Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil, although the deities, rituals, and stories that are associated with the holiday are different in different parts of the Subcontinent and the diaspora. Deepavali is observed today in Singapore (as most Singapore celebrants trace their roots to Southern India) as a public holiday. My family considers tomorrow, the third day of the five-day festival, most auspicious; we believe on this day that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, visits our home. On this night of a new moon—the last night of the Hindu year—total darkness sets in the night sky.
On Wednesday, when every one in Singapore is back at work and school, our preschooler will paint diyas, tiny clay lamps, to place in our doorway for Lakshmi can find her way.
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Yesterday was Dhanteras, an auspicious day to buy gold, silver, and utensils or to begin new businesses or to gamble. I don’t shop, or own a business, or gamble, so, instead, on the eve of this public holiday, we joined a half dozen of our three-, four-, and five-year-old neighbors for a diya-painting, cracker-bursting, puri-eating, Bollywood-dancing party. Little children in their best dhotis, kurtas, and lenghas are too cute.
Celebrations continue through the week (Thursday [Annakut/Govardhan Puja] and Friday [Bahi Dhuj]), but these days are less significant for my family.
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When I first arrived in Singapore in 2010, I found it utterly delightful to live in a country where Diwali is a public holiday and where cab drivers handed me my change and wished me “Happy Deepavali.”
Yet, I soon learned that Diwali is actually quite invisible, except for the lights at Serangoon Road in Little India and the fact that it is a holiday, to those outside of the country’s minority South Asian community.
Singapore, which touts its vibrant and diverse cultural heritages, only trades in a facile, photogenic, and superficial multiculturalism. I, too, thought that because I could nip down to Little India, everything I could want, from sparklers to saris, from mithai to mehndi, would make a beloved holiday “easier” to celebrate.
However, most non-Hindu Singaporeans have no impulse to see community celebrations of Diwali on a bigger, more visible, scale, whereas Halloween for example, is embraced with such gusto across so many different national and ethnic groups because of the pernicious nature of American cultural imperialism.
So, ironically, while nearly nine percent of Singaporeans and permanent residents, and a number of non-residents (economic migrants) — many of whom are Hindu — trace their ancestry, wholly or in part, to the Indian Subcontinent, Diwali had been much more meaningful to me in the United States, than it is here, despite its public acknowledgement.
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A Diwali greeting from me to you: May the season illuminate new dreams, fresh hopes, uncharted paths, and different perspectives.