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What Diwali means to me

By India 31 Oct 2018

The city’s Indian community is gearing up for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which this year falls on 7 November. We asked three Wellingtonians what Diwali means to them and how they’re planning to celebrate.

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Chetan and his family dressed up for last year's Diwali

Chetan Pangam

When Chetan came to New Zealand 17 years ago, he soon realised Diwali was going to be different. For one thing, this country’s fireworks restrictions put a bit of a damper on things.

“In India, you can do them anywhere, anytime. You don’t have to worry about the noise or anything. All the days of Diwali, all you can hear and see is these sudden outbursts of fireworks everywhere. Smoke everywhere, noise everywhere.”

Then there’s Wellington’s wind, which makes rangolis – the colourful floor decorations people place at the entrance to their homes, which are usually made up of sand, flour, rice or flour petals – impractical.

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A traditional rangoli

“Obviously, there’s no way it’s going to last here, so we have these printed rangolis that we stick on.”

Apart from those adjustments, though, Chetan still adheres to the traditions he grew up with, especially now that he and his wife have two children: Varun, nine, and Maahi, two.

“We’re trying to keep a bit of the Indian tradition in them, so we go to the temple, we do fireworks, we make sweets at home, we buy new clothes to wear on the day, and we do some prayers. And, because Diwali is the festival of lights, our houses are usually lit up inside and outside.”

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A Diwali lamp at Chetan's home

As Executive Chef at Copthorne Hotel’s One80° restaurant, Chetan marks Diwali by creating a special menu. This year, it is a thali (platter), which diners can enjoy until 11 November.

The person he is most excited to celebrate with, though, is his young daughter.

“She loves the moon and the stars, and she’s never seen fireworks up close. We’re really looking forward to seeing how she reacts to so many lights.”

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Homemade Diwali delicacies

Raj Patel

In Gujarat, where Raj is originally from, the new year begins the day after Diwali. In the week leading up to the festival, he and his family will clean their house from top to bottom, preparing for a fresh start.

“We take all the bad things, whatever happened in the past year, and we take them out and look for the positive in the coming year,” he says.

Even after 20 years in New Zealand, Raj still thinks wistfully of the fireworks back home in India. These days, though, the thing he enjoys most about Diwali is spending time with his extended family.

“Everybody’s busy with their own lives. Diwali night and Christmas Day are the only two times when all the family comes together.”

As well as feasting and exchanging gifts – mainly sweets – they will pray at home and at the temple. They also join in Diwali celebrations at their Lower Hutt Indian Cultural Hall. “My girls always perform. They love it.”

Raj's daughters Radha, Bansi and Krishna

Diwali is the busiest time of year for Raj at The Spice Rack, the shop he owns in Petone. People come in to buy items for their puja (prayer) ceremonies and special foods that they only use at festival time. (Personally, Raj is most looking forward to eating a special type of poppadum from Gujarat.)

Decorations are also in hot demand, mainly artificial marigold garlands from India.

“People put them in the windows and by the front doors and in the bedrooms and everywhere.” Why marigolds? “I don’t know,” Raj says after a pause. “I’d have to ask my mum.”

Nalini Baruch

Nalini lives with her husband, Colin, in Martinborough, where they own Lot Eight olive oil. Although she has modified her Diwali celebrations over the years to suit life in New Zealand, the festival remains hugely important to her.

“It reminds me how deeply rooted the Hindu belief system is and how bound by religion my devout childhood was.”

This year, as always, she’ll start by spring-cleaning the house. The celebrations themselves will take place across four days. On day one, they will light a diya (oil lamp) for Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity: “Prosperity in a holistic way, not simply material wealth.” On day two, they light a diya called Yam Ke Diya as a way to give thanks and acknowledge their mortality. Day three is the main celebration day, which they will mark with plenty of lights and a vegetarian feast. And, on day four, they celebrate the new year with a fish meal, probably curry.

Although Colin himself has no religious leanings, he is an important part of Nalini’s Diwali, as shown in the photo of her decorations below.

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Diwali at Nalini's home

“For me, personally, it is a day to honour my husband of 25 years and give thanks for our shared lives. Most of what you can see can only be worn by a married woman – the deeply symbolic necklace, one that is given to a bride by her brother-in-law on her wedding day as a promise to protect her, sindoor (red vermilion) for the forehead and along the part of hair, and colourful bangles for the wrist. Our wedding rings are placed in front of the single lamp.”

Where to get Diwali supplies in Wellington

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