Indian-Americans are taking their narrative forward.
Once upon a time, it would have been rare to read about Diwali in American media. Nobody seemed to know what it was or how to even pronounce the word! When the Association of Indians in America (AIA), the oldest Indian community organisation in America, held its first Diwali Mela in New York South Street Seaport three decades ago, one of their members actually took young girls dressed up in Indian ghagras bearing lighted diyas to The New York Times office to tell them about Diwali and invite them to visit during the festival.
Fast forward several years and this noted newspaper carry features about Diwali sweets, celebrations, and the art of rangoli making. One is not surprised to find very mainstream and even specialised publications—Parade, USA Today, the Old Farmer’s Almanac—carrying elaborate features about Diwali.
Almost everyone seems to know about Diwali in America, thanks to the influx of Indian immigrants and the supply-demand chain of Indian food, sweets and all the necessities of the holiday season. Yes, Diwali is becoming an American festival – part of the mosaic of America, part of the tapestry of the many threads of America woven together.
For the first time, an American president and his First Lady jointly greeted Americans on Diwali. As President Biden said in his greetings on Diwali: “Like many cherished holidays during the pandemic, we know this year’s Diwali carries an even deeper meaning. To those who have lost loved ones, we hope this sacred time provides comfort and purpose in their memory.”
The Indian-Americans are an enterprising lot. And they are ensuring their culture and community is front and centre in the American story. Entrepreneurs, businesses, and corporations are getting together to place the Indian ethos – and Diwali by extension – on the radar of America by putting it in the most iconic places.
For the first time, the World Trade Center with its storied history was lit up for Diwali from November 2-4. On November 3, the two organisations, All American Diwali and Indiaspora, showcased spectacular live Diwali fireworks across the Hudson River.
Diwali celebration at World Trade Center
Indiaspora, a noted nonprofit community organisation along with many other community partners hosted a Diwali Celebration on Capitol Hill to honour Indian-Americans in public service. It was inspiring to see how many Indian-Americans are now a part of American public life.
All four Indian-American members of Congress—Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi—participated in the lighting of the ceremonial lamp. As did Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy and White House Staff Secretary Neera Tanden. American singer and recording artist Mary Millben sang the Diwali aarti – ‘Om Jai Jagdish Hare’. Indian immigrants landing on American shores years ago could never have imagined or expected this!
The news for Indian-Americans gets only better – Diwali may soon become a federal holiday!
US Representative Carolyn Maloney will be introducing legislation to make Diwali a federal holiday. So why is there so much interest in Diwali?
Not only are Indian-Americans a vital part of the population but now there are so many doers and activists of Indian origin and they seem to be getting the balance right. So their children can grow up knowing about their own culture and feel good about it. There are now so many children’s books written by Indian-American authors celebrating Diwali and the Hindu Gods, the latest being a beautifully illustrated picture book ‘Goodnight Ganesha’ written by Nadia Solomon with art by Poonam Mistry.
Indian-Americans themselves are taking their narrative forward. Anu Sehgal, the founder of The Culture Tree is one of the second-generation Indian-Americans who is nurturing the young Indian-Americans with programming about the historical significance and origins of Diwali. These varied workshops held in mainstream museum venues also include the significance and history of the art form of Rangoli which is so important during the holiday season.
As Diwali is celebrated by Indian-Americans across America, many of their non-Indian friends and acquaintances join in. And as they say, almost everyone in America has – or knows – an Indian doctor! Increasingly, families are also becoming more multicultural with Indians intermarrying with people of other ethnicities, and so Indian culture and food are becoming part of so many varied families.
While hard statistics prove America is becoming more multicultural, there are also delightful anecdotal stories of young Korean-Indian, African-Indian, and Jewish-Indian children, among others, who absolutely love bhel puri, samosas and all the mithai they can get.
Restaurateurs are creating the buzz – especially with private catered parties once again picking up speed now that vaccinations are in place. Every restaurateur seemed to be busy on the days before and after Diwali and even a takeout of dosas could take over an hour. The lines outside mithai shops were very long as friends’ Facebook videos prove. And one can only speculate how many millions of pounds of mithai, gulab jamuns and rasgullas must have been sold in America on Diwali.
In this year of celebrating minorities, women and diversity, Indian-American power women had their own Diwali celebration in Beverly Hills. With an event hosted by Mindy Kaling with star talents like Priyanka Chopra Jones, Lilly Singh, Richa Moorjani, Poorna Jagannathan, Sujata Day, Radhika Jones, Payal Kadakia, Bela Bajaria and Anjula Acharia—South Asians in power positions in Hollywood, publishing and business. The dinner was organised by two South Asian women-owned businesses Phenomenal and Live Tinted to create awareness about the Indian culture and other under-represented groups and to give a shoutout to South Asian women in media.
Priyanka Chopra, Mindy Kaling, Lilly Singh, Anjula Acharia, Deepica Mutyala, Payal Kadakia and Melanie Chandra attend the Diwali Dinner Hosted by Mindy Kaling (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Phenomenal x Live Tinted)
Meena Harris, the founder of Phenomenal, is the niece of vice-president Kamala Harris and spoke of her grandmother, mother of sisters Kamala and Maya. She told the gathered South Asian women, “As many of you know, my Indian heritage is so personal to me, and my grandmother was really the connection to my culture. I’ve realised through the past several years of grieving her loss that, as a second mother to me, she was also the strongest link to my South Asian identity and culture … I realised that, when I lost her, I had to rebuild that connection on my own. This is why this is so significant to me, and why it's so special for us to be together: because it represents our community and celebrating us as South Asian women in these industries, and in everything that we’re doing. I hope this is the first of many.”
Meena Harris (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Phenomenal x Live Tinted)
Indeed, in this new America of many races, many faces, Diwali is a festival that is here to stay and will grow only stronger over the years, becoming an intrinsic part of American culture, yet another American festival.
The core values of Diwali – the triumph of good over evil, the strength of family, faith, light and love – all will be a source of healing in these years beset by the pandemic. The Hindu concept of the world as one big family has much to offer us in these turbulent times.
—Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read her columns here.
(Edited by : Yashi Gupta)