Sunday, November 12 was Diwali, a festival of lights celebrated by many Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains in India and around the world. Last week, I sat down with Tara Ghei Nayak, FSA parent and co-clerk of FSA AAPI Families + Allies. We talked about what the holiday means to her family and how AAPI Families + Allies plans to increase awareness of cultural holidays like Diwali at FSA.
When asked how she would describe Diwali to someone who had never heard of it, Tara said, “Diwali is a festival that celebrates good over evil. The way that it was originally explained to me very simply when I was a kid was that it was the Indian New Year, Festival of Lights. And then my parents would always say, ‘just like all the other religions have their own festival of lights, like Hanukkah, Christmas.’” Tara described how Diwali is the celebration of good over evil and light over darkness. She described the mythology around Diwali and the other festivals leading up to the holiday. She said, “We use mythology to personify good and evil through storytelling around gods and goddesses…Each state celebrates different festivals that lead up to Diwali. One of the festivals that my family celebrates is called Dussehra… Dussehra is not celebrated by all Indians; it is regional and family-specific.”
Tara’s family celebrates Diwali by cleaning the house, gathering with loved ones, eating delicious food, and enjoying fireworks. Tara said, “The mythology that goes along with [Diwali] is that you want to make sure your house is cleaned and lit up with diyas (oil lamps) or in our case twinkly lights so that Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, can find her way in the darkness and bless your house for the next year. So that’s the story behind why Diwali is this festival of lights. And then we have a gathering of friends. We eat good food. The kids get presents…This year we’re going to a friend’s home and they’re going to have a big Diwali celebration with good food, lots of sweets and then fireworks.”
Tara’s family is interfaith (Hindu and Jain). While she perceives Diwali as primarily a cultural (as opposed to a religious) holiday, her family does participate in prayer on this day. She said, “It’s more of a cultural holiday versus a religious holiday to some degree, but we do a prayer ceremony (puja) at home. Some people go to the temple. We generally don’t.”
While Hindus and Jains are religious minorities at FSA, Tara sees similarities between the Quaker values (SPICES) highlighted at FSA and the philosophies of Hinduism and Jainism. She said, “The philosophies that the Quakers have embodied are very much the philosophies that we embody in Hinduism and Jainism. And so there doesn’t seem to be any sort of disruption in the kids’ lives as they learn the SPICES… One of the big tenets of Jainism is nonviolence. And so when you think about peace and even simplicity they are aligned with tenets of Jainism…Definitely equality and community are big in both Jainism and Hinduism. And so I would say that every single one [of the SPICES]… is similar to Hindu and Jain philosophy.”
Tara described a desire to increase awareness of the festivals associated with religions like Hinduism and Jainism as one way to amplify the voices of FSA’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. That desire was part of the impetus for forming FSA AAPI Families + Allies, a new group for parents/caregivers that started this fall. The group’s stated mission is to, “enhance and celebrate the cultural diversity of Asian-American families and children at FSA by promoting educational, social and cultural events” and to “ensure that the unique voices and identity of the AAPI diaspora and allies are elevated in a safe and inclusive way within the FSA community.” When describing her interest in starting this group, Tara said, “Every place I go I’m always trying to find some semblance of community in different ways…When I came to the Friends School one of the things that I saw was there weren’t a ton of Asian families. So I thought if I’m going to build community here that’s a little bit different than the rest of my life. I think trying to help build community with a focus on AAPI is important so that my kids see that there are other kids like them at school… And I think more education leads to more appreciation. So if there are ways that we can do that, not just for the Indian and South Asian population but for the entire AAPI population, I think that’s important.”
This year, FSA AAPI Families + Allies wrote a description of Diwali to include in the LQN as part of their broader mission to educate about and celebrate the experiences of Asian American families. Tara also helped plan a middle school choice activity; students who selected the Diwali choice on Friday were able to sample laddus as well as spicy treats while watching a video about Diwali and reflecting on their view of the triumph of “light over darkness, good over evil.”
When asked why FSA AAPI Families + Allies wanted to highlight Diwali, Tara said, “Diwali is really for us in the U.S. and then also in India an important holiday where you really come together with family and friends…For me it’s really exciting because I’m always up for celebrating renewal, new beginnings and things like that. I don’t believe the school has the ability to celebrate all cultural and religious holidays, but highlighting these festivals is a great way to bring exposure to a community and uplift community voices in a fun way.”
While Diwali has now passed, Tara offered some advice for families who may be interested in learning more about or celebrating Diwali next year. She said, “We want to share the holiday. We want you to join in. I would definitely say the way to do it is maybe to find a friend who celebrates and go and do it with your friend. Don’t be afraid to ask ‘how can I celebrate with you?’” Tara also mentioned local celebrations at places like Global Mall, Chai Pani, or temples; these celebrations are open to the broader community.
FSA wishes a Happy Diwali to all who celebrated yesterday; we hope you had a joyous holiday. If you are interested in being part of FSA AAPI Families + Allies, helping plan future Diwali celebrations, and enhancing and celebrating the cultural diversity of Asian American families and children at FSA, please reach out to the group’s co-clerks Tara Nayak and Amy Yeung. The next meeting is Monday, November 27 from 8:00-9:00 am.
Written by Kristen Clayton, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion