Finding a place in tradition

Anika Gupta

Listen,” a friend told me in my sophomore year of high school, “you’re a great person so I’m going to pray for your soul. But let’s be honest — you worship idols.”

She dropped this memorable revelation shortly after I tried to explain the meaning of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that is celebrated in late October or early November.

While my friend’s views weren’t necessarily held by the majority of people I knew (and she later retracted the statement), her characterization lingered uncomfortably for months afterward, partly because I never had an adequate response.

For years I felt like a foreigner within my own faith. I bungled the tiny, instinctive tasks of prayer. I mispronounced words or became confused about which hand to use for what task, and all of a sudden relatives and strangers alike would say, “You can’t expect much, she was born in the U.S.”

At college I welcomed the chance to escape from the tangle altogether. I decided I wouldn’t go home for Diwali, thus avoiding discomfort all around. But a few days before Nov. 12, when many people would begin celebrating the festival, I opened my e-mail inbox and discovered an electronic card that sang me an invitation to my aunt’s house in Gurnee, Ill., for Diwali weekend.

I remembered the parties of Diwalis past. I remembered my father pulling Christmas lights out of the attic only to discover that half the bulbs had burned out. That year my sister and I had to run across the street to borrow a string of lights from a neighbor, since Diwali is, after all, the festival of lights.

I remembered the year my sister, fired up with civic spirit, decided to help prepare for the party by shining all the silverware — with toothpaste. (She didn’t realize that most silverware isn’t actually manufactured from silver.)

We had to wash all of our eating utensils three times to get rid of the minty-fresh smell.

I remembered relatives crowding into our house, the windows steaming with warm breath and fog. Kids in starched and uncomfortable new clothes fidgeted their way through prayer services conducted in Hindi, which they didn’t understand.

Every person who came to these parties had a place. Even as I lingered between guests, making light conversation about my studies and wishing my American accent wasn’t quite so pronounced, I had a place. Lights, discomfort, language, warmth — each separate sensation is a piece of a tradition at once broader and simpler than a religious ceremony or a two-word definition.

By the time my aunt’s invitation came, memories had already worn down my resistance. Dining hall food, long hours in my dorm room, the pressure of midterms and final exams all painted a gloomy picture of a weekend on campus.

So I went. And it largely was as I remembered. We set a row of lights along the driveway, we wrapped ourselves in gold-embroidered fabrics, and we met group after group of friends and family. And there were moments when I felt dreadfully out of place. At the same time, I recognized the familiar rituals as home.

At its scriptural heart, Diwali is the day Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, returned home after 14 years of exile in the forest. The legends don’t say he returned home to a populace that wasn’t segregated by class, or to a kingdom that wasn’t paralyzed by dissent. They don’t promise that he went without reservations or uncertainty. Only that he went.

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