Every year the usual forwards wishing ‘peace, prosperity, health and wealth’ start pouring in during Diwali season. Most years, I don’t mind. But this time I do.
It has been a strange year that has forced upon us a new normal. Having declined invitations to weddings and delaying graduation ceremonies, it has taken months to make an uneasy peace with it. And now, as we approach the end of a year of seclusion, we are called upon to find a new way to celebrate festivals which are defined by large gatherings of people from far and near.
When we moved to Singapore, our family came up with a new tradition for Diwali. In multicultural Singapore each of us had friends who, like us, had moved to Singapore for education or work. We decided to celebrate our festival of lights with people outside our immediate cultural comfort zone. This offered us an opportunity to share our traditions and get to know classmates and colleagues in an informal environment.
The first year we invited a handful of friends from various countries who had converged in this small island. Many came dressed in Indian clothes and devoured the sweets and snacks that we passed around on trays and replenished on tables decorated with flowers and candles. As our apartment grew warmer with loud conversations and shrieking children high from cups of lemonade and apple juice, our home filled with a joyous buzz.
A small rangoli with flower petals and colored powder outside our front door welcomed visitors who admired our makeshift decor cobbled together with colorful scarves hung on curtain rods and fairy lights strung on our balcony railing. A combination of tea lights placed in painted clay lamps and simulated lamps powered by tiny batteries spread a golden glow on the faces of our guests.
Every subsequent year, our invitee list grew longer, our food menu more varied, and our decorations more elaborate. New colleagues, old classmates, students on exchange at the local university, Grab Hitch drivers-turned-friends, all were welcome.
After the initial food and drinks round, as the sky darkened on the moonless Diwali night, we walked over to the designated area in our condo carrying a large candle and heavy bags of firecrackers. The children ran around unafraid, chasing each other with dazzling sparklers and noisemakers. The air filled with smoke and chemicals, our faces grew shiny with excitement and sweat but there were smiles all around. Phone cameras didn’t do justice to the play of light that fell on the group but a few good shots captured the essence of the party every year.
Until this year of Covid. A year where our interactions were forcibly limited to those geographically closest to us.
How could we hold a party and limit the invitees to only 5 people other than our own family?
We lacked motivation to plan. We hadn’t met our colleagues in months. With few outlets for socialising, there had been no opportunities to make any new friends. A Diwali without a party would have been unthinkable a year ago.
What choice did we have but to embrace the new normal?
On weekdays, our work from home routine included a walk around the neighborhood, usually at night but sometimes after lunch as well. We waved to the security guards manning the entrance to the condos that lined our streets. We frequented a newly opened store for our weekly supply of fresh fruit. As the store expanded to stock flowers and then evolved into a full-fledged nursery, we made friends with the staff while discussing custom flower bouquets and ordering basil plants.
Our life had shrunk to the spaces around our home but our need for connection had helped us bond with our new acquaintances. We couldn’t invite them home for Diwali but we could give them some of the goodies that marked the season.
On Deepavali day, just as the skies got ready to pour, the husband and I dropped off jars of murukkus and boxes of sweets at the guard houses at the entrance to the condos in the neighborhood and then entered our fruit store. We received pleased but incredulous looks followed by smiles (behind masks, of course) and multiple rounds of thank-yous. We had managed to surprise them!
We returned home feeling pleased knowing that we had managed to brighten up someone’s day. But we also hoped for a time when we could meet our loved ones face to face.
The sweets had been distributed but what about the annual ritual with the firecrackers, something that followed “the more the merrier” rule? And what could we do about our sartorial finery that lay neatly folded in our closets waiting for a suitable outing?
As I tucked into a laddoo and scrolled through the rehashed messages doing the rounds on Whatapp, I wondered if they were suitable for this particular Diwali. Unprecedented circumstances call for unusual measures. I created an original message reflecting my own wishes and sent it around to my circle of friends and well-wishers.
Happy Diwali 2020!