Celebrating Diwali in Aotearoa; is it a generational thing?

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Written By Vivian Chandra

Loud Bollywood music, colourful saris and a multitude of lights; once a year, the sights and smells of India comes to Auckland (and some other major centres) in an explosion of culture during the annual Diwali festival.

The Diwali festival was first held in 2002 and was the brainchild of Asia NZ Foundation and Auckland City Council. It has become bigger and bolder every year, with numbers increasing dramatically as each year goes by.

As Diwali approaches again, I sit down with Sunil, an immigrant dad who brought his young family to Aotearoa in 1985. He has seen the changes in society first hand. His adult son, Jagdish, joins us to give his perspective.


Where did you come from?

S: My family was initially from Fiji. We came here in the late eighties in search of a better life, and after a bit of time here alone, my wife and my two sons joined me. They were nine and six at the time.


What was Aotearoa like in 1987?

S: It was very different to how it is now. I remember Diwali back home in Fiji was always a nationwide celebration. It is a public holiday, and everyone has the day off to visit friends and family. We always start the Diwali celebrations by lighting a small clay lamp. It begins with a somber and religious ceremony, and then five days of festivities follow. Everyone buys new clothes, and the community gets together to makes sweets and treats. The sweets are exchanged like gifts whenever you visit your friends or relatives. When we first came here, there weren’t many other Indian people around, and we celebrated privately at home. We didn’t make the full range of sweets or perform the full set of rituals, and I feel that my boys have missed out on knowing what it is really like.


J: I remember going to primary school in Royal Oak [In Auckland]. I was the only Indian kid in my class, and my brother and I were the only Indian kids in the whole school. It was hard. Dad would pack us traditional Indian foods for lunch, and the other kids would make fun of us. The strong smells contrasted sharply with their peanut butter sandwiches, and I think some of those kids had never seen a curry or roti before in their entire lives. I think it’s quite different now. My daughter goes to a school here in Māngere, and the pakeha people are the minority in her class! The lunchtime meals are like a United Nations smorgasbord, although peanut butter and jam sandwiches seem to be a favourite still.


What do you think is the biggest change that has happened in the years since?

J: Well I think it’s a global change. There is so much more movement between countries now, and as a result, the different cultures are melding together into a beautiful melting pot of diversity. My children get to experience a multitude of diverse experiences all without leaving their front door. I’m in IT, and I truly believe that the connectivity we have now has such power to break down the walls of xenophobia and bigotry.


S: I totally agree. I am constantly amazed by the things my grand-daughter shows me online. She’s only six, and yet at the click of a button, she can be transported to the other side of the world to learn about French cuisine or Burundian dance.


How do you celebrate Diwali today?

S: I am often saddened by what Diwali has become. Just the other day, my friend Raj who works for a large accounting firm said that they were celebrating Diwali at his office. It seemed like it was a nice gesture, as they have quite a few Indian people on staff. However, amongst the Indian sweets and cakes, there were sausage rolls and pies. Diwali is, at its heart, a very religious ceremony. It is strictly vegetarian. To make matters even worst, Raj tells me that they were beef pies! Cows are sacred in our culture and to serve them at a Diwali celebration is a great sacrilege.


J: I feel that as my brother and I grew up here in Aotearoa, we don’t understand the significance of the celebrations. As our family always spoke Hindi at home, we understood everyday spoken Hindi. However, the language they speak at the religious ceremonies is a different form of Hindi, a much older and formal dialect. I don’t understand it, and as a result, I get a bit lost, and the whole thing becomes a bit formulaic instead of having any true meaning. My children are even further removed from all of this. My partner is a Pakeha New Zealander, and my children only speak English. To them, the festivities are something that happens at Aja and aji’s house [Grand-dad and Grandma], and while they are pleasant and exciting, it is all over when we go home.


Have you been to the Diwali Festival in town?

S: No, I’ve never been to the Festival. I prefer to celebrate Diwali at home with some of my friends and relatives. Over the last few years, some of my extended family have joined us here in Aotearoa, and now our celebrations have become quite large. It’s quite lovely, now we have a lot of friends from around the neighbourhood, and various work friends join us, and we have a chance to teach them about our traditions too.


J: I took the girls last year. They loved watching the Bollywood dancing and eating all the sticky Indian sweets. I even dressed them in tiny sawaar kamis [a traditional Indian dress], and they loved every moment of it. In fact, Jennifer told me afterwards that she wanted to learn how to dance just like the beautiful women on stage. I think it is wonderful that the Festival has gotten so large, it shows how diverse the communities have become here in Aotearoa.


As we finish up the interview, Jagdish and Sunil share some sweets with me. They are sweet and sticky and taste delicious. The grand-daughters come running into the house, and children’s’ laughter fills the room. I am reminded of how Aotearoa is filled with a multitude of races and cultures and how wonderful it is that we can celebrate so many different holidays from so many different people.


* some details have been changed as the interviewees requested anonymity.