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Deepak Perwani

Karachi, Pakistan

There are few Pakistanis who haven’t heard of Deepak Perwani. For 30 plus years, his luxury brand of men’s and womenswear has pushed fashion frontiers in the country and outside. His humanitarian work adds to the appeal. Come Diwali, celebs stream through the doors of the Perwani residence in Karachi — where Deepak lives with his mother and brother — in plain evidence of the immense store of goodwill and sheer chutzpah he has generated over the years.

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Renu Parwani, Cheena Chappra and Deepak Parwani during a Diwali celebration

It’s not a boast when the fashion designer says rather matter-of-factly that “we host the biggest Diwali party of the year, and the biggest Holi party of the year”.

“They were smaller earlier,” says Deepak, referring to when he first started hosting 15 years ago. “And grew as I grew. Now we have around 500-600 people … dinner, patakhas (firecrackers), kids, families …the works!”

His mother Renu, who has her own clothing line — Renus, adds: “Diwali means a lot to us. It’s our new year festival of lights where we spend time meeting family and friends, lighting up diyas (lamps) all over the place; we do a puja (prayer) at home, burst lots of fireworks and cook vegetarian delicacies. We make homemade sweets and wear new attire for the evening and decorate our home with a Rangoli (decorative patterns).”

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Deepak's home in Pakistan decorated for Diwali

The Perwanis are Sindhi Hindus from Mirpur Khas, a predominantly Hindu city around three hours from Karachi. The family has been in politics since pre-partition times, with many in the family continuing to serve in public office. “But I turned out to be an actor and a fashion designer,” says Deepak.

Diwali coincides with the wedding season in Pakistan, keeping Deepak and his team extra busy. Deepak Perwani is the brand of choice at most high-profile weddings in Pakistan, its design ethos being ethnic Pakistani with a modern global appeal. “The wedding season is right around the corner,” Deepak says. “So, we’re busy with that. A lot of Diwali orders also come through. And everyone does have a sari at the end of the day.”

For the Perwanis, Diwali is a three-day affair, with visits to the family on the first day followed by the dinner bash on the second. “The second day the house is lit up like a palace and the patakhas are on until like 4 or 5 am. You’ve got to have something for the kids,” says Deepak with traces of boyish enthusiasm.

The menu is vegetarian with Deepak’s mother Renu ensuring a spread of delicious Sindhi dishes. “It’s the only time in the whole year that we have vegetarian food — both at Holi and Diwali,” says Deepak. “It’s a novelty for countries like Pakistan where we tend to eat a lot of meat … so everyone is very happy that they are being served vegetarian, because they don’t get to eat that kind of vegetarian at home, and they get very excited about that.”

Karachi is also famous for the massive Shree Swaminarayan Temple complex. The venue becomes the cynosure of attention during Diwali with elaborate decorations and lights and tableaus being presented every year to depict the Ram-Sita legend.

Deepak also has fond memories of the family’s Diwali celebrations in Mirpur Khas. “Back in the day when we were kids, we used to go back to Mirpur Khas to celebrate Diwali; I remember we used to play cards.” He recalls prayer ceremonies to bless new account books and his grandfather marking it with Hindu symbols, before opening it.

“Now we do the Laxmi Puja. A lot of our Muslim friends also attend the Puja with us … everyone is pretty open. We have a tradition in the house where everyone coming in is welcomed with a teeka (mark on the forehead). The men get teekas and the women get bindis also,” says Deepak.

“We have lived here our entire lives, and all our celebrations are multi-cultural. And it’s not just people of different communities coming together, but foreigners as well. Festivals are for people to come together and celebrate regardless of their caste and religions.”

Shama and Sanjay Goel

Finland & Singapore

Life has taken Shama and Sanjay Goel from India to Singapore, on to Finland and now back to Singapore. As Punjabis abroad, the couple celebrate Diwali as every true-blue Hindu! They may not be very hung up on rituals, but they try to keep the festivities as authentic as possible.

It’s a breeze in Singapore — ‘as good as India’ — but when they moved to Finland, Diwalis were a little surreal — diyas, candles and lights inside, while snow and rain fell steadily in the daytime darkness outside.

‘Honestly the mis-match probably added to the beauty of it,’ says Shama from her home in Singapore. ‘It was certainly Diwali with a twist.’

Shama and Sanjay Goel
Shama and Sanjay Goel Image Credit: Supplied

The couple trace their roots to Punjab, India. While Sanjay works in telecom and networking and is busy as the proverbial bee, it’s been up to Shama to manage the home front. They have a son, now 28, who lives in the US.

Shama is a follower of Sikkhism. During her Puja (prayer ceremony) in the evening on Diwali, she makes it a point to keep her Guru’s statue alongside those of Hindu deities.

‘Sanjay and I believe in God and the universality of it. In my mind, whoever and whatever a person’s belief, let everybody get a good vibe on Diwali let everybody be happy.’

Shama’s practical, easygoing nature must certainly be an asset in her life abroad. The palpable excitement as Diwali season sets in is not so much an occasion to buy new clothes and jewellery, as it is to have friends over and celebrate with them. ‘Weekends begin to get blocked,’ says Shama. ‘I have already held a Diwali party and will be hosting a lunch on Choti (small) Diwali.’

Shama and friends celebrating Diwali in Finland
Shama and friends celebrating Diwali in Finland Image Credit: Supplied

In Helsinki, Sanjay and Shama loved having their Finnish friends join. Some would have heard about the festival, without knowing very many details.

‘We loved sharing and explaining things to them,’ says Shama. ‘They were really intrigued. We would light diyas, that was novel for them. I would make Indian food and they would relish that. And the best part is I saw them enjoying… they didn’t have to say it, but I feel one’s actions and reactions speak a lot.’

Although the Indian community is not as big in Finland as in countries such as Singapore and the UAE, it is nonetheless growing. The result is more Indian stores, with more Indian products and festive fare on special occasions. The Indian Embassy there also hosts a Diwali fest. On the other hand, in Singapore, everything is available in plenty at Little India, which teems with Indian shops and restaurants.

Ask Shama whether she misses anything from celebrations back home, and she rather poignantly mentions: ‘The only thing I really miss is both my parents not being around anymore. Both are no more. I have memories of those times, when our parents would get us these small toys made of mud, how we would sit and make Rangolis … my father taking us to the Diwali mela, sitting on the merry-go-round; Dad would buy us a big box of firecrackers and for hours together we would be burning crackers. At that time there was neither the exposure nor awareness about pollution and the harmful effects of burning crackers.

Those are the little pleasures I miss a lot.’

Deepa Dayalan & Sudhir Sreedharan

San Ramon, California, USA

Every year on Dhanteras, which marks the first day of the five days of Diwali, Deepa Dayalan makes a dash for the grocery in San Ramon, California, to buy a broom! ‘They are always sold out by the time I get there,’ she says, mirth in her eyes and tone. ‘I have yet to find one in all my 25 years here in the US.’

It’s a quaint Diwali custom believed to bring good luck. While buying gold and silver on Dhanteras is more well-known, those celebrating Diwali and the special days leading up to it, also buy brooms to sweep away all negativity from their homes. A thoroughly clean house, lit up with diyas (lamps), candles and decorative lights, now awaits the arrival of the diety of prosperity.

Deepa, Mohit and Rohit
Deepa, Mohit and Rohit Image Credit: Supplied

Deepa and her family — husband Sudhir Sreedharan and sons Rohit and Mohit — are from Kerala, a sliver of a state in India that nonetheless makes a delightful appearance in the story of Diwali. Legend has it that after defeating Raavan, the demon king of Lanka, Hindu deity Ram rescues his wife Sita and together they return to India, setting foot first in Kerala.

The day is marked as Choti Diwali (small Diwali) for the rest of India. However, for Keralites it’s the main day. ‘As a child I remember waking up early to bathe and then go to the temple for prayers. Diwali done!’ says Deepa, who dabbles in social media

Deepa and Sudhir
Deepa and Sudhir Image Credit: Supplied

For North Indians, however, the festival is just beginning. As Ram and Sita returned to their kingdom of Ayodhya after 14 years of exile, they were welcomed by overjoyed people, who lit up their homes with lamps. After years of darkness, light had returned to Ayodhya.

‘This is what I had always known as Diwali,’ says Deepa. ‘But when I came here, I realized that for North Indians, it was also a day to hold a Puja (prayer ceremony).’

For Deepa and her family, Diwali celebrations grew almost organically over the years, so much so that it’s now their favourite festival. ‘The first year I moved to the US, we lived in an apartment. There were a lot of North Indians, and I enjoyed the lights they put up in their balconies. But I didn’t do anything that first year,’ Deepa recalls.

A year later, the lamps and lights came out. ‘We would put up lights for Christmas anyway,’ she says. ‘We just started putting them up earlier starting with Diwali, going on to Halloween, Thanksgiving and then Christmas and New Year.’

Still later came the focus on the cuisine.

‘I still recall that it was around 2007-08 that I first started making special food for Diwali — all North Indian dishes and sweets. In time, my boys would start asking me to make their favourite North Indian food and help plan the menu. I also began decorating my house, thinking of what to do, the flowers to buy, where and how to place them.’

Deepa feels her efforts are wasted on the family. Not so, says her husband, who concedes that the ‘awesome job’ she does to decorate the house makes the festival more enjoyable and special for them.

A software engineer, Sudhir was born and brought up in New Delhi. As such he is used to massive Diwali celebrations. Yet, the festivities in the US seem bigger. ‘In my childhood in Delhi we would celebrate a lot, but it was more on just those days,’ says Sudhir. ‘Back in Kerala it was very little; but now here in the US there is a whole lot of stuff happening, spanning multiple weeks.’

For Mohit and Rohit, the food that Mom makes is the focus.

The family’s celebrations find a reflection in the city. San Ramon and neighbouring cities have ramped up their celebrations over the years acknowledging the rising Indian population. Diwali fairs are held in parks and banquet halls. ‘I love dressing up and visiting all of them,’ says Deepa. Besides music and dance, the fairs have food stalls and pop-up stores selling clothes and jewellery and much besides.

Shopping malls and department stores deck up with diyas and lights to offer special Diwali discounts on products that include sarees and salwar kameez sets. Deepa’s American neighbours wish the Indians, and schools call in Indian parents to speak to students about the festival.

The Jobanputras

Nairobi, Kenya

Jiya, 13, and Shay Jobanputra, 10, love Diwali for all the same reasons most children in India do. They look forward to seeing their home light up with diyas (lamps) and candles; they enjoy creating Rangolis (decorative patterns) out on their doorstep and watching fireworks flare into the night sky and they know they can expect a month-long binge on sweets.

Jobanputra Family (1)__
The Jobanputra Family Image Credit: Supplied

It mightn’t have struck them yet, but every passing year is a reinforcement of festive customs and traditions that help fuse Indian culture into their largely Kenyan identity.

Their parents Keyur and Rakhee are fourth generation Indians from Gujarat, and Kenyans by birth, who realise that it’s up to them to pass on their ancestral heritage to the next generation. They feel more than equal to the task, buoyed and bolstered by their large family of parents, uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins who number a minimum of 50 when put together.

Keyur works in his 35-year-old family-owned travel and tour operating company while Rakhee, an ex-banker, works in the finance division of a supermarket chain. The family live in Parklands, a residential-cum-commercial neighbourhood in the Kenyan capital, characterized by a mix of cultures with a dominant Asian slant, with urban amenities such as malls, restaurants and cinemas.

‘Diwali and Navaratri are very well-celebrated in Nairobi,’ says Keyur. ‘We have a huge Indian community here. In fact, we Asians were just recognized as the 44th tribe of Kenya!’ The pride is unmistakable as through nuance and tone, glimpses of their well-settled happy lives in East Africa find expression.

The force for unity that festivals can be, not just within families and communities but also in drawing those unfamiliar with a culture, is often overlooked, until evidence begins to surface in the form of ever-bigger celebrations with the passing of years.

‘It often seems now that the locals are more excited,’ says Keyur’s wife Rakhee, speaking with a distinct African lilt. ‘They know that the festival is huge for Indians. The grounds are lit with fireworks. I take about 2 kilos of sweets into office to distribute among my colleagues and friends. Even the government takes part in celebrations.’

‘Everyone mingles freely,’ says Keyur. ‘Within our Gujarati community itself, there are many sub-communities, many of whom have their own temples and social spaces. But there are no restrictions on anyone entering another temple.’

Rakhee and Keyur are a repository of knowledge when it comes to elaborating on the Hindu festive season that begins with Navaratri — a 9-day festival — and culminates in Diwali and the Gujarati New Year a day later. The ease of buying everything necessary to commemorate the festival — from diyas to Indian spices and ingredients for the festive snacks and dishes to Indian traditional wear — keeps everything authentically traditional.

‘We get everything, even if it’s at a bit of premium,’ says Keyur.

‘A diya that you get for Rs10 in India might cost Rs200 here,’ his wife adds. ‘But once you come here, you will feel this is India.’As in most homes, Diwali dawns bright and early with prayers followed by a massive breakfast. ‘Everything is brought out. It’s an endless list of things. Back in the day, not now, everything used to be home-made, and hand made. Now only certain specialty items are made at home,’ says Keyur rather ruefully.

He explains that all Gujarati families participate in the ‘Chopda Pujan’ on Diwali day — Chopda referring to the account books and pujan refering to the prayers. ‘Everyone brings a blank book of accounts. It’s the beginning of the new year, so when you do this Puja, commercially your year goes well,’ he explains. The prayers are not just for year-round prosperity, but more significantly, as Keyur explains, a reminder that money is to be made ethically.

‘As we are taught by our ancestors: ‘The money you earn by your sweat is sweeter’,’ Rakhee adds.

The rest of the day is a jamboree of family lunches and dinners that often move into social halls where the entire community shows up. These bonds forged with family and friends are possibly the intangible gifts that Keyur, Rakhee, Jiya and Shay value the most. As Jiya says: ‘Spending time with the family. That’s always fun.’