This Sunday millions of people around the world will celebrate the Indian holiday of Diwali. The “Festival Of Lights” has fascinated me for the longest time but to be honest I never really understood what it was all about, we always treated it like an “Indian Christmas”. So today I invited author Anju Gattani onto the podcast to walk me through the Diwali celebration; how it compares to western holidays, the preparations that go into it, and what Diwali’s origins are.
Along the way we discuss her incredible experiences growing up in a multicultural community in Hong Kong (1:47), how Diwali compares to the American holiday season (4:28), exactly how Diwali is celebrated (5:30), the unique Diwali celebrations she experienced growing up (12:12)–including diverse Diwali Balls she attended (13:25). Anju and I spoke about the Indian culture’s love of celebrations (15:48), how she integrates Indian and Western traditions in her household (18:44), why she labors to keep up with both Indian and American holidays (21:09), how exposure to other culture’s celebrations is teaching her children respect (22:23), and how she portrayed Diwali in her novel Duty and Desire (29:09).
A fiction author, freelance journalist, fiction writing instructor, blogger and former newspaper reporter, Anju was born in India but grew up in Hong Kong. She has also lived in Singapore, India, Australia, New Jersey, Connecticut, and finally dug her roots in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, 2 dashing boys and a rebel lion-head rabbit.
Her debut novel ‘Duty and Desire’ in the Winds of Fire series is slated for release in 2020. Anju hopes her books will Bridge Cultures and Break Barriers.
Read Anju’s super sweet blog post about our podcast time together (she made me blush!) and find more information about her books on her official website. Make sure to follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!
Subscribe to Southern Life Indian Wife where you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Tunein. Keep up to date with the podcast and my upcoming book news by following me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!
I’m a lifelong Southerner married to an Indian man who grew up in South Africa during apartheid and I am fiercely proud of both . If you don’t like that Well bless your heart. I’m Sheryl Prabhu and this is southern life Indian wife. All.
Right. So today I have got Anju Gattani…am I saying that right? Yes you are. Okay good because I have that American accent and an inability to say different kinds of names.
Well you say all things beautifully so we’re all good.
Thank you. And so thank you so much for being here today. Thank you for having me. Since it’s getting into the holiday season I wanted to have you come and talk about Diwali… because that is in October before Halloween Thanksgiving Christmas.
And when I married my husband I was always told that Diwali is the Indian Christmas. So I wanted to kind of get the real scoop on the holiday. Yeah I know you’ve got a really interesting background. So you have a very wide scope of perspective I guess on the holiday.
Yeah a very unique perspective I’d say which sometimes coincides with the general thinking pattern and Sometimes Doesn’t. OK. So you know that all comes and basically from experiences I’ve had. So I’m excited to share all of them with you. Yeah. And I listened to some of your other podcasts with other speakers. And I really enjoyed what I heard.
Oh well thank you so much. Yeah I love. Just kind of shooting the wind with people so sometimes I just can’t you can’t stop me. You’re good at what you do. Well thank you . Yeah. So a little bit about you you grew up you were born and grew up in Hong Kong?
Well born in India in Bareilly where Priyanka Chopra is from. Which is exciting.
But you know grew up in Hong Kong for the majority of my life. I would say a good 20 to 23 years very very a British school over 36 nationalities under one roof at any time. Wow. And so a very multicultural feel you know students from Japan Korea India USA to different parts of Europe to kids from Africa to Australia. I mean there were families from all over the continent including the Chinese. And even within the Chinese there were so many different sects sectors of the different colloquial Chinese backgrounds they came from. So it was a real multicultural playground so to speak.
Wow. OK so your family of course has the traditional Indian culture and religion that’s what you grew up with even though you were not in India.
Yes. So I would say think of ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ OK.
But without the soccer OK I’m not an athlete. No no no.
Let’s go to the culture clash that you saw in ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ and you know go in the shadows the recent release ‘Blinded By The Light’ another fantastic film really captures the feel and the era of the 1980s and 90s. OK which is what a lot of us went through. And you know growing up in a multicultural city so very Indian family prob probably not as much as what you saw on blinded by the light. You know my parents had a really good mix but still a very very Indian on the inside. And the moment you stepped out the door it was a wave of multicultural that hit you. OK. And so we learn to juggle between the two sides very quickly. So and I can just say that the moment we would come home for example if we’re talking to our parents that would be English with an Indian accent the moment we stepped out it’s English with the British accent.
OK. So very much the ability to just code switch on a dime on a dime without even realizing it.
And I think what I understand looking back is that taught us a lot in terms of being able to adapt and adjust to any and every situation. Because you’re so used to doing it right and adjusting to that people around you and the changes in the environment situation you become very quick at thinking on your feet and managing with what you have around you.
Right. Yeah. That makes total sense. So but with traditions your family maintain that very Indian essence right? Yes. Yes they did. So with Diwali that was a big important part of your family. I assume it was huge.
OK you’re right in what you said it’s equivalent to the American and British Christmas and I would say in America Thanksgiving. OK. That’s the scale at which it’s at. Because I know Thanksgiving is huge here. A lot of families come together. People take trips road trips they fly down all over the place and you know the amount of food that’s cooked and served. It’s exciting.
It’s very exciting. There’s always three times more than any football team could eat really. Oh yes.
So what we see on TV is a real thing.
You know what we see on TV at least what I’ve seen is very formal dinners. You know the head of the household is cutting the turkey and everyone sitting there at this nicely laid table. And I’m sure there are families out there that do that. But my family has never done that. It’s just sort of a free for all. You lay it all out on every single kitchen counter. Everybody just goes and serves themselves and we sit around watching football and make ourselves sick.
So that’s our ritual. Sounds fun.
It is very fun. Back to Diwali.
Yeah. So here’s the difference. You know how you have spring cleaning. So we have Diwali cleaning which I think which starts pretty much you know several weeks ahead of the Diwali itself because there is a belief that. And one of the goddesses we worship is Goddess Lakshmi Lakshmi Ji and the belief is that you know on the night of Diwali she’s basically out and about. And if your house is clean sparkling she’ll come and visit you and shower you with blessings prosperity wealth because she is the goddess of wealth. OK so a lot of families believe that if you keep your house clean and you know and that really means cleaning every shelf every cupboard. Which is exhausting. Yes. So as fun as the festival is the one thing that I’ve always remembered right from the beginning is the house cleaning which starts several weeks ahead of time. Yikes. And it’s a lot of work. So that is followed by obviously then the five days of Diwali so Diwali usually spans over five days. OK. Day one is known as Dhanteras and that’s usually when families go out and buy something in gold or silver. It’s considered good luck.
OK. So do they buy just one trinket for the family or? it could be.
It could be a trinket it could be something you know for their home or for somebody and that’s usually a good luck kind of thing that people do to welcome prosperity. OK. And then you light one Diya and the Diya is like a crucible a earthenware Crucible which is made of clay or then where it’s baked in the kill and then you know we fill it with oil and we have a long cup and Wick which we dip in the oil and then we light that. So it’s like an oil lamp so to speak. OK. But a very miniature version of it.
So you light it do you leave it lit until we just leave it until it goes out OK.
So that’s day one Dhanteras . Day two is Chhoti Diwali also known if I translate that. It’s like Diwali Eve or Little Diwali . OK. That is the build up to the actual Diwali day and that evening. You know a lot of families they shower in the evenings again and then they dress up and then they liked five diyas and that could vary from family to family. So in my family it’s been day one is one Diya day two is five Diyas. Again it’s the same concept of you know preparing for the Festival of Lights which is what Diwali is.
OK yeah. And that that is my main question what the heck exactly does that mean.
So it goes back to if you take the approach of the practical side of it as well there are two approaches you can come from. One is it indicates the end of harvest for many farmers. This is back in the day when you know peasants farmers were the main I think the population in India. And so Diwali kind of signify the end of the harvest. OK. And so it was also a cause for celebration because it was a coming of winter. And so they they lit Diyas in to commemorate that. But the more important story is the coming home of Lord Rama and he is sort of the reincarnate Lord Vishnu. Now what happened in his story was that he was born to King Dasharatha and King Dasharatha had four wives. I remember correctly four wives. He was the oldest son of the four sons in total. OK from from from the wives. And I could be wrong. I think it could be three wives.
But anyway a lot. Yes.
Indian religion does have a lot of you know I would say diversity to it in terms of the Kings and the queens and the number of wives they had and the number of children they had. But Lord Rama was the oldest of all the four brothers in from that King. And he was sent in exile for 14 years. He was banished to the forest but with his return came the fact that he had also killed the Indian highest pinnacle of a demon so to speak called Ravana. OK. So the day that he actually killed Ravana is known as Dusherra…Dusherra . And that is the day that Lord Ram killed Ravana. So in a lot of places in India you’ll see huge effigies of Lord of Ravan put up and burned. Oh OK. Wow. So that celebrates that huh. And then sort of then it was a 10 day time period from when Lord Rama killed Ravana to when he came home on Diwali . So it’s like a homecoming. Sort of sad so to speak. OK. And that’s you know to celebrate and honor his coming home after the exile. The palace was lit up with these oil lamps to welcome him. OK. Now the other part of it is also that it’s the victory of good over evil light over darkness.
Now that is the very simplistic. That is the most simplistic explaination that I have ever heard. Yeah but I’ve always been told. Yeah. That’s a wonderful thing to celebrate.
It is. And so the funny thing is is that you know we have so many stories even now trilogies and series which talk about good over evil light over dark even movies that are produced by Hollywood and Bollywood today. Yes. So the concept is something that stems back to a very basic of positive over negative. And so me.
Yeah. That’s worldwide. That world lives in every single belief system dating back to pre organized religion.
Yeah exactly. Yeah. So I hope that was able to kind of cover it in a nutshell.
Definitely I mean that condenses the story pretty well. So yeah that’s great because ever since I’ve been a part of Indian culture you know on the fringe anyway you know I always wanted to know what Diwali really was about and I was around people that celebrated it and you know they did the garbas they dressed up right. But I never really got a good explanation for what it is. It’s just something we do. It’s something we do which is like what we do with Christmas and Thanksgiving everybody doesn’t know the full story behind it right. We just do it with our family because it’s a thing.
Yes. And I think you know the good thing is now with the Internet you can Google a lot of the stuff out kind of research into what it’s all about. Why do we use and why do we practice certain traditions and rights that we do. Yeah and that definitely helps define and refine our actions.
Absolutely. Yes the Internet is good.
Yes it does have its downfalls but it definitely has its power. Great. So tell me what is what it looks like in your family when you were growing up and now when Diwali comes.
So growing up in Hong Kong we didn’t have a lot of the luxuries for example that you get an Indian and in the US. Indian products Indian goods that are easy to buy and sort of make life simple.
You know Amazon now this is the Amazon right. We were still functioning on landlines. International calls. How did we ever do that
Think about it now it feels really weird. Yeah. So everything was done and made from scratch and Hong Kong was not a place where you could go into an Indian store and buy sweets or you know savory dishes or things like that. Everything was made by hand. So mom spent at least a good four to five days prior to Dwali and this is after all the cleaning and the House cleaning stuff then cooking sweet sweet meats and making you know savory snacks. Wow. And you know the whole house would just be full of the fragrance of food and the House means apartments everybody in Hong Kong lives usually pretty much in an apartment. OK. So you’d get fragrances you go into any household at that time and that’s the fragrance you’d get in an Indian home. Wow. And so that was you know I would say the key sense that I remember. But what was unique in Hong Kong for us was a lot of our Indian friends also celebrated Diwali after the five days of Diwali with a Diwali Ball. And that was a huge cultural event which was held in a five star hotel. Right. And we all dressed up you know you wore your best sort of Gagra choli or sari whatever you wanted to wear. And we had cultural dances which we were kids at that time. So we performed onstage. Nice. Now we didn’t have the Bollywood music that you have now which is fabulous by the way. Yes it is. Yeah but we had our version of what was Indian music and Indian songs which were coming up and sort of tuning into Western society as well. OK. So all of my friends and I we would sometimes have group dances sometimes individual dances and we all performed on stage and it was a way to also recognize and practice a lot of the dances that we saw on TV which then kind of gave us a feel of where we belong.
OK. Which really helped. Yeah. You know so the Japanese wore their kimonos for their events and we see them you know and every culture definitely celebrated their festivals.
And we did ours in the same way. OK. So for us as kids after the whole you know Diwali cleaning the prayers and everything the next big thing was this Diwali Ball which we practiced a month or two months for in terms of our solo or group dances. That’s right. And that was really fun.
When I first met my husband. Gosh I mean maybe a couple of months after we started dating I went to an event where he did some dancing… and. OK so. And the 16 year old girl from Memphis Tennessee very white Wonder Bread the only dancing I ever did was ballet. My family never danced. Oh heck no!! And then I see this boy that I’m completely in love with with like us bandana thing around his head and a completely white outfit barefoot clicking sticks of people up on the stage he was super cool but I’m like This is not the kind of guy that I’ve ever met before. I didn’t know what to think of that.
But it was really exciting like being thrown into a whole nother world. Yes it is. Is it like that.
It was it was like that. And that’s the one thing Indians love they love to celebrate. They love the colorful clothes. You know we just love to dress. We love the vibrant colors. And so you know you put all that together with good music and good food and you’re asking for fun.
And so that’s it for us growing up that’s what all the excitement of Diwali was. So even though it wasn’t you know India so to speak. Not that India is what it used to be anymore but we made our own little version of it way that you know the Gujaratis had their own Gujarati Diwali Ball . Oh is that right. Yes. OK. Cindy’s had their own Cindy Diwali Ball and we had our own we’re from Rajasthan from Jaipur. So a lot of us. We had our own Marvani Diwali Balls or Rajasthan association Diwali Balls. OK. And the difference was the colloquial language that everybody spoke in so Gujaratis these would speak in their language and they would you know get together with their group celebrate Diwali in the Diwali Ball their way there which was also song dance and food by the wa
Yeah. It’s all the same thing. Yeah pretty much the same Mexican food gradients that just in a different form a different form different color different texture and but it’s all about celebration. Yeah. And we had our own thing too. And this is back in the day when everything was video recorded. So then we’d exchange video recorded cassettes you know the video cassettes or near the cassette. Yes. Pop It in the video and see how is Gujdrati ball this year? How Was the Cindy bal l this year? . It often seemed like you were friends with that. We were friends with everybody. OK.
Oh yeah. And you know they’d see our performances through our video recordings and see. So you know there was all the pre work and then there was all the post fun that went on with it. So those are the really strong memories I have of Diwali now going back to how did it differ. So instead of earthenware clay lamps you know mom and dad used
You just find ways of making that happen with what you have.
Yeah. That makes total sense. So how have you been able to work it into you have two sons. I have two sons. That’s right. You’ve lived all over the world. And you have these boys that for the most part grown up here in the U.S. pretty much OK. So how do you share that with them. Because I’m sure that there are forces tugging them to the other side of culture. And you know the white American or just the general American sort of culture.
The only time we really hit a crossroad was when Diwali and Halloween we’re on the same day. Oh because then you had the Festival of Light and the Festival of darkness on the same day. Yeah.
Confusing and not just that you know you’re trying to celebrate life but on the other side the kids want to dress up and go around trick or treat. Yeah. They’re going to be dressed up as a skeleton. Exactly. That’s a little more appealing. It’s a far more appealing for them. Yeah. So the tradeoff we did was all right. You get to do this half first and then you can do the other half later. Just don’t dress up as a skeleton dress up as something more acceptable because you’re celebrating life today. That makes sense. So you know.
But they’re very open as are we to all the festivals and so there’s never really been a tug of war ever because we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate Easter when they were smaller we did OK for the Easter eggs and everything and roll in houses. If it’s an Indian festival we make Indian food that date. If it’s on the western festival. No Indian food. So that’s how we kind of you know have a few tiny little rules. OK. Having grown up the way I did. Having seen the diversity that I have I think being able to do that for the kids makes them want to celebrate everything. Yes. Because you embrace their entire world embrace their entire world because their entire world is not just Indian. Right. It’s American. And it’s also in many ways African-American and it’s also Japanese or Korean or Chinese or whatever their friends and the surroundings are right.
But I do love that you’re committed to maintaining that culture that you bring that you brought from your upbringing with your kids because like with my people I don’t I mean most of my ancestors from England Scotland Irish you know pretty much the same mutt mix that every other white person in the south and the Midwest.
And I don’t know that we have any real cultural maybe some vestigial values but I don’t know that there’s any real cultural ritual or practice that we have that that our ancestors had. And you know even from my family growing up with Christmas it wasn’t a religious thing it was Santa Claus. And I guess that is you know that is a ritual. But I don’t feel like that’s a real rich spiritual soulful sort of cultural tradition.
So I love that you do have that.
I mean it takes a lot of effort to keep up with it. I’ll give you that especially when Diwali comes and then comes Thanksgiving and then comes Christmas and before Diwali you have number three which a lot of people really really celebrate and hype up. So it all depends on your perspective I would say. Yeah. And you know how much you’re willing to put in. But it does it. It definitely has helped ground me to my cultural values and my system of beliefs and I feel that by putting in the effort it will help ground my kids to you.
Absolutely. Absolutely. So your philosophy is just you know give them everything in their life give them everything.
All kids want to be given everything but I mean you know culturally give them something from everything that is around them you know going back to the question of you know what my kids I felt I think they’re happy. They’re really happy that they’ve been exposed to everything. They don’t have to pick and choose. I love that there’s no mandatory you got to pick this or you got to choose that. You know we celebrate everything we celebrate everyone and how. Yeah I love that. And that’s how it should be. That really is how it should be because then you learn to respect other cultures. You learn to respect other people’s values and their system of beliefs which was what makes other people different from who and what you are. And you know my kids have a diversity of friends as do I you know here I am talking to you for example and we talk before the recording and we’ll be talking after the recording and there’s just so much to exchange. But look at the beauty of it is that we can accept each other’s story and journey right without judging.
That’s the thing because we all have our own journey. It doesn’t matter if you’re Indian or American or Chinese or whatever you have your own story. You have your own story mean personality within whatever it is that you grew up.
Exactly. And I grew up honestly in king King George fifth school in Hong Kong known as K2 5 which was under the British system. And I was exposed more to Christianity than I was to my Indian roots. Wow. So if you read Harry Potter you know you’ll see all these things about head boy Head Girl or prefects so to speak well we had we have a system we had Monday. Friday assemblies. We sang a lot of the British hymns. The you know the hymns and plus we had verses from the Bible read out. So we we actually knew a lot about Christianity growing up. But you know when I would compare it with our Indian religion as well which I was getting exposed to in bits and pieces I realized basically it’s all the same.
Yes it really really is. It is. I love that perspective. You know even when you were younger you could see that I could see that.
I mean we were also exposed to another Chinese Festival. And again their belief systems are so much in line with what Christianity and with what Hinduism also says which is just a model or a way of being able to live your life in peace and harmony. That’s it. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for. Well that’s what we’re all looking for. And you know I think religion whether you choose to go with a god a or a B or C is basically a way to have a faith in something that keeps you grounded. Yes.
It gives you purpose your purpose gives you direction. Yes it gives you direction and some would say it also gives some social control.
Yes but we won’t get into that right now fester. We can stay away from that.
That’s a whole different gas deal. Yeah. And I think that is so true that we all want the same things in life. We want to have guidance. We want to be grounded. We want to have a happy healthy family we want our kids to do well it doesn’t matter what religion you come from. It really does air you live in the world.
Yes that’s true. And so that’s been the learning that I’ve experienced. And you know so going back to you know the effort it takes to put all the preparation in for every festival it takes effort to put together presence and wrap them for Christmas and put them under a tree.
Yes. It takes effort for figuring out OK if we’re going to make a Thanksgiving dinner and it’s not Indian what are we going to do which is fun and different.
And if we’re going to do the Indian Diwali dinner you know what are we doing this year which is going to hold up our values and beliefs and the right of passage or the right of rituals that we’ve been practicing for so many years but which still keeps it alive.
It’s a very conscious living. It is. I like that I kind of live by the fly by the seat of my pants a lot of the time in life.
And I just kind of like let life roll over me and it’s funny because like with Christmas I guess maybe November 1st or the middle of November will roll around and I’ll be like oh it’s almost Christmas.
And my husband says you know Christmas comes the same time every year.
But you just kind of let it go. You know I’d like this deliberate living philosophy.
It helps it help keeps your sanity it helps keeps the families and the kids sanity. Because you’re celebrating everything around you. Yes. Yes absolutely. And which is basically in a nutshell you’re celebrating life love.
So that’s what it is. That’s the basis that’s Diwali. That’s that’s everything.
It’s celebrating life. I mean you know even for our prayers we have certain things that we always use is always going to be a small trough of water. There always has to be white grains of rice and the red chemical powder and flowers and then the red thread known as Melanie. So these are the very basics in your Puja or prayer plate so to speak which you then offer to God and of course then there are flowers there is fruits there’s no nuts and there are Indian sweets and that those are all the things that come together afterwards. But you have the very basic and so you know for us it’s making sure we have all of our prep ahead of time. And you know things are done because the valley is never on the same day each year it goes by the lunar calendar. OK. So knowing when it’s going to follow making sure you have everything you need ahead of that you know and we wear new clothes on that day. Well that’s fun. Yeah. So really try and keep everything brand new as well. So making sure everybody has something new to wear. And you know of course then it’s just it takes it takes a whole day for me from cooking in the morning I would say to the prayers in the evening. It’s exhausting exhausting.
And when you’re not a kid anymore has you’re running a show. I know what that’s like.
Yes it can get really exhausting. But then at the end of the day when you look back at what you’ve done you’re like we did it again. You know we pulled it off and we didn’t let go of anything. We held onto everything we had. And the kids start tuning in as well. Each year more and more with you and it brings everyone together as a family.
I love that. That’s amazing. Yeah.
So I hope the people that live in the area or anywhere that are not Indian have learned something from this for sure. I hope so yeah because people hear about different holidays and different religions but you know we’re just not exposed to right the details.
So I think that this is really great because it’s also going to give people a different perspective of understanding and acceptance not just tolerance.
I hate that word but acceptance rate it’s acceptance and it’s you know celebration of us being us. And then when it’s your turn. We get to celebrate you being you. I love it. I love it. That’s what life is all about. That’s what it’s about. You know and the way I see it is you get one life to live. The choices how do you want to live it. Right.
Well that’s the subject of a whole nother part. Yes we could definitely talk about that forever. Yeah. Yeah. I’m going to have you another time so that we can talk about your books because you know with all of this knowledge of Diwali and all of your culture you’re a writer an amazing writer and a writer. So you have a lot to share about.
I mean Diwali is so huge. It’s so big you can’t cross the months of October November without bringing it up. And so the debut and my series duty and desire. There is an entire segment of the book devoted to the festival and how it brings together this very very uncertain unsure relationship. Now does it bring it to fruition or does it bring it bring it to destruction. That’s the other part of it. But you know these are the things with festivals for example if you’re a writer yourself and you are Sheryl if you were if your story is taking place in December or November you have to write about Thanksgiving.
It’s integral to everything that people do. It’s integral.
You can’t skip over it. Right. So what I’ve done is I’ve used several festivals major festivals in Books one and two in the series in the Winds of Fire series and I’ve used them to actually propel the momentum. I would say the momentum and the feel of how the characters interact with each other because it’s so natural for things to come together during festivals.
So it’s it’s a question of you know as an author how do you handle it. So there’s a lot of details about Diwali . There’s a lot of details about what goes into the preparation which you can always read about in there from dressing up to and if you can imagine this gorgeous Priyanka Chopra dressing up for Diwali.
Well the story right there. Absolutely.
And you know so those are the the detail the level of details that I’ve gone into all the festivals that it’s woven into the fabric because it’s so a part of our lives.
Well I cannot wait to hear more about the books. That’s very exciting. Yeah. So yeah I’ll have you back on again we’ll go in really deep depth about the stories because everything that you’ve told me about that I’m just wow I’ve got to read this. So I appreciate you coming here just to talk about Diwali and this wonderful festive month and.
Look forward to having you. Thank you so much. And I really enjoyed this.
Thank you. Happy to future.
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