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How the Indian diaspora celebrates Diwali

From Guyana to Thailand, the festival of lights is celebrated by the Indian diaspora around the world. The celebrations are diverse, a mix of Indian customs and influences from the countries they now call home.

Young Guyanese girls at the Diwali motorcade in New York. Photo: Alamy
Young Guyanese girls at the Diwali motorcade in New York. Photo: Alamy

Music plays a huge role in Diwali celebrations in Caribbean Guyana. With the largest ethnic group consisting of people of Indian origin—comprising at least 44% of the population—the festival is marked with Maa Latchmi bhajans on Diwali night. But the days preceding it resound with the strains of Chutney, Indo-Caribbean music marked by the use of Indian and local percussion instruments, and influenced by the Bhojpuri folk songs carried by the 19th century indentured workers to the sugar-cane plantations. These feature lyrics in Creolese, a regional English dialect, and a smattering of Bhojpuri. There are subgenres within this too, such as the Chutney Soca, a fusion of soul and calypso.

These days, Roti & Dhal by singer Pooran Seeraj is the rage. As is Chait Singh Mohanlall, whose stage name is Bunty Singh. “He is the three-time Chutney monarch,” says Seeta Shah Roath, 65, a second-generation Indian who helms the oldest Indian classical-folk dance troupe there. In his latest track, Singh, who has won the annual Chutney competitions, waxes eloquent about being faithful to the family. I want you to know a secret about life/ pick the right husband and choose a good wife, the song goes, promising to remain a rage till the next competition to be held in 2021.

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The festival of lights is celebrated by the Indian diaspora around the world. And though celebrations in the UK and US have always been talked about, there is much more to it. The celebrations are diverse, a mix of Indian customs and influences from countries they now call home. The movement of people from India to other parts of the world goes back several millennia, when traders and monks would leave for distant shores.

“Massive emigration from the subcontinent, however, began only in the 1830s, with the introduction of the indentured labour system. In the late nineteenth century agricultural workers settled on the west coasts of Canada and the US. Today, those of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin constitute a diaspora of some 30 million people, a scale matched only by the Chinese,” writes Colleen Taylor Sen in her book Feasts And Fasts: A History Of Food In India. The distinct Diwali festivities are reflective of these journeys, and the process of assimilation.

Indira Itwaru, an Indo-Guyanese, performing a fusion dance with Leon Heywood. Photo: courtesy Seeta Shah Roath/ Nrityageet 40
Indira Itwaru, an Indo-Guyanese, performing a fusion dance with Leon Heywood. Photo: courtesy Seeta Shah Roath/ Nrityageet 40

This is particularly true of the Caribbean, where the East India Company recruited sugar plantation workers from eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar after the British declared slavery for African labour illegal there in 1833. No wonder Bhojpuri lingers in their lingo centuries later. While most of the descendants have only heard of India in family stories, they celebrate Diwali with enthusiasm. The story of Ram returning to Ayodhya especially is manifested in different ways.

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Roath’s great grandmother Latchmi, who belonged to Jamkhuri, in Prayagraj’s Soraon tehsil in Uttar Pradesh, reached Guyana on a ship, Avon, in 1894. Roath’s grandmother was born on the ship. The family worked for a short time on a sugar estate, before buying land, planting rice and building a farmstead. The musical instruments they had brought from India—sitar and dholak—would be played during the Ramlilas held in the rice factory. “They started Ramlilas here in the late 1800s, complete with effigies, costumes and dramatic productions,” says Roath, who continues to put together performances every year.

In Guyana, Diwali is celebrated as a national holiday. “The highlight is the motorcade, in which lights are used to tell the story of Ram coming back home. This year is, of course, virtual,” says Cynthia Nelson, author and food columnist, who was born to an Indian mother and African father in Guyana and now lives in Barbados. “Indians become even more Indian in another country. So, on Diwali, you will find all-vegetarian food being served and no alcohol.” The festive dishes include vermicelli cake, which is cooled and cut into slices, aloo chana and dal poori.

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In fact, dal poori is the common cultural thread through celebrations across the Caribbean, and even finds a place in the festive spread in Fiji. There, it is eaten with mustard rice, pumpkin curry, kadhi and aloo baingan chana.

Priya Darshani, the executive chef at the Outrigger Fiji beach resort, is a fourth-generation Indian connected to the subcontinent through movies more than anything else. “I think festivities in India have evolved further, but we are way behind. Diwali is the time of annual prayers for us, when we turn vegetarian seven days prior to the day of the festival,” she says, “I have never understood one thing. Diwali is celebrated because Ram is coming home, but we pray to goddess Lakshmi. Maybe I should find out more about this.”

In the Caribbean, all cakes and breads are made with maida, or refined flour, since wheat flour wasn’t available. Ragini Kashyap, who runs the supper club Third Culture Cooks in Mumbai and researches the politics of food, says the workers celebrated frugally, with whatever was available. “Somewhere along the line, language was lost as well, and the nomenclature for a lot of things changed. For instance, what we call shakarpaara, in Guyana they call it gulab jamun,” she says.

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The way diaspora “identity” has evolved is interesting, says Kashyap, “For instance, even though the Caribbean has a mixed Indian ancestry (Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, among others), they have evolved into a more homogenous ‘Indian’ identity, as they lost touch with the homeland for many years.” In South Africa, however, each community has retained its regional identity.

Kashyap herself grew up in the Middle East, moving to Canada and the UK before returning to Mumbai recently. Spending a childhood in Doha in the 1990s was very different—a departure from the glitz and glamour associated with the Middle East today. “Doha was a small town, with no large community Diwali gatherings in the early 90’s. So our family friends took it upon themselves to take up one festival each. Holi, Diwali, Christmas were celebrated at a different person’s home,” she says.

Diwali celebrations at Ragini Kashyap's home in Doha. Photo: courtesy Ragini Kashyap
Diwali celebrations at Ragini Kashyap's home in Doha. Photo: courtesy Ragini Kashyap

A great amount of effort was put into ensuring that children understood the significance of the festival. Since Hindu myths and legends were never discussed in school, parents would use Diwali to familiarise children with these.

In parts of South-East Asia, the Tamil influence is visible. As Sen writes, around two million Indian workers, most of them from Tamil Nadu, went to Malaysia and Singapore to work on rubber and palm plantations.

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Not surprisingly, the festival is known as Deepavali in South-East Asia, and is celebrated a day earlier than India does. “They say here that Ram’s journey back home took him to the south first from Lanka. So the early celebrations are a nod to that,” says author Namita Moolani Mehra, who moved from New York to Singapore nine years ago.

Today, she adds, the Tamil-speaking diaspora sets up a vibrant bazaar in Little India’s Campbell Lane. One dish that is typical to Indian-Singaporeans is the fish head curry. Sen notes that the dish, invented by two Indian cooks in 1964, has been a fixture on the culinary landscape since. “It is a very significant dish and you will find it in most of the old Singapore-Indian restaurants,” says Mehra.

Bright pink and green barfis are a must-have in Malaysia. Photo: courtesy Sapna Anand
Bright pink and green barfis are a must-have in Malaysia. Photo: courtesy Sapna Anand

In Malaysia, the festivities take on a very different hue, similar to Ramzan celebrations. It’s called Hari Raya, with “hari” meaning “day” and “raya” standing for celebrations. “The word for the celebration is ‘open house’, when we host gatherings for a week for colleagues, friends and staff members, across race and religion,” says chef Sapna Anand, who comes from Ottapalam in Kerala and has been in Kuala Lumpur for 21 years. The food reaches tables by 10am. “In India, particularly in the south, we are vegetarian during Diwali. But here mutton is a must, as is seafood,” she adds.

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Indian-origin residents have adapted to the Malay style of celebration, so there are a lot of coconut milk-based curries on the menu. Some of the must-haves include mutton and crab peratal, chicken varuval, squid and prawns laden with spice.“The huge Muslim influence is evident in the serving of biryani rice on Diwali. A lot of lemongrass and pandan are used in the food. We have gotten used to it, so we look forward to it,” says Anand.

In Thailand, the festivities are very different in the north and the south. In the north, the Loi Krathong is celebrated, which draws its origins from Diwali. As part of this, foam flowers and candles are floated in a river, which is symbolic of the Ganges. “Light lanterns are also floated in the air to bring good luck, fortune and dispel sorrow,” says Charanjit Singh Kalra, or Prasert Sakchiraphong Chan, as he calls himself in Thai.

A fourth-generation Indian entrepreneur, he runs Thai Sikh News media on Facebook, Instagram and the web as well to offer updates about the Thai-Indian community. “Majority of the Indians have been in Thailand since the 1930s. We have several big communities of Marwaris, Gujaratis, Punjabi, Tamil Hindus and Muslims, and more, that it feels like there are ten big Indian countries outside of India,” he laughs. Kalra grew up in a neighbourhood of 200 families, and Diwali would mean going to the gurudwara and wearing new clothes. Today, apartment-living has taken away the sense of community, but the celebrations are still just as enthusiastic, starting three weeks prior to the Diwali day. Such is the significance of the festival there that the Thai government had decided to introduce a budget for Diwali celebrations, a plan which is right now on hold due to the ongoing pandemic. “This year, we hope to support small businesses through the pandemic. Diwali is all about the triumph of good, and we should spread the light to everyone,” he adds.

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