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Inside Diwali

A Berkeley family celebrates the Hindu New Year


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On a clear October evening in Berkeley, Devyani Jain and Tanu Sankalia’s house is the only one on the block decked with lights. Little red and white bulbs line the walkway, border the front porch stairs, and frame the doorway. The occasion for the decorations is Diwali, which translates literally as “row of lights,” the Hindu New Year festival.

The Jain-Sankalia house may be the only one in the neighborhood illuminated for Diwali, but it certainly isn’t the only one in the East Bay—home to more than 54,000 South Asian Indians, many of whom celebrate the holiday.

“I grew up in Bombay, now Mumbai,” says Sankalia, who moved to Berkeley in 1998 and is an architect and professor at the University of San Francisco. “During the Diwali holidays, my family went about three hours away to Puna. That’s where my grandparents lived. I have big memories of firecrackers and all the sweets. We would go to each other’s houses and visit.”

This year, Sankalia and Jain are hosting a party for more than 50 guests. Sankalia is wearing an achakan, a long, button-up raw-silk robe. His wife, an environmental planner and a strikingly beautiful woman with smooth skin and long hair, is wearing a burgundy sari, an elaborate navratna (nine-gem) necklace, and shiny teardrop earrings that frame her face. The couple met at the Ahmedabad School of Architecture in India before moving to the United States, where they both completed master’s degrees at UC Berkeley.

On the brick porch at the entrance to their renovated Victorian house is a rangoli, a design made with turmeric, vermillion, and other brightly colored powders. This rangoli is in the shape of a lotus flower and is accented with dried rose buds and diyas, the little oil lamps that are ubiquitous during the five-day Diwali festival. Inside the house, the orange light of sunset floods the living room as Jain puts the final touches on a table full of Indian sweets.

The couple’s son, Shiven, is running around the house and grinning from ear to ear. He is celebrating his third birthday tonight amid the Diwali party. In a blending of cultures, an American-style chocolate birthday cake from nearby Masse’s Pastries, beautifully decorated with dark chocolate and gold leaf, awaits him on a table in the front room.

Jain’s mother, Adarsh, is busy in the kitchen. Her face is full of excitement as she rolls out circles of dough and pops them into a pan of hot oil, where they immediately puff up into golden, air-filled poori. As she works, her iridescent pastel sari reveals glimpses of her smooth, ample midriff. She and her husband, Bijay, who sports a Western-style gray suit and lingers near the kitchen, have flown in from their home in New Delhi for a one-month visit to the United States.

Although Hindus all over India celebrate Diwali, the specific deities referred to on the holiday vary according to region. In the north of India where Adarsh and Bijay are from, Rama is at the center of the story.

“At Diwali, we’re celebrating the triumph of the god Rama over Ravana,” Adarsh says. “Rama wins back his wife, Sita, whom Ravana had stolen, so it’s a celebration. We buy new clothes at Diwali. Everybody cleans their house from top to bottom and puts up a fresh coat of paint. Businesses start a new ledger.”

Adarsh goes on to explain the symbolism of all the lights. “When Rama was returning from the forest with [his rescued wife] Sita and brother Laxman, it was a new moon, so it was completely dark,” says Adarsh. “We set the diyas out to light their path.”

Sankalia says that for him, Hindu epics aside, the holiday is about spending time with friends and family. “Personally, I’m not religious. It’s not about that,” he says. “We’re very secular. Diwali is a cultural tradition for us. It’s fun, and it’s a good excuse to have a spread of food.”

Sankalia, an avid cook, has teamed up with his mother-in-law for tonight’s celebration. “I do most of the cooking normally,” Sankalia says, chopping cilantro for his salad of freshly grated beets, “but Adarsh has been cooking for three days straight for this party.”

Shopping bags from Monterey Market peek out from behind cutting boards. Enormous pots full of steamed basmati rice and black lentil dal crowd the stovetop. Dishes heavy with delicately seasoned peas, roasted pumpkin, spicy potatoes, and fried okra are warming in the oven.

“In India, we have a saying,” Adarsh says: “ ‘The guest is god.’ Nobody leaves an Indian home without being fed. You always, always, offer food.”

Soon, guests are streaming through the door, many in radiant Indian garments. It’s common to bring small, often edible, gifts. One guest, Subhadra Poolla, has prepared a beautiful platter of rasmalai, a traditional Indian dessert made with clotted milk and nuts, garnished with silver leaf.

The hosts start pouring champagne into long flutes, and the guests gather in the backyard garden and chat. Many of Jain and Sankalia’s friends have young children, so Shiven has plenty of company. Within minutes, the kids are chasing each other and squealing with delight. As the sun sets, the candlelight seems to shine more brightly.

The party continues well into the night. Friends and family visit and revisit the generous buffet, lavish praise on the food, drink, catch up, and tell stories punctuated by bursts of laughter. All the while, the children run around in packs and twirl sparklers in the dark.

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