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Keeping the Deepavali flame alive in Melbourne

Gayertree Subramaniam

Thu Nov 15 2012

diwali lights

GARLANDS of jasmine, the smell of spices, delicious sweetmeats, henna, and family – all things Gayertree Subramaniam associates with the Festival of Lights, Deepavali.

Every November, my kitchen becomes a sweetmeat, savoury treat and all round spice factory. Generational recipes are pulled out, and an amalgamation of flavours, textures and aromas are created. Like little minions, my sisters and I follow the instructions of the head chef aka Mother, carefully carrying out the tasks delegated to us with utmost diligence.

The end result of painstakingly slaving away at the stove – briyanis and curries that tease and tantalise tastebuds, buttery kuih tart nanas (pineapple tarts) that melt instantly in your mouth, and the crowd favourite of crunchy deep fried twists of subtly spiced flour  called murukku, just to name a few. No festival is complete without a feast. Deepavali or Diwali, the Festival of Lights that marks the triumph of Good over Evil, of Light over Darkness is no different! Literally meaning “row of lights”, Deepavali is celebrated by Hindus across the world and marks the coming of a new year.

Although there are many legends that inspire this festival, the most common is that of Lord Krishna’s victorious return after battling Narakasura, a ferocious demon, on the night of a new moon. To rejoice in his victory and to welcome Lord Krishna, the people lit lamps illuminating and bathing the city in light, freeing it from its shroud of darkness. The tradition holds strong even today, as come nightfall on Deepavali, families light oil lamps around the house to signify the coming of goodness and to welcome prosperity and joy into their homes.

It is all fine and dandy cooking up a storm, and spending the rest of the auspicious day eating to your heart’s content on such a festive occasion. However, nothing at all compares to spending it with loved ones, family and friends. This year would mark the seventh Deepavali that I would be celebrating away from my birth home of Singapore, in my adopted home of Melbourne.

The lead up to Deepavali back home meant trips to Little India, the vibrant bustling heart of the Indian community in Singapore. There, my sisters and I would eagerly pick out traditional outfits to wear on the day. Spoilt for choice by the innumerable shades and hues they were available in, embellished extravagantly with rhinestones and intricate embroidery, all we wanted was to feel like Maharanis for the day! We’d then explore the Deepavali bazaar along Campbell Lane, nudging our way through the throngs of people who’d come to score a good bargain on Deepavali paraphernalia and to stock up on sweet and savoury cookies.

One does not leave Little India during Deepavali season without getting their palms stained with henna patterns – how lovely they look! Shopping for prayer essentials and fragrant garlands of jasmine and marigolds would then be followed up by a hearty South Indian meal at one of the many restaurants that line the streets of Little India. Come nightfall, my family would be one of the hundreds of families who would come to marvel at the razzle-dazzle of street lights and decorations that sparkle invitingly along Little India. The cacophony of sounds, and distinctive scent of incense and flashes of festive colours make the experience one that I recommend anyone visiting Singapore during that time of year partake in!

In between going to the temple to receive the blessings of the Gods, enjoying the festive mood and stuffing our faces with the many culinary delights, Deepavali day was a time for rejoicing and valuing family above all. My grandma’s home was often a bustling hub of energy and laughter as cousins, aunts and uncles all gathered to revel in each other’s company and warmth of spirit. On that day, familial tiffs and politics were momentarily forgotten, for as much of a time of celebration Deepavali is, it is also an occasion for contemplation, reflection and forgiveness.

Like my family and I, many migrants of Indian heritage who have chosen to call Melbourne home will undoubtedly feel the void that comes with not being able to celebrate this auspicious festival in our homelands. However, as the Indian migrant community here in Melbourne has flourished over the years, the pangs of nostalgia and homesickness are eased slightly through events such as Diwali @ Federation Square 2012. In true multicultural fashion, the carnival promises to recreate the magic of Deepavali and relive the nostalgia of the Indian festival.

Living far away from extended family, at times I cannot help but feel disengaged from my heritage and my roots. But rekindling memories and keeping the flame of tradition and culture alive, remind me that no matter where in the world I may be, the positivity and significance of Deepavali will always remain with me.