Diwali Celebrations in the Diaspora

Dr Vishnu Bisram at Trinidad Diwali Nagar

By Dr. Vishnu Bisram

Diwali was celebrated around the globe last weekend. In some countries, Diwali is a national holiday while in others where Diwali is not a holiday there is widespread recognition of and participation in the festival. Diwali lightening ceremonies (some by politicians) were held in major industrialized countries including the US, Canada, Britain, among others.

I spent the pre-Diwali season in England, New York, Trinidad and Guyana interacting with Caribbean Indian and Asian Indian diasporas reminiscing about Diwali in their homeland. Guyanese, Trini and other Caribbean born Indians have helped to transplant and institutionalize the celebration of Diwali in the areas where they have settled outside of their homelands. In addition to the above places, Diwali was celebrated in virtually every society where they are settled including where they are insignificant minorities such as in Aruba, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Antigua, Grenada, St, Martin, Curacao, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Georgia, and several parts of Canada.

The Diwali celebrations and festivities (including fasting, rituals, and feasting) among Indians in the diaspora are similar everywhere as in Guyana or Trinidad or Surinam. There were celebrations a couple weeks ahead of the actual day (Sunday October 27) and stores marketed Diwali related items weeks ahead right after the period of pitri paksh (paying tribute to the departed ancestors). As in Guyana, Hindus cleaned their homes and fasted for days before and after the day of the festival. And a variety of delectable and enjoyable dishes were prepared and served to guests, neighbors and family members.

In some places, Diwali is celebrated only at the home but in many locations, there were public in addition to private residential celebrations (lighting of lamps, entertainment, speeches, feasting) with local politicians partaking in the festivities; some politicians even hosted their own celebrations to build stronger support with the Guyanese or Hindu communities. In New York City, for example, it was reported that the Mayor hosted Diwali celebrations with traditional meals and mitai (sweets) and beautiful decorations. He and his wife personally lit the lamp.

Other New York and New Jersey politicians also hosted celebrations in their offices especially where large numbers of Guyanese live; those holding statewide or citywide or borough wide positions like the Governor, Senator, or Comptroller or Boro President, etc, Speaker also held their own celebrations in their offices. President Trump also planned his Diwali celebrations. In New York, as in Guyana, there was a Diwali motorcade a weekend ago in Richmond Hill.

Mini-motorcades as part of the celebrations were also organized in the Bronx, Jersey City, and Orlando. Guyanese introduced and institutionalized the motorcades in Richmond Hill.

In London, politicians hosted celebrations in their offices while some Caribbean, South Asian, Fijian, and Mauritian organizations organized celebrations in community centers and temples. Prime Minister Boris John delivered greetings to the British people and the Indian community in particular. President Donald Trump lit the deya at the White House and extended greetings to the 3 million Hindus in America.

In Trinidad, almost every village hosted local or community celebrations; tens of thousands attended the Diwali Nagar, the nine nights of festivities of music, dance, lights, shopping, expo, and feasting at the Nagar headquarter in Chaguanas, Central Trinidad. It was a sight to behold. There were spectacular fireworks on the final night. All over Trinidad and Guyana, homes are well lit up similar. Indians and non-Indian staff at offices (government and private) were dressed in traditional attire the Friday before Diwali. Even the PM (Rowley) and his wife and the President were attired in traditional garb although this year, the PM blanked the Nagar celebrations because the finale conflicts with his 70th birthday celebrations. In Guyana, the President hosted celebration at statehouse although he could not attend because of health reasons. Diwali was celebrated quietly among Guyanese in other Caribbean societies.

Unlike in Guyana, in Trinidad, every village hosted Diwali celebrations one evening over the last two weeks feting the communities – lights, entertainment and foods. In Trinidad, it was a voluntary planned affair of community organizers that is not seen elsewhere except in some locales in New York. Local politicians (elected and those aspiring to run for office) patronized the community celebrations in Trinidad; ditto in NY and London where the celebrations were indoors as opposed to NY where they were held outdoors and indoors.

In Trinidad, elected politicians, especially in the traditional Indian constituencies and even in non-Indian constituencies (like in the Port of Spain areas) made sure they hosted a celebration in their constituency. Political parties also hosted celebrations. These are traditions going back decades in Trinidad. Unlike in Guyana, in Trinidad, there are no organized motorcades although some communities have displays of lights on their vehicles at the local community celebrations. But unlike in Trinidad, there is no Nagar and hardly any India expo shops in Guyana.

All over Trinidad, there are Indian exhibitions of a variety of goods (clothing, cooking utensils, raw materials for foods, prepared dry snacks, etc.) from India to encourage trade. And unlike in Trinidad, there is no organized village light up. There is an Indian village in Central Trinidad called Felicity. Almost every home is brightly illuminated with varied caricatures and motorized symbols. The area also has a variety of rangoli (designs) on streets and in front of homes. It is an area that attracts thousands of tourists including many Guyanese like myself. Food is a must in Felicity and the Nagar – hot off the fire and in the former some offer free snacks and even treat unknown foreigners in their homes. Once in Trinidad for the season, a visit to the Nagar and felicity is a must.

Guyanese in New York seem to be imitating the idea of Indian expos but offering mostly Guyanese and Trini items. Unlike in Guyana and among Guyanese in NY, almost every Guyanese temple in NYC, Toronto, and London hosted a Diwali night celebration with a concert and a dinner.
The Hindu communities in America and other places are grateful to Guyanese, Trinis and others for institutionalizing Diwali and other cultural festivals in their adopted homelands.


The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.