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personal essay

How the Ritual of Cleaning and Preparing for Diwali Makes Me Feel Like a Domestic Goddess

published Nov 5, 2021
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I’ll never forget the day I learned an important cultural lesson from my father. I was just 12 years old, and had been brewing tea in preparation for Diwali, the five-day festival of lights. I boiled the water and broke cardamom pods, the shells of which I threw into the furnace-like pot. Entranced by the shells’ dance with fragrant fennel seeds and a lone (but powerful) clove, I steeped the tea bags and added milk. I poured the milky, frothy, spice-spiked chai through a sieve and spooned a dash of sugar into each cup.

When I was done, my dad then asked me to look under one of the empty teacups. A surprise awaited me: A wad of cash was hiding underneath! My father’s offering was considered a blessing, and the gesture made me feel as though I had proven myself as I learned this cultural rite of passage. (My father always considered women to be devis or goddesses deserving of respect and possessing power.) 

Now that I’m an adult, my tea-brewing talent still gets put on full display, as is customary for Diwali — which falls squarely during the autumnal season, either at the end of October or beginning of November (as it does this year), and coincides with the transition to cooler temperatures as well as the arrival of mainstream Western holidays. I grew up in New York as a Puerto Rican-Spaniard and Punjabi Indian daughter, and I was raised with a Catholic mother and Sikh father. Although different Eastern religions celebrate their own version of Diwali, all faiths share in the festival’s custom of randomly timed, unexpected visits with friends and relatives.

The first day of Diwali (the name originates from the Sanskrit word dipavali, meaning “row of lights”) typically involves a mandatory deep-cleaning affair. For my family, that meant the stairs’ wrought iron banisters were carefully dusted, including the curlicues of the ornate pattern where debris easily collected. The crevices of my parent’s kitchen cabinetry were Windex-ed, and the floor was swept, vacuumed, and then mopped. Cleaning every corner of my parents’ large house they had worked so hard to build from scratch easily tired us out.

In my home, cleaning was not a woman’s task alone. It was the universal showing of devotion for something larger than one’s self — a cultural legacy of discipline and self-care.

That feeling of working so hard was like I’d been dosed with a combination of tryptophan (the amino acid that makes you feel sleepy after eating a large meal) and serotonin (the hormone that helps put us in good moods). Everybody took part in the process of tidying up the house, including my father and brother. In my home, cleaning and preparing for Diwali was not a woman’s task alone. It was the universal showing of devotion for something larger than one’s self — a cultural legacy of discipline and self-care.

It’s like the age-old adage about speaking to yourself just as you would speak to a friend. As my father taught me, cleaning reflects self-love. In Sikhism, there is a Persian saying that one’s character is determined by their demeanor, dress, and diction: Raftar, Dastar, and Guftar.

Credit: Reshmi Kaur Oberoi
Diya, or earthen clay lamps, are filled with mustard oil, which is thought to ward off evil.

In my mixed-heritage household, Diwali is celebrated in the Sikh faith. In Sikhism, Diwali is referred to as Bandi Chhor Divas, the Day of Liberation. Although it shares the motif of good over evil with its Hindu counterpart, the Sikh narrative is rooted in the sociopolitical culture of the year 1619, not mythology: A Mughal emperor hell-bent on converting the nation of Eastern faiths by force wrongfully imprisoned the sixth of ten Sikh gurus. The guru won over the good graces of the Emperor upon saving his life and was released along with 52 Hindu princes. Today, cleaning and lighting diya, or earthen clay lamps, is the way of paving a path and welcoming the guru home. 

As for the rest of the days of Diwali, the second day is the coloring of the house’s blank clean canvas: clay earthen lamps (diya) filled with oil line the house and vibrant religious and floral patterns cover the floor. The patterns, said to be a good omen, are created with dyed grains of rice, colored sand, or, in our case, sidewalk chalk. The artwork is thought to attract the goddess Lakshmi’s arrival. She is the four-armed goddess of fortune who emerges from the lotus flower, and she is said to enter households that are cleaned to such a degree that it warrants her bestowment of wealth. The third day is a celebration in honor of Lakshmi. And the fourth and fifth days are when friends and family visit each other while conversations ensue over a multi-course meal.

Preparing for the five days required an immense amount of work. Cleaning, during my childhood, was not only present, but omnipresent. My Puerto Rican, Catholic mother enforced a stringent cleaning schedule that was persistent regardless of a holiday. And then cleaning was amplified before Diwali because visitors were absolutely expected. Their arrival would be random and unbeknownst to us, so we had to be ready.

Cleaning was such a constant in my house, my mother actually tried to convince me to forego lighting the diya. Instead of the earthen clay lamps, she suggested a few candles tucked away in white lanterns. You see, diya are filled with mustard oil, which is thought to ward off evil. One end of a cotton wick is soaked into the lamp. The other end is dabbed with oil and ignited. The whole process involves oil spills and greasy fingers as well as difficult-to-clean black soot once the flame goes out. The messiness, as my mother knew, is inevitable, with no tried-and-true remedy for removing oil stains or blackened charcoal imprints. Our compromise: The diyas were lit, but only outside, on the front stairs of the house, so the combination of a good power-washing and winter’s precipitation would eventually remove the stains.

These values — more than the act of Windex cleaning the cabinets or spiffing up the fine china — are the true legacies my parents intend to leave to me and my brother. 

Despite all of the effort that goes into lighting diya, every fall, I continue to enjoy the warmth from these earthen clay lamps because of the festivity in the air that brings so many people together during Diwali. The warmth of fireplaces burning, emanating its smokiness from neighbors’ chimneys, reminds me of the aromatic smoke from the diyas, and the Thanksgiving spread in grocery stores reminds me of Indian shops lining windows with ornate boxes to hold sweets that are exchanged with visiting friends and family. 

Credit: Reshmi Kaur Oberoi
Dates, pistachios, namkeen, and Lenox fine china await guests during Diwali.

These sweet confections during Diwali feed our mind, body, and soul. To present these gifts, I remember my parents had been on the hunt to find the best tray to serve an array of nuts and odds-and-ends for our unexpected Diwali guests. The need to find the right tray was important: It couldn’t be too heavy, but wide enough to hold cups of tea. The base of the tray’s texture had to be uniformly flat to balance the cups precariously brimming with boiling liquid. The tray’s prime pieces were in the form of Lenox fine china. For years now, my parents have been scoping out platters and bowls to complete their two collections: One set is a timeless, golden-lined, bone-white edition. The other set is butterfly-themed with pastels, ladybugs, and curved edges. My parents clean each accessory, saucer, tea cup, and kettle, methodically, one by one, using soap and water and a nonabrasive fabric to wipe them dry. When not in use, the china stays safely behind closed, window-paneled cabinet doors for viewing pleasure, only to be taken out again the next year during Diwali.

This is all to say that everything for Diwali needs to be perfect. It is not about how guests would perceive us. Rather, it is about treating people as we would treat ourselves. It comes back to what my father has said all along: self-care and self-respect. These values — more than the act of Windex cleaning the cabinets or spiffing up the fine china — are the true legacies my parents intend to leave to me and my brother. Today, the lights of diya shine upon me as I have become my own domestic goddess.

Do you celebrate and prepare for Diwali? Share your stories and experience in the comments below.