For Susanne Sonal, a junior at the University of South Florida, Diwali has always been a special time of year.
Growing up in India, she remembers the season fondly: lots of sweets, lots of parties and rows of houses lit up with little lamps.
When she moved to the United States in 2018, straight out of high school, she remembered making only a few friends at first. Then she attended the annual Diwali celebration by the Students of India Association. It was the organization’s largest event of the year, featuring dance performances, food, fashion shows and up to 800 students in attendance.
“Seeing so many other people celebrating our culture, it was very heartwarming,” Sonal said. “It’s like a place where you know that you belong.”
But this year, with big gatherings discouraged, many Indians and Indian-Americans across Tampa Bay are pausing to think about the meaning of Diwali, which began Thursday and continues through Monday.
Diwali, which comes from the Sanskrit word Deepavali, or “row of lights,” is a five-day festival that falls between October and November. It is celebrated religiously by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists, and culturally by many others. Each day signifies a different meaning, with the third day taking most prominence, typically falling on the darkest night of the month and often featuring fireworks and the lighting of diyas, or small lamps.
The holidays are also celebrated with pujas, or prayer services; the exchanging of sweets; and displays of colorful floor decorations called rangolis.
The stories behind why it is celebrated vary by region and religion. But the spiritual and symbolic meaning is the same: a victory of good over evil and light over darkness — a message all could benefit from in a year like this, said Indira Sastry, a trustee of the Hindu Temple of Florida, where she also teaches religion.
“It celebrates the rise of knowledge by removing our ignorance,” she said. “When we light a lamp, we use one lighter to light several lamps. From that one lamp, all the other lamps are lit, signifying unity in diversity.”
Sonal, the USF student, is now president of the Students of India Association and wanted to make sure her peers could feel some sense of community though they can’t get together. The organization is hosting a weeklong series of virtual events, including a rangoli competition asking people to submit photos of what they create and asking them to send in photos of themselves dressed up. They’ll also host a trivia event.
“It’s something people really look forward to,” Sonal said. “We have to hold on to that hope of victory somewhere. Even though we might not be with friends or family.”
Anu Varma Panchal wrote a column in Khaas Baat, a Tampa-based newspaper for Indian Americans in Florida, about what Diwali means to her this year.
Panchal said in an interview she has lived in Tampa for 20 years, and has seen the area’s Indian community swell. The once small, scattered community has grown into one that draws thousands to events like IndiaFest, Navaratri and Diwali, with multiple temples and regional factions hosting their own celebrations.
“Normally if you’re an Indian living in the Tampa Bay area, October, November is just nonstop,” she said. “Now, suddenly this year, everyone’s back to kind of doing their own thing because we can’t get together in big groups. There is something a little bit nice about doing things quietly.”
To Panchal, the quiet is a respite from the questions that dominate life these days: When will there be a vaccine? When can her kids see their grandparents again? When might things return to normal?
“It’s especially meaningful this year especially because of the whole idea of a light in the darkness,” she said. “In so many ways, we’re just so desperate for that this year. The whole world needs that so badly. To think of an entire weekend when you think about a light in the darkness, and vanquishing that darkness even if it’s just in our heads or hearts, it’s nice.”
Her two daughters, she said, are home e-learning. Though they have less time than when they were younger, she said she’s been involving them in creating decorations, like rangolis. This year, they will be getting together with a few other families in their quarantine bubble, she said.
“It’s an opportunity for your kids especially to be in touch with their heritage,” she said. “The holidays are a good way to touch base with that part of ourselves a little bit more. Because we’re such a social people, a lot of times you tend to forget what the actual holidays are about because it becomes a whirlwind of parties, events, performances and all those kinds of things. But this year it’s quiet. You really sit and think of all the little ceremonies that go into something and the meaning behind it.”
Maansi Sharma, a manager at Royal Sweets — a shop in Tampa specializing in mithai, the sweets typically exchanged during Diwali — said business related to the holiday has been about the same, though it’s generally been slower during the pandemic.
Her favorite part, she said, is sharing sweets with neighbors.
“It’s a celebration of life, light and love,” she said. “It means coming together. Especially in a year like this, it makes you think about living in the moment and doing everything you want to do.”
Sastry, the religion teacher, said this year her family will be celebrating only with each other.
In a year marked by loss, racial reckoning and division, she said she hopes that, without the superficial celebrations of Diwali, people can think about its true meaning.
“We have to ignite the lamp that is already inside us by removing our ignorance,” she said. “So that we are out of all our evil tendencies and invoke the good qualities within us. It is already there in us, we just have to invoke it.”