“This year, Diwali was supposed to be extra special,” says Vaishali Shah, 48. For the past two years, bereavements in her family meant Diwali celebrations were cancelled, the Londoner explains. Now a global pandemic and second national lockdown in England threaten to do the same.
“It’s very challenging to try to stay positive when we have no idea how long our isolation from loved ones will last,” she admits. “Diwali is a time to connect and celebrate with family and friends. I am trying to be objective – consoling myself that at least we will be able to be together virtually, but it’s not the same.”
Shah’s words echo the thoughts of families across the UK as they get ready to mark Diwali this weekend. The five day festival of light sees Hindu, as well as Jain and Sikh families, decorate their homes with candles and lights in one of the most significant celebrations in Indian culture. It’s a time to get together, spring clean, share gifts, play games, and cook up a feast.
Diwali is about new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness – a message that couldn’t be more needed in this pandemic year.
There has been so much talk in the news about Christmas 2020, and whether it is being cancelled or saved. Just this week, the government announced plans to get students home in time for it. And Boris Johnson continues to make assurances that people will be able to enjoy the festive season with family.
Far less has been said about other religious festivals – not least Diwali, which, similarly to the Muslim Eid festivals and Sikh Vaisakhi celebrations earlier this year, falls right in the middle of England’s new national lockdown in November.
But just as Muslim and Sikh communities found ways to celebrate virtually, despite not being together in person, people have grand plans for Diwali, too.
“Diwali is my most important and meaningful celebration and something that I eagerly look forward to, says Shah, who owns stationery company, Ananya.
Even with a ban on big family gatherings, Shah’s determined not to cancel celebrations. Traditionally, the family head out to an Indian restaurant for their festive meal rather than eating at home, but since second lockdown rules have scuppered those plans, the Shah household is thinking outside the box.
“We are going to have a virtual lunch where everyone cooks their own Diwali meal. We’re going to have three generations ranging from 77- to 6-year-olds tuning in,” she says. “Everyone will be wearing new Indian clothes, we’ll eat together with fun ice-breaker conversation cards and potentially even have a competition for best-looking food, with plenty of surprises on the day.”
Shah says that while she understands the considerable increase in Covid-19 cases means lockdown can’t be delayed, she wishes she felt more included.
“From a practical point of view, there is never an ideal time for a lockdown,” she says. “But if the government mentioned cultural celebrations like Diwali in their messaging, it would show they understand that this will be a difficult time for many as they miss out on family celebrations.”
“We don’t want this kind of surprise going forward,” Rajnish Kashyap, 60, general secretary and director of Hindu Council UK, tells HuffPost.
“The government should give people more time to prepare to go back into lockdown, at least a month in advance. People turn to religion in hard times and places of worship are often overlooked. Announcements and messaging need to be all-inclusive and they should be listening to voices of the community.”
People will be following restrictions, says Kashyap. “The hardest thing is that we have been denied to be able to provide a service to those most vulnerable like those who are homeless, who’ve lost jobs or unable to cook for themselves.”
For those in charge of cooking the Diwali feast for the first time this year, Harish Malhi, 24, founder of cookalong website, Diaspo, hopes to be of help.
The community-based network aims to use food to connect generations and encouraging people to recover their heritage – or discover it for the first time – through online sessions led by home cooks with bags of experience.
For Diwali, it’s running hour-long workshops showing people how to put together top-notch thali plates, pakoras, chai, samosas and chutney. There’ll also be rangoli workshops where viewers can tune in to learn how to make the colourful floor patterns that are a common sight at Diwali.
“Millions of people around the world, including the UK, won’t be able to celebrate like usual and will be missing out on the important sights, smells and tastes,” Malhi tells HuffPost UK. “Whether it’s the smell of fragrant Indian tea or chana masala bubbling away or freshly cooked puri, we’re trying to replicate that and bring the experience into people’s homes.”
Food is a great connector, says Malhi, giving busy households a rare chance to gather around one table. But the spirit of community extends beyond family.
“Part of that is going to the temple and bumping into friends and having family in the area come around to drop off gifts,” he says of what he’s miss this year.
“We have to stay strong and remember that there’s way more positivity than negativity to come out of it. The fact that people can still see each other at a safe distance and spend it together online versus not doing anything at all is really encouraging and positive.”
Author and chef, Anjula Devi, 56, from south west London, says she is getting a head start on celebrations this week by spring cleaning the house and making samosas even though there’s only three people in her immediate family.
“Every nook and cranny has to be spotless! Decluttering is very important and it’s a custom lots of people have forgotten about,” she explains.
“According to popular Hindu belief, Goddess Lakshmi ‘resides in cleanliness’. Therefore, the cleaner your house, the greater the chances that the Goddess will bless your house. My dad used to take this so seriously, that after what seemed like days of cleaning, he used to undertake a room inspection to ensure all the eight siblings had cleaned the house incredibly thoroughly.”
As well as unleashing her inner Kim Woodburn, Devi also plans to exchange presents with her close family and share some delicious food together, as you’d expect from a pro chef. “I love making potato and pea samosas and dessert samosa with carrots, sultanas, pistachios, and jaggery. I still feel it’s important to celebrate Diwali, even if it’s in a very different manner,” she says.
“I’ll be celebrating within my household, but will reach out to the rest of the gang via Zoom. It’s like having another Christmas in many ways – a great chance to eat, laugh, and celebrate whilst seeing in our new year.”