Diwali celebrated in New York and environs

Dear Editor,

Guyanese and other Hindus had a most joyous Diwali celebration in the environs of New York (upstate, Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania) over the weekend.  Celebrations were held at several locations and at mandirs.  There was peace and joy everywhere to reflect the season’s message –  good replacing evil for that occasion, short as it has been.

The interior and exterior of businesses, stores, homes and temples were well decorated with holiday paraphernalia and beautifully lit with diyas and electronic lights on Tuesday night. Even trees were well decorated.

Liberty Avenue was a spectacle to behold for the nights leading up to the celebration.  The area was teeming with shoppers over last two weekends. A planned Diwali motorcade on Liberty Avenue on Saturday was replaced with an open air concert at the Jagan square – cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy and the snowstorm making it difficult for a thinly stretched police force to provide an escort for the motorcade.  But the concert, I was told, was a huge success, attracting hundreds with GOPIO President Ashook Ramsaran, a Berbician, being the chief guest.

Overall, it was a magnificent celebration among Guyanese and other nationalities. Around New York, politicians issued Diwali messages to celebrants.  The governors of several states also issued messages extolling the virtues of Diwali and the hard work of Hindus to help build their states, and for the ethnic mosaic that now defines their communities throughout America. Some politicians even hosted Diwali dinners and or attended celebrations. President Barack Obama also issued a Diwali message and will host his celebration this week (as he has done every year since becoming president) before leaving for Asia for the APEC summit in Cambodia.
I was in Trinidad as well as in Tobago over the extended weekend from Friday (Monday being a national holiday for government workers across America) to take in the Diwali celebration. It was wonderful to find that persons of all backgrounds, as is common in Guyana, throughout the two islands celebrated Diwali, although the celebration is far more extravagant in Trinidad than it is anywhere else except in India.

The beautiful Diwali celebrations in Guyana pale in comparison to those in Trinidad.  The Trini politicians, of all ethnic stripes are not bashful about identifying with the celebration and went all out to celebrate and spend time with their constituents.  Muslim and Christian MPs and Ministers also hosted celebrations in their offices. Every political party hosted celebrations.  State offices, the President and the Prime Minister hosted Diwali celebrations and lit up their homes. The Prime Minister hosted celebrations at her official residence, in addition to her private residence, where she gave out grants to celebrate Diwali.

The government allocated several million dollars for the celebrations and gave TT$5K to each mandir and community organization to host its celebration.  Businesses sponsored community celebrations. All the elected politicians (39 of them) hosted celebrations in their constituencies in Trinidad.  Even in Tobago, where there are few Hindus, there was a celebration near Crowne point in the West constituency.  The PM hosted an extravagant constituency in her Siparia constituency. Jack Warner hosted a lavish celebration, perhaps the largest in the country, in his constituency complete with fireworks.

All of the celebrations provided meals or snacks to attendees. There was unbridled enthusiasm at the sites of celebrations throughout Trinidad and at the Diwali Nagar.  At several celebrations I met Guyanese who are now settled in Trinidad as their home.  In Tobago, I also met Guyanese who work there and who attended Diwali celebrations on Sunday night. At the Nagar, I met several Guyanese who had come to partake in cultural activities and others as tourists to take in the beauty of the spectacle (that lasts some 10 nights).  There were the loud bursts of firecrackers as well as fireworks that lit up the night sky.

Mandirs and Hindu organizations hosted celebrations as well attracting huge gatherings across Trinidad where so many Guyanese had come to take part.

The opposition PNM staged a magnificent celebration in St James with the Opposition Leader as chief guest.  Workplaces (private businesses) across Trinidad were the scene of celebrations and intense revelry, lit diyas, and electronic lights.  Homes, businesses, streets, neighbourhoods, parks, and government offices were spectacularly decorated.  This was unimaginable (state sponsorship of Diwali celebration and politicians of all faiths partaking in the festivities and even lighting diyas) just a decade ago, and it shows how far the Diwali celebration has been accepted and recognized by the state in so many countries and in so many states across America.

When I came to New York as a student in 1977, Diwali was not even a blip on the calendar of celebrations and was observed by small groups  and at CCMNY, where I organized celebrations with colleagues.  Today, it is becoming a mainstream celebration involving people of so many different backgrounds, including non-Hindus and non-Indians. Someone describes it now as a palpable import into the lives of more than two million Hindu Americans.

It is becoming a part of the mainstream with so many national media focusing on it and so many Americans assimilating to it, just like non-Indians in Guyana or in Trinidad and elsewhere.  The expansion of Diwali celebrations in America must be credited to the Indian (mostly from India) organizations that lobbied politicians to recognize the significance of the festival.

There are over two million Hindus (among the over three million Indians or South Asians, including Indo-Caribbeans) in the US and many, like me, contribute to political campaigns. We lobby politicians and they are more than eager to assist those who make offerings to their campaigns. Politicians don’t want to be on the wrong side of influential activists and so they host celebrations like Diwali for all ethnic groups. Incidentally, a Hindu was elected to the House of Representatives last Tuesday from Hawaii, and she received overwhelming support from Hindus across America.

In New York, many of us (the Indo-Caribbean Federation, Pandits Ramlall, Satish, Upadhyaya, Sukhul, Kali, etc and community advocates like myself, Vishnu Mahadeo, etc) lobbied for the recognition of Diwali and we succeeded in getting the City Council to suspend parking  and the Education Department to excuse students from school on that day. Altogether it was great to see so many people of diverse backgrounds coming together to celebrate a festival that has the significant message of the triumph of good over evil.  And it is heartening to learn that Guyanese have played a role in spreading the message behind the celebration as well as helping to organize festivities in so many locations.

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram

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