“Lead me from darkness to light.”
— Upanishadic prayer
The deepening shadows of night have settled on the grounds of the Kenilworth Inn, near Biltmore Village. As I recline on a rocker overlooking the rich, almost tropical shrubbery surrounding this heritage site, my mind goes back to my native country, India.
There is reason for this. It’s the beginning of the second week of November. And for Indians as well as Indian communities throughout the diaspora, the 15th day of the dark night of Ashwin (which may fall any time during October and November) marks the beginning of the new year celebration, Diwali (a corruption of the Sanskrit “deepavah,” meaning “line of lights”).
Before Diwali comes Dussera. In this elaborate festival, a grotesque, sky-high effigy of the demon king, Ravana, is erected and packed with flammable material. As people dance around it and children straddle their father’s shoulders staring up at the demon’s bulging eyes, snakelike hair and gargantuan legs, a lit match sets the figure aflame. With a thunderous sound and clouds of smoke, the flaming demon collapses. This is the death of evil, which heralds the new year.
A deep nostalgia settles in my heart as I pretend that Asheville is a town in India and Ashevilleans are celebrating the Indian New Year with all its illuminations, rituals and festivities. In my mind’s eye, I see children scurrying back and forth balancing dozens of little red-clay lamps in their hands. They arrange them in a line on all flat surfaces: along the roof, on top of walls, beside the driveway, around the porches, and in any nook where the lamps can balance on their rough, narrow bottoms. Another youngster pours oil into the lamps; a third rolls cotton into wicks and inserts them into the oil. As the dark shadows lengthen, a single flame is used to light the hundreds of others that now line the house.
Imagine downtown Asheville’s Pack Square crowded with people awash in a chaotic delirium of irrepressible joy. Every flat surface is lined with flickering lights; the night sky is bright with the kaleidoscopic colors of exploding firecrackers. Children wave sparklers, scattering fountains of light.
Now imagine a colorful altar erected in front of the Vance Monument, bedecked with golden marigolds. Splendid in a red sari, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, perches on a pedestal shaped like a lotus flower. Her arms are outstretched, and from her hands a cascade of golden coins falls on the lotus below. The falling coins remind Ashevilleans that money must be kept in circulation, not hoarded—the true secret of prosperity.
Now imagine such a statue in every home. The children have drawn little footsteps of flour from the gate to the prayer room so the goddess doesn’t lose her way. The flour ensures that ants and other insects will also enjoy a New Year’s feast.
But it doesn’t stop there: Imagine cows and horses with bells and marigolds dangling from their necks, swaggering down Biltmore Avenue as Ashevilleans feed them grain and candy made of dried molasses. Some of the animals have bunches of bananas tied to their horns. Others are draped with bright red-and-yellow fabrics. Imagine neighborhood residents exchanging homemade sweets, and teenagers stuffing desserts coated with pistachios, raisins and almonds into their friends’ mouths.
This year, the illumination—the central facet of the traditionally five-day festival—will happen on Friday, Nov. 9. During those five days, children hear the story as related in the Ramayana, an ancient epic: how Rama, the great hero, was exiled from Ayodhya for 14 years. How on the day of his exile, Ayodhya, the capital, was plunged into darkness as a weeping populace followed the prince, their tears settling the dust raised by his chariot’s wheels. They hear how Rama defeated Ravana, the demon king, returning victorious to Ayodhya to be crowned king. Against all odds, righteousness had triumphed.
Diwali commemorates the hero’s return. Then, as now, people illuminated their houses and streets, sprinkled rose water, donned colorful new clothes, garlanded their cattle, closed their old books, resolved old animosities, made courageous resolutions, and sweetened the mouths of relatives and neighbors to mark a new beginning.
But amid the fun and spectacle, let’s not lose sight of the festival’s deeper meaning. Lights are the outer expression of joy that surges from the heart when righteousness triumphs over evil. One light can illuminate a million hearts without being diminished. And at the Indian New Year, may every soulful Ashevillean be reminded that the human body is a lamp, that truth is the oil, that righteousness is the wick, and that love is the matchstick. When these work in concert, self-effulgence results.
So, my beloved Ashevilleans, get those bushels off your hearts—and let your light shine!
[Asheville resident Eira Patnaik was born in India and emigrated to the U.S. in 1970. A professor of mythology and world literature at Frostburg State University in Maryland from 1973 to 2000, she currently teaches tango classes at the Kenilworth Inn and can be reached at (301) 616-1565.]
Kheer is the most popular dessert prepared for Diwali.
Kheer (rice pudding)
1 liter of whole milk
200 grams of white basmati rice (soaked for a half-hour and then cooked for a short time before adding to milk mixture)
Finely chopped cashew nuts, chopped almonds,pistachios and walnuts
4-5 grains of cardamom
20-25 raisins (5 per serving)
Allow milk to boil and thicken over low flame. Stir in sugar till it blends into milk. Add rice and stir till milk boils and rice is cooked. Garnish with nuts, cardamom and raisins; serves 4-5. (In India, the pudding is covered with a patina of edible silver, which is not available here.)
Offer to Lakshmi with eyes closed, whispering a silent prayer: “Lakshmi, may your divine presence bless my family in the new year.” Now ladle some out on a leaf for the ants and birds. Next, take a large spoon and pour some into your husband’s mouth.