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Diwali in US: Indian students are bringing together American peers to make Diwali their own

BySumanti Sen
Nov 12, 2023 09:00 AM IST

For Indian students in the US, celebrating Diwali means staying rooted to their traditions, and their celebrations are helping Americans embrace other cultures

Halloween celebrations in the United States are closely followed by Diwali festivities. The scale of Diwali celebrations in America has increased over the years, with the festival of lights being celebrated in popular spots like California's Disneyland and New York’s Times Square. Even the White House has been celebrating Diwali.

The scale of Diwali celebrations in America has increased over the years, with the festival of lights being celebrated in popular spots like California's Disneyland and New York’s Times Square (Pixabay)

Diwali will now also be a school holiday in New York, mayor Eric Adams announced in June. He said he would be a proud part of the legislation that makes Diwali a holiday in schools.

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For Indian students in the US, celebrating Diwali means staying rooted to their culture, and these students’ attempt to stay connected to their roots, in turn, has started to bring together Americans, and people of other countries living in America, to embrace other cultures. Indian students form their own little communities and groups to keep the festivities alive, and their groups often comprise Americans.

Kajari Saha, 28, who studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said she believes that in some parts of the country, Halloween celebrations may make Diwali appear dimmer. “But that, I think, is normal to expect when coming to live in a different country,” Kajari told Hindustan Times. “Halloween was a fun experience. I was also fortunate enough to have friends from India living here with me, who I could celebrate Diwali with.”

“I have celebrated Diwali with my friends every year after having moved here two years back. It’s more about feeling a sense of homeliness for me. There is a significant presence of Indian immigrants in America, so I think it’s becoming increasingly more commonplace. It’s mostly celebrated among Indian communities living in different pockets of the country, but over the years, Americans have been joining in. The cultural transmission is delightful,” she added.

"Celebrating Diwali is more about feeling a sense of homeliness for me," said Kajari Saha

“As per my observation, Diwali celebrations are low key here in the US, and possibly more tuned to the idea of a party and not really a festival. But it works for me, as long as I have friends to celebrate with,” she said. “I have celebrated Diwali with my American friends, as well as friends from other nationalities. They really enjoyed the food and the atmosphere.”

A cultural transmission

Diwali is just around the corner, and various neighbourhoods and college campuses have already begun their decorations – complete with lamps, lights and rituals. During Diwali, a key point of convergence are Hindu temples.

For Americans, Diwali is a festival that brings people together – they wouldn’t necessarily look at it through the lenses of religiousness, as Indians would. “I learned about the festival when I was a college freshman. We had a celebration with food,” Elizabeth Fraysse, a student of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said. “I really like the spirit of the holiday and the food is amazing. “

“I really like the spirit of Diwali holidays," said Elizabeth Fraysse

“Back in 2022, I remember being part of a half-Thanksgiving, half-Diwali celebration,” said 27-year-old Jack Schmidt, also a student of Purdue University. “I love the food and the kinship. Everybody feels like family during Diwali. We celebrate with friends – not a lot of ceremonies but lots of delicious food.”

There are at least about 100,000 Indian students from India in various universities in America, with many of them enrolled in American universities. Diwali celebrations in Duke, Princeton, Howard, Rutgers and various other university campuses is not just a way to help them stay connected with their tradition, but also to ensure that American students know more about other cultures.

‘Generally, Americans are open to participating in Diwali celebrations’

“As an Indian student living in the US, celebrating Diwali is a way to stay connected to my culture and heritage,” Dipesh Tamboli, a Purdue University student, said. “It not only allows me to connect with my roots but also serves as a bridge to share our culture with friends and the local community. It's a reminder of the values, customs, and the sense of unity that Diwali represents.”

“Diwali is celebrated in the US with a mix of traditional Indian customs and local culture, and its observance varies depending on the size of the Indian community in the area. In larger cities with significant Indian populations, Indians form communities and host public Diwali events that are open to everyone, often involving Americans and people from diverse backgrounds. In smaller towns with fewer Indians, like West Lafayette near Purdue University, the celebrations are more community-focused (although many non-Indians are present in Purdue organised events) but still welcoming to non-Indians. Generally, Americans are open to participating in Diwali celebrations and learning about Indian culture, promoting cultural exchange and understanding,” he added.

Does Halloween overshadow Diwali?

Dipesh went on to explain that he thinks while Halloween is huge in the US, it does not necessarily overshadow Diwali. However, the extent of the impact it has varies from location to location.

"Diwali serves as a bridge to share our culture with friends and the local community," said Dipesh Tamboli

“In cities like Boston, where there is a significant Indian student population, Diwali can be a highly visible and vibrant celebration. The enthusiastic Indian community, especially those studying in numerous universities in the area, ensures that Diwali festivities are a prominent part of the cultural landscape. It's not uncommon to witness grand Diwali events, cultural performances, and festive decorations throughout the city. So as per my observation, in Boston, the two celebrations coexist, with each having its own place,” he said.

Dipesh added, “On the other hand, in places like Purdue University in West Lafayette, where the Indian community is smaller and the city is more university-centric, Halloween tends to be a bigger and more widely celebrated event. Diwali celebrations in West Lafayette are often limited to student groups organising Purdue-wide activities or friends gathering to celebrate in a more intimate setting. The smaller community size and the predominance of Halloween festivities in the area may make Halloween more noticeable, but it doesn't necessarily overshadow the significance of Diwali for those who celebrate it.”

Deepesh’s friend, Koustuv Saha, also from Purdue University, reflected on the topic, saying, “I don’t think that Halloween celebrations overshadow Diwali that much at least on campus. Diwali is big. My North American/European friends join the celebrations. We usually have a potluck at my place.”

"I don’t think that Halloween celebrations overshadow Diwali," said Koustuv Saha

How different is Diwali in the US?

Dipesh said that while Diwali involves huge family gatherings, large-scale fireworks and religious ceremonies in India, celebrations in the US are “more intimate and community-focused, involving Indian students and their local friends.”

“While the core traditions of lighting diyas, wearing traditional attire, and sharing meals remain, the scale and public visibility of celebrations can be smaller. Fireworks are limited due to regulations, and the emphasis is on maintaining cultural connections while adapting to the local environment,” he said.

“In the US, our Diwali celebrations typically involve several key elements. First, we clean and decorate our homes, creating intricate rangoli designs to welcome prosperity and good fortune. We often bring friends and classmates together, including our PhD labmates and other classmates, to celebrate. We enjoy a feast with homemade traditional Indian dishes and sweets. We also make it a point to wear Indian ethnic clothes like kurtas, adding to the festive atmosphere,” he continued.

“The focus is more on coming together, sharing the spirit of Diwali, and maintaining our cultural traditions while adapting to our new surroundings,” Dipesh added added.

Reflecting on the same, Anukta Datta, 28, from the University of California, Santa Barbara said, “The big difference is that in the US, we do not burst crackers which are otherwise ubiquitous in India during Diwali. It’s mostly people getting together, decorating the space with lights and enjoying a hearty feast amidst friendly banter.”

"In the US, Diwali is mostly about people getting together, decorating the space with lights and enjoying a hearty feast amidst friendly banter," said Anukta Datta

Diwali will be observed on November 12 this year. As the festival knocks at the doors, Indian students in the US light up their campuses to feel at home – after all, in faraway lands, togetherness, inclusion and embracing each other’s cultures and traditions are what matter the most.

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