In 2020, my now-husband and I stepped away from the chaotic, beautiful, passionate city of New York and chose tranquility in Massachusetts. New York was full of life, energy, and diversity—so much of what I love. But I wanted—I needed—a calmer, quieter city steeped in greenery, with less hustle and grit. I was tired, burnt out.
In many ways, Cambridge provided everything. Our apartment was spacious, set on a tree-lined street, and a short drive away from our families. Friendly neighbors often stopped by, outdoor cats lay on our sunny back porch, and wild turkeys strut on the sidewalk. Yet it took me two years to embrace the new life and community I had sought—led there by the glimmering lights of Diwali.
In November 2020, still in the depths of COVID, the Hindustan Times in Delhi wrote of Diwali, "The entire country is bathed in the soft glow of light and warmth emanating from every household, making it a truly wondrous sight to behold.” Families congregated to draw colorful rangoli (sand-like powders) around the entrances of their homes, to light candles welcoming the harvest, and to share homemade snacks with one another.
But that year, we lit candles and canceled our planned celebration with our extended family. The COVID pandemic still loomed—fear knotted in my veins. We hunkered down in our apartment, often going days without stepping outside. On the days we remembered the concept of fresh air, we strolled along the Charles River, hosted small gatherings in our backyard, or hiked during the leaf-peeping season. There were moments I surprised myself at how effortlessly I had adapted to a life of isolation. Still, I missed seeing friends and family without masks, hand sanitizer, and six feet of distance.
That Diwali, we assembled in my parents’ front yard as gusts of November wind turned our cheeks pink. One by one, we masked up and went inside to peer at the colorful decorations around the house. We sat outside for lunch, distanced from one another, and shoveled warm food into our mouths before it turned cold. It was a meaningful celebration, but I longed for more connectedness with our community. COVID stormed into our lives, and celebrations looked markedly different.
I thought about the meaning of deepa: "light," to illuminate and bring clarity. At that moment, the significance of Diwali became clear to me. For as long as I've celebrated Diwali—my whole life—I had taken our ability to gather for granted.
Diwali, known to many as the festival of lights, derives from the Sanskrit word deepavali, meaning "row of lights." With ancient origins and widespread participation by multiple religions across the globe, Diwali celebrates many things: the victory of good over evil and light over darkness, and hope over despair. It serves a vital function in my immigrant community: we gather to celebrate a shared culture. It’s a time to shed our assimilated skin for a night, swirls of bright colors ribboning across the dance floor as we twirl our dresses to Bollywood tunes, our inner light beaming through our salwar kameez. We exchange homemade mithai, sweet fudgy treats like ladoo or kaju katli, and dip salty snacks into spicy mint and sweet tamarind chutneys.
"For as long as I've celebrated Diwali—my whole life—I had taken our ability to gather for granted."
A few weeks ago, over two years since the COVID pandemic started, I sat on my friends' outdoor porch eating a home-cooked dinner they had prepared for me. We chatted for hours and exchanged stories, laughs, and a bottle of chilled cider. The darkness of the evening surrounded us as we stood at the edge of their porch, leaning over the railing, studying the neighbors. To the left was a couple watching the US Open, the warm orange glow from their living room illuminating the night; farther out, a lively party filled the backyard of an apartment complex. After two years of isolation and time to reflect, even everyday moments like this feel different now—more connected, brighter. That night, things felt different. I felt so much gratitude toward my friends and the greater community—this is home.
This year, I’ll make a Diwali spread of sweets and salty snacks, like delicata squash pakoras and pumpkin ladoo. I'll dress in a colorful chiffon dress adorned with intricate designs. And of course, I’ll celebrate with friends and family.