For five years now, I haven’t been “home” for Diwali. Once again, this new year, I’m not opening gifts, eating gulab jamuns, or dressing up.
When I was a child, some time around mid-October, my father strung twinkling strings of light around the two evergreen trees that framed our front door. My mother assembled boxes of decadent Indian sweets for our family and friends. I mixed-and-matched multicolored bangles to wear with my various salwaar khameezes.
In the United States, our celebrations were largely invisible to those around us.
My family considers the third day of the five-day festival most auspicious; we believe on this day that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, visits our home. On this night of a new moon — the last night of the Hindu year — total darkness sets in the night sky. In the United States, our celebrations were largely invisible to those around us; our neighbors probably thought my father was getting a head start on Christmas decorations.
I live in Singapore now, where Diwali, (or Deepavali, as it is known here, as most Hindu Singaporeans trace their roots to Tamil Nadu) is celebrated writ large, or so I thought. When I first arrived in Singapore in 2010, I found it utterly delightful to live in a country where Diwali is a public holiday and where cab drivers handed me my change and wished me “Happy Deepavali.”
Yet, I soon learned that Diwali is actually quite invisible, except for the lights at Serangoon Road in Little India and the fact that it is a holiday, to those outside of the country’s minority South Asian community.
When I first arrived in Singapore in 2010, I found it utterly delightful to live in a country where Diwali is a public holiday.
Singapore, which touts its vibrant and diverse cultural heritages, only trades in a facile, photogenic, and superficial multiculturalism. I, too, thought that because I could nip down to Little India, everything I could want, from sparklers to saris, from mithai to mehndi, would make a beloved holiday “easier” to celebrate.
However, most non-Hindu Singaporeans have no impulse to see community celebrations of Diwali on a bigger, more visible, scale, whereas Halloween for example, is embraced with such gusto across so many different national and ethnic groups because of the pernicious nature of American cultural imperialism.
So, ironically, while nearly nine percent of Singaporeans and permanent residents, and a number of non-residents (economic migrants) — many of whom are Hindu — trace their ancestry, wholly or in part, to the Indian Subcontinent, Diwali had been much more meaningful to me in the United States, than it is here, despite its public acknowledgement.
Ironically…Diwali had been much more meaningful to me in the United Sates, than it is here, despite its public acknowledgement.
However, my disillusionment with this brand of “multiculturalism” has turned into a more profound appreciation for the ways in which my immigrant parents transmitted and transformed generational and community knowledge, and a determination to create new traditions for my daughter the best I can. In years past, we have attempted to garba with the Singapore Gujarati Society and perform Durga puja with Bengali Association Singapore. Yet, these Singapore diasporic traditions are not mine and feel rather hollow without family with whom to share them.
And while an untold number of expatriates from India make their home in Singapore, we are often deemed not sufficiently “Indian” enough, being of the Western diaspora, to join them in their celebrations. I wonder whether my ambivalence in embracing these communities wholeheartedly, without reservation, is perhaps because our stay in Singapore is impermanent, and I don’t feel the same urgency to retain and create traditions as my immigrant parents did.
I will make this day as meaningful for her as my parents did for me.
Still, as a parent, I want my child to feel Hindu or South Asian or whatever undefined multicultural category she will inhabit. For now, she is too young to understand my mixed feelings as a South Asian American economic migrant in Singapore, yet I will make this day as meaningful for her as my parents did for me.
Together, this year, we will kick off new traditions — we will dress up in new finery and Skype our families in the morning, read Lights for the Blue Prince: A Story of Diwali by Soumya S. Ayer, a Singaporean writer, and paint diyas, tiny clay lamps, to place in our high-rise elevator bank so Lakshmi can find her way, and bring light to our spirits, warmth to our home, and joy to our hearts.
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Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. She blogs at notabilia about literature, art, independent design, creative people, pretty things, and regional travel.