Left: making murukku (Photo by Abhi Chinniah; design Tina Tiller); right: a kōlam (Photo: Getty Images)
Left: making murukku (Photo by Abhi Chinniah; design Tina Tiller); right: a kōlam (Photo: Getty Images)

FoodNovember 3, 2021

A Deepavali celebration in locked down Auckland

Left: making murukku (Photo by Abhi Chinniah; design Tina Tiller); right: a kōlam (Photo: Getty Images)
Left: making murukku (Photo by Abhi Chinniah; design Tina Tiller); right: a kōlam (Photo: Getty Images)

Due to the lockdown there will be no Diwali / Deepavali festival in Auckland this week, but in homes across the country, celebrations will go on – even if those celebrating are far from the people they love, writes Abhi Chinniah.

The festival of lights. You likely know it as Diwali, but in my Sri Lankan Tamil Malaysian family, we call it Deepavali. One of the most auspicious dates on our Hindu calendar, Deepavali was an opportunity to bring the wider family together. Our home was in Kuantan, the largest city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. Every year we would have an open house where a mass invite was sent out to neighbours, friends and family. Come one, come all, enjoy the food, it’s all home cooked! Tuck into my Amma’s spicy fish cutlets, lamb biryani and eggplant raita. Only the best at the Chinniah household. Everyone was invited to our home to be part of the celebrations.

And people would come, in droves. There would be a stream of aunties, uncles, cousins, cousins-of-cousins, friends, friends-of-friends. We’d laugh, eat, and then eat some more. Our home would be filled with colourful sarees, smells and music. We’d have guests from different cultural backgrounds arrive in traditional Indian garb, on a day when race politics could be mostly forgotten to make a point of celebration and unity. It was always a fantastic day, and a time I took for granted, with the false belief that there would be endless special occasions to give rise to what was at the centre of Malaysian society: large group gatherings.

Mum preparing food for the Deepavali feast (Photo: supplied)

I was born in Christchurch, where we lived until the late 90s. We moved back to Malaysia, and in 2010, at age 18, I returned to Aotearoa to attend university. Three years quickly turned into a decade. Home was only 8,891km away; it would be relatively easy to catch a flight back. Not having my parents steer me into cultural occasions meant I didn’t celebrate Deepavali during this time. I always wanted to but I didn’t know how – it didn’t feel the same without my family. I was aware of Deepavali events around Tāmaki Makaurau but paid them little attention. What was always a family-focused time of year was an empty shell without them. I’d promise to return for Deepavali every year, but something would always get in the way: lack of annual leave, a new job. Things that, in retrospect, meant nothing.

The next year, then the year after that, and then finally, a pandemic.

‘’Remember when I had children?’’ Amma said during one of our frequent calls. ‘’Will this ever end?’’ I don’t know, Amma, I hope it ends soon. I’ve forgotten what you smell like, and I miss your food. You’re getting older, and I am not there to see it. I want to touch you, hug you and kiss you. Please tell me everything is going to be OK.

It was equal parts sweet and heartbreaking when my parents told me they had printed images of me and my sister, stuck them on their bedroom wall, and would speak to “us” before bedtime. Photos used as a calming presence, a reminder that we are still there, in their lives.

What felt doable at the start of 2020 now feels impossible. Meanwhile, my family inches closer to a day that was once filled with celebration, hope, happiness and togetherness, but is now a shadow of what it once was. It’s now a reminder of what we are missing.

But time does not stop. In the absence of family, community has become a lifeline. Before our current lockdown, I was invited to an open house – my first open house experience in Aotearoa. It was as if I was suddenly transported back to east coast Malaysia. There was family, chatter and glorious food! We ate the best chicken curry, barbecued pork, fried noodles, curry puffs and tasty Malaysian sweets. I got to experience and remember that melting pot of cultures I come from and see almost-whole families together under one roof. It was beautiful.

My friend drawing a kōlam (Photos: Abhi Chinniah)

I often think about what Deepavali means to me. As I’ve gotten older I have realised the importance of celebrating my heritage and culture. Last year, I photographed an artist friend making savoury, divine murukku, a crunchy snack eaten at this time of year. She came to my home and drew a kōlam on my floor. The rice powder fell from her hands creating a beautiful work of art – a symbol of auspiciousness and divinity. As she drew, we talked about how much we missed our families; hers too is overseas and inaccessible to her. Coming together and sharing our cultural heritage brought a familiar feeling of nostalgia and joy. I don’t have all my immediate family, but I have people to share this day with.

So, this year, I’ll put on my best kurta and attempt my mother’s fish cutlets. I’ll tuck into the freshly made murukku I got from a lady out in Avondale. I’ll make biryani and light the baby diya that I bought off Trade Me. I’ll share these moments with my bubble: we’ll have music, a kōlam, food, and then more food. Most of all, we’ll be grateful we have each other. I’ll photograph all of it, video chat with my parents, and celebrate this culture I am so proud to be part of.

I’ll create my own traditions here in Aotearoa.

Happy Deepavali.

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