Writer Anita Ghosh was looking forward to reconnecting with her family traditions this Diwali, but she’s not going to let lockdown stop her celebrating the festival of light.
The only celebration I’d planned this year (that didn’t involve my sofa) was for Diwali. It’s something I rarely celebrated during my 20s, a period of time in my life where I became distanced from my Indian roots. However, after a quarter life crisis at 30 (if you know you know), understanding my history became a lot more important to me and how I celebrated Diwali this year felt particularly significant.
Without the usual holidays, birthday celebrations, work schedules – all the things we use not only to structure our lives with, but define ourselves by – thrown out of the window, I found it easy to feel lost as we, as a nation, free fall into an abyss of groundhog lockdown days.
Perhaps because of this, I’ve found myself revisiting the past, holding onto all the things that brought me joy and gave me a strong sense of self previously. I find myself longing for holidays I once had, nights out I can’t remember, special moments from my childhood: all those little idiosyncrasies and traditions that make me, me.
Indian culture is steeped in superstitions, rituals and traditions and I’ve somehow incorporated them into my everyday without ever really realising. Traditions that didn’t mean anything suddenly do, superstitions that felt arduous now comforting, festivals I’d normally bypass, I want to celebrate. Funny really, given as a kid I thought traditions were restricting and redundant. I remember seeing a meme once that said, “tradition is just peer pressure from dead people” and I couldn’t have felt more seen. But as I get older, I understand more.
My own little rituals and superstitions have become traditions which tell an important myriad of my own history. It’s how I start each morning with fresh coffee or go out of my way to cross two grids on the street, wishing silently under my breath for the universe to hear. It’s how I listen to Joni Mitchell when I write or think it’s bad luck to throw out leftover rice. Some passed down from my Dad adapted by Mum, some picked up at school, some I do just because I want to.
Growing up with mixed race heritage, small traditions were important building blocks which carved my own biracial identity, a live connection to both sides of me.
This link between tradition and identity is a common theme amongst diaspora communities with those who maintain traditions representative of their family history or culture shown to have a greater sense of self rather than feeling like the other. On a micro level, perhaps living away from Manchester, the city I grew up in, for over a decade has helped me understand this more. There’s comfort in the familiarity when everything around you feels foreign.
For me, Diwali is a beautiful example of this: tradition, culture and identity coming together with so much joy, so much vibrancy, so much expression, it almost feels like magic. Growing up, it was one of the main ways I engaged with my Indian roots, I was mesmerised by the bright colours and glittering lights it brought. We took trips to the temple, watched explosive fireworks and filled the house with light. It was cross-cultural sharing at its richest, bringing what it meant to be Indian alive: in the context of things I knew, it felt like Christmas.
Put simply, Diwali represents the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and it feels like we could all do with a bit of that right now. A key part of the celebration is togetherness and rather fittingly, I’d planned to spend it with my oldest pal, Priya, and our respective partners. We’d planned a trip to the temple, a curry and maybe some dancing in the kitchen after - something we’ve not celebrated in over two decades of friendship. We were excited to share this side of our heritage with each other, as well as our partners: I felt it was a chance to share part of me that I’m not always sure how to. But, with Diwali falling on the second weekend of national lockdown, those plans are off the table as they are for thousands of others.
Outdoor celebrations from Edinburgh to London have been cancelled, or moved online, and not being able to mix households means the usual coming together of families won’t be happening this year. I can’t help but think about how many of those cheesy McCain ad style family moments won’t be made this season.
Of course, the bottom line is lives need to be saved and everything else is secondary. But as I exchange a flurry of let’s-have-a-drink-virtually/ make-sure-we-celebrate-when-all-this-is-over/ it-will-be-over-soon-right? Whatsapps with Priya, I realise what I’d been missing when it came to festivities like Diwali and the traditions behind them.
Celebrating Diwali brings me, and no doubt thousands of others, a broader sense of human connection, shown through a hundred little rituals done with people you love. I now realise why my friend Stef, a beautiful mix of Irish Peruvian, is almost militant about getting everyone to the pub on St Paddy’s Day or will trek halfway across London for an authentic (emphasis on authentic) Pisco Sour come Peruvian’s Independence Day. These celebrations are seasonalised check-ins with parts of you which can be easily forgotten when it’s not part of your every day.
So, like with most things this year, whilst it’s not the Diwali I planned, it’s still important I celebrate. My own traditions transform and evolve as I do but they are cultural tools in keeping my identity alive. Come Saturday, I’ll be cooking a curry using my Dad’s favourite recipe, introducing my boyfriend to his first Bollywood movie (my sofa managed to wangle an invite) and lighting some sparklers in the park. It’s my turn to adapt the traditions adapted for me and in doing so, invite a little light into our home - what could be more Diwali than that?