Holiday season is well underway and although many might argue it’s only just begun, for over a billion people around the world it peaked last week, on Nov. 4. Before any Thanksgiving turkeys or Karamu feasts were served, before any dreidels were spun or carols were sung, people lit hundreds of thousands of candles to honor a festival of lights. There exists no Halloween hangover arduous enough and no Dia de Los Muertos celebration tiring enough to prevent this annual commemoration of the victory of good over evil from captivating all those that choose to celebrate it. Rooted deep in Indian mythology, an everlasting symbol of the strength that lies in togetherness, kindness and respect for one’s values and beliefs, it isn’t just a festival, but an emotion shared by a subcontinent that holds 1.4 billion people and a community that houses even more. So, let me take this opportunity to wish you a very happy belated Diwali.
I am one of the many Indians studying at the University of Michigan. As I prepared to leave the city and country I had lived in for the first 19 years of my life and come to Ann Arbor, I was warned of the most commonly cited side effects of being in Ann Arbor, aside from cold weather: non-home food, the lack of native Indian speakers and homesickness. For the most part, I can proudly say that that’s one virus I have avoided in my three months away from home.
All of that changed when I was woken up on the morning of Nov. 4 by a phone call from halfway across the world. It was the evening of Diwali and my brother, parents and approximately 100 other people whom I call family were all gathered in one place celebrating the biggest festival of the year. Yup, that homesickness I mentioned… hit me like a shovel. It’s not like there weren’t any Diwali parties or celebrations on campus, but there was something special about the way my family did it that made me feel, for the first time, like I genuinely missed being home.
The importance Indian culture places on the community has never evaded me. It’s something I am extremely proud of, and I’m sure others are as well. I was brought up with the constant reminder that what we have is difficult to find anywhere else, an idea that was further drilled into me as I prepared for the next step in my journey: my four years in Ann Arbor and at Michigan. I had been warned by many that it would not be as easy as it had been back home to find my own community, and as Diwali approached, I couldn’t shrug off the nagging feeling that they might have been correct. Admitting that to myself was disappointing because all everybody had to say about Michigan was that it isn’t just a school, it’s a family. That was the very reason I chose to come here.
Alas, I spent most of Diwali doing what I’d do on any other Thursday. The day just passed me by, but there was one thing to look forward to: the pooja. Pooja is that part of the Diwali festivities where one prays to god and distributes sweets to all those in the household. My friend, Shrey Sehgal, had graciously decided to host a Diwali pooja at his house and at 8 p.m. that day, I found myself in what was the closest thing to home I could have imagined. I watched as Shrey and his roommates, almost all of whom have no connection to India or Indian culture and no real obligation to participate in these traditions, sang along to the hymns, followed all the customs and even listened intently as Shrey and I explained the history behind the festival.
On my way home, I walked past the block “M” on the diag and was pleasantly surprised to see it lit up in honor of Diwali. I quickly took a picture and put it up on my Instagram. As I scrolled through the never-ending wave of Instagram stories, I came across Saanika Kulkarni’s. It was a picture of five plates of food she cooked herself. The captain read: “An honour treating my friends to diwali food.” I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. Less than two hours ago I was lamenting my first Diwali away from home, and I hadn’t even given it a chance.
I had been so grateful all my life for what my community had given me that I thought being part of a community could only mean one thing. So much so that I didn’t recognize the one I am part of right now even though it was right in front of me. Yes, nothing I have at this university will be like it is back home, but it can still be one hell of a community. Shrey’s pooja, Saanika’s dinner and a Diwali-themed Diag reminded me that this place is full of passionate people that are not only accepting of but open to those who want to express themselves. A place where people care enough to respect each other’s background and interests is a place where I belong. It took a little bit of convincing, but now I appreciate it every day.
This university is made up of individuals who, in one way or another, have found their community and that goes a long way towards making this place what it is. It’s easy, one might say, to find just a few people when there are 50,000 options. I’m here to tell you that it is not down to the sheer number of people, but the unwavering will to support those around you that makes this possible. It might not be 100 of my family members, people I’ve known ever since I could speak, gathered in one hall, but it’s a community alright. And yes, it’s not 100. It’s 110,000… and more.
Rushabh Shah is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.