Informant Bio: Informant is my father. He was born in Mumbai, India and moved to the U.S . when he was 22. He still remembers many of the poems and songs from his childhood. He is fluent in over five languages and provides the original folklore and translations below.
Context: I was interviewing the informant about childhood traditions, rituals, songs sung and tales performed.
Item: “As a kid growing up one of my favorite, perhaps my most favorite holiday was Diwali, or Devali. We waited for that holiday for months, and, uh, preparations were all around us, you know, my mother used to be busy for months making sweets and goodies that could be shared with family and friends during the holidays. It actually was a great time of the year weather-wise; we had our half-yearly exams in the schools just before the Diwali vacation so we were more relaxed for the three-four week holiday across schools and colleges across the country. No matter where you went people would be preparing or anticipating Diwali.
One of the things I enjoyed most as a kid was going to different sweet and gift shops with my dad. You’d be buying custom packages of sweets and you could pick and choose what you wanted in the box. One of the things I enjoyed the most was that you were allowed to taste everything in the shop. I really enjoyed this process especially since we would never normally buy these kinds of things. I’d give my suggestion to my dad and he would listen and agree – this was my bonding time with my dad. These boxes were decorated extensively and wrapped, and we would then go to different peoples homes where he would give them the gifts with me by his side. I would shake hands with the people and greet them, wish them ‘Happy Diwali’, and in general have a very pleasant experience and be able to meet different people and see new places. Most of these people were my father’s business associates or people who’d done him favors throughout the year. He remembered most of the people who he felt he owed something. The gifts were a way to give back and everyone accepted gifts at this time.
Diwali is, uh, in some sense a religious holiday depending on the religion that you follow. India has a lot of religions and lots of uh, variety of people with backgrounds, ethnicity and culture, but somehow all people celebrated this particular holiday. Rich and poor, Hindu and not Hindu, children and adults all participated. It’s like Christmas in the U.S. in that you cannot move around without being touched by the holiday. Growing up, Diwali was not commercialized like Christmas is in the U.S. however. Diwali is when businessmen closed their fiscal year and represents the start of the new year based on the Lunar calendar. There is no consensus on the exact calendar so Diwali is celebrated at different times throughout the country (sometimes a day or two ahead or behind other places). It falls on the last month of the year (in the no moon phase of the lunar calendar).
The festival itself is five to six days long, and in some parts of the country it stretches to fifteen days. It usually falls somewhere in October or November. Uh, mainly most of the people celebrate five days. The first day is called ‘Dhanteres’ meaning the thirteenth day of the lunar calendar on the no moon side. Dhan means ‘wealth’ and, that’s the day that businessmen especially would worship their books, and sort-of be thankful for the good year that they’ve had, and, uh that’s a big celebration and right after that there are some sweets and other things that are distributed. Bonuses are given out to employees and it is a very happy day for most people. They worship the books and wealth because in Indian culture wealth is not taboo; the pursuit of wealth is considered part of every person’s endeavor. It is believed that if you are wealthy or if the goddess of wealth has bestowed her blessings on you, it just means you are being rewarded for your good deeds in the past life. If you continue doing good deeds, you will be rewarded in the future life if stuff isn’t working out right now.
The following day is called “Kali Chaudus”, with Kali meaning evil, occurring on the fourteenth day of the lunar cycle in which the evil is won over by goodness. It is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil.
Then comes the Diwali, which is, uh, on the day of the New Moon. The way the festivities work is that all throughout these holidays people wear nice clothes with the women dressing up. On that particular day of Diwali there are feasts all over the place. This is the thing that people really look forward to. How do people spend months preparing for this? Girls and older women especially would adorn the entrances to their homes with what is called ‘rangoli’ right outside the door on the side. They would make dry paints on the floor itself and go in different designs with some of them getting really elaborate, making different shapes. Basically this is all to welcome visitors that they would be expecting in the holidays. It reaches a point where regionally people may have competitions among the amateur artists in which the best rangoli is chosen. The other thing that children were involved with, and this probably didn’t happen throughout the country but did in the area I grew up, was the people in the neighborhood would get together and setup in one of the building compounds that is fenced off. It would be a 20 feet by 20 feet area in which they’d make different sculptures, statues, a water dam, or maybe scientific experiments. This would be strung together in an elaborate showing and people would come visit and provide feedback, criticize or admire the work that was done. You always wanted to put on the best show, it was kind of like show and tell in that you wanted to show the best stuff possible. There would be more regional competitions which sort of brought out the competitive spirits and different kind of activity that you don’t get involved with during the year or normal school days. I, as a kid, spent a lot of time trying to come up with ideas and putting these things together.
One of the big things during this time is firecrackers. There were no restrictions about lighting them up. They were freely available in stores, in fact this was a boom time for all the small shops that carried them. Surprisingly, there were very few accidents where people got hurt. I lit up a ton of firecrackers (and everyone else did too). Every morning, starting around 4/5AM until 8/9AM you’d hear firecrackers and then again at night from 7PM to midnight. This went on in every street in every corner of the city. Yes it was noisy, but this was Diwali so people were celebrating so people would expect it and get used to it.
The other thing that would happen was just before Diwali people would decorate their homes with different lights, after all this is the festival of lights. So, they would have electric bulbs sort of strung together in different patterns, decorative lights, and also some, uh, lanterns that are hand-made and oil burning flame. These lanterns would be all over the place and people would make very elaborate shapes and be artistic with the light. It looked beautiful; wherever you turned, you saw lights and the celebration, and that was Diwali.
This went on and on. The day after Diwali, businessmen would worship the goddess of wealth and start their books for the new year. There was no money exchanged but orders would be placed so it was sort of a big start for the new year. People would be very joyous and contracts would be exchanged.
The next day is considered New Year’s Day according to the Hindu calendar. That morning, people would get up early both children and adults. They would wear their best clothes that they saved/planned to wear. People would go out to friends and relatives’ houses, teachers, doctors and dentists houses and would knock on their doors and wish them happy new year. They would be invited in and would take a little bit of snacks and sweets and went from home to home and place to place. This would go on for almost a whole day.
The following day, the second day of the year, is called “Bhaibeej” or brother’s day. Sisters would invite their brothers and their family to come to their home for dinner, and, uh the brother would bring some special gift for the sister and sort of vow to protect her that no harm would come to her that year. That basically would end the Diwali. Some parts of the country would have extra days of a Mini Diwali celebration with the same festivities on a smaller scale continue.
Analysis: Diwali represents the triumph of brightness over darkness and good over evil. The festival legend surrounds the return of Lord Rama from a fourteen year exile. He was fighting the demon king Ravana and succeeded. People lit a path of oil lamps for Lord Rama and his family to follow back to their palace. This would be an extraordinarily happy time that calls for celebration, as Diwali does.
Highly illuminated homes signify a connection to the skies and heavens; people are trying to show respect while also garnering a connection with the heavens for the attainment of wealth, happiness and prosperity (all associated with light). The use of firecrackers helps call attention to the heavens of humans and their happy expressions. The significance of light could also be investigated on an internal level. We want avoid being consumed by darkness, but instead exude the light so that we can make the world around us a better place, achieve illumination of the soul and be closer to the heavens.
Interviewer Note: I included some pictures of the rangoli and Diwali celebrations in the attachment labeled ‘Diwali Pictures.docx”.