My grandmother greeted me at the airport with a hug. Her sari smelled like a mixture of cinnamon and cardamom. I buried my head in her shoulders and recall her laugh, how her fingers patted my hair, and the welcoming warmth in her embrace.
“You are finally here. From America. I can’t believe it. In time to celebrate Diwali,” she said.
I remember the one and only Diwali I celebrated in India. When we arrived at my grandparents’ home, the front porch displayed a rangoli shaped like a life-sized diya, the powdered colors of maroon, orange, and yellow accessorizing the gray cement.
As the celebrations of Diwali unfolded, I slipped into a new salwar-kameez, walked to the local temple and bowed my head to the ground in front of the deities. We later returned to my grandparents’ home for a feast filled with the traditional food associated with Diwali — samosas, aloo tikki, dhai bhalla, puran poli, halwa, and lapsi. I ate cross-legged on the concrete floor, reveling in the fun of the celebration, but failed to comprehend the nuances and the religious meaning of Diwali, among the most most auspicious holidays for Hindus.
My immigrant parents tried to recreate this magic in our Texas home. Whether Diwali landed on a weekday or weekend, my father woke early, took a bath and dressed in a traditional dhoti. He sat on the ground, his spine straight, in front of our home’s mini-temple. He lighted a diya, reached for a mala, and his fingers touched each of 108 beads. At the end of this ritual, he chanted for five minutes, using words I failed to recognize.
While my father prayed, my mother cooked in the kitchen, the swirl of her new sari moving as various spices ricocheted in the air while she also fielded the traditional annual Diwali calls from India.
On the weekend, we would dress in new clothes and attend festivities at the local temple, meeting friends along the way. I particularly appreciated Diwali because I knew my parents would give me $21 as soon as I bowed my head to their feet (numbers ending in one are auspicious in Hinduism). I participated in several rituals without a true understanding of their significance.
My mother taught me sholkas and aarti — religious stanzas and a daily devotional song. Although I knew the language and pronounced the words, the deeper meaning and context floated above my head. These rituals morphed into habit, rather than a genuine connection to Hinduism. I continue to still participate in these rituals as an adult, but I realize part of my holding on is related to nostalgia and not because I am necessarily grounded to my religion.
As a mom of a 12-year-old girl, I struggle to navigate my relationship with Hinduism and the rituals I’d like to teach my daughter. Our family celebrates Diwali, but in an abbreviated way. If Diwali falls on a weekday, I don’t dress in a sari or do a puja in our home, but am rushing to make certain my daughter arrives at school on time.
In my childhood, my mom made various snacks throughout the month leading up to Diwali. Instead, I make kheer in my Instant Pot and cobble together a “festive” meal with a hodge-podge of various Indian foods. We wear traditional Indian clothes, but they aren’t necessarily new. We attend temple services in the evening and my daughter asks why we are ringing a bell when we enter and why there are so many versions of God portrayed. I don’t ignore her questions, but am unable to answer her inquiries completely.
We have our own mini-temple in our kitchen. Every morning she is responsible for bathing the deities, clothing them, and presenting a fruit as an offering. At night, she puts these same deities to sleep. I haven’t completely explained to her why we honor the deities in this way and I catch a glimpse of my younger self, knowing it will be easy for my daughter to dismiss what she doesn’t understand.
In the last year, as we get deeper into our conversations about Hinduism, I haven’t shied away from talking about other religions as well. I keep our conversations open ended and tackle topics like kindness, tolerance, hope and faith. We’ve organized, with the help of some friends, a loosely-based religion class that emphasizes values. The kids discuss gratitude, how to help others, and what it means to be charitable. At the end of each class, we sing aarti and then we eat together.
It isn’t just about the rituals or visiting our local temple, but applying the principles of Hinduism into everyday life. I suspect my daughter notices the gaps in my religious lessons, but ultimately, the goal is to help give her the tools for self-discovery and let her decide how religion fits in her life. I’ve realized as we travel this road, we can learn together, and I can fill in some of the empty spaces from my childhood, too.
The fond memories of my Diwali celebration in India and my family’s desire to preserve our culture still resonates with me.
My hope is that as I traverse the same terrain, the values and lessons of Hinduism help play a role in shaping my daughter into a good human being.