Fall brings not only pumpkin spice but also a big round of Indian holidays, not the least of which is Diwali. For me, this is what Diwali brings to mind:
Stokely Center, University of Tennessee campus, late 1970s-early 1980s. Beautiful fall weather, the thrill of multiple almost flat Cokes served from a two-liter bottle, samosas, aluminum trays filled with Indian food. Running around with the few other Indian kids my age in East Tennessee, from all over India. Throwing crabapples from the gorgeous tree nearby. Staying up late, swirling colors, wearing a langa. Something about lights, sweets, and maybe even new year.
I’m pretty sure that’s not what would come to mind had I been raised in India, where I was born. You immigrate, you change the story. Or rather, when your parents immigrate, they change your story even if they don’t really mean to or grasp how much it will change.
Diwali to me is almost a pan-Indian holiday — it was not the biggest holiday in my South Indian family, but it was the one that became the most universally celebrated and recognized in the United States, especially back when we could list the Indian-Americans in the community by name. This was long before there were Indian stores and restaurants and caterers.
Diwali essentially became our biggest unifying, gathering event. It didn’t matter that my family calls it Deepavali or that it was less central to my parents’ upbringing than say, Sri Krishna Janmashtami. Back then, it was as close to home as the community could get.
Years later, when President Obama celebrated the first White House Diwali in 2009, it was such a big moment for this piece of American culture, my American culture, to be recognized at a national level. In North Carolina, where I live now, it took until 2017 to bring about the state's first official celebration of Diwali. That celebration was like those of my youth — beautiful fall day, Indian-Americans of all faiths and ages and a sense of community, but this time with Indian fusion sushi from a local restaurant and beautiful rangoli on the steps of the governor’s mansion.
Diwali came from India as a very specific holiday with centuries-old traditions and morphed into something different with a new layer of meaning once celebrated in the United States. It’s a unifier, valuable for its past and also for what it signifies to those of us who think of crabapples and flat Coke before we think of diya and delivering boxes of sweets.
Life is indeed brighter at Diwali.
-- Anu Mannar