Diwali brings light amid pandemic

·4 min read

HALIFAX, N.S. — Every Diwali, Bulbul Sethi fills her home with diyas, or oil lamps, and candles — signalling a shift from darkness to light.

As part of the cultural festival of lights, which is celebrated in many variations among Indians, Sethi also dresses up in a traditional Indian sari, prays and dances with her family and puts out sweets for her loved ones to enjoy.

This year, with COVID-19 in the picture, Sethi says she, her husband and their two children are doing their best to stick to their Diwali rituals in order to focus on light during these dark times.

But they won't be gathering with as many loved ones on Saturday, the main day of celebration, as they had hoped.

“The biggest thing is, before COVID-19, we used to have gatherings with 30 or 40 people in our family and we used to get together in one house and celebrate. But this year, we thought we're going to cancel it,” she said.

Sethi and her husband will, however, be hosting families during different time slots at their Indian restaurant in Bayside, Passage to India. There, they'll have an all-you-can-eat buffet and sparklers to distribute among customers.

They had initially planned to set off fireworks on Saturday, a main feature of Diwali, but decided against that idea due to the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in Nova Scotia, according to Sethi.

“The excitement is still there, but there are still limitations, which is really hard,” she said.

Krunal Shah, his wife Himali and their four-year-old son Deep are celebrating their third Diwali in Nova Scotia this year.

In the past few years, Krunal Shah said they, too, would have “great get-togethers" with a “massive” group of friends in Halifax.

This year, Shah said they're still looking to “share fun, happiness and joy,” but will limit their gatherings to 10 people — as per public health guidelines — and look at hosting a larger virtual gathering with their friends. Shah said they'll also be dressed up and waving sparklers around.

“Definitely it is not the way we used to celebrate, but then this is a new world,” he said.

“Thanks to technology, finally we have something in our hand. At least we can see each other and meet and greet virtually to celebrate. It's not the best, but then, of course, better to have something than nothing.”

Vishal Bhardwaj, vice chairperson of the Vedanta Ashram Society, said COVID-19 presents “a big challenge” for many in the Indian community in Halifax who are used to celebrating Diwali with the community at large.

“Unfortunately we couldn't have it (that way) this year,” he said.

“Diwali is like Christmas for us, so this is a big celebration in a big way for the community. But unfortunately this year it's going to be quite intimate.”

In his role at the Vedanta Ashram Society, Bhardwaj is involved in organizing annual Diwali events that draw crowds of more than 400 people to the Hindu temple in Halifax. The society typically sets off fireworks, hosts a massive buffet and community prayers.

This year, he said the cultural organization will only host a maximum of 50 people at the temple at a time on Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon and 7 to 9 p.m. A celebration will also take place specifically for children on Sunday, featuring prayers and musical performances.

Throughout those events, Bhardwaj said the temple will be routinely sanitized, attendants will be asked to physically distance and, while there won't be fireworks, there may be glow sticks.

With all the limitations in place, Bhardwaj said Diwali is “not as joyful” as he would've imagined.

Still, Bhardwaj said he hopes people are able to celebrate in some way and look out for others during these “difficult times” to make sure nobody feels lonely or left out.

“And together, we will overcome this hurdle or this challenge and together we will move forward and hopefully next year will be a better year with better memories and we'll have a lot of celebrations,” he added.

Noushin Ziafati, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald