Diwali and finding new homes

Akshita Hunka reflects back on Diwali and explores the hope in celebrating festivals as an international student

Going back home for winter break this year and telling my family about my semester away from them got me thinking about some of the best and some of the hardest days of my college experience. Diwali was one of them, quite possibly the hardest of all. But somehow still the best memory I have from this semester. Let me explain.

As I put up Diwali lights in my student accommodation and made a simple chickpea curry for the first time instead of going to get firecrackers for the fairground on my grandfather’s scooter and coming back to homecooked chaklis, I realised I’d come a long way.

No matter how many Diwalis you spend away from home it hits just as hard. How incredibly far away you are. How badly you wish you had soan papdi. How much you miss your mother. That’s why I kept seeing upset and homesick Indians, not just students but of all ages, as I walked around the Ilac centre trying to find the right lights for my dorm room. 

It took a while but I found the ones I was looking for in the Dunnes Christmas decorations section. On looking more, I also found some Haldirams kaju katli and some chakli in a nearby shop. 

I’d been feeling low and sick the day before Choti Diwali, and had had no such plans of shopping. Last year, after having the worst Diwali, I wasn’t entirely excited for this one. I’d been sick and at the doctors for half the day, and had spent the other half trying to find enough energy to take a few photos in a kurta I’d somehow managed to put on instead of my originally planned sari. But my mother was adamant that this would not be the case on Diwali again. 

So on Choti Diwali, I received a good typical Indian mother lecture from her to at least, as she had said, make it a bit like the Diwali at home. Lights, sweets and snacks were the least I could do. 

“I walked home with a new found hope that no matter how homesick, and well, as physically sick as I might feel, I can make something of this Diwali”

The walk into town from my student accommodation though somehow cleared my head and motivated me to try harder. Not just the bare minimum. So on my stop at the Indian store, I also picked up henna and mehendi. I walked home with a new found hope that no matter how homesick, and well, as physically sick as I might feel, I can make something of this Diwali. 

My boyfriend came over the day of Choti Diwali and in my state of motivation and determination to enjoy Diwali and not cry every few hours like I had last year, I made us a plan: the Diwali weekend plan. It covered the entire board and seemed more ambitious than I had originally planned to make it. That’s when I began to question my goals for this day. My boyfriend, though, encouraged me that I could do it. I could manage studying, and homesickness all with being sick at the same time, and enjoy myself on a day that’s so important to me and my culture. His words, and this being his first Diwali because he’s not from India, gave me all the more reason to make this Diwali special. 

That’s when my motivation was met with actual confidence in how well this day could go. So after resting for a bit and taking my medicines, I dragged myself out of bed yet again. My boyfriend came along with me and listened intently as I went on and on about my old Diwalis his time feeling not sad when I remembered them. It was more of a bittersweet feeling because I knew no matter how much I miss them, I will also always have it in me to make more Diwali memories as I grow up. 

Yes, the Diwali when I was eight and my cousin and I stayed up all night making the biggest rangoli at our home’s gate was a great memory. Yes, the one which was my baby sister’s first and I helped her do her hair after my mom had dressed her in a lehenga for babies for the first time will be one I may never forget. And yes, the one when my mom took me shopping to my favourite boutique that I had been told we wouldn’t be able to afford a few months before and had given up all hopes on getting my Diwali outfit from, is unforgettable. 

But so will be the one that was my first Diwali with my boyfriend who made small rangoli flowers outside my room as we finished an entire pack of kaju katli right there sitting on the floor. And so will be the ones to come. The one where I am a mom for the first time. The one where I celebrate with my family in India again after years. So will be the one when I’m old enough to look back and tell the story of Diwalis away and close to home, Diwalis I enjoyed and tried on, Diwalis that helped me find myself and helped me stay connected to my culture even in my new life away from home. Diwalis that helped me find a new home. 

And how could I not think this? How could I not feel like I’d found a new home? How could I not, when I sat around my student accommodation’s kitchen table, eating curry and rice with my beautiful friends who though I had met only in the past year, had come all the way on a Sunday evening to have dinner with me because they knew it was an important day for me. How could I not, as my friend complimented the kaju katli that she was trying for the first time and my mother texted me saying how proud she was of me for making curry for the first time as a reply to the photo I sent her? How could I not when my boyfriend stood shocked and looked at me with so much love in his eyes when he saw me in a sari for the first time before rushing to my aid when I asked for help with the pleats? How could I not when my room lit up with the Christmas lights I’d bought? How could I not feel loved and happy and wanted and at home? 

And I know how none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t dragged myself out of bed to get the Indian sweets. If I hadn’t dragged myself out of bed months ago to go to the party I met my best friend at. If I hadn’t dragged myself out of bed to make pizza with my roommate the day my boyfriend entered the kitchen and my life for the first time. And if I hadn’t dragged myself out of bed and tried, just a little bit, to not feel homesick and sad every day in my years here. If I hadn’t dragged myself out of bed and given this place a chance. 

“Give this new far away place a chance. Give your new far away Diwalis a chance. Give yourself a chance”

Give this new far away place a chance. Give your new far-away Diwalis a chance. Give yourself a chance. And I promise you one day you’ll miss these new college Diwalis and old Diwalis just the same, as you continue to prepare for more!