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BEZAWADA: Recognition of Diwali important to nourish cultural roots

Column: Traipse the Fine Line

“Say Deepavalli. It is not Diwali, it is Deepavalli.”

On the days leading up to the holiday, my parents would remind me of this distinction whenever they got the chance, like a cellphone notification.

But to me, they are right. The English romanization of the word does not do it justice. It does not even look right. 

There is a lilting stretch to the “e,” an elongation of the “a,” the sharper edge of the “v” versus the rounder cave of the “w” and the roll of the tongue against the roof of the mouth for the “l,” all captured in the curved strokes of the Telugu script — however complex, in my mouth, in my hands, it is natural. Familiar. An echoing vibration that ties me to roots grounded in Southeast India, to my ancestral family and nowhere else. 

It is a linguistic token to the inherent beauty of the Telugu heritage that I am proud to call my own.

But why do I always slip back to Diwali?

As co-president of the Rutgers chapter of Hindu Students Council (HSC) and a practicing Hindu, I have to prepare for the inundation of questions. What is Diwali, exactly? What does Diwali mean to you? 

When it is presumably non-Hindu people asking me those questions, there is a layer of complexity that I incur upon myself in the way I choose to answer. In essence, I reply like an online survey delivered in a contingency format. 

Suppose the question is, what is Diwali? My first instinct is to respond it is Deepavalli, actually. I have to pause there, momentarily. I need to make sure the questioner is not confused. Okay, still, not too bad. 

But it is nevertheless a 50-50 shot with the questioning party. One half simply accepts the response. The other half feels I have corrected them — that I have implied they were “wrong.” Suppose they feel the latter. 

Then I am obligated to reassure them. No, “Diwali” is fine too. But in my language, it is “Deepavalli.” 

Oh, so it is not Indian?

How do I even interpret that? Another 50-50 shot. No, “Indian” is not a language. “Diwali” is how it is widely known, in Hindi. “Deepavalli” is Telugu.

Oh, so it is just another dialect.

No, it is an entirely different language.

Yet they mean the same thing?

After some backtracking, clarification, circumlocution and other awkward conversational maneuvering, there eventually comes a point when the questioning party finally realizes “Diwali” and “Deepavalli” do indeed mean the same thing. Or, more accurately, refer to the same holiday.

But that was never the point of the original question, was it? And now the questioner is leaving with no deeper understanding of what was first asked, who probably now thinks I am preachy and the novelty surrounding the opportunity to express my faith is dimmed. 

This could have all been avoided had I simply accepted Diwali in the first place.

It is not just non-Hindu people. There is a discrepancy when interacting with my fellow HSC officers, or my Hindu friends. There is so much nuance surrounding this sacred day that many of my fellow peers are unaware of. 

For example, the meaning of the festival, down to its very name, varies by region — “Diwali” in Northern India, as opposed to “Deepavalli” in Southern India. The origins and stories surrounding the festival also differ by region. 

In Northern India, it is a homecoming celebration in honor of Lord Rama reclaiming his rightful throne to the Kingdom of Kosala after a 14-year exile. In Southern India, it is the anniversary of Lord Krishna killing the demon Narakasura, followed by a veneration of the goddess Lakshmi, the deity who presides over prosperity and health. 

Although both stories hail the triumph of knowledge, goodness and light over ignorance, evil and darkness, there are further subtleties unique to different regions, to the point that each individual family has its own traditional ways of and reasons for celebrating.

The Dharmic unity of Diwali is a major source of solace for people like me — an Indian-American post-millennial trying to establish a contemporary Hindu identity.

The core of Diwali remains unchanged. Whether denominated Diwali, Deepavalli, Bandi Chhor Divas or the Festival of Lights, whether Northern, Southern or neither, underlying the disparity is an integral unity based on Dharma — the principle of righteousness, sustenance and harmony. 

Yet just like any other holiday, Diwali holds a precious, treasured significance unique to every individual who believes in its message. It is part of the reason I answer people who ask me what it is — because I get to show what it means to me. 

Even though it is difficult and confusing to explain, it is worth dispelling any unawareness of a major world event, just as Diwali is intended to do.

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in marketing and double-minoring in japanese and digital communications and information media. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line,” runs every alternate Tuesday.


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