Our family’s Diwali traditions have travelled a long way.
My parents immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1977, bringing along a mélange of various cultures from the lands where they previously lived. There was mogo (cassava) from Uganda where they were born, prepared with a simmering mix of spices and tomatoes or tossed into a pot of bubbling oil to make a crunchy French fry dusted in chili powder. Even a lot of words we used like bakuro (bowl) and fagio (broom) were added to their vocabulary from their East African birth country.
When Mom didn’t know what to cook for lunch, her easy answer was to open a can of baked beans, a quick meal she grew to love during her teenage years in London. Although this isn’t the standard British version. First Mom popped mustard seeds, then added the beans with heaps of red chili pepper, turmeric and jeera powder.
Since Mom and Dad wanted to feel more Canadian and wanted their kids to as well, they enrolled us in skating lessons. I slipped on the ice like Bambi on a frozen pond. Mom and Dad even donned helmets and gave skating a go, gingerly shuffling their feel on the glassy surface of the local ice rink. “You’re Canadian, so you should learn how to speak French and learn how to skate and ski.”
French immersion starting from grade one. Half the day was spent in subjects taught in yet French. Yet another language we had to master. My sister’s and I were annoyed that we seemed to be the only Indian kids learning math, science and history in English. We used this new language to our advantage though. Whenever we wanted to keep secrets from Mom and Dad, we would start chatting in French. “We understand what you are saying,” they would say. But we challenged them to explain what our airy French speak really meant and they were lost for words.
Canada, East Africa, England and France. Our home was a cultural mosaic.
But the common thread for my sisters and I was our Indian traditions. On Friday nights, instead of lounging around at home, our parents forced us into the car, driving us to Gujarati school. “Can’t we just stay home and watch TV?” we would plead. Mom and Dad didn’t back down. Mr. Joshi, our Gujarati school teacher, taught us “Jana Gana Mana” India’s national anthem. He showed us how to write our names in the squiggly looking script. “Maru naam Rina che” translating to “My name is Rina.” It all seemed so annoying. So unnecessary.
On Saturday mornings, instead of sleeping in, we were awoken to head to garba lessons. Garba is the folkdance of Gujarat where our Grandparents were born. And although my sisters and I loved dressing up and dancing, we didn’t like the idea of being forced to go learn some extra moves. For several months of each year, our parents drove us an hour away for these lessons. Then we performed at a show for the entire community. Our costumes were lavish chaniya cholis with golden threads, mirrors and beads stitched into vibrant fabrics. When we spun, clapped and skipped on stage, we knew exactly where our Dad was seated even though we couldn’t see out into the darkened crowd. Dad was always the loudest to whistle for his three daughter’s performances.
At the time, all these cultural experiences seemed like a nuisance. But years (many years) later, my sisters and I realised why our parents did what they did. Of course it was a way for them to stay connected to their community in this frigid, foreign land. But it was also equally important for them to ensure that their daughters knew where they came from. Our parents wanted us to understand that despite being Canadian, we had a rich heritage and culture flowing through our Canadian veins.
On Diwali, Mom prepared a Gujarati delicacy called khandvi. She steamed chana nu lot (chickpea flour) mixed with yogurt, flattening the batter onto steel plates. Once it had cooled, she asked us carefully curl thin strips into tiny rolls which she topped with a fragrant mix of tempered spices. Our Lohana community organized a lavish party each Diwali. Mom and Dad enrolled us in the rangoli competition. Art! Now Mom had my attention. In the basement with Dad’s guidance, Lisa and I plotted and planned what design to create, practicing how to assemble the rangoli with a list of crafty supplies.
On special occasions like Diwali, Mom wrapped sarees on each of us, taking her time to patiently ensure every pleat was perfect. Whenever Nani came to visit, she brought glittering bangles to adorn our tiny wrists and tribal-looking silver pendants hanging from dark green and hot pink threads.
“Do you wear that red dot on your head?” my grade six classmates would ask. “Yes sometimes I do,” I would answer without shame. Our white friends wanted to join in on the Indian fun. They wanted to come to garba, get dolled up, even put on a chandlo (bindi). Now I was ready to educate others on what it meant to be Indian through the lens of my Canadian upbringing.
Today, Alisha, Lisa and I find ourselves passing on so many of the same traditions Mom and Dad taught us to our own children. Between the three of us, there are six little ones. Alisha’s son loves creating rangolis with his Nani. Lisa’s girls are true artists, blowing me away with their skill and detail. My rangolis were never as good as theirs at that age. And my son, he always wants to sit and help me with a rangoli each Diwali. It doesn’t matter if sometimes he gets the coloured powder outside the lines, atleast he’s willing to try. But when I say something in Gujarati, his response, “Mommy, why are you speaking in Indian?”
Now I understand what Mom and Dad must have felt when we protested.
Maybe one day my boy, when he becomes a man, will also see the value in our heritage and find himself passing on these very same traditions, food and language to his own children.