“Why I’ve made Diwali into my very own feminist festival of lights”

“Why I’ve made Diwali into my very own feminist festival of lights”

Written by Sangeeta Pillai

As a child-free South Asian woman, writer Sangeeta Pillai found she didn’t fit in with traditional Diwali celebrations. So, she decided to create her very own feminist festival. 

The heat of just-warmed oil against my sleepy skin for the traditional bath on Diwali morning. The stiffness of a sparkly new salwar kameez dropped off by the tailor the evening before. The smoke of firecrackers. The excitement of lighting a rocket and dashing off before it explodes high in the sky.

My memories of Diwali as a child in India are beautiful. My two brothers and I would run around high on sugary sweet Diwali treats, trying not to ruin the freshly drawn rangolis (traditional designs made with colourful powders) outside the homes of various uncles and aunties while exchanging customary platters of sweets.

Somewhere in the background are memories of my mother, who, like most of the Indian women in families, slaved away for weeks before the event; cleaning every corner of our little Mumbai flat and prepping and cooking all those Diwali treats. As kids, we gobbled them up until we felt sick, never really thinking about how hard my mother worked to make them to give us the perfect Diwali. 

That was Diwali then, when I was part of a traditional Indian family. Today, I live happily on my own in a flat in east London. 

The festival of Diwali, celebrated every year by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains all over the world in October or November, is all about the victory of light over darkness, good over evil and hope over despair. And I love everything about it.

Writer Sangeeta Pillai wearing her sari for Diwali.

The excitement starts a few weeks in advance: houses getting cleaned, the Asian markets in London being flooded with brightly coloured diyas (lamps), flowers and crackers. Sweet and savoury treats sitting under bright lights in shops and an array of gorgeous saris and salwars waiting to be worn.

Not being married or having kids, I’ve chosen a life that’s considered non-traditional. But this picture-perfect Diwali in my culture usually involves family – a traditional family of husband, wife, kids, grandparents and assorted uncles, aunties, nieces and nephews – and looks nothing like the picture of my life, or the lives of so many other single South Asian women, whether they’re single by choice or through divorce or losing a partner.

I work to promote South Asian feminism through my Masala Podcast and in my Masala Monologues workshops I work with South Asian women to tackle all sorts of cultural taboos: everything from sex, sexuality, female pleasure, periods, mental health and shame. None of those subjects make for comfortable conversations over a Diwali family dinner with the aunties and uncles.

The traditional family Diwali isn’t the perfect celebration for me anymore. A few years ago, I went to a Diwali party: the men were sitting in the living room talking about the stock market and politics. The kids were outside chasing each other holding burning sparklers. The women were in the kitchen busily cooking vats of curry and cleaning up after everyone else.

I remember looking across this party thinking: I’m going to create my own feminist Diwali. And I did. 

What does my feminist Diwali look like? 

Tradition as self-care 

South Indian families like mine start Diwali day with a warm oil massage and a hot bath. In east London, I continue the tradition of warming up a massage oil, adding in scents of lavender and patchouli, and lighting a few scented candles. 

It’s my version of an early morning self-care routine-meets-Diwali tradition. After a steaming bath with some music playing, I feel nurtured down to my soul.  

Wearing my traditional outfit, non-traditionally 

I adore how my body moves with grace and elegance when I wear my sari on Diwali, as if remembering the movements of generations before. But I always add my own touch, like my “Bad Beti” necklace from my Masala podcast merchandise. 

“Bad Beti” translates as “bad daughter”. Traditionally South Asian women are supposed to be “good daughters”, so I give my traditional sari a modern spin with non-traditional jewellery. I’ll add bangles, sparkly bindis and some chunky Indian jewellery to complete my own Bad Beti Diwali look.  

Cooking up a treat

Every year, my mum would make 12 different types of savoury snacks and four different sweet snacks. I don’t fancy being stuck in the kitchen for weeks, so I just make one Diwali treat. 

I turn the cooking into a personal ritual, shopping for ingredients in my favourite Indian neighbourhood. When I come home, I turn on some Desi tunes and head into the kitchen. This year, I’m making besan barfi (a fudge-style sweet made with gram flour, ghee and cardamom) with the Slumdog Millionaire track Jai Jo playing loud on the speakers. 

Lights, endless lights

Diwali literally means “the festival of lights” and flooding your home with lights symbolises choosing light over darkness in your life. So on Diwali, I light as many little lights as I can. I have 60 flickering diyas glowing softly in my flat, shining brightly all the way from my front door to the living room. When you see that much light shining in your home, you can’t help but feel happy.  

Creating an explosion of colours

Diwali for me is about the brightest of colours. I start with a rangoli (a multi-coloured Indian decoration) to invite good fortune into my home. This year, I’ve used these bright acrylic rangoli patterns. I also hang an explosion of vibrant pink, yellow and orange flowers over my pictures and add traditional festive patterns all over my flat. It’s Diwali done the maximalist way.

A chit chat with the Goddess Lakshmi

On Diwali night, it’s believed Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, fortune, luxury, and prosperity, visits each home to bless her devotees. I’ve got my own relationship with her. She’s a strong, feisty Indian goddess after all, and I reckon she loves a fiery South Asian feminist like me.

So, I light my lamps as dusk approaches, do a little puja (prayer) using a golden thali (food platter) bearing the image of Goddess Lakshmi. Then I settle down, ready to have a good old chin wag with her.

I have many hopes for this coming year. First of all, I’m going to ask Goddess Lakshmi for good health, and also for a few more podcast awards, a book deal or two, universal love and a couple of multiple orgasms… I’m not holding back here.

I can see her now, sitting across the sofa from me, two of her four arms carrying blossoming lotuses, which symbolise knowledge, self-realisation and liberation. She will laugh at my many requests for the year ahead and, I reckon, grant me at least two.

Her parting words to me will be: “I like your necklace, see you next year!” 

Images: Getty, Sangeeta Pillai 

This article was originally published in 2021. 

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