Diwali in UAE: How expats find their own ways to make the festive season memorable for their families

Despite missing home and family, expats in the UAE find their own ways to make the festive season a time to remember

By Asha Iyer Kumar

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Published: Thu 2 Nov 2023, 6:51 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Nov 2023, 6:52 PM

Poetic justice. It is what we seek in all stories. There is only one thing we expect in all our narratives: That virtues be rewarded, and vices be punished. It is not just another literary term that makes the plots in our movies and novels palatable to us. It is a fact that has kept our faith alive through the ages — a pronouncement of fairness prevailing over dark, diabolical transgressions.

Each epoch in the history of mankind has had a need to renew its faith in poetic justice to keep moving on, for strife has been endemic to our existence. Our history is replete with chronicles of war. We have fought and died hundreds of times, yet mankind has survived, only because after every phase of darkness comes light, and in that light, we revive. We find courage in our indomitable spirit; we reinforce our faith through our traditions, and we rediscover our joys in our celebrations. No matter in which far-flung corner of the globe we go, we carry our festive ethos with us and make it an occasion that can get as close as possible to the real deal in the home town.

Expounding the way we have learnt to adapt and wrap our joys around the changing milieus of life, Radhika Venugopal, an expat in the UAE for 19 years, says, “Festivals mean a lot more than usual when we are away from home. We try to bring in our tradition and the enjoyment of Diwali that we used to have there. Earlier we used to miss home and looked for cheap flights during Diwali, but now we make it a gala event with our family and friends here.” This sentiment, however, does not ring true for everyone. Relocation from one’s roots sometimes takes away from the true spirit of festivity, feels Uma Jaria, an astrologer and vastu expert based in Dubai.

Although Jaria and her family leave no stone unturned in making their Diwali celebrations memorable every year, she is also overcome with a longing for the bygone times back home. Advancement in technology has impacted our festive approach and practices, she feels, resulting in a lack of ‘personal touch’ in our celebrations. “Earlier people used to go and personally meet and greet, exchange sweets and gifts. But now everything has become virtual and the bonding is lacking,” she says. It is a trend that she finds disconcerting given the need for emotional connect between people in these troubled times.

Often the sentiment surrounding expat festivities straddles two zones. There is the spontaneous mirth that comes with celebrating them with other compatriots, and there is also the unmistakable sense of missing kindred connection that is inevitable in immigrant life. “We go down to the kachcha parking near our building to burst crackers with the people in our neighbourhood. There would be loud music, food and joyous smiles all around. I enjoy the company of other people but at the same time it will never be the same as hanging out with my family as we did back in India,” says 17-year-old Kavya Saravanan, who came to the UAE at the age of nine. To Kavya, Diwali is a time to indulge in nostalgia. She fondly reminisces the nonstop boom of crackers in the neighbourhood, her grandmother’s sweets laid out on the table, and of large family gatherings when relatives from all over the world converged to celebrate the festival.

Although there is no denying that the festive spirit remains intact for an expat, it is the substance that is missing in the absence of the essential elements that make Diwali more than just an annual ritual. Kavya’s father, Saravanan, describing himself as a ‘fire-cracker fan’ recalls the childhood practice of going with his father to shop for sweets, crackers and new clothes. “It used to be fun. Now everything is ordered online, both here and back home. Also, the inability to burst crackers here dampens the spirits. Although we follow all the religious rituals, the scale and intensity of a full-on celebration is certainly absent. I especially miss the crackers.”

As banal as it might sound, it is the feeling of ‘missing home and family’ and the absence of communal flourish that resonates in the voices of everyone across generations. Millennials Priyanka and Gaurav Malhotra, who have been expats in the UAE for 10 years, also speak in the same vein, but are quick to say that this lack can be amply compensated “by recreating the same atmosphere wherever you are in the world.”

The Malhotras vibrantly reflect the optimism and fervour that Radhika Venugopal earlier expressed when they say, “You can plan a celebration involving dinner, dressing up in Indian attire, and lighting lamps together. You can invite your non-Indian friends who will really be grateful that you decided to involve them in the celebration. What’s more, a host of public events are organised in different parts of the UAE, including spectacular fireworks that bring festive mood into our lives during Diwali.”

It is entirely possible to remain stoical and take a monochromatic view of life by quoting anything from the dismal state of the world to falling personal fortunes. But it is in these abject times that one needs the fuel to propel life to light and usher in positivity. Like autumnal leaves, it is easy to fall off from our parent trees as we branch out and face seasonal shifts; but it is when we begin to dither from our core beliefs that we need reminders to stay rooted to the traditions that have shaped us as individuals. Our festivals were probably created with these motives in mind, and they serve as precedents to future generations that seem set to be driven by AI than by the central tenets of life.

Highlighting the role of parents in making children culturally aware, Saravanan opines that it is not easy to inculcate the traditional values in them because they grow up in diversity here. “We, as parents, must stay rooted to our backgrounds and be their role models consistently. We must explain our traditions to them and make them see the rationale behind following them.”

Saravanan’s words are duly validated by Uma Jaria’s 15-year-old son, Pritish, who moved with his parents to Dubai at the age of seven. Pritish confesses that it was initially difficult for him to imagine that the traditions he was born into could be followed here because they lived in a neighbourhood that was culturally different and he felt “the puzzle would just not fit”. However, when they later shifted to a locality which he describes as ‘mini India’, he realised “he could not have been more wrong.”

After the merger with a native community, it became easier for Pritish’s mother, Uma, to teach him and his younger brother their traditions, and practise them. He gives detailed accounts of his parents’ conscious efforts to enlighten them about traditions, festivals and religious practices by visiting the temple near their house and by buying them comics and books that depicted major events and personalities from his religion and country and making them watch mythological shows.

“The best recollection of Diwali I have is when I was nine years old. We were living in that same neighbourhood and my mom made my brother, my father and I wear matching kurtas and then took photos in it, after which I stepped down to meet my friends and I saw every building around me decorated with lights, candles, and the joy of this festival. That is one day I will cherish forever,” says Pritish, reliving a memory.

Our communities build and bolster us when we are in faraway lands. Our traditions set templates for our immigrant lives. Our festivals transcend geographical boundaries and stay in our psyches as reminders of our cultural rubrics. And if the place we live in offer us a favourable milieu, then our celebrations will be wholesome if not complete. There is no ambiguity about it.

“As an expat celebrating Diwali, we embrace the diversity of our new environment, share the festival’s significance with locals, and stay connected with loved ones through technology. In Dubai, Diwali celebrations are a vibrant blend of cultures. The city's international community comes together, creating a unique global experience,” concludes Priyanka.

Sure enough. Even though we are deprived of the real experience owing to reasons beyond our control, the cultural confluence that takes place during festive times makes us staunchly believe that we live in a world of shared bliss and beatitude, no matter where we are.


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