In the old days, the Indian immigrant in America was likely to experience excruciating loneliness on Diwali – cut off from the large, extended family, and making do with a patched-together group of strangers, new acquaintances and distant relatives. Diwali celebrations were limited to a few people contributing sabzis, Indian snacks and sweets, all eaten on paper plates in someone’s basement or tiny living room. Immigrants called home over a crackling, semi-audible phone line which cost a bundle, shouting "Happy Diwali!" into the void.
Americans did not know what Diwali was, and nor could they pronounce it. There were no fireworks or a public holiday – Diwali often fell on a weekday, and was just another routine day at work, no diyas, or clay lamps, to be seen anywhere.
Indu Jaiswal, a New Yorker for the last 40 years, said she fashioned hers out of small clay flower pots bought from a gardening supply store. When she put coloured lights around her house, Jaiswal was regarded as the strange neighbour who put up Christmas lights two weeks early.
Fast forward a few decades from the lonely ’60s in America, and the scene is different – the internet has revolutionised Diwali. Tech wiz Sree Sreenivasan, who was recently appointed the Chief Digital Officer of New York by Mayor Bill de Blasio, said: “Today’s tools keep us better connected than ever before, during all our holidays, not just Diwali. Thanks to our family WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups, we are connected on four continents, and get minute-by-minute holiday updates as well as any guidance we need from grandparents for the more complicated holidays, like Kerala’s Vishu.”
NRIs today are able to have long, luxuriant chats with extended family over Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook in the comfort of their living rooms. They stay up to date with one another’s lives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat – the hugs are missing, but eventually technology will fix that too.
As for that other, crucial aspect of Diwali: shopping for Diwali outfits, sweets and gifts, all you need is a credit card and to get onto an e-commerce site to find everything from gold coins embossed with the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, to laddoos shaped like Ganeshas.
Google is now the omniscient Guru, the family elder who knows the names of all of King Dashrath’s wives, as well as the best recipe for shakarpara. If an NRI longs to visit a famous temple in India to perform a Diwali puja, he can do it virtually via live streaming. Want to know how to conduct a traditional Diwali puja or recite the Lakshmi aarti? Ask Google, or watch a YouTube video.
Fed-Ex those laddoos
But the celebration isn’t just online, it’s everywhere in America. A rapidly growing population of Indians in the US has meant that everything Indian is now available in the big cities of America, from tinned gulab jamuns to frozen samosas.
Gone are the days when Indian sweets were made at home by immigrants, from recipes remembered, or shared by mothers and aunts. Occasionally, families sent mithai from India for Diwali, it arrived hard and brittle, but the recipient was always, without exception, over the moon to receive it.
Now, Jackson Heights (lovingly known as Jaikishen Heights) has become the Mithai Capital of New York. When it comes to mithai, the City of New York almost has an advantage over New Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata – you can find sweets not just from various parts of India, but several parts of Asia – including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, and the Middle East. Jackson Heights is home to all these communities and with over 200 stores, you can find everything you need here.
In fact, almost every big city in America now has a Little India, and supermarket chains like the Patel Brothers and Apna Bazaar, which sell millions of Indian snacks like frozen samosas, vadas and tikkis for holiday parties.
Sweet boxes are sold at these grocery stores, and also by mithai giants like Rajbhog and Mithaas. American confectioners know a booming market when they see one, and have also jumped on the mithai bandwagon. Michelin-starred chef Surbhi Sahni, who owns Bittersweet NYC, has set up a Diwali popup store inside a Park Avenue chocolate shop, where you can get your box of barfi and Diwali truffles.
For those who still can’t access a store, online or in the neighbourhood, it is possible to send sweets across the country, via Federal Express and the US postal service. Even in an obscure little town deep in the Bible Belt, you never need to deny yourself the pleasure of fresh chumchum and sakarpara from one of the big cities in America.
Diwali mela at Times Square
Every city with a significant Indian population celebrates with a sparkling Diwali mela and this year, through the month of October, New York and New Jersey had countless large and small celebrations, including those in South Street Seaport and Times Square, attended by thousands of people. Bollywood dance and music are often a big draw at these melas.
While individual fireworks displays are banned, official displays like the one over the East River by the Association for Indians in America for the Diwali Mela are huge, rivalling the firework display on Fourth of July. There are hundreds of Indian restaurants and so hundreds of venues for Diwali celebrations, private parties and dance parties across America.
Hindu temples across the US also celebrate Diwali in a big way. The newest Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha Mandir temple, with authentic Indian architecture recently opened in Melville, Long Island, and it is spread over 15,000 square feet.
Hindu priests are the busiest entrepreneurs in America, driving to people’s homes to do all sorts of pujas for Diwali as well as for new homes, new cars and new babies. A booming business, all in all.
Diwali is now so mainstream that even the White House has a Diwali party with celebrator-in-chief Barack Obama lighting a lamp, something he has been doing since he was elected in 2009.
Gracie Mansion, home of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, hosted one of the biggest bashes in memory for over 400 Indians, complete with dhol players and desi food. He released a book about Diwali for New York schools, to create awareness for the festival. Next on the agenda may be a school holiday for Diwali.
The month of October saw the launch of an official Diwali stamp from the US Postal Service, something Indian-Americans have longed for. Ranju Batra, the tireless Chair of the Diwali Stamp Project, who worked with US Congress members to make the stamp a reality, said, “Over 170,000 stamps have sold just through the project and it’s been the biggest seller in the history of the US Postal Service.”
The stamp is a photograph of a traditional diya, on a sparkling gold background.
For an America almost veering towards Trumpism, diversity and multicultural values are important to hang on to, and many museums from Asia Society to the Metropolitan Museum have been holding Diwali celebrations for many years now. The Queens Museum is lighting 3,000 candles for Diwali this year, but has hosted Diwali celebrations in the past too.
Who knows, Diwali in America may catch on and families from India may especially visit NRIs for the unique American-Diwali experience. Not only will they get to eat fresh chumchum and laddoos, but also dark chocolate truffles scented with cardamom and ginger. Yes, Daal Besan Fudge, Chocolate Besan Laddoos and Chilli Chocolate Truffles may be destined to become the next big thing in India – a mix of Indian tradition and NRI creativity.
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. She blogs at Lassi with Lavina and tweets at @lavinamelwani.