Diwali: More than meets the eye

By Paul Charman

Avondale's Ambrish Desai, tells Paul Charman why Diwali is so close to his heart and how he will be celebrating with his wife Maithilie and their son Jay.

Diwali Celebrations at the Desai family home. (From left) Namrata Patil, Maithilie Desai, Jay Desai (13) and Ambrish Desai. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Diwali Celebrations at the Desai family home. (From left) Namrata Patil, Maithilie Desai, Jay Desai (13) and Ambrish Desai. Photo / Ted Baghurst

The story is so gripping ... it's got internal themes, heroic themes, even magical themes ..."

There's a faraway look in the eyes of Ambrish (Adi) Desai as he describes the origins of his beloved Diwali festival. Adi has memories of a happy childhood in Mumbai, of hanging lanterns, lighting crackers; receiving gifts from parents and elders and the wider family; eating sweets and special vegetarian savouries; meeting uncles and aunts and playing with cousins. The family cleaned their company apartment from top to bottom ahead of the festival. And the first day always began with an early morning shower for the young Ambrish, lest he succumb to a curse that would mar his childish looks. All around neighbours and friends were similarly focused on Diwali, with mums having baked and prepared the favoured savouries and sweets in advance. Even poor families seemed able to afford a celebratory lantern, he recalls.

"There was great happiness in all the activity, the play with other children and especially playing with those loud crackers. For us the festival will always be centred on our Hindu faith, including the moving story of young Lord Rama - a prince unjustly banished to the forest who struggles to rescue his wife from the powerful demon deity named Ravana.

It's about a returning king taking up his rightful inheritance, amid scenes of wild jubilation in the kingdom of Ayodhya. It's such a beautiful tale that reading it in the original language is enough to bring tears to my eyes," says Ambrish.

These days Ambrish is far from the fast lane, having stepped out of a newspaper sales role to teach meditation to corporates. He knows all about the need for stress relief and keeping an uncluttered mind. He's learned enough from his guru for a full-time role helping others in their spiritual journey. It started when he broke out of his frantic life with a dotcom start-up in India.

"One day I just woke up and realised I just wanted more family time, to improve my spiritual life and to enjoy nature. So my wife and I set the wheels in motion to shift to New Zealand, a place my father - when I was far too young to grasp his meaning - had recommended as a green and pleasant land."

"Diwali is the Hindu world's main festival, and those happy memories of Diwali stay with you for a lifetime - but this festival is also at the core of the Vedic religion. We believe in karma - that things happen for a reason. We see this festival as a huge opportunity for local folks to appreciate other cultures and spiritual values. My family included our Christian, Muslim and Zoroastrian friends in the Diwali celebrations. And this year our Kiwi friends will be with us again when we light our lamps and lanterns."

Adi and his wife will be celebrating during the week of Diwali with special meals. As usual, friends who regularly visit the Avondale family will be asked to join in.

"Some years Diwali coincides with the sale of crackers for Guy Fawkes and [then] there will probably be some bangs at our place, too," says Adi.

Acclaimed playwright Jacob Rajan echoes these sentiments, albeit as one of the outsiders invited to the festival by Hindu friends. Jacob's Indian Ink theatre company has achieved a following for his gently comic plays about Indian life, including Krishnan's Dairy, The Candlestickmaker and Guru Of Chai.

"My family came from a predominantly Christian part of India, but of course we all knew about Diwali. It's great because Hindu people are happy to let you share in Diwali, they are completely tolerant of your own beliefs."

In his view the festival is an important bridge builder between Indian people and other groups in the community. "To me, it's always a wonderful reminder of the colourfulness and vibrancy inherent in Indian culture."

- NZ Herald

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