Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Religion and faith

Deepavali Dilemma: Reflections from the Diaspora

Every year, when Deepavali rolls around, I feel a twinge of sadness creeping up on me.  I didn’t dwell on it because it seemed indulgent and pointless.  It’s not like we celebrated Deepavali in a big way when I was growing up in Colombo.  And my family, we were not a sentimental lot.  We got on with it, and focused on what mattered – visas, educational degrees, jobs, marriages, family, and more family.  Getting weepy over some abstract loss associated with Deepavali was a luxury we did not indulge in.  But this year felt different. This year I found myself walking around with a barely suppressed sense of tragedy about it.

As I do every year since my oldest daughter started kindergarten, I arranged to do a program in each of my three kids’ classrooms to mark the occasion for us here in New York.  Most years that was all we did. Sometimes accompanied by an Indian American parent, sometimes not, I would tell the class about Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.  About how it is like Christmas in India, and how it celebrated the return to Ayodhya of Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshmana after fourteen years of exile in the jungle.  I showed them how to do rangolis, and told them about lighting diyas.  Occasionally I would mention that I was from Sri Lanka and was part of a minority group of Tamil Hindus there, that we also celebrated Diwali but not nearly as elaborately as the Indians.  And that was it.

And that is what I was sad about. I called myself a Tamil, told my children they were half Tamil (my husband is Chinese), and borrowed heavily from Indian Hindu mythology to build that part of their culture and identity.  But I barely talk to them about what it was to be a Sri Lankan Tamil.  I envied the Indians, who seemed to have so much pride and love for their country.  I didn’t talk much about Sri Lanka to people I met along the way.  It was complicated, and yes, I left because of the war.  It was just there, the country where I grew up, where my wonderful sprawling family came from.  I didn’t know quite what to cherish about my motherland anymore because it had hurt us all so much.  So I withdrew emotionally.  Over the years the numbness helped me cope with the horrors back home and I began to feel I had little love or loyalty left for Sri Lanka.

Yet, deep down, I knew it was not true.  The truth, I knew, was that I had loved celebrating Deepavali in Colombo – lighting those clay lamps, drawing kolams on the ground, going to temple, eating and handing out lots of good food, wearing new clothes, lighting crackers, visiting family and friends.  And I had loved lighting lanterns for Vesak, celebrating it with our Buddhist friends, and going around Colombo checking out the elaborate lit decorations all over the city. I remember the mouth-watering anticipation before that Ramadan feast delivered to our door by our Muslim friends (my mother’s vattalappam never matched up to theirs), and the thrill of the Christmas tree and the gifts we got when we went over to our neighbor’s for Christmas.  Did my sense of anger and betrayal run so deep that I was willing to subsume myself into the Indian Hindu identity, with which I could barely find three things in common, rejecting my life in Sri Lanka?

I think for a time, it was easier to hide.  It felt safer.  And being a part of the Tamil Diaspora often meant having to choose sides, and I could never quite choose.  I did feel betrayed by the state and am still shocked by all that hatred out there.  I felt we owed much loyalty to the Tigers.  But my loyalty to the LTTE, even when I felt it before they became monsters, was never from the heart.  My love for Sri Lanka was rooted in my multi-ethnic life in Colombo, but that had begun to feel like a mirage I couldn’t base my faith in anymore.

And so this year, I finally confronted my gloom around Deepavali.  For me, it is the one time of year when I truly mourn the loss of my life in Colombo.  And this year I mourned the loss of our collective Tamil lives in Sri Lanka – it feels crushed beyond recognition and robbed of all spirit.

Next year, I will try to celebrate Deepavali at home.  Draw a kolam, light some lamps, make some nice food, and invite the neighbors over.  And when I go into the classroom, I will call it Deepavali, I will talk about how I celebrated it as a kid in Colombo, about all the other holidays in Sri Lanka that I also loved, and talk a little about our shameful political history.  And when I tell them the story of the Ramayana, I will point out that the depiction of Sri Lanka as the land of Demons with Ravana as their evil king reflects regional prejudices of the time and has little to do with any reality. However tempted I may be to hint that there are still some demons back there today!

It probably won’t all help me feel any less sad, but it will be more honest.