Celebrating Diwali, the Festival of Lights, on the Peninsula may seem like a world apart from the large-scale, multiday festivities that occur in India, but not for Disha Chopra, who views the event as a special opportunity to reconnect with friends and neighbors in cultural celebration.
Chopra grew up in India but has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. "It's nice to have this event, which brings people together. It gives you that sense of belonging and reminds you of what you had before," she said, referring to her home in India.
Chopra, who lives in Palo Alto's Barron Park neighborhood, first connected with other residents when she attended a Hindu dance celebration in 2018. "I was new to the area," she said. "And I met so many of my neighbors then. It was so much fun, and I began to understand the importance of these kinds of events for building community."
Organizing this year's Diwali celebration in her neighborhood has been particularly meaningful for Chopra, as it has helped her revive some of her family's traditions, stories and cultural rites that she hopes to pass on to her children who also will be volunteering at the event. "For my kids, it's more of a cultural introduction so that they don't lose those ties," she said.
Shuchi Sarkar, a volunteer and College Terrace resident, similarly described Diwali as a special time of community connection and spiritual renewal. "It's a festival of light, hope and joy," Sarkar said, referring to the ancient mythology of Ramayana. While there are many details and variations to the story, in this version, Lord Rama, who is exiled from his home, defeats a demon king and returns home a hero. The entire town celebrates by lighting lamps, today known as Diwali. This year, Diwali starts on Oct. 24.
Sarkar has lived in the U.S. for 10 years but still practices many of her family's Diwali traditions: decorating the house, putting up lights, buying new clothes and preparing special foods for family and friends. "Every year I used to lay out the whole puja (rites of offering) in my house with my mom and sister (in India). And now I do the same with my daughter," Sarkar said.
"So, it's a little bit of passing on the tradition and reliving those memories but also creating new ones and really enjoying this period of joy and goodness," she said. "It's a period that brings out the best in everyone. It brings out all your compassion, your charity, your feeling of sharing and giving."
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, large communal celebrations like Diwali have not occurred for more than two years. Social distancing regulations kept Diwali limited to small family get-togethers. The gravity of the pandemic made it so that many people did not even want to gather as they did before.
"The two years of the pandemic, it was very low key," Sarkar said. "We just did a small puja at home and made some simple food. We didn't do too much of lighting or anything else. Because there was so much loss and grief in the world, you didn't feel like doing it in that kind of manner."
But people are ready to celebrate as a community once again, said Jaya Pandey, the event coordinator for a local Diwali event at Barron Park Elementary School. She anticipated that this year's celebration will be smaller than the last community Diwali event she organized in 2015, which had about 250 to 300 attendees. Still, Pandey expects a good turnout.
This year's celebration will have music, dancing, henna painting and children's activities, with samosas, chai and sweets on hand too. It will begin with a small prayer and will have decorations of flowers and rangolis (patterned floor art) and statues of gods and goddesses. But Pandey was quick to say that it is a community event open to everyone, not just Hindus or South Asians.
"It's friends coming together and making new friends," she said. "It's people offering help and feeling like there's a part of home with them."
Sponsored by the Barron Park Association and the city of Palo Alto, the Diwali celebration will be held at Barron Park Elementary School at 800 Barron Ave. on Sunday, Oct. 23, from 2 to 5 p.m. and is free to the public. Other upcoming Diwali events on the Midpeninsula include:
Friday, Oct. 21, Diwali Party 2022
VKR, 731 S. Wolfe Road, Sunnyvale
Saturday, Oct. 22, Diwali: Festival of Lights
Children's Discovery Museum, 180 Woz Way, San Jose
9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 1:30-4:30 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 22, Diwali Dance Performance by students from PAMPA Dance Academy
Pioneer Memorial Park, 1146 Church St., Mountain View
Saturday, Oct. 22, Branham Diwali Night
Branham High School, 1570 Branham Lane, San Jose
Wednesday, Oct. 26, Diwali Storytime and Dance Workshop
Redwood Shores Branch Library, 399 Marine Parkway, Redwood City
Thursday, Oct. 27, Diwali Storytime and Dance Workshop
Redwood City Library, 1044 Middlefield Road, Redwood City