A Diwali Wish

Nidhi Chanani, illustrator of Binny's Diwali, reflects on the Hindu festival of lights that is celebrated in different ways globally.

I remember the diyas. Each year, I rolled cotton threads in my oiled palms, placed them into silver teardrop-shaped diyas that my mother filled with oil. In the dark of our home, we lit each diya lamp and then carefully placed them into every room.

At the time, it felt like we lit over a hundred of them. I carried them out into the warm California night, placed them in rows, and created a path from the curb to our front door. I looked up to the sky and made my annual wish. I wished the lights would guide the goddess Lakshmi into our home and bless us with a bright future.Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1980s, I was the only Indian kid in my class. However, out of school, our social circle was utterly Indian. My immigrant parents and extended family immersed themselves in the greater Indian community. Diwali, observed in late October or early November (this year on November 14th), was the beginning of a season of festivities. Diwali is a five-day Hindu festival that symbolizes the victory of light from darkness, good over evil and knowledge above ignorance.  My family tried to honor Indian and American holidays in our own way, including a TV version of Christmas with a plastic tree and stringed lights. I lived a distinctly Indian-American experience. Not completely Indian, not completely American. Existing in the space between the hyphen. We spoke Hinglish at home, watched Hollywood and Bollywood, and added spice to every meal from kichadi to spaghetti.

Diwali is observed by over a billion people around the globe. It is a Hindu festival, but its celebration isn’t limited to Hindus. In the United States, it has grown in recognition over the past 15 years. Perhaps it was Mindy Kaling talking about it on The Office. Or perhaps, more notably, it was when Barack Obama celebrated it at the White House (the first president to do so). There’s a yearly event in Times Square with a lighting ceremony and dance performances. Disneyland includes it in their festival of holidays. In 2016, the U.S. Postal Service released a Diwali stamp. I’m ecstatic that Diwali has gained prominence here. But as it’s accepted, it’s important to preserve it’s nuance.

The Indian majority in the South Asian community means that the default will be a discussion of an Indian Diwali—the Diwali I am familiar with and, until adulthood, the only one I knew. As part of the majority, I have to investigate my privilege and educate myself about the ways in which different South Asian communities celebrate. That is the work of inclusivity. There’s Bandhi Chor Divas, observed by Sikhs, celebrating the return of Guru Hargobind Rai to Amritsar. This is commemorated by filling the Golden Temple in Amritsar with lights. Jains celebrate the attainment of Nirvana by Lord Mahavir, and though they fill their homes with lights, as practitioners of non-violence, they avoid fireworks. In Nepal, Diwali is called Tihar, and it includes a day to honor dogs and their relationships with humans. In many countries in South Asia, it’s a national holiday.

It is our responsibility as parents and educators to shed light on the distinct Diwali celebrations. We must discuss the breadth of ways it is observed. Last year, I shared Diwali at my kids’ preschool, and this year I will share with my daughter’s kindergarten. I will read a book, draw, and share a craft in an age-appropriate introduction to the holiday. When I present, I will mention the many communities that celebrate Diwali. It is imperative that in our work towards inclusion, we don’t inadvertently exclude.

I recently illustrated the picture book Binny’s Diwali, written by Thrity Umrigar, who is Parsi (an ethnoreligious group who follow the teachings of the Persian prophet Zoroaster). Thrity grew up celebrating Diwali in India. I celebrated in California. Our book is centered on sharing Diwali with a class. It’s modern and relatable. I know my place as an author and illustrator of color. I know that each time I work on a book that relates to my Indian identity, there’s an unspoken currency. An ease of marketability. The same way #OwnVoices opens doors, it can also narrow pathways. I cautiously accept this work. Every story related to my identity has the potential to dictate my future projects, the potential to restrict my voice into The Indian Voice. When I choose work that relates to my identity, it’s because I believe the work adds to the book market.

When offered an opportunity to speak about these aspects of identity, I try to see beyond my own experience. As an author with the unique position of connecting with many teachers and students, I think about these subjects broadly. It’s vital to share the ways in which these symbols of identity, like Diwali, are varied. To move beyond the Indian majority and include the expanse of South Asia. Because Diwali isn’t solely an Indian holiday. As the South Asian diaspora fills many corners of the globe, Diwali is global now. There are festivities in Guyana, Fiji, Malaysia, Nepal, Mauritius, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Indonesia, Britain, and the United States (and other locations I’ve probably missed).

As part of the beautiful tapestry of South Asians, I recognize that there is no single way to represent us—just as there is no single way that Diwali is observed. The only thing that unifies Diwali are the lights.

This year, as Diwali is celebrated across countries, I will light diyas in my home with my family. And when I look to the sky, my wish remains similar to what it was years ago. I wish for a brighter future, built on inclusivity and unity.

Nidhi Chanani is the illustrator of Binny's Diwali and  I Will Be Fierce  and the author of the graphic novel Pashmina and the bilingual board book Shubh Raatri Dost/Good Night Friend.

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