The Indian-Americans have landed! The Upper East Side of Manhattan had probably never seen so many New Yorkers of Indian descent, all dressed in their glittering ethnic best. The event they were all heading to was the Diwali reception hosted by Mayor Bill de Blasio at the official residence, Gracie Mansion.
On the nippy fall day, over 900 people had gathered on the manicured lawns facing the New York waterfront, and the large crowd represented different communities from the South Asian Diaspora, including many young entrepreneurs and activists.
While New York’s Hindu community and all those who love Diwali still don’t have the school holiday for Diwali that they would like for their children and families, this Diwali function, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, has become a permanent feature and a much-cherished celebration.
Most people are happy that Diwali is being recognised by City Hall and that the Mayor’s team has several Indian-Americans, including Kapil Longani, Counsel to the Mayor, Anusha Venkatraman, City Chief Service Officer and Amit Bagga, deputy working with Julie Menin, director of the all-important upcoming Census 2020, which is so important for getting all immigrants their due share.
The evening’s ceremonies began with prayers by Hindu priest Pandit Narayan who lit the ceremonial diya with Mayor de Blasio in the presence of the Indian-American community and special guests from India, Guyana and Sri Lanka.
Mayor Bill de Blasio with Maulik Pancholy. Photo credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.
“We wanted to honor the community and respect it by making it a celebration that happens not sometimes but every year because we value this community and this holiday,” said the Mayor. “I associate it now with the greatness of this community which has made New York stronger in so many ways. To know Diwali is to love Diwali so the more that get to know it, the better it is.”
Every Diwali de Blasio pays tribute to a resident who embodies the spirit of New York, and this year he proclaimed it to be Maulik Pancholy Day in the city to honour the immigrant actor-activist who is known for his work in television series like ‘30 Rock’ and is also the voice of Baljeet on the Emmy Award–winning animated series Phineas and Ferb and of Sanjay on Sanjay and Craig.
The son of immigrants, Pancholy grew up in Ohio, and went to Northwestern University and to Yale School of Drama where he got his Master of Fine Arts. He is the recipient of an Asian American Arts Alliance Award and the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award.
Manish and Priya Israni, guests at the event, pose with Vishnu. Photo: Lavina Melwani
Pancholy, who is gay, has served on President Obama’s
Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Recently, he helped launched an anti-bullying campaign called Act to Change. He has been named as an advisor to AAPI Victory Fund’s National Leadership Council which advises the organisation as the nation heads toward the 2020 elections. He is also active in Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, and OutRight Action International, formerly known as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission The actor recently wrote a debut novel for children titled ‘The Best of It’ which tells the story of 12-year-old Rahul Kapoor who has to deal with not only being different as an Indian-American but also gay. Though the story is fictional it is about the brave struggles which he himself underwent and which many other young people face. Importance of speaking up
At the reception Mayor De Blasio thanked him for writing the book because it highlighted the importance of speaking up: “We don't tolerate it in this city, but it's something we always have to do more on in our schools, as parents, as family members, as community members. We have to make clear to our young people they should never suffer in silence.”
Getting a day named after you is indeed a high honor, and as Pancholy shared the experience on Facebook, “A very cool way to round out the celebration of one of my favorite holidays. I’m grateful to be able to bring visibility to our communities as an actor, to be standing up to bullying alongside the incredible and tireless team at
Act To Change and to offer representation for AAPI and LGBTQ kids.” VIDEO
At the reception he pointed out that Asian children are being bullied at twice the national average, “bullied because of their immigration status, the colour of their skin and sometimes for the clothes they wear or the food they bring to school, the way they pray, and in severe circumstances, we were hearing that kids are being beaten up and called terrorists.”
He added, “And so many of us have felt the increase of this hateful rhetoric over the last several years, but the message coming out today is the message of Diwali which is literally shine your light, be yourself. Celebrate your differences.”
Pancholy was also grateful for the fact that NewYork continues to be a nurturing place for different people and minorities, a safe haven for immigrants and a sanctuary city for all.
Mayor De Blasio observed that it had been a challenging two years in the nation and that many people felt rejected and demeaned. “And that is not what America was supposed to be. It was not supposed to be a place that turned against people because of where they came from, or the colour of their skin or the language they spoke.”
Spirit of Diwali
Equating the spirit of Diwali with the spirit of New York, he said that understanding can triumph over division, and that one can learn from each other’s goodness and learn a deep love for each other.
“I like to believe that New York City is a light to the world because we gather together to celebrate each culture,” he said. “We don't think there is a contradiction in appreciating another culture or another faith, We actually think it's part of the good and normal life of New York City to celebrate each other, to show we can actually create something greater together.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read Lavina Melwani's columns .