is, again, a form of Shiva – there’s like a lot of forms going on, and derivatives going on.

But then Lakshmi…it’s just another reason for worshipping… It’s sort of like, because when Ram comes back, Diwali is celebrated.”


Gift exchange:

“Diwali is sort of like Christmas, people will exchange a lot of gifts, we’ll make sure to go to… so like my father’s not close to his brother at all, but Diwali was like the only time when his brother would come greet us, and get some sweets, and things like that. Fruits are a very big thing…you give fruit, and traditional sweets and stuff. Gifts not so much, but sweets and fruits. Dried fruit…. But Dusshera, all this doesn’t happen, it’s this smaller festival in a way.”


This Hindu festival, celebrated on the cusp of winter, certainly exhibits features similar to those in other cultures celebrated around the same time, as Pallavi, my informant, cites with her observation that this festival resembles Christmas. It, in a way, acts to herald the coming of winter, and the emphasis on light – Diwali being the Festival of Lights – is sort of a means of fortifying themselves against and lighting up the darkness.

Nautical play on words

Jennifer has been a close friend of my mother’s since childhood and has always been an aunt-like figure in my life. Multiple members of her family have at one point babysat for me as I was growing up and our joint families have often celebrated holidays together. Currently a 55 year old, Christian white (though with Native American Indian heritage on her biological father’s side) woman who works in Escrow in Glendale, CA, she grew up in La Crescenta, CA.

Jennifer also, essentially, grew up on boats. Her family owned a boat, a beach house in Newport Beach area, and a place in Avalon, on Catalina Island, and she frequently spent time on the boat and going to and from Catalina during the summer. Her father also had a fishing charter boat on which he would take out people that wanted to go fishing, and, she said, “my mother would have been involved with boats for forty years.”

She related to me a sort of joke, or pun, that her mother used to make while on the road, driving, that makes a play on nautical vernacular:

“Oh, what’s in the road? A head?”

This is a pun on the phrase “Oh, what’s in the road ahead?” an expression that comes from looking out the window of the car, down the road, and wondering what lies up ahead. However, as a member of a  nautical family, at least in this usage, she’s not referring to a physiological human head, but rather the “head” from a boat, or the toilet. Thus, as Jennifer says about her mother, “By pausing when she does [between the “a” and the “head” of “ahead”], it sounds like there’s a toilet up ahead, in the road.” Jennifer relates that this joke is very typical of her mother, “Things like that, I grew up with, where she [my mother] would constantly…basically, be quizzing us and having fun with words, and seeing how you can change it, change the meaning by simply pausing or stretching a vowel.”

A Happy Birthday song

A Happy Birthday song

My friend Kirsten is a fellow freshman at the University of Southern California, studying International Relations, as well as someone with whom I went to high school and preschool in Pasadena, CA. In the intervening time between our shared educational experiences, she attended a small, alternative K-8 school, also in Pasadena, called Sequoyah. The third child in a family of four children, she has an older brother, an older sister, and a younger sister who each, also, attended Sequoyah. She shared with me the birthday song (distinct from the copyrighted, ‘traditional’ “Happy Birthday to You”) that was sung throughout the school year upon the occasion of any classmate’s birthday.

(See hyperlink at top for tune.) The lyrics go:

“It makes me think of the good old days,

Happy birthday to you!

You’ve sure grown out of your baby ways,

Happy birthday to you!

It’s your [age – i.e. “15th] birthday, wish you many more,

Health and wealth and friends by the score,

Let’s cut the cake and let’s eat some more,

Happy birthday to you!”


She describes that, “The way we did it at Sequoyah would be like every time someone had a birthday, they would bring dessert for the class, and then, after school, we’d all gather and eat whatever they had and then we’d sing the song. So whenever it was someone’s birthday we’d sing that,” and “you did it from first grade to eighth grade, it was the whole school,” the whole school career, and evidently sung multiple times per year. Though she doesn’t know when or from where the song originated, she knows that it was a school birthday tradition at least since before her brother started at the school, four or five years before she did so herself. But the interesting thing to note is that, for her at least, the song transcended school tradition and entered into her birthday ‘vernacular’ at home: “At home, we do both. We’ll sing the normal happy birthday song, and then me and my little sister will sing the song – ‘cus, like, we both do [it] every birthday even though my brother and my older sister have stopped singing it… So, like, me and [my younger sister] keep doing it.” Though she and another mutual friend with whom she attended Sequoyah never sang the song for any of our friends’ birthdays in high school, it was mentioned a few times, which I recalled and so asked her to sing it for me for this post. She went on to say that “part of actually why me and [my sister] keep singing it is that it [a birthday] doesn’t really feel complete if we don’t sing it, or like, I don’t know if I would necessarily teach it to my kids or something to that extent, but I guess, in my own family, or like if were to do it with [our mutual friend] or someone [i.e. another Sequoyah alum], then I would feel like I would have to sing it.” This statement seems to indicate that the song is meaningful for my friend, not just as a traditional piece of her childhood that she “Can’t remember a time, really, where [she] didn’t sing it,” but as symbol of unity and a marker of identity and belonging among students and alumni of her school.

Throwing coins in the air

“On new year’s you are supposed to hold a handful of coins and right when it strikes midnight you’re supposed to throw the coins in the air and it’s supposed to…it’s like hoping for wealth in the new year. And also you were supposed to have a full plate of different kinds of fruit at your dinner table and this is supposed to symbolize prosperity in the New Year. I learned these from my mother as well where she learned them from the Philippines form the elders.”
Being well off – economically speaking – is very important to many people and therefore these traditions are created in order to feel like one can change their own fate by doing little superstitious acts.

Knock on wood

““Cuando dos personas dicen lo mismo al mismo tiempo, ellos tienen que hacercarse a ir a tocar madera para que no se queden cotorras”
When two people say something at the same time they have to make sure to go near somewhere that has wood and knock on it first, because the person who knocks on it last it said to like end up really old without being able to get married or “cotorras”. Since this came from Mexico it was very important in the past for women to find a good husband to marry, therefore if they had the bad omen to end up alone it would be bad.
In a society where ending up alone it was seemed as bad is important to realize that people come up with these kind of superstitions in order to scare women of ending up alone (which is bad to them). This kind of folklore is kind of entertaining because it bases it self on different fears that people have.

Coins inside dumplings

“I know one of the best things I remember of superstitions from my family is that my extended family and I made dumplings at Chinese New Year and put coins inside six of them because six to us is a lucky number. Then after we put the coins inside we cooked them and then like serve them out for the whole family who was over to eat at the celebration and well basically it was that whoever ate a dumpling and found a coin inside it, and hopefully not choked (laughs) would have good luck for the rest of the year until the next Chinese New Year where we would do it again. I liked this superstition because it allowed me to you know cook with family and have a good time and also I might get lucky and find a coin, plus dumplings are yummy.”
Being positive with family traditions in order to try to give off good vibes of having a good year is a very common form of folklore in ways that they try to find ways to be lucky the next year.

Evil cemetery gnomes

“Uhm well I guess when it comes to some stories that were passed down I know that I kept hearing from my grandma that garden gnomes are evil because people use them to trap souls in graveyards or something like that and that is why they are seen as scary or whatever. She told both my sister and me but I’m still more doubtful about it. And well the legend goes that the ghosts would come out at night from the graves at the cemetery and so rather than having them spook everyone they would place the gnomes there and I guess they would get trapped and such. Well all I know is after that I can’t see gnomes the same way you know?”
There are always ways that people try to think of protecting the death that have departed form earth and using gnomes in this case is the folklore that has grown in Latin America. It is a way to relieve the worries about the evil spirits that people will create.

Brides wearing white

“Another one of the stories that I grew up hearing was the reason why a bride wears white on the day of her wedding is to like symbolize her purity in entering marriage and also in many ways that it is the happiest day of her life. I learned this from my mom and dad and it’s supposed to be the bride being pure and such or whatever. And I guess a variation of this is how it became a folklore joke I guess because it goes like this: ‘a kid asks his mom why the bride wears white and she says because it’s the happiest day of her life and then the kid asks why the man wears black’. I guess it’s just funny the fact that people joke about a man’s life being over when he gets married.”
Jokes are a very important part of folklore too because they help relieve pressure from social expectations by being funny. And traditions regarding marriages are also very important because they are everywhere and they dictate how many people see their lives with their spouses.

Blowing on dandelions

“Growing up I guess always heard or even participated in the whole superstition about blowing a dandelion in order to make sure that you get your wishes granted, I guess they can kind of be seen as a symbol of your hopes or dreams have a chance of coming true. I think the very first time I did it I was very small walking back from school with my mom and she say one and like told me to blow on it and to make a wish. Apart from that I just kept seeing on TV I guess so every time I saw one I would like remember to blow on it and make a wish, I liked it because it kept me thinking about magic or this flower that could make my wishes come true and it was nice.”
It is important to point out he place that the media plays in the superstitions that many people believe in this kind of magic and it is a nice way to kind away from societies daily struggles.

Choreg and dolma family time

“As far as little things like tradition or I guess family folklore that my family has is that before every holiday, the three grandmothers in our family get together to cook for three days straight in order to prepare for the family party, which trust me is huge! The reason they cook so early is because they make a lot of baked breads, such as choreg, and complicated appetizers, such as dolma, that require hours of work to prepare. During these three days, all the granddaughters come to help clean and to learn little tips and secrets to cooking these special meals, which you can guess, will be eventually passed down to us. However, cooking with the grandmothers has influenced me in a deeper way other than just like learning how to properly roll a dolma. We have made so many memories spending hours in the kitchen together, we talk and laugh and yell, but most importantly we see that the value of creating these meals is not just the joy we all get out of eating them, but time we get to spend together because of them. In this case the preparing is as much fun as the eating them itself.”
Another means of coming together as a family and in this case, food is important to notice how food plays such a prevalent role in the folklore of different families because of the way it unites them.  Food is not only a way to cook but the different ingredients that are used and the recipes that get passed down all form part of this folklore from different cultures.  In many ways when families come together in order to have meals together or such, they are able to go through the journey of cooking together and this too becomes such a significant part of tradition for many.