Diwali is almost here you can probably feel the festive climate dawning in your homes and neighbourhoods. People have started deep-cleaning their houses, possibly repainting them, setting up lights, and shopping for firecrackers and clothes. For most of India it’s the grandest time of the year; a time of reconnection, celebration and bliss, yet there’s a minority of people out there that may have mixed feelings about this mega festival.
This piece is for them; the birds that left the nest. A solid fraction of the Indian youth moves away from home seeking education and career opportunities. The distance from home ranges anywhere from another state to another country or continent. And it’s not always possible to reunite with family, even for the holidays. I’ve had friends talk about being stuck in another country partly due to the pandemic we went through and partly because frequent travel is too expensive especially when you’re abroad and a student. The death of a parent or estrangement can also be the reason for someone to not be a part of a traditional family. Times of separation or solitary living like these can turn a joyful festival into a bittersweet ordeal.
Diwali is a tradition just as much as it is a festival. We learn about it from our families and the rituals they perform year after year. It gets ingrained in us as a function of our culture. For middle-class families like mine, the savings began way before the festival. My parents would start cleaning the house months in advance; get new drapes and furnishings, apply a fresh coat of paint, and do some repairs around the house. My father would even strategize his gardening tasks so that the flowers come into full bloom by winter. The 3 to 4 months before Diwali felt special; like it was a celebration of our life itself.
Our memories of this festival may be different from each other but the ritualistic nature of it is likely the same. Almost two decades of programming don’t just go away. Let me shed some light on its entanglement. As teenage arrives, our identities start to separate from that of our parents. We begin to become our own people and keeping in mind the usual desi parenting style, there is always some conflict of opinions between generations; degrees varying from family to family. This first phase of independence often gives us a false sense of apathy towards our family traditions. We become too cool to care. That illusion dissolves only when we’re away from home and the festivals arrive and we begin to miss what we had and whom we had it with. We learn that we do care.
The festive season hasn’t been the same for me since 2013. I left home and moved to Pune where Diwali meant an awkward Pooja and dinner with my boyfriend’s family. And later, when I joined my college in Hyderabad, it meant lighting up a joint and then some firecrackers with my friends on their terrace, which I was also asked to leave early by the default of me being ‘a girl’; Not a perfect ending to the night. To sum it up, every Diwali away from home has been an altered version of the original which was in my childhood. I have lost my Dad to Covid and my Mom, partly, to dementia and this year I’ll be celebrating it with my cats; if that’s what you can even call it. I’m still figuring out how much of a bother this festival is going to be to me, emotionally.
I was an internet kid — exposed to the western world early. By the time I was 17 I had already given up on Arijeet Singh, Imran Khan and Bilal Saeed and ‘upgraded’ to Eminem and Linkin Park. I went through the phase where anything desi was cringe to me. So I disconnected from the traditional dynamics and rituals of a family. Already averse to the idea of an obedient daughter and casual sexism, I grew a distance between myself and my parents, largely my mom, who had misogyny deeply ingrained in her that clashed with me. Dad was still a flawed feminist so I depended on him for emotional support. I met many angry, estranged kids like me in college and began to see the damage. It took almost 10 years of living alone and discovering my different selves and digging deeper in therapy that I came to start loving my roots. The growth of mental health awareness in India and South Asian representation in the western world should also be credited.
The upcoming festival of reconnection takes my mind towards the meaning and symbolism of that word. This identity-based cultural shift happening among people my age and ethnicity, that’s melting our hearts, frozen from resistance and generational trauma, is palpable. I know at least a dozen friends that have entered the era of acceptance and forgiveness in the last few years. We are starting to come back to our origins. Kids who had a loving relationship with their families probably didn’t have to go through this roller-coaster, but for others, it has been enlightening and enriching. Paradoxically, as we regain this connection while still remaining physically distanced from our families, Diwali and our memories surrounding it are probably proving to be a painful time.
To everyone celebrating alone this year, since the habit and tradition of rituals from our childhood is what defined Diwali for us, maybe we can try to redefine it through new rituals. It is, after all, a celebration of life; and despite how different our lives look from the majority of families reuniting this year, they can still be rich and festive. Maybe we can take the festival’s theory of reconnection and bliss from our childhoods, reinvent it, and apply it to the practice of self-love and an appreciation for our lives in our own unique way. The day celebrates a victory of light over darkness. Interpret that as you like. It’s about what you want to it be about. If you don’t like firecrackers, indulge yourself in an artform you’re into, or some music, or a movie and your favourite snacks or a glass of wine. If you’re away from your family, celebrate it with a friend, a colleague, a neighbour, or yourself. Cats are great too!
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