SATURDAY’S CHILD: Let there be light, but when?
IT WAS A DARK, moonless night. While this is the first sentence of a 1974 Harlequin romance by Anne Mather, it is also the start of an event which took place once upon a time in Sri Lanka and India many, many moons ago.
Ravana, who had ten arms and ten heads, was the wicked king of the island of Sri Lanka. He kidnapped Sita, the wife of Rama, the exiled heir to the throne of Ayodhya (an ancient Indian city also known as Saket). After a great battle, Rama killed Ravana and recovered his wife.
Rama’s return with Sita to Ayodhya and his subsequent coronation as king is celebrated at Diwali. It is said that when Rama and Sita first returned to Ayodhya it was a dark, moonless night and they couldn’t see where they were going so that his people put little lamps outside their houses to make sure that the new king and queen could find their way home.
This is the story behind Diwali (or Divali in Trinidad), the festival of lights, which is being celebrated today in Trinidad and some other Caribbean countries where there are people of Indian descent and tomorrow, October 30, in India where it all started.
The main festival is supposed to be the darkest night of the new moon, but it is either that the moon is darker on the other side of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, or that our astronomers and politicians here are so benighted that they can’t tell one area of darkness from another.
In Guyana, the celebration of Divali today instead of tomorrow is an issue that the Hindu Dharmic Sabha is not taking lightly. It accused the Minister of Public Security of imposing a date and seeking to perpetuate discord within the Hindu community. I understand that there will be light in the heart of darkness since many people believe the event is more important than the date.
The more mundane story of Diwali is that it started as a harvest festival which Wikipedia says “is an annual celebration that occurs around the time of the main harvest of a given region”. Given the differences in climate and crops around the world, harvest festivals can be found at various times at different places.
For example, in the Caribbean each country had the equivalent of a “Crop Over” festival. The Grand Kadooment in Barbados is part of the Crop Over. When I was growing up in Trinidad’s sugar belt, Crop Over was a major celebration with official competitions for the best decorated carts and bicycles, and unofficial ones for who could drink the most rum.
What goes unnoticed in the Caribbean is that Divali is also the beginning of the new financial year. National Geographic explains, “India was an agricultural society where people would seek the divine blessing of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, as they closed their accounting books and prayed for success at the outset of a new financial year.”
Today this practice extends to businesses all over the Indian subcontinent, which mark the day after Divali as the first day of the new financial year.
None of this mattered when I was young. For weeks before Divali we “fasted” or stopped eating meat and, some made the ultimate sacrifice of giving up alcohol. My father claimed that he stopped drinking but his ruddy complexion gave him away.
None of these things affected me since all I really cared about was the food and the lights. Days before the event, my father, uncles, neighbours – the entire village in fact – were busy cutting and splitting bamboo poles with their sharp machetes to shape artistically into arches on which little clay cups or lamps called “deyas”, filled with coconut oil, were placed.
At exactly six in the evening the adults prayed and we fidgeted. As soon as they stopped, we enthusiastically lit the deyas and after a cursory survey of the surrounding competition declared our display the best and laid into the array of food on the dining table and the kitchen counter. It never mattered to us in those days whether Good Friday fell on a Sunday, so whether we had the right date was not an issue. What mattered was that the community – every race, colour and creed – celebrated Divali together.
When we moved to Antigua in 2006 we opened our box of deyas which had travelled with us from Trinidad to Belize and then to Antigua. Lights have always been our big thing. Wherever we have lived, our Christmas and Divali rituals have helped to give our Barbados-born children a sense of comfort, togetherness and security.
Initially, some people thought our lighting up the house and fence was obeah. They crossed to the other side of the road and some made the sign of the cross. But then our neighbour from across the street, Sir Reginald Samuel, artist, teacher and designer of the Antigua flag, ran across and smilingly asked if this was Divali.
He had read about Divali but had not seen it celebrated before and was excited. This helped. It was a gift of acceptance and the real beginning of a new chapter in our lives which, aptly enough, began on a dark, moonless night.
As a postscript one of my Indian colleagues boasted to me how big Divali had become in America.
“President Obama,” he said, “had function in White House. He give special message. Even Elvis and Dolly Parton sing song about Divali.”
I was skeptical. “Elvis,” I asked. Taking big breaths, “Dolly Parton?”
“Yes,” he said adamantly, “You never hear them sing ‘Peace in Divali?”
• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that Elvis, singing It’s Now Or Never was last seen with his blue suede shoes, Dolly Parton and the Obamas heading for Bollywood.