The Ins and Outs of Diwali

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

There are some general themes you’ll find in all of humanity’s holidays, no matter which specific text or spirituality they spawn from. There’s the harvest festival, the new year, festivals of joy and sorrow, of remembering when we had a lot and when we had very little. There’s also like, National Spaghetti Day. It’s easy to track a lot of these with the seasons, celebrating the sun when it’s at its strongest and remembering its shine when it’s cold and distant. This is all to say, if you’re human, you probably already understand Diwali. Got lights? Got food? Got a general-but-ever-dwindling sense of hope about the universe? It’s Diwali!

Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights, a time of celebrating good over evil, light over darkness, the triumph of Gods over demons. The specific story of good triumphing over evil depends on who you ask. For some, it’s a celebration of Lord Rama rescuing his wife, Sita, from a demon king (which may or may not have been the actual king of Sri Lanka…yikes) and returning home from exile. For others, it’s a story about Krishna or Vishnu or Kali. There’s no shortage of myths of demons being conquered and order being restored, and wealth and prosperity spreading as a result of victory. All over India, the holiday is celebrated the way humans celebrate best — with lots of food, gifts, and lighting up the streets with fireworks and colorful lamps.

However, I learned about all of this later. As a kid, it wasn’t the festival of lights, but the festival of taking a bus over the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey so I could sit on the front steps with my grandma, when it was just too cold to be sitting on stone steps, and watch her draw rangoli (intricate patterns drawn on the floor) with flour paste. Again, later I would learn these patterns and shapes invite good luck. Then I was just mesmerized by her fingers.

There was no talk of gods or worship in New Jersey. Instead, there was food, which I refused to eat because I thought Indian flavors were weird (I got better), and gifts, though my grandparents always gave me a little something when I came to visit. There was also the lighting of a lot of candles, which I was told to make a wish on, and that if we floated the flame down a river and I could still see the light by the time it reached the bend, my wish would come true that year. There was just one problem — there were no rivers nearby, unless you counted the Hudson, where chances were my candle would be run over by a barge. So I never got to participate in that particular tradition, and now I’m just thankful I was a kid and my wishes were probably like “meet Raphael from the Ninja Turtles.”

Aside from trips to my grandparents’ house that happened to coincide with holidays, I’ve never been a practicing Hindu. My grandmother likes to remind me I’m a Diwali baby, since I was born around this time of year, and that this is an auspicious thing. Perhaps this is why I have a fondness for Diwali. However, I think it’s mostly because it feels like there’s something deeply human about this holiday. In early November, when the holidays usually takes place, the days are getting shorter. It’s getting cold. SAD is coming for us all. It’s easy to forget what inspires us and what’s good in the world when you barely see the sun. We are all desperate for something good to cling to. Diwali reminds us that there’s value in remembering the light and that just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Fall will turn into spring again. The light will return.

Jaya Saxena is a writer and editor living in Queens. Her work has appeared in GQ, Elle, The New York Times, and more. Her grandmother had to remind her to light a candle for Diwali.

Jaya Saxena