Tell me honestly, how many of you dressed up in your chaniya cholis and fineries during Navratri, performing solo garba or with your families sharing these moments with your community over a virtual platform? I watched videos online of interesting ways in which everyone celebrated Navratri and Durga Puja. Singing, dancing, spiritual reading and simply sharing memories from previous years flooded my social media timeline.
One such personal memory surfaced for me too – me holding dandiya sticks and posing! I vividly remember that evening. I worked with Bob Blackman (MP for Harrow East in London) and it was perhaps my first puja season with him. The ‘desi’ that he is, his evening schedule everyday of the puja season was filled with series of visits to mandirs, pandals, programmes and community gatherings. He asked me to accompany him and I gladly accepted.
I had watched Navratri celebrations on television but having grown up in Delhi in a Kashmiri family, it wasn’t something I had ever experienced. So like an excited child, I took everything in as I walked into the very crowded hall where we were received with so much love and warmth, it was just enough for anyone to fall in love with everything Indian all over again! I was pulled into dance and having zero idea, I cluelessly followed the steps of my co-dancers who patiently taught me. Bob taught me to use the dandiya sticks (believe it or not!)
What does the Puja season mean to each of us? Deep cleaning, decorations, shopping, food and family time – it is what Christmas is to most locals here in the UK! Most people wind down and enjoy quiet family time, buy gifts for one another and enjoy being home.
If you needed anyone to work during Christmas break, you’d invariably find an Indian as a willing volunteer. Though what saddens me as I am sure it does most of you reading this is that during Puja season over Diwali and Dussehra, there isn’t even the option available to apply for festival holidays in most schools and workplaces. So the Puja season comes and goes, with evenings hectic and days busy at work. We adjust because that’s what we do. Not sure whatever happened to the multiple campaigns the Indian diaspora ran to request Diwali be recognised as a national holiday?
This year, there was no Diwali on the Square, with thousands of people flooding Trafalgar Square visiting the marquees enjoying Diwali festivities, sweets, lots of Indian street food and a non-stop programme on stage with series of performances from around India. I am glad that India Inc. has stepped in and is curating what promises to be a grand and remarkable virtual celebration of the Festival of Lights. I am personally, looking forward to enjoying the festivities, albeit virtually with my extended family, the Indian diaspora community.
Let me tell you a story that moved me a few years ago when I attended a curtain raiser of the Diwali-In-London (DIL) with the Mayor of London’s team and DIL committee. One of the founders of DIL, Nitin Palan narrated how a few young men a few decades back, determined to celebrate Diwali on the Square, carried some candles and lit them, against the windy October weather.
They stood there for a bit, holding up the candles with the resolve that each year they will celebrate Diwali at this prominent landmark location. That day and now, the Diwali in London is hosted by the Mayor of London and is the most prominent celebration. A little distance away, Leicester Square Mile boasts of being the first-ever grand scale Diwali Mela and city celebration in the UK.
Having had the proud privilege of visiting some of the most beautiful temples and community centres in the UK and watching first hand the preparations that have gone into organising such large scale congregations, I have only been left in a sense of wonderment.
The Annakoot (mountain of food) that is prepared by volunteers and displayed everyday before crowds start congregating at the temple, then meticulously almost in clockwork fashion, distributed as Prasad and then the following day, fresh food prepared and displayed by the very team of volunteers. This isn’t just the story of one day, but everyday for the entire duration of Navratri puja, concluding in the Hindu New Year day. What stood out for me, personally is, no matter what the place of worship or congregation is, there is a strong spirit of volunteerism among the members of Indian diaspora.
During one of my visits to BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir at Neasden with one of the former ministers, we were given a tour of the area and one of the senior councillors whispered to me: “This area before the Mandir was built was unliveable. The crime rate was high, the area was filthy and nobody wanted to even come this end.
“The Mandir has given the entire area a facelift and now it is among the safest areas in London! What is more, it costs no money for the government to maintain the temple and its surroundings as the community volunteers take care of it with their time and resources.”
No matter how wealthy anyone is or how humble anybody’s circumstances, at these places of worship, everyone is treated the same, accorded the same respect and affection. In fact, these are places where members of the community seek support and counsel if their circumstances change for the worse. Virtues of compassion, togetherness, mutual respect and nishkaam sewa (selfless service) are imparted widely as a community at these places.
This poignant period at home during the pandemic has made me reflect on the true value of community congregations, festivals and celebrations. The message of Vijay Dashmi and of Diwali, remains the victory of good over evil. Compassion, selfless service and empathy enable us and prepare us to fight the battles of ‘Dharma’ (righteousness). In life, we are faced with challenges and forced to make choices. These, when guided by a sense of duty go a long way in changing lives for the better.
So as we prepare to celebrate Diwali, I pay tribute to the Indian Diaspora living in the UK and their sense of community, duty and oneness that makes Britain Great.
is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular column for ‘iGlobal’, she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.
* to be a part of DiwaliFest2020, the biggest virtual celebration of the Festival of Lights in the UK.