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Dancing with the stars

Sparklers, home-made food and centuries-old customs unite Indians living in the UAE , even if they are away from home

  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • This intricately decorated elephant makes the perfect Diwali giftImage Credit: Agencies
  • Children are expected to look like little Indian princes and princessesImage Credit: Corbis
  • Image Credit: Agencies

As you walk into this crowd you will notice the light from tiny sparklers revealing young girls in beautiful lehengas. Expect the singer Akon to sing ‘you can be my chamak challo’ as people dressed in colourful outfits jive. The warm autumn night will bring with it the aroma of hot jelebes, samosas and other sweets. Expect the occasional home-made dish to surface; sweets will be available in plenty as will be competitions such as lantern and rangoli making. If you wish to stay, you will be welcomed with a cheerful smile and a plate of mouthwatering delicaciesas Dubai ushers in the festival of lights in its typically wholehearted way.So if you are feeling homesick,just want to meet new people or forget the weighing scale for a night (Diwali is never complete without traditional Indian sweets and aloo-puri), grab a colourful outfit,your best dancing shoes and head down to your nearest park or beach.

Just like home
The celebrations are much like they are in India says Indrajeet Shinde. “I am from Kolhapur (Maharashtra), where every festival is celebrated in high spirits and by everyone. This is especially true of Diwali. I think Dubai is not very different. Most people illuminate their homes with diyas [earthern lamps] and hang lanterns. And we have good get-togethers during this period”. It’s also the best time in the year to meet old friends and make new ones. “These events are very helpful in knowing people in our community, a good way of getting to know others and a good break from ones hectic schedule,” says Gourvendra Singh. “It always important to go to such events, especially when you are away from your home country and society. This is the only way to get in touch with the customs and culture. Also, this makes you feel connected with your society and expands your social network,” explains Ashwani Kabra.

What to expect
At this time of year, Indians forget their differences and come together to celebrate the triumph of good over evil and welcome the light which will bring good fortune. Most people either go to a temple to pray or conduct their own ceremonies at home. In conventional homes, Shinde explains, the day begins with an early morning ritual bath called abhyangsnan, where a woman mixes aromatic oils with uthane (aromatic powder found in Indian stores such as Al Adil). This mixture is then put on her husbands’ face and hands and washed with about five mugs of water. “Women light diyas and decorate the entrances with rangoli and flowers.We then have a puja where the offering comprises of home-made sweets,” says Shinde. Evenings too have a puja, where people pray for wealth and knowledge. “When we pray to Lakshmi we keep money
and gold, in front of the idol, and booksduring the Saraswati puja or vahi poojan,” he adds. Much like the western New Year,during this time, resolutions are made, blessings and good wishes exchanged. After this, the evening festivities begin. When visiting people, traditional gifts include dry fruits, misri (a sweet made using crystallised sugar) and a box of methai (Indian sweets). When going for a garden party, the best way to introduce yourself is with a box of sweets. Don’t worry about taking your children along — Diwali is quite a family orieneted affair. Children are expected to look like little Indian princes and princesses and games are arranged to keep everyone entertained. Shinde giggles when reminiscing about the party he attended last year at the Dubai Creek Park. “We had arranged games for couples and children. One game for couples involved balancing balloons between them using only their heads; another made them stand on a newspaper and at intervals fold the paper to reduce the size by half and then stand on it. At one point because the paper got so small only single person could fit and husbands had to carry their wives to continue.” Although people try to retain their traditions, some find it difficult. “We miss our loved ones back in India and some of our rituals such as Bhaubij where sisters pray for brothers and we give them gifts,” says Shinde.

Another custom is playing a token hand of teen-patti (poker) with family, which is said to beckon luck and wealth. In India, each hand is accompanied by racing hearts, sweaty hands and high pitched voices. Sometimes the stakes are high enough to cause heart attacks, however for most a tiny amount is spent and all wins are given to the children of the house to do with as they please. In Dubai, the bursting of firecrackers and sparklers too take a back seat. The only sparklers burnt are the ones carefully snuck in, hidden and lit. In India, during Diwali even the most ecoconscious person will light a few oil lamps and the firecrackers will rumble through all neighbourhoods in chorus to mark the auspicious day. Smoke covers the roads, the windows and sometimes even the roofs of buildings (creating a choking hazard at times) imparting a feeling of being magically transported to a dream world.

However, even in the UAE the feeling of community is so strong that people from the neighbouring emirates come to take part in these celebrations. Shri Tamhankar, who moved to Abu Dhabi two years ago, feels that while the celebrations are very limited in the capital, Dubai’s festivities are closer to home. “Every year I bring my family to Dubai to celebrate all the important events such as Navratri and Diwali. It helps my child understand his background and gives us a chance to visit our old friends,” he says. “Going to Dubai to these get-togethers gives me a feeling of nostalgia. In India, on Diwali, one meets family, friends and neighbours. Here we do the same.” He also adds that these are not restricted to only people with invitations. “Anyone can join in, those who speak our language (we speak Marathi) and those who don’t. Should anyone express an interest, we always include them.”
In Dubai, some organisations too appreciate the importance of the festival and hold get-togethers and invite their clients, employees and anyone else who wants to join. Suman Suneja, CEO of Murano Lighting says, “Events such as the Laughing Souls Party [held on the night of Diwali] promotes harmony and happiness and help people lose their inhibitions and become more friendly and relaxed.”
Falling on October 26 this year, Diwali is the perfect time to head out in a sari or kurta(traditional outfits), with a box of sweets and a smile. For a fun-filled experience, head to your nearest park and get ready to dance the night away.

Last minute shopping spree.

Want to join a party but not sure what to wear or take?
Here’s a quick guide:
1. Lulu and Oasis Centre in Dubai have a range of authentic sweets and traditional clothes.
2. Head to Shaoob Trading in Meena Bazaar for a quick Diwali outfit.
3. Get the most charming and inspiring gifts at the Dubai Outlet Mall.
4. Haroons Textiles (02 632 8636) and Benaras Silk House (971 2 634 5604)
offer a range of saris in Abu Dhabi.
5. Visit Prince Sweets Corner in Abu Dhabi for sweets.
6. JBR and Madinat Jumeirah have stylish knick-knacks.