Photo: Pashminu Mansukhani

Light of my life: A Diwali memoir of family, food and fireworks

Symbolising the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil, Diwali – or Deepavali, as it’s known in the south of India – will always hold a special place in Renu Sikka’s heart.

Deepavali is one of those festive occasions when you feel the warm, enclosing presence of your elders – it’s like your entire culture and heritage is there with you. Protecting you, making you who you are in so many ways.

My cousins, Dada, Dadi and parents all gather to spend the evening together. We’re all in our best clothes and moods… so are our houses, which look beautiful after dusk. One of my favourite memories is sitting on the floor with my little brother and sisters as I tried to create a colourful rangoli pattern. I take a pinch of colour between my fingers and make a smaller design next to my sister’s. My circles, lines and figures come out all shaky and so does my colouring. As much as I try my best to colour inside the borders of white lines, it all goes out of those lines and looks messy. To my surprise, everyone recognises it as mine and looks proud.

We children fill our hand-painted diyas with oil and go outside with my mum and light them all around the house. The soft flickering on the faces, lit by the moving light of the diya – that’s the special picture that will stay with me forever. 

Lighting diyas for Diwali (Photo: MITA Chatterjee Maitra from Pixabay

Festival of Lights, Diwali, or Deepavali, as I know it, is by far the coolest Indian festival. As the festival of lights, it symbolises the victory of good over evil. As a celebration, it is a happy mix of good food, lights, parties, family, friends and firecrackers. Whenever we received calendars for the new year, my sister and I would flip back to the end of the calendar to figure out the date for Diwali. This auspicious festival is based on a lunar calendar and hence the date varies each year. We would start planning about two months prior to the actual festival. It would start with me pestering my dad to take me shopping for the firecrackers (crackers/patake, as we called them). 

My dad would tell us his budget as we headed out. We would set out on his scooter with my brother and I sharing the pillion seat. We would have already planned out our purchase but the prices would have invariably gone up and after some more pestering, my dad would relent and buy us some more crackers. Once we returned home, we would spread out a plastic sheet and divide up the fireworks between us siblings. 

As Diwali neared, my mother would embark on a “Diwali cleaning” spree. Aromas of sweet and savoury snacks would fill the air as she made sweet laddus, chakkulis, gujias, gulab jamuns, ras malai (see recipe below) and so on.

The sense of anticipation would build up each day and conversations with friends and family would revolve around plans for the big day. We would keep our fingers crossed and hope that the rain gods would cooperate. There is nothing more crushing to a young child’s soul than a damp Diwali.

Indian sweets for Diwali, including laddus (back left), gulab jamuns (back right), chakkulis (front centre) and gujias (front right) (Photo: Veerendra Tikhe from Pixabay)

At night, we would place oil lamps (diyas) on window sills and the wall of our balcony. We would start lighting the flower pots and sparklers. As a ritual, my mother would call out to interrupt our celebrations and hand me plates filled with goodies, covered with a doily, to be distributed to all the houses in the neighbourhood. The recipients would sometimes quickly reciprocate the contents with their own sweets or send them later. At around 9.30pm, we would gather all the pieces of wood as well and light a large bonfire. The whole family would sit around the bonfire.

The evening was glittering gold with the brilliance of bright light glowing out of the ghee and oil lamp that was lit up to awaken the goddess Lakshmi and welcome her into our home as our sacred guest for the evening. To add to this glitter were the tiny lights that hung down like a curtain of light all over our apartment. There was light everywhere, as firecrackers began to spring up into the night sky and shimmered the darkness away. Goddess Lakshmi had arrived in all her finery, in her brilliance bringing the light of a thousand suns now expressed in colourful firecrackers, diyas, candles and strings of lights hanging down our walls.

I haven’t been home for Diwali for 16 years now and one of my regrets is that my children haven’t experienced Diwali in India.

The country and city of sails we live in now celebrates Diwali in a pretty grand fashion – the city is transformed into a colourful bonanza! Energetic dance performances, bright lights everywhere, delicious Indian delicacies culminating in an incredible fireworks display delights festival goers of all ethnicities. It is one of the highlights of Auckland’s major events calendar, and one of New Zealand’s largest cultural festivals.

The fire of Diwali burns brightly in my heart and that’s enough for me now. Happy Diwali!

RAS MALAI

Ras malai is a festive Bengali dessert that’s like a rich cheesecake without a crust. 

Celebrate Diwali with ras malai (Photo: Getty Images)

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  • 10 rasgullas (these dumpling-like sweets, made from chhena or cheese curds, are available in cans from Indian food stores)
  • ½ litre (500ml) of milk
  • 395g can of sweetened condensed milk
  • a pinch of saffron
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • a few drops of yellow food colouring
  • ¼ cup finely chopped cashew nuts
  • a few chopped pistachios to garnish

Squeeze the liquid from the rasgullas and set aside.

Put the milk and condensed milk in a saucepan and bring it to the boil, then boil for 10 minutes. Add the rasgullas and saffron and mix it all well. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the yellow food colouring and cardamom and mix well.

Remove from the heat and chill in the fridge until it is nice and cold, then garnish with pistachios and serve cold.

This year, Diwali falls on 27 October. The Auckland Diwali Festival is on this weekend, 12-13 October, in Aotea Square


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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