In bygone centuries, Britannia ruled the waves – or so the poets of Imperial Britain wrote. Today, in a humorous repartee, the new-gen British writers are saying that Britannia waives all rules to create the world’s most carefully-nurtured multi-cultural society! It celebrates Diwali – or Ramzan Eid – with as much fervour as it does Christmas! The luster of Diwali has also reached the shores of the USA and Canada, where sizeable populations of American-Indians and Canadian-Indians are becoming richer and more influential by the year!
When Mayor of London Boris Johnson switched on the illuminations at London’s historic Trafalgar Square on Sunday, October 4, 2009, British-Indians successfully marked yet another milestone in the prominence and success which the community has achieved all over the world. From the days of India’s colonial past till today, the fortunes of the Indian community in Britain – as also in the USA, Canada and other countries – have changed to create a dazzling miasma of culture and celebrations because of the huge success stories of the PIOs (People of Indian Origin). Millions of Indians, who left the shores of their homeland to find opportunities abroad, have now achieved scintillating success in every imaginable endeavour. Today, in all these Western countries, people of Indian origin form not only the largest minority as millions have made homes in their new countries, but they have also shown rare courage, focus and ability to work hard in often unfriendly and challenging circumstances. In most countries where Indians live and work today, the evils of racism, poverty and cultural and religious prejudices are being opposed by governments and citizens so that more equal societies are created.
The celebration of the Festival of Lights in countries like the UK, USA and Canada are examples of this new multi-cultural mindset which is central to Western democracies and Eastern brotherhood. In London, with the Mayor of London opening the Diwali festive season with goodwill messages, dynamic bands of the country playing Indian film songs, dhol players bringing joy to dancers, dance groups performing to stunning music and people dressed in their festive finery participating in the pooja and aarti performed by ISCON members, the mood is set for the coming weeks. Every major city in the UK will have its own public celebration of this festival which is the highlight of the Indian calendar.
The landscape of Britain is today dotted with innumerable temples and these too, will be the centres of community worship. Diwali parties, Lakshmi pooja celebrations, rangolis decorating entrances to homes and offices are other expressions of the festival in the UK despite the fact that October is an autumn month and tends to be cold and shivery.
“Britain is determined to be a working multi-cultural society,” says Prabha Mehta, a senior manager in the Bank of Baroda in London, “All British people – white, Asian or African – know about the festival and its joyful celebration. They join the revellers at the community centres and in public places like Trafalgar Square. Actually, there are only two days in the year in Britain when we can light fireworks and crackers until 11 pm. These are Guy Fawkes Day and Diwali. Indians light up their homes and workplaces exactly as people do in India and the sweetshops are full of mithai exactly like in Indian cities. Today, mithai shops that sell every kind of delicacy as well as savoury snacks can be found in every British city, more so in London. People of Indian origin form more than three percent of the population in the UK and Indian food is now considered a part of the official British cuisine. The shops are full of diyas – earthen and decorative ones – and people take pride in lighting up their homes to welcome Lakshmi. There are Diwali parties in homes which include card-playing, fireworks and of course delicious feasts where family and friends get together.”
“The reason why Indian-British people have won this recognition is very special,” says Avatar Gill, owner of a large grocery supermarket in London’s Southall, “Indians came here a century ago and took every opportunity to work hard. They never availed of the social benefits the government offered. An example is that the Southall area where more than 55 per cent people are Indians has the highest number of Mercedez cars in Britain. Indians are counted among the richest people in Britain and are respected for their education and business acumen. Thus, their festival Diwali, is celebrated by the whole of Britain.”
Not surprisingly, British chain stores like Marks & Spencers, Morrisons, ASDA and others deck up their outlets with festive buntings and lights with all Diwali shopping offers displayed attractively. Hoardings of Happy Diwali hang at their gates just as the message of greetings appears ahead of television programmes sponsored by companies in the UK. Jewellery shops in Indian areas light up for the festival just like in India and advertise ‘Lakshmi coins’ and other gold or diamond jewellery for eager buyers who look for a muhurat bargain on Diwali day. Not to forget, many Indian restaurants – some of them counted among the top 20 in the UK – offer special Diwali dinners and host parties for well-to-do business families. New businesses open and old ones celebrate their years of success.
The fact that the British-Indian community is one of the richest in Britain has given Diwali a special glow in recent years with most British people joining in the celebrations. Each borough of London where British-Indian people live in large numbers – such as Hounslow, Wembley, Harrow, Westminster, Camden and Brent – work with local schools to create spectacular Diwali programmes. Brent is known for organizing the largest Diwali procession in the UK. The theme that Diwali celebrates the victory of good over evil appeals to everyone and most British people join in the spirit of Diwali. The prominence of British-Indians in the fields of management, business, finance, education, sports and arts has given them extra importance in the social arena of their adopted country. Many British-Indians belong to the third generation – but have not lost their enthusiasm for celebrating their own culture through festivals like Diwali. As a matter of fact, the more they live in Britain, the more they seek their roots and want to identify with their culture to make life more meaningful.
The scenario is no different with the USA or Canada. Both these countries also boast multi-cultural societies and racial, religious or economic differences are sought to be erased by state policy. In the USA and Canada too, People of Indian origin are the largest single minority and have a colourful culture of celebrations and food. American and Canadian Indians have increasingly participated in politics, finance, education and business fields in their new countries and earned fame and recognition for their contribution. As a result of all these facts, The President of the USA officially began to celebrate Diwali in the White House in 2003. Ever since then, every succeeding President has held a Diwali reception in his official residence and invited over 150 guests for the party with traditional Indian food and Indian-style illuminations. The Indian American population stands at 2.3 million and has a growth rate of 38 per cent – the highest among all Asian communities – which makes the community important in the eyes of American leaders. Because of the vastness of both the USA, the celebration of Diwali is restricted to cities where there are large populations of Indians. But here too, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago and other cities take the lead in having fireworks and grand parties given by prominent citizens.
In Canada, the majority of Indian population comprises Sikhs and Gujaratis. Both these communities love celebrations and grandeur. Their increasing numbers in Canadian cities have brought their culture into limelight with several new temples and Gurdwaras being dedicated by the Prime Ministers of Canada to the people of the nation. Here too, Diwali celebrations are a part of the cities’ social life and of the official calendar of the Prime Minister’s home. Family get-togethers, sweets and fireworks – all these form part of Canadian-Indians’ Diwali celebrations.
“In the years to come, with Indians living in almost all industrialized countries, Diwali will become a global festival,” say many, “The attraction of the festival also lies in the fact that it symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, right over wrong and justice over injustice. This is the dream of every human being and therefore, all can identify with the Diwali spirit.”
Diwali in London is enthusiastically celebrated by people of all nationalities and religions and not limited to Indians in London or Indian expats in London (also popularly known as NRIs in London). Across the capital from Wembley to Southall, Tooting and Forest Gate, participants flock to exchange presents with their friends and families. Homes are ritualistically cleaned and decorated and hundreds of lamps are lit. In essence, Diwali marks new beginnings and a renewal of commitment to family values and represents joy, love, reflection, resolution, forgiveness, light and knowledge.
The author was Editor of Femina for 25 years. Vimla Patil is among India's senior most Journalists-Media persons. She excels in writing lifestyle pieces, women's concerns, travelogues, celebrity interviews, art-culture pieces about India.
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