Between Two Worlds

From flash sales to pre-Diwali parties…shaming the festival for causing noise pollution by bursting crackers was all happening in my virtual world.

Between Two Worlds
Photo by Ethan Hoover / Unsplash

Submitted to the SBS Emerging Writers Competition 2021.

This is a true story :)

"Ummm...This is delicious! Looks like a dumpling but tastes sweet. What is this?" asked Vicki as she bit into the soft sheath of steamed rice flour that gave way to the delicate, freshly grated coconut and jaggery stuffing inside, drizzled generously with pure ghee!

The rest of the team had enjoyed the afternoon tea and returned to their desks, but Vicki stayed back as I washed my ghee-laden containers. She loved a good chat, especially when it came to what she called ‘exotic foods that made her go weak in the knees’ like Modak just had.

"This delicacy my dear is called a Modak. We made them yesterday to welcome Shri Ganesh."

I replied. Pulling out my mobile, I showed her photos of the beautiful decoration against the backdrop of the pleasant-looking murti of Shri Ganesh installed in my home.

"Oh the elephant-headed god!" she exclaimed as she looked through the photos. My usual poker face must have shown a hint of disapproval as she self-corrected "I mean...Gunayeshaa."

"Yes, that's more appropriate than elephant-headed God. " I continued wiping the container.

"Oh, do tell..." curious, Vicki wanted to know more.

"Well, for us, he is not a lifeless idol. He is consecrated for this special visit. So he is more of a family member or a dear friend who visits each year without fail. To me, he signals the beginning of a time of great spiritual significance over the next few months. You see, upon his arrival, I know that we are only a month away from Navaratri - the nine nights of worshipping all that is divine, in her feminine form. When He arrives, I also know that I have about two months left, to get ready for the Diwali festivities. The harbinger of new beginnings, Ganesh reinvigorates me, reassures me that he has removed the obstacles in my path and it is time for a fresh take on life...just like the spring that is in the air this time of year. Back home, you can see the festivities, religious events, shopping season, all starting to build up from now and crescendo by Diwali time."

"Do you miss home?" she asked as we walked back to our desks.

"Hmmmm. I do." My body returned to the desk, the excel sheet, and the black and white life of numbers. Unfettered by the limitations of time-space though, my mind flew to what it craved – the colours, processions, pomp and fanfare with which Shri Ganesh is welcomed in countless homes. Jubilant people lining the streets, decorating it with floral rangolis and large squads of young boys and girls playing Dhol – Tasha2 drums.

Behind the scenes, these squads practice drumming routines for months. What starts out as a cacophony gradually turns into adrenaline-pumping sequences. Old friends have reunited and strangers have become friends by the time all this ends a couple of months later.

That night, I had a hearty chat with a dear friend I hadn’t talked to in years. “Did I ever tell you how in awe I was of your phenomenal skills on the Tasha?”

“Ah, don’t remind me of that….my beer belly is my Tasha now!” he said.

We reminisced. The festivities had finished, but our friendships endured.

At work, Vicki continued to be fascinated with India and I enjoyed sharing what I knew. Often my lived experiences were in stark contrast and sometimes diametrically opposed to what she had heard in the news and media. Both of us learnt and grew from these exchanges.

Navaratri came and went, and Diwali was now just two weeks away. Like most Hindus abroad, we too got busy preparing for the five days festivities. Deep cleaning the house and yard, preparing the earthen lamps, putting up the fairy-light on the façade, a cooking schedule for the seasonal food items to prepare, planning get-togethers…there was much to do.

Amidst all the hubbub, the homesickness remained like a knot deep within. I pushed that feeling of unease aside and soldiered on.

As the D-day drew closer, my social media feed became inundated with HAPPY DIWALI “shares and likes”. Presidents and Prime-Ministers wishing people Happy Diwali and big organizations projecting it on well-known monuments had finally made Diwali a mainstream celebration!

From flash sales to pre-Diwali parties…from do-gooders spending their party money on saving the world to social justice warriors shaming the festival for causing noise pollution by bursting crackers, it was all happening in my virtual world.

In reality, life was still the 9–5 job where hardly anyone knew what Diwali was or how significant it was to the Hindus across the world.

“Hey, I saw a “Happy Deewaalee” poster at Woolies yesterday. Is it the same one where you

gave us those goody bags last year? Festival of colour…light…Remind me what is it again?” a colleague queried in passing.

Gosh! What is Diwali? Where should I even begin, I wondered.

“Lights, it is the festival of light…” I recycled the cliched response not wanting to say more, “It is like Christmas, Indian style.”

The knot within twisted some more.

How can I even begin to tell you, what Diwali means to me?

The people, the places, the memories…I bridge two worlds, constantly.

One by one the houses would put up their aakashkandils and before you know it the streets, neighbourhoods and entire towns were decked in colourful lights. With the lights up, my anticipation would turn to desperation as I’d make my way to the bus depot. Along the way, I admired the beautiful rangolis that adorned the entrances and the wafting aroma of deep-fried faral made me hungry. Pushing my way through a sea of people with just a backpack, I’d score a seat on the bus, returning home from Uni. I’d never call ahead, yet I knew he’d be waiting…Seeing Ajo (grandfather) by the window was Diwali! Running into his bear hug was Diwali!

Now it is the quiet streets without lights and rangoli and no one waits for me.

Oh the people, the places, the memories…

How can I even begin to tell you, what Diwali means to me?

I bridge two worlds, constantly.

Maybe it was catching up with friends and riding around town dodging the early fireworks. Maybe it was the excitement of store hopping and buying new clothes. Maybe it was stopping by the local potter to purchase earthen lamps and soaking them in water overnight. Maybe it was sitting with Aji (grandmother) in the evenings and learning to draw delicate wicks from the cotton ball. Or maybe it was that race with my sisters to see who rises the earliest to light the pre-dawn lamps… only to see my Aai-Baba (Mother-Father) were half way through lighting the earthen lamps around the house. A full house buzzing with activity, that was Diwali.

These days, it is a well lit and decorated house, that is quiet and empty.

Oh the people, the places, the memories…

How can I even begin to tell you, what Diwali means to me?

I bridge two worlds, constantly.

Maybe it was the race to burst the loudest firecrackers, with a definite intention of waking up the entire neighbourhood!! Maybe it was that ritual of the annual oil massage from Aji, with the Vishnu Sahasranaam5 playing in the background. All the worries and anxiety that’d accumulated in my body all year long, would simply dissipate as her 90 year old bony hands ran over me. Without ever saying it, Aji would work all the ‘I love you, I miss you, I am proud of you’ into us.

Maybe it was that exuberant and affectionate hug from my Aai-Baba, reserved for this time of year.

Dressed in our finest, the entire family came together for the morning feast of Diwali.

Oh the people, the places, the memories…

How can I even begin to tell you, what Diwali means to me?

I bridge two worlds, constantly.

Maybe it was going around to every house in the neighbourhood, seeking blessings from the elders (secretly hoping to score some sweetmeats and cash as a Diwali gift). Maybe it was watching the contentment on Ajis face at the local orphanage that afternoon, as she shared sweets and new clothes with the children. Maybe that’s what made me part with half of my Diwali earnings, at the orphanage. Maybe it was her compassion that unknowingly instilled in me the value of giving and sharing.

She made me realise that being independent and inter-dependent were complementary, being a part of this whole, became my very identity.

Oh the people, the places, the memories…

How can I even begin to tell you, what Diwali means to me?

I bridge two worlds, constantly.

That afternoon, Vicki asked me to help her with an excel spreadsheet. It had been a busy day and I was oblivious to the happenings around me. I walked over to the neighbouring bay and was surprised to see all my teammates there, with an afternoon tea laid out.

“Did we have an afternoon tea today? I didn’t have one in my calendar!” I was puzzled.

“Happy Diwali!” they all greeted in unison.

With a table full of tea-lights, candles, colourful patterns, red velvet cake and other goodies, my teammates had created Diwali for me at the office!

Anything eclectic and colourful that could be associated with India, was on that table!! Someone was innovative enough to add the picture of the White House because they couldn’t find one of the Taj Mahal. One of them had researched the net for what a rangoli was and came back with patterned serviettes, another printed Happy Diwali greetings and put them all around. Yet another had gone around the entire floor and borrowed small elephant figurines to add to the décor.

The busyness of the week had disguised my unease. With this unexpected and selfless gesture, my world inside collided with the one outside and that knot inside of me came undone, rolling down my cheeks. Vicki enveloped me in a warm hug. No words were necessary.

This is the true story of my most memorable Australian Diwali!