Happy Diwali to you, and you, and you, and you, maybe you, definitely not you, and you!
“So what’s the difference between if I park here and up the street?” I asked the neon vest wearing parking attendant.
“If you park here, it’s going to cost you $15, you’ll only have to walk from the parking lot to the festivities, and the City of Cary won’t tow your car. If you like walking, and aren’t concerned about being towed, you can park up the street.”
“Cool, let me in.”
And of course, the parking lot was nearly empty. What respectable Indian pays $15 to a free event when there is free parking two miles up the street? We are Indians, walking never hurt us, and we’ve been through much worse than catching a chappal* tan.
Not Indian-Americans though. You see, Indian Americans have lived the good life with around the clock electricity, beef hamburgers loaded with pickles, and first world social media problems; so I paid to play in order to not push my mental limits for the day.
I walked up to the gate and passed the purse check (the greatest test of all time, simply open your purse, and close it. They’d never find a concealed weapon at the bottom of a purse they only require you to open for 1.288700123 seconds). Then slowly walked towards the high pitched vocals of Lata Mangeshkar on some classic 60’s Bollywood track. The winding path towards the sounds and smells was dream-like, a classic scene out of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” hurrying through the enchanted woods, an other-worldly golden aura blurred my vision as I continued to walk. I wiped my eyes, and blinked to make sure my contacts didn’t continue to bother me.
I had stepped into a sea of Desi’s all around me, it was as though I had been teleported to Indira Gandhi International Airport, and for once nobody was looking at the fine light skinned girl who was completely out of place in the Durhamite community. Here, nobody even noticed I was fine, yet.
The vendors began to push flyers into my hands encouraging me to come to the Hindi radio stations Halloween party, and to pick up my free blue-beaded-paisley-plastic dinglehopper*.
One of the local Indian restaurants had created a buffet under a tent, “No thank you,” I thought to myself as I proceeded to see what all was around me.
Another tent had a mini-museum exhibit highlighting India’s greatest contributions to all of society including Mahatma Gandhi, and vibrantly designed textiles.
Outside, a Bharatanatyam dance troupe dancer contorted her body into a classic open swastika agrathala position, and held it for a personal photo.
A quarter of a mile of vendors bargained with frugal customers on prices for heavily embroidered lenghas, saris, and costume jewelry. I scanned to see if anything else might be for sale, and there was not; not one single book collection, doll, or anything that might attract the millennial second generation (so of course I took a personal mental note).
“Hey Buaji! Isn’t this so cool? I’ve never been to this before. This is so nice!”
“You’ve never been before? Wow. Are you here for the booth?”
“Yes, I’m trying to find it, have you seen it?”
“No, but if you find it tell your cousin I’m looking for her.”
“Okay, cool. I’ll let her know. I should probably see if I can find it soon. I only have ten more minutes before I get started.”
“Okay good, I will see you later on then.”
On stage every Indian state came out in three minute intervals to dance in their traditional dances while wearing their culturally specific clothing. In the end, all of the states combined for a finale, as a Sardar* ran across the stage holding the American flag.
“Hey, there goes the booth! They’ve got a decent view. I’ll start my shift early.”
1. Chappal – Indian footwear that is a crossbreed between a flip fop and dress shoe. Usually made of fine leather, and made to last a life time. Perfectly acceptable to wear with dress suits to weddings. This style is usually set off by un-manicured thick toe nails, and excessive cuticle damage around the entire toenail bed. You’d think no one would wear them in the winter, but it’s hard to avoid a classic, and who wants to put away their favorite shoes? So what you do is you put on socks first, then you can continue wearing them in rain, sleet, or snow. These shoes are impenetrable, and there is never an occasion or outfit they will not work with.
2. Dinglehopper - An item that at first appearance has no use but is esthetically pleasing. After some time maneuvering the item, one finds that it has an actual purpose, and can serve multiple uses (generally dealing with beauty and cosmetics). Like filling with lip gloss/eyeshadow/Kajal, hiding photos of your 6th grade crush from your overbearing Indian parents, and keeping loose change. Dinglehoppers made their first appearance in Walt Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”, and at that time, were also able to help maintain attractive hairstyles.
3. Sardar - Male Punjabi Royalty who chooses to continue wearing a turban in spite of the racism, negativity, ignorance, and hostility experienced in the US due to his outward identification as a Sikh or Punjabi.
"And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?"
“Hi, have you ever heard of Kiran before?” I quickly put down my smart phone as a quiet Indian woman wearing a yellow and green Punjabi suit, eye glasses, and short bob haircut appeared around the reading materials; looking somewhat apprehensive.
She nodded nervously and spoke in a deep Indian accent, “Yes, yes, yes, I have.”
I knew that she needed a little space so I looked out towards the festivities, and waited for the next best moment for conversation with her.
“I would like to make a donation. Can I make a donation? Has anyone made a donation today?”
“Actually, no. You would be the first person who made a donation. Everyone else is just getting mendhi done, they don’t seem very interested in Kiran at all.”
“I’m not surprised” she mouthed while rolling her eyes. An act that seemed a bit out of her character, from what I had summed up in the first few minutes. She was a real-life flesh and blood Adrian Balboa in her first appearances in Rocky (but with a chunni hanging from her neck).
“It happened in my household. That’s why I’m volunteering. Nobody talks about it in our community. It happened a lot. Nobody helped. All is forgiven now, even if it could happen again,” I offered up my truth to open up the gateways for a deeper conversation.
She looked straight in my eyes, “But it leaves scars.”
She continued, “The unfortunate thing about this community is that they think it’s better for a woman to not complain about it if it is happening. It is best for her to endure and never do anything about it. They hate you when you speak up.”
She began writing a check, and she mentioned coming back for mendhi later.
She left me stunned.
At first appearance she seemed so bookish, and unapproachable, but underneath that wall there was an animal ready to speak up and use her voice; her spirit animal was a squirrel (squirrels keep to themselves but have been known to attack). I wondered if it had happened to her, or someone she loved. It had happened. That was clear.
People walked by the booth, women silently walking up, pursing flyers, and quickly walking away. Very few stopped for conversation. Many men walked by, somewhat nervously, and almost like a question appeared on their face as they read the sign, “What do they exist for? We don’t need that.” One jovial Indian gentleman in his late 40’s walked by, “Yes, I know about Kiran, and I need a flyer” he smiled.
He has to be someone’s brother or workplace friend. He got a flyer for her.
“Hey little lady!” a southern accent boomed from behind me, and I jumped in my seat.
“Hello! I’m the local domestic violence sheriff, and I love to come over to these Kiran booths, and have a chat with you girls. You know, this is the toughest community to get through to, right up there with the Muslim community. You know these ladies can’t just walk right up to this booth in front of their husbands if it’s happening to them. I was thinking maybe you guys could put some of these flyers in the ladies bathrooms. That’s where they can really be free to get the help they need. This community right here is tough.”
“That’s a great idea. In fact, I think I’ll do that as soon as my co-volunteer arrives.”
“Sounds good. I’ll be by to check on you all a little later.”
“The bathroom thing was a great idea! I walked in and when I started sliding them between the mirrors, and the wall, I just knew somebody was going to get help. It was the best idea!” I said to my co-volunteer.
“I’m glad Harleen, if we can help just one of these women today, it’s worth the time we take.”
“You know Harleen, I think it’s very important that you talk about your life online. There are so many young girls who are going through what you went through. They won’t come to any Indian events, Diwali, nothing. Most of our youth is so turned off by our behaviors. Nobody loves them, not even their parents, and you know what is happening to them out there that their parents are clueless about. Don’t be afraid, what you have to say is very important. Just a few years ago, I knew some older ladies who started talking about a teenager, and pulled all of their daughters away from her like she had a disease. It broke my heart, but I couldn’t do anything about it, I felt stuck. I can only imagine all the broken hearted Indian girls who need people to tell the truth. Don’t worry about the consequences, just get online, and tell the truth. Tell them they’re not alone. Tell the truth about the abuse in our community.”
Morni baga ma bole aadhe raat ma
Fireworks bursted in air as Ila Arun serenaded the crowd with all of the best Bollywood classics in her hearty voice. The brightly silk skirted dancers ran around her swinging arms and legs in famous Bollywood dance styles, and the stage continued to fill up from one song to the next, representing every Indian dance troupe in the Triangle area.
Someone tapped my shoulder, “Excuse me miss but can I borrow your goggles?”
“Oh, my sunglasses? Yes.”
“I need them for the next dance, meet me here at the end, I will give them back to you.”
I looked around at all of the desi faces around me. I had caught the eye of many, men and women, and for some reason it didn’t bother me when they stared (it did bother me on most all other occasions, but not with them). God made flowers beautiful to bring joy to all around them, and I didn’t mind these people staring, because it was really about beauty (completely non sexual). I continued to study the crowd, make mental notes about them, and make my decisions about them and Diwali.
They were fun people, who liked music and dance, and coming out to events like this. I liked it too. This is something I could do every year…. with them. These are people I could be friends with. These are people I cared about without even knowing them. These are people whose complicated cultural problems I understood, and who I could serve. These were people who knew how to have fun without crossing uncomfortable lines.
I was down.
Diwali is cool.
I’m going to celebrate it for the rest of my life.
“Thank you for the goggles!” she placed my sunglasses in my hand, which cued my time to leave.
I had to make one last stop though.
The women’s bathroom.
I checked every mirror. All of the flyers were still there. A bit discouraging. I made my way down the next corridor of sinks and mirrors.
4 out of 5 flyers were there. That means someone took one flyer.
That was good enough. That made for a great first Diwali. It created a hunger to experience it all again, to get there earlier and put the flyers in place faster, to make a real rangoli, to worship Christ, to fill my life with light, to make new Desi friends to share the holiday with, to make some products for the forgotten generation of Indian-Americans, to join a dance troupe and celebrate to the music of my childhood, and to do it all more intensely in 2017.
God Bless Your Diwali & New Year!