“You wouldn’t believe it! It was there in BIG letters reading ‘Happy Diwali!’” my mother informed me excitedly.
“Really? At WALMART?” I was puzzled. Even more so, I was in disbelief.
“Really! They had fireworks with a big sign saying ‘Happy Diwali’ there!”
Not even 5 minutes later, we hopped in the car and drove to Walmart to see the display of sparklers and flowerpots in a cardboard shelf labeled “Diwali” with the subtext reading “Festival of Lights.”
It took every part of my body not to tear up at the fact that our Walmart in Okemos, Mich., was promoting Deepavali, which is what we call the festival commonly referred to as Diwali.
Growing up, Deepavali was never talked about in my classrooms. I went to predominantly white schools where as soon as Halloween was over, Christmas and Hanukkah became the only holidays to talk about.
“What do you want for Christmas?” a classmate would ask me.
I would bow my head and quietly respond, “we don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Almost everyone I would tell would respond in the same manner: “What do you mean you don’t celebrate Christmas? Do you celebrate Hanukkah instead?”
“No, we don’t celebrate any of those.”
“Oh my gosh, I feel so bad for you.”
Some comments in hindsight are now hilarious to me. For example, I’ve had people ask “Is it offensive if I wish you a Merry Christmas?” and “So you just never get presents?” along with my personal favorite: “So do you and your family worship Satan?”
But in elementary school, those questions hurt. Moreso, they made me feel embarrassed of my culture and the holidays that I do celebrate.
Every year for Deepavali, my family and I would go to our temple to launch small fireworks and light sparklers alongside our community. Maybe it was because of lack of knowledge, or maybe because of more sinister reasons, but I vividly remember the cops coming to our temple one year and telling us that we weren’t allowed to celebrate in this fashion. They told our priests that there were “several noise complaints” from the neighboring homes and that what we were doing was a safety hazard.
Funny they say that while on the Fourth of July these same neighboring homes light larger fireworks on their driveways completely unsupervised.
I guess it’s not a safety hazard on that day.
Similarly, one year a friend that lived in the neighborhood invited me to launch fireworks on her driveway for Deepavali with the rest of our neighborhood friends that celebrated. We had buckets of ice water ready to throw our used sparklers into and had distance markers as a safety measure for when we were lighting the slightly larger fireworks. We lit two flowerpot fireworks, which didn’t make any noise, before we heard the screams of an older woman.
We all looked around at each other to see where the noise was coming from.
“HEY!” the voice screamed again.
We kept scrambling to look around until we saw a shadowy figure looming in the doorway of the house next door.
“KNOCK IT OFF!”
My friend, who also was the oldest of all of us, attempted to step in and de-escalate the situation.
“Hi, um, were we yelling too loud?”
“YOU GUYS CAN’T DO THAT!”
“Today is actually Diwali, which is the festival of li-”
“WHY DO YOU GUYS THINK THIS IS OK?”
By this point, even my friend didn’t know what to say, and the rest of us were just stunned with fear.
My friend stood strong and attempted to finish her sentence from earlier: “So it’s actually Diwali, which is the festival of lights and so-”
“THIS BEHAVIOR IS UNACCEPTABLE. IF THIS CONTINUES, I WILL CALL THE POLICE.”
And just like that, we lost the battle of trying to celebrate our holiday.
“OK,” my friend said with clear dismay, “we’re really sorry.”
We just apologized for celebrating our own holiday.
So, we’ve mastered the art of keeping Deepavali under the radar. Every year we’d light sparklers on our driveway, but the second we’d see a car come by, we’d hide it away. Every time my friends and I would even think about launching something slightly bigger, we’d always fear that someone would threaten to call the police on us.
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school when I remember things taking a turn for the better. My best friend who lived in the same neighborhood at the time invited me to her house to launch fireworks for Deepavali.
“You’re coming right? Make sure you’re not late, she and her kids are coming at around 8:30 and they’re going to go back home by 9:00.”
“She” was our high school biology teacher, who also lived in the neighborhood, and my friend told me that she invited her and her kids to light sparklers and fireworks at her house.
Of course, I was nervous. We’ve always had to celebrate Deepavali as if it’s some secret holiday and now we’re inviting people that aren’t even South Asian? But I showed up on time wearing the most casual Indian clothes I could find so that I wouldn’t draw too much attention to myself.
We all laughed and lit our sparklers all night. Our teacher and her children were having genuine fun celebrating a South Asian holiday, something I never thought I’d get to witness. The next morning, as I walked into my biology class, our teacher addressed us.
“Good morning class, I hope everyone had a great night last night. Happy Diwali to those who celebrate.”
She proceeded to go on with her lesson and talk about some auto-immune disease but my mind was still replaying the words “Happy Diwali to those who celebrate.” That was the first time the holidays I celebrate had ever been addressed in a classroom setting.
That following year, I started mentoring at a local elementary school. During Deepavali time, which is typically early November, I walked into the school and saw on a giant display: “Diwali: The Festival of Lights” with little tidbits about the holiday.
I immediately took a picture and ran home to my mother to show her.
“Amma LOOK, they’re actually teaching them about Diwali!”
That same year, it was instituted that we were allowed to launch fireworks during the week of Deepavali in our county and at our temple. I vividly remember launching aerial fireworks on my friend’s driveway, and as they lit the sky, cars would slowly drive by, rolling down their windows, wishing us a “Happy Diwali!”
This year, my friends and I went to the Diag and lit up candles on the Block M. As we lit and decorated the M, bystanders would come by, watch over us, and some even helped us light some, all while wishing us a “Happy Diwali.”
So, it was just things like that. From teachers talking about Deepavali in their classrooms to our neighborhood now being allowed to launch large aerial fireworks during Deepavali weekend, all the way to our own community here at the University of Michigan lighting candles on the Diag in our cultural clothing, the arc of celebrating Deepavali from when I was a kid to now took an entire 180-degree turn.
I went from never talking about the holidays I celebrate, to now posting about them on social media. After 20 years, I’m finally comfortable celebrating Deepavali how I want.
MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.