During Diwali, the Indian festival of lights which starts this year on Nov. 12, parents Kunjan Kapoor and Nitin Mehrotra celebrate with not one, not two, but three different types of gifts.
In India, their memories of the five-day festival include buying food, decorations, and objects for worship at bustling markets open both day and night.
The first gift
One item on many shoppers’ lists was a gold or silver coin – if you had the means. This would be placed on the home altar the following day, an offering for the Goddess Lakshmi. This is the first gift, intended for worship.
So revered is the goddess that Mehrotra remembers being put to work as a child the day before, cleaning his family home until not a speck of dust remained.
“Diwali is supposed to be the day when the goddess of wealth and fortune visits your house,” he chuckled. “So you don’t want to take any risks with her!”
The second gift
The third day, families decorate with lights and marigold flowers, arranging oil-filled clay lamps called diya all around their houses, to be lit once darkness falls. In the evening, they gather to worship both Lakshmi and the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, with prayers, songs, and the offering of precious metal.
“Then you start moving from one house to the other,” says Mehrotra, “exchanging gifts.”
Dried fruits and melt-in-your-mouth Indian sweets, fancy chocolates or gift hampers would be given to neighbors, friends, and relatives, meant to be shared by entire households. These are the second gifts, given “out of happiness,” says Kapoor.
The third gift
The fifth day of the festival is when Mehrotra and Kapoor would traditionally celebrate bhai dooj, the third form of gifting, and one that takes place between siblings.
“Sisters put tilak on their brother’s forehead,” a colorful decorative mark, says Mehrotra. “In exchange, brothers promise to the sisters that they will always protect them.”
He and Kapoor now live in Sammamish with their 13-year-old son Ashank and 9-year-old daughter Taavishi. They practice bhai dooj with a modern twist.
After all, says to Mehrotra, “Some sisters don’t like to be told that they need to be protected. Sometimes it’s the other way around and it’s the sisters protecting the brothers!”
Strengthening the sibling bond
Instead of focusing on protection, the children look forward to bhai dooj “because it’s one way to bond,” Mehrotra says, explaining that it’s a playful occasion filled with banter.
These days, neither of them have to brave a crowded market to find each other gifts. Instead, like most modern consumers, their mother reports that “they order online for each other.”
Kapoor and Mehrotra have also modernized Diwali in one other way: “We mostly do Christmas lights,” Mehrota says, with a bark of laughter.
In other respects, however, “We like to continue whatever we have been doing in the past back in India and in our childhood days,” says Kapoor. “It just keeps us connected to our roots,” agrees Mehrotra. “What I have realized is that we celebrate our festivals better here, compared to what we were doing back in India.”
Sharing family values
They are part of a large Indian community in Greater Seattle, so Diwali is jam-packed with potlucks, parties, and performances. “Because there’s so many families, typically that entire month is Diwali for us!”
In addition to all the fun, Kapoor and Mehrotra also hope their children learn the values that the holiday represents.
Both grew up in Uttar Pradesh, a northern Indian province where Diwali commemorates a legend from the Ramayana, when Lord Rama returns victorious to his hometown after 14 years in exile, having vanquished a demon king and rescued his kidnapped wife. Upon learning of his return, his people burned lamps to light his way home.
For Mehrotra, this story is at the heart of the celebration. “This festival keeps reminding us that you just do your best and then eventually good overcomes evil.”