Bright Beginnings 

Finding the Light in Darkness: Diwali during Covid-19

Houstonians reflect on celebrating the Indian Festival of Lights amid the pandemic.

By Aarohi Sheth November 10, 2020

During Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, lit diyas, or oil lamps, are lined up along houses, dispelling any darkness. The air is full of hope as folks leave the windows and doors of their homes open so that Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, can come into their homes and bless them. Sidewalks are adorned with rangoli, intricate designs made from bold colored chalks, sands, and flower petals. 

Diwali, also called Deepavali, is a millennia-old five-day festival (this year November 12–16, with the main celebration on Saturday, November 14) symbolizing light overpowering darkness, the victory of good over evil and new, bright beginnings. A typical Diwali celebration involves a trip to temple for prayer, lit diyas and candles put around the house, inviting over family and friends, friends of friends, neighbors to eat methai, or Indian sweets, and light sparklers or fireworks. 

However, like many other holidays during this pandemic, it’ll have to be a little different. While some Houston-area organizations and temples have chosen to keep their celebrations in-person, albeit smaller and reservation-only in some cases, others have opted for socially distanced festivities. Arya Samaj Greater Houston is hosting a drive-thru celebration, and Shri Sita Ram Foundation, which hosts one of the region’s largest Diwali festivals, Diwali Dussehra Festival, has moved the event to virtual this year. Local restaurants have planned prix fixe in-person and takeout meals and other special mithai snacks to mark the festival. 

Still, Houstonians are preparing for a holiday unlike any other. 

While Gauri Seth, a real estate professional originally from New Delhi, fondly recalls the celebration she had for Diwali last year, she reasons that celebrating to the same degree won’t be possible this year because of Covid.

“Last year, we celebrated with much pomp and show and had such a grand party,” Seth says. “Now, because of Covid times, everybody is so scared, and so we’re going to have a very small family affair. We can’t do much, we have to stay safe.”

In contrast, this year Seth and her family will continue with traditions, but have a much smaller, intimate gathering. But she can’t help remembering the feelings of home that celebrating Diwali brought to her when she first moved here from India in 1992. 

“We didn’t know people around [Houston],” Seth said. “There weren’t many Indians living in Houston when we first came, so [my husband and I] celebrated among ourselves, but now there are so many Indians that have moved here, so it feels good to celebrate the festival that we’ve been doing back in our country.”

Similarly, Diwali has played an important role in Renu Roy’s life. Originally from India, she moved to South Africa when she was little and settled in Canada for a few years before coming to Houston with her husband. Despite all the moving around, Diwali was a constant. Each year, Roy would help clean her house to bring in good luck and fortune and watch her mom make homemade Indian sweets. 

She knew the value of Diwali was something she wanted to instill in her kids as well. Ethan Roy, one of Roy’s sons, has the same passion and excitement about Diwali that she does and is ready to celebrate no matter how different it might be this year.

“For me, Diwali has always been about wishing your family well and hoping for a good year and like any situation, that meaning stays the same, no matter what’s going on,” Ethan Roy says.

Usually, the Roy family has a party for Diwali. They invite around 35 members of both their immediate and extended family. They light candles and diyas all over the house and then go to the backyard for a huge dinner. This year, they still plan on having an outdoor dinner, but just with immediate family. 

“We can't make [our celebration] a large thing. We can't do it as grandiose as we normally would, but it's been such an integral part of our lives for so many years and we can still do something,” Renu Roy says. “To me, that is what’s important.”

Lawyer and Heights resident Sameera Mahendru would also put on an elaborate event for Diwali each year. First, the Mahendru family would get paper invitations shipped from India to send out to people. They’d work with a chef to create a menu, decorate with string lights and brass diyas, hire a record-holding rangoli artist to draw traditional designs around the entrance, and turn their garage into a Rajasthani-like tent. Everyone would dress up and partake in dinner and dancing. 

However, this year they’re inviting their friends and family to a drive-thru Diwali. They’ll be handing out “to go” curbside dinners from Chef Sunil’s Verandah, and the Mahendrus have hired sitar player Aaron Hermes to play his instrument during the socially distant celebration.

No matter what Indian families are doing this Diwali, it’s clear that regardless of the ever changing circumstances that the pandemic and other stressors bring, this holiday remains a reminder of love, family, and positivity that will be celebrated no matter the circumstances.

After all, who couldn’t use a little bit more light right now?

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