Why Diwali Remains A Mystery For Most New Yorkers

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Diwali, the Hindu fall festival of lights, begins today, November 13.

By Jeff Vasishta

Diwali Lights. Photo via Flickr/Swami Stream.

Diwali season is upon us again. It is the Indian fall festival of lights, occurring this year on November 13th-17th. Many New Yorkers familiar with Yom Kippur, Columbus Day or Martin Luther King Day are still in the dark about Diwali and its significance, despite it being granted a suspended parking rules day in 2005. Although New York based-Indians contribute a vital and visible component to the Big Apple’s economy, it is perhaps their lack of mainstream celebrity status which has resulted in many NYC residents’ ignorance when it come to Diwali. Regardless of the relatively recent fame of Padma Lakshmi, Freeda Pinto, Meera Nair, Mindy Kaling and others, they hardly stack up in name recognition to Jay-Z, J-Lo, Brad, Angelina and their ilk. Without Diwali celebrations featured in the pages of of US Weekly and on TV shows like Extra, it would barely occupy its fringe position in the American consciousness.

This has frustrated me since I first moved to New York from London in 1993, as a music journalist writing predominantly about R&B. There were no other Indians in my profession. In England, where the Indian populous is far more established than in the U.S. (the Indian take-out restaurant in the UK is more popular than McDonalds), Diwali is widely recognized and accepted, particularly in cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester. My family celebrated Diwali with other local Indians in community halls specially rented for the occasion. London hosts an annual Diwali festival in Trafalgar Square. It’s a big deal in a country where British Indians enjoy a far more visible role in the nation’s mainstream culture than they do in New York.

The Bollywood film industry revels in its rabid celebrity culture. In the U.S., however, famous homegrown Indians are thin on the ground. In 2009, British Indian pop singer Jay Sean was the first Indian to top the Billboard charts with the song “Down”. He hasn’t been able to capitalize on that success and become a widely recognized name. It’s not inconceivable that one day that there may be an Indian Katy Perry, Derek Jeter or Matt Damon, but it may not happen anytime soon. The three most direct paths to celebrity status – sports, music and film – are hardly championed by hard working Indian immigrants in the U.S., who, understandably, mostly promote academic success over anything else.

India’s Asian partner in the emergent global economy and American geekdom, China, has by far surpassed it in sports. First former NY Knick Jeremy Lin became a bonafide Chinese American basketball star and then China cemented their place as a world sporting power at the London Olympics. “Our mediocrity is there for all to see” read the headline in Delhi’s Mail Today during the games. By any measure, their total of one silver and three bronze medals from a nation of 1.2 billion people was a paltry showing and highlighted just how far the country has to go to compete with other nations a fraction of their size.

India achieved one notable celebrity first this year that resonated in certain quarters of the U.S. entertainment industry. Bollywood actress Sherlyn Chopra became the first Indian to appear nude in Playboy. But alas, organizers were not in a rush to book her to turn on the lights at the South Street Seaport Diwali Festival.

Until the Indian community has iconic pop culture figures recognized by all Americans, to draw attention to their traditions, Diwali will be nothing more than an excuse for New Yorkers not to have to get up in the morning and move their cars.

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