Deepavali blues at Christmas
The New Straits Times - 12/27/1993
by Anusha Anantha

Deepavali is insignificant. I stood on a street corner in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, watching the beautiful Christmas lights and decorations in Guardian Pharmacy and suddenly it was deja vu!

I could have been back in the United States. It was drizzling, somewhat cold and people were hurrying in and out of stores. McDonald's was as brightly lit as ever and Ronald McDonald has a grip on my son that keeps him tugging at my hands.

Deepavali in Malaysia seems odd. I expect not to celebrate Deepavali in the United States. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween and the New Year are all part of that familiar package, the American experience.

Even snow was somehow not unfamiliar. I had made its acquaintance in my mind, like everything else that is Western from the English Language on.   It is just that it is a little startling to be an Indian shopping for Deepavali cards and clothes at big department stores and find nothing in the way of an acknowledgement of Deepavali.

"Why would you want to look for Deepavali in the windows of large commercial retail outlets?" asked my brother. He cannot see what the fuss is all about.

"Deepavali is out there in Jalan Masjid India," he drawled.

Had I been there lately, he wanted to know. Yes. Deepavali is there, alive and well, bursting with colour.

I had tramped up and down those streets taking in the makeshift stalls selling hundreds of Punjabi suits, costume jewellery, sweetmeats, fireworks, cards and everything else I might have needed to celebrate.

"Punjabi suits, sister? This one will really suit you," called one youth as I walked by with my son in tow.

There was a middle-aged woman selling her wares out of a large suitcase. Some of the most popular Tamil songs blared out of stereos. It was a festive atmosphere. Quite  different from that in commercial outlets.

Despite the obvious bait and bargain that was going on, this seemed less contrived. The colour was not out of a box. Vivid and unfamiliar, I was entranced by the sights and sounds of the streets upon which, I am told, Indians find gold.

Deepavali in Bangsar is in great contrast to the animation along Jalan Masjid India. Our maid is scornful of the celebrations here.   "Don't look to Indians in Bangsar to celebrate Deepavali," she advised.

"Like the man of my house says, rich people are so used to saving money, they save even during these occasions," she added, looking at me apologetically.

I asked Nagamah what she thought of the Christmas decorations in the big department stores on the eve of Deepavali.

"They don't expect people like us to shop there," she replied. "But Indians work there and people like you shop there so I don't see why they could not have held off the Christmas decorations until after Deepavali. A tinsel banner with the words Happy Dee- pavali would not cost much."

I had to agree. There is a sharp partition between rural and urban Indians. The rubber estate is as removed from my life as Nagamah's noisy, joyous Deepavali.

Obviously, these big department stores had not expected to encounter Indian shoppers, at least not a big enough group.

Deepavali was a singular event when I was an undergraduate in America. Singular because I was the only Malaysian Indian on campus. We often got together to celebrate everything else but Deepavali somehow slipped by.

A card in the mail got me slapping my forehead and accosting my friends with an accusatory "Do you know it's Deepavali?".

The Malaysians were unperturbed. "You want to celebrate, celebrate-lah!", they laughed, not unkindly.

I chose not to. Celebration meant muruku, ghee balls and yes, something so quintessentially and intangibly Indian that it would not have seemed like Deepavali without others who also observed it as a religious festival.

I forgot about Deepavali after that. The only other time I remembered it was when a friend in another campus and in a different part of America celebrated.

Rohini is Indian, as in Indian from India. Deepavali in Massachusetts was a plate of carrot halva. I ate the sweet she made slowly, savouring each mouthful. It occurred to me then that it was a pity that none of my numerous American friends and professors knew that it was Deepavali. We all celebrate Christmas.

Christmas in the department stores in Malaysia is only an extension of that. The white Christmas, Santa Claus, the Christmas tree and presents are storybook images for the Indian celebrating Deepavali.

I grew up dreaming of adding all this to Deepavali. That, the Chinese dragon dance, the lanterns, the act of asking for forgiveness on Hari Raya, the rendang and everything else that made me think of all that is good and great.

Children often wish it were Christmas every day. I grew up with the feeling that this was somehow true in a magical way in Malaysia. One celebration or another always rolls around and as children we would throw ourselves into the festivities.

Nobody expects me to celebrate Deepavali in a particular way but when I look at my son, the ease with which he wears western clothes, speaks English and shuns his mother tongue, I'm afraid. Not that he will adopt another religion or marry someone of a different caste or race, but that he will not know or appreciate the values and traditions of his own.

His outlook would have been shaped without him being aware of the range and wealth of options that his multicultural background has the potential to yield.

Coming of age in America, I was made painfully aware of the loneliness and chill of articulating the significance of my religious and cultural beliefs to my American friends.

The traditions I have inherited as an Anglicised Malaysian Indian may be pared of meaning but my responsibility is to recover its significance for me and my family.

Anushka Anastasia Solomon was known as Anusha Anantha before coming to Jesus Christ.