Two years after Covid, Indians in the US go into the festive season with renewed excitement as the mood and sales perk up in the run-up to Dussehra and Diwali
BY PARVEEN CHOPRA
In India, the writer worked for India Today and founded Life Positive magazine. Moving to the US, he edited The South Asian Times and is now starting ALotusInTheMud. com, a wellness and spirituality website.
Indians in America are excited about celebrating their traditional festivals this time after two years of Covid restrictions. Persistent inflation or recession fears do not seem to have affected their plans to shop and party to welcome Diwali, which is their Christmas and New Year rolled into one. In fact, going by the burgeoning number of community events and shopping fairs, this may be the biggest Diwali season ever here.
For the information of folks back home, Diwali or Dussehra or Navaratri are not observed here on the designated dates. For one, Uncle Sam does not give a day off for any Indian festival — except for some government schools in New York and New Jersey now having the Diwali holiday marked on their calendars. So, all festivities or events are held on convenient weekends, never mind if it’s much before or after Indians in India celebrate them. So, at the end of September, Ganesh Utsav is just giving way to Navaratri, Ramleela- Ravandahan and Diwali fairs, and it will go on till mid-November. By then, America’s own holiday season (euphemism for Christmas) will start. So, it is four months of fun and frolic to greet the New Year. And what a relief to forget Covid-19 at last with even President Joe Biden declaring recently, “The pandemic is over in the US.”
A precursor to the changed mood in the Indian community was the cascade of performers jetting down from India this summer: Sanju Baba, Neha Kakkar, Kapil Sharma with the entire jing-bang of his eponymous TV show, to name a few. And they all had houseful shows. A statistician, if there were one of such things, would tell you that the numbers far surpassed those of any year before Covid. Similarly, the number of Dussehra-Diwali events listed on Sulekha. com and which crowd your social media feeds is at an all-time high.
Pent-up demand? Says Harish Thakkar, president of NY chapter of Association of Indians in America (AIA) that has been organising the annual mega Diwali festival at the scenic South Street Seaport in Manhattan for over 30 years, “We are able to hold the event (on October 2) after a gap of two years and people want to come out and celebrate.” AIA’s mission includes burnishing the image of India by showcasing its culture and heritage in America, so Thakkar is taking pains to promote the event in mainstream media, such as Time Out magazine. “Our fireworks over the Hudson river are the second largest after Macy’s 4th of July fireworks and can be viewed from all five NYC boroughs and New Jersey,” he adds. The fireworks are sponsored this year by Qatar Airways and CheapOair (Air India was the default sponsor before it was hit by financial headwinds). The Indian government’s ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ theme commemorating the country’s 75 years of independence is being prominently promoted by AIA and most community events this year.
AIA’s Diwali festival features numerous stalls in its bazaar, offering everything from jewelry and clothes to life insurance, travel options, and healthcare services. With 50,000 visitors, walking in the bazaar area is as difficult as in Chandni Chowk in Delhi. The highlights of this year’s celebrations include the Inter-Collegiate Dance Competition named ‘Naach Inferno’ as well as the Vegan Expo featuring vegan food, cooking demonstrations and information sessions hosted by World Vegan Vision.
A competing newcomer is Times Square Diwali, now in its seventh year. Says its founder, adwoman-turned-impresario Neeta Bhasin, “This year we are celebrating Diwali and 75 years of India’s independence on October 15 to spread the message of peace, love, harmony, and diversity through art, culture, entertainment, and food.” Their Diya Lighting Countdown atop the One Times Square Tower screen mimics the famous New Year ball drop. The Light Up Times Square Concert will follow, with performers this time including singers Jay Sean and Arjun and Masala Bhangra dance group. Bhasin expects thousands of Indian Americans and Indo- Caribbeans thronging the Crossroads of the World and shopping at the Diwali Bazaar Pavilion.
Last year, the South Asian Engagement Foundation came up with a novel idea to present Diwali to America. They had New York City’s iconic World Trade Center showcase a spectacular digital mural and staged fireworks over the Hudson river for what they called an groceries, they also pick up Lakshmi-Ganesh images, puja material and diyas,” he says, while pointing out the special decoration at the entrance of the store in the neighbourhood that has turned into the newest Little India.
Emblematic of the love for Diwali among 4.2 million Indians in America is Rashmi Sinha who works as an immigration specialist in the HR department of Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, NY. She calls Diwali her favourite festival, but with religious overtones. “On Diwali evening, we pray to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesh. I have already illuminated our house in Hicksville with strings of lights.” For the party on October 8 for her friends and family, including her two sons’ friends, the menu is vegetarian and there will be no alcohol in keeping with the sanctity and auspiciousness of the festival.
She adds, “Covid has taught us how significant our family and friends are. Earlier, I used to think twice before incurring an expense. Now my thought process has changed. I want to celebrate any and every day and make it grand. Yes, prices are high, and recession may be in the offing, but people I know do not seem to be cutting down on their plans for the festivals. After two years, this Diwali is going to be bigger than before.” On Dhanteras, she plans to buy gold as the price of the precious metal is trending downwards. She will also go shopping with friends. At least three families in her circle have also announced parties, crowding her October weekends. Not all hosts have her compunctions. Goat meat or mutton, which is a favourite of Indians more than the commonplace chicken, will be on the menu, as well as single malt. Teen patti, too though families in this tight-knit group keep stakes low to keep fun in and misfortune out.
Gold is what Indians dig, but diamonds are a girl’s best friend, believes Manisha Patel, founder of Luxury Diamonds NYC, who designs custom jewelry for all occasions and budgets and has grown her business through word-of-mouth promotion sans an outlet. She reports that even during Covid, she notched up good sales. “Homebound people still bought jewelry such as engagement rings and necklaces as a sign of their love and commitment to each other especially in tough times,” she says, even as she awaits her
Diwali collection shipment. Fingers are crossed for sales to pick up starting from the Indian festival season till Christmas.
Haridas Kotahwala, founder of the Royal India USA jewelry firm based in Manhattan, insists their business peaks around Christmas, because they have more American customers than Indian. But, yes, he knows Indian jewelry stores are stocking up on diamonds and jewelry. A co-founder of RANA (Rajasthan Association of North America), he points out that they have a problem booking a hotel ballroom for their annual Diwali gala because so many Indian groups and organisations have already blocked choice venues this year.
Gauging the josh to celebrate, Ashok Vyas, ITV Gold anchor, poet and priest, is cautious: “It is picking up. But the numbers at Ganesh Utsav events I went to were not as good as in pre-Covid years.” A fervent advocate of Sanatan Dharma, he explains the importance of celebrating festivals: “India’s eternal spirit resonates in festivals which bring a sparkle in people’s lives.” But he accepts that the collective celebrations here have become a political statement to meet the need to assert our ethnic identity.
Although Diwali and some festivals preceding it are celebrated by Jains and Sikhs as well, in 2021 some Hindu organisations proclaimed October as Hindu Heritage Month. Thathaastu (So Be It), said many states including New Jersey, Connecticut, Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.