By Ankita Rao

Old Traditions in a New Light: Celebrating Diwali in the United States

Once a year, flickering light from a row of small diyas (clay lamps) that welcome Diwali, the festival of light, replace the glow from the living room television.

This holiday, celebrated by Hindus and non-Hindus alike, is a time when gifts are exchanged, homes are purified and meals are cooked. It is largely a devotional time to the goddess Lakshmi, who bestows wealth and prosperity. However, the celebrations are diverse in South Asia across regions and religious sects — Diwali can also be celebration of Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya; goddess Kali, the feminine protector; or the all-encompassing god Ganesha.

For a second, while focusing on the flames, breathing in the scent of jasmine from the incense and sharing colorful sweets laid on silver plates, you could be in India.

But there are no garlands strung on statues of the goddess Lakshmi as she is carried through the streets on bony shoulders and promises of wealth. There are no laddis, the eardrum-bursting strips of firecrackers that send kids running away after lighting them.

Desi families in the United States bring the spirit, taste and aroma of Diwali alive at temples and parties with customs that take on new flavors overseas.

Ina Patel and her husband are both American-born South Asians. Growing up they danced at garbas in New Jersey and feasted with other Indian families, usually thinking of Diwali as another version of New Year’s.

Now, with their children asking questions about Diwali, the Patels have started to learn more about the holiday with them — through books and Sunday school at the local temple.

“My kids understand it [and] talk about it at school with their non-Indian friends,” Patel says, “Something [neither] my husband nor I ever recall doing when we were in school.”

At home, she says, they perform traditions such as washing money, puja (prayers) to Lakshmi and lighting candles — which can be of the Glade or Yankee Candle variety.

While Patel cooks a Gujarati meal and makes sure to call her grandparents, aunts and other family members, she also reaches out through the Internet.

“This mommy also posts status updates on Facebook to family,” she says.

The Internet has become increasingly helpful in connecting family abroad during festivals and holidays. Since there may not be a mithaiwala (sweet seller) around the corner boxing several kilograms of cashew sweets and fried gulab jamun (fried cheese balls in syrup) for people to take to their families, websites can deliver e-cards or gifts to India.

“If it’s some festival or birthday, you can’t ... [send] a cake for an Indian — they celebrate with mithai [sweets],” says Akhilesh Bali, co-founder of Mithai Mate.

Bali and his partners Shashank Agarwal, Rachit Mehra and Ashutosh Dixit — all in their early 20s — call themselves the new generation of mithaiwalas. The four engineers formed the online Mithai Mate, an international website serving one delicious purpose: sending sweets to family in India.

And no stale, refrigerated boxes here. Mithai Mate works with famous sweet shops in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Jammu to keep the process fast and fresh.

“In the same city, you can place an order and have it delivered the same day,” Bali says. “Other cities and it takes just 24 hours.”

While Mithai Mate works mainly for South Asians abroad who want to deliver their favorites to family in India, they have also sent orders from within India itself and some international orders — usually only in larger quantities.

One client in Switzerland wanted mithai sent to show his friends what a real Indian party was like, and a father in Chhattisgarh sent enough sweets for his son’s entire hostel when he placed first in exams.

Bali expects that orders during Diwali will be very high as Mithai Mate found their company very busy during Rakhi, a celebration of brothers by their sisters, in August.

From a touch of saffron to some crushed pistachio, the familiar tastes of Diwali are enough to make the holiday come alive — even thousands of miles away from the Indian subcontinent. But the festival of light is far more than firecrackers and fried delicacies for South Asian families. It is a time to give, reconnect and honor the spirit that has been passed through time and folklore throughout South Asia and now across the globe.

Ankita Rao is a freelance writer, yoga instructor and Indian food lover. She will graduate from University of Florida this December with a degree in journalism and religion.