Diwalis that Don't Always Dazzle

Francesca Pereira
7 min readNov 15, 2020

A down to earth and not so bright but filled with light Diwali.

It's festival time in India again. India is aglow with light. Diwali commemorates the triumphant return of Lord Rama with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman to their kingdom after a fourteen-year exile in the forest. The word Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Deepavali meaning “row of lights”. Diwali is a five-day festival, signifying the spiritual victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. The lighting of diyas (oil lamps) and decorative lights are a big part of this festival. This year one of the important days of the festival — Laksmi Puja, where people invoke the blessings of Goddess Laksmi, the Goddess of Wealth — falls on November 14. November 14 is also celebrated as Children's day all over India, every year.

For years now, my life has dovetailed between the noisy city of Mumbai where I grew up and a quiet village close to Mumbai, where my husband and now grown-up daughter practice sustainable agriculture. In the process, I got to live close to and interact with an indigenous community — the Warli tribals of Maharashtra. This community has an intrinsically sustainable and low carbon footprint way of life. Proximity to Mumbai city, however, has exposed them to some elements of modernity like motorbikes and mobile phones. But, for the most part, the village still has clean air, green fields and is QUIET. Life here is mostly traditional and is a blend of Maharashtrian Hindu culture and indigenous tribal culture.

Like women all over the world, women in this village too, are the primary caregivers of children and elderly parents and relatives in their families. Apart from teachers, ASHA workers, and medical workers in primary health centres whose work is outside of their homes, most other women would assist the men in their families in agricultural activities. So in the months of June and July, you will see women side by side with men, sowing and transplanting rice — the staple food grain in this area — in their monsoon rain-fed fields. By October and November, this crop is ready for harvest. So around Dassera and pre Diwali, once again you will see women and men working side by side in the paddy fields, cutting sheaves of rice. Rice paddy plantation done in this traditional by-hand method, means spending extra-long and back pain-inducing hours in the rain(during sowing and transplanting) and in the sun (during harvesting)

Despite this and amazingly so, the intricate and time-consuming process of making Diwali ‘faraal’ (sweets and snacks) is still a truly homemade venture by the village women and girls in each family. This is in refreshing contrast to Mumbai, where Diwali faraal making and Christmas sweet making is outsourced to expert home chefs and enterprising ladies within the community. So at Diwali time, I’m the happy recipient of Maharashtrian Hindu Diwali faraal consisting of karanjis, shankar pali, ladoos, chaklis, and chiwda. I am also the happy recipient of traditional Warli Diwali preparations like ‘saaveli bhakri’, (slightly sweetened pancakes made with a mixture of cucumber and new rice flour and steamed in saaveli leaves), plain boiled chowli beans ( black-eyed beans), and plain boiled ‘karaanda’ ( a black-brown yam/tuber that tastes like a slightly bitter potato) and ‘chamti’ (handspan sized crispy wafers made of new rice flour). Suffice to say I most certainly do not miss chocolate at this time of the year!

This year I remain optimistic and look forward to my Diwali being sweetened yet again by these preparations. But changing home cooking patterns have begun to creep in here too. A few women do admit that they only make those sweets and snacks that have fewer ingredients at home but buy snacks like chiwda which have more ingredients, from a store, because it's cheaper and more convenient. So how will it be this year? Will I continue to be the lucky recipient of these mouth-watering and distinctly regional festive flavours this year? I wonder. Not because the women won’t make them. But because these festive treats are always hand-delivered by the women themselves or by their children. And in a world currently spooked with the coronavirus pandemic and with fears of a second spike happening in India, people may be hesitant to step out of their homes for non-essential activities. What’s more, apart from the local postman who delivers letters and money orders, there are no private door-to-door food courier delivery systems, like there are in Mumbai.

I also most certainly DO appreciate the lack of elaborate gift wrapping that accompanies the gesture of gifting sweets. No peeling off unnecessary layers of plasticky foil paper and tinsel braid ribbon that would ultimately have to be thrown away. Just wholesome and local celebratory food in a simple stainless steel box or a stainless steel platter covered with a muslin cloth. I will return the container immediately or after a day or two, duly filled with a little sugar.

Another distinctly different feature is the way that the village children here spend their Diwali vacations. These children do not have the options of extracurricular classes and vacation camps filled with a plethora of fun-filled activities, at exotic venues, that their city counterparts are privileged to enjoy. What the village children do have is a more grounded reality. They assist their parents in the process of harvesting paddy. So you will find children from 9 or 10 years of age to teenagers, working side by side with their parents in family-owned fields, and deftly wielding a sickle, cutting sheaves of rice, gathering them up, and agilely stacking them into tall neat conical haystacks. When they feel tired, these children take a break. Some may rest awhile, while others ‘relax’ by running and jumping exuberantly over the uneven surfaces of the mud bunds demarcating one field from another. While this may seem like an idyllic childhood to city parents and children, these children have an uncertain immediate future ahead, because of the coronavirus. For village children, an erratic power supply is a ‘normal’ everyday condition irrespective of whether a pandemic is raging or subsiding, or peaking again. Their parents might own a mobile phone, but not everyone has a smartphone. Internet and phone connectivity is patchy. So online learning classes (which are the new norm but beset by technological problems even in Mumbai ) are virtually impossible in a village. Since many (but not all) Warli children are first-generation learners I asked a few children whether they prefer harvesting rice ( which is work) or studying in school. “ We have more fun harvesting rice”, was their unanimous response.

I was not surprised by their response. Yes harvesting rice is hard work, and it’s under the scorching sun, but there’s also a clear blue sky above them and a wide-open field of golden grain all around them!

Yes, skies are indeed clear blue at this time of the year, in these parts. Though the number of bullock carts on the village roads has decreased and the number of motorbikes has increased, vehicular pollution is still not a problem here as yet. Stubble burning which is a contentious environmental problem in parts of Northern India is NOT practiced here. The leftover paddy stalks are sold to nearby dairy farmers or fed to the farmers' own cattle. Also since agriculture is still the main occupation of the people here, it is only natural to have a sacred ritual connected with agriculture at this time. In Hinduism, cows are considered very sacred and equivalent to mothers for providing nourishment to mankind. So just before or around the Diwali days, people observe ‘ Govatsa Dwadashi’. It is a thanksgiving day to the cows for their help in sustaining human life. So on this day both cows and calves are worshipped.

But the most striking feature of Diwali is our village by night. On normal days shops and homes in our village will have a few minimal electric lights for general lighting purposes. Because it's Diwali, some shops and homes will have a strand or two of decorative electric fairy lights. The only road that has a few electric lights on it is one single main road leading into and going out of the village. But because of erratic power supply, there is no guarantee that these lights will shine through the night even during the festival of lights! As everyone also knows Diwali always falls on or around an Amavasya night when there is no moon in view or just a very fine sliver of a crescent moon. The resultant all-pervading darkness is precisely what makes the glimmer of oil lamps on courtyards, doorways, and window sills look so beautiful. The flickering flames of diyas evoke a feeling of light conquering darkness much better than strands of multicoloured electric lights blinking on and off in an automatic relay!

If you have to walk to or from anyone’s home at night, there is no ethereal silver moonlight to illuminate your uneven path or silhouette the trees and shrubs along the pathway. A flashlight is a must-have safety amenity for the surrounding fields are enveloped in darkness. But if you switch it off for a while, stop walking, and look up, you will see (what you never see in the blinding artificial lights of Mumbai by night)… an expansive boundless ink-black canopy, studded with the lights of a zillion twinkling stars!!

It is this ‘festival of lights’ that I never tire of looking up to.