By Minreet Kaur
For millions of Hindus, November is an important part of the year and they won’t let the pandemic spoil their fun.
Stretching over five days, Diwali – or the Festival of Lights – is among the most auspicious and celebrated festivals in the Hindu calendar. Commemorating the victory of light over dark, the festival is synonymous with firework displays, family celebrations, and group feasts. Diwali is traditionally a respectful time of year, when families spend their time eating home-cooked meals, wearing traditional clothing and singing songs.
Like many other religious events this year, Diwali has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, with family celebrations set to be impacted by the lockdown as Boris Johnson has announced a new four-week lockdown across England, starting from Thursday 5th November which have further impact on celebrations.
Families who planned to eat out and celebrate will no longer be able to, more mental health stress and the elderly will be lonely during a festive period.
With festivities cancelled or modified, Diwali will obviously be different this year; and people are looking at a number of alternative ways to mark the occasion. In London, Diwali celebrations in Trafalgar Square would have been in its nineteenth-year. A huge event attended by thousands from all over the UK, including the Mayor of London who has supported this event from start. Cancelation of the actual event dishearten many Londoners and visitors from around the UK. It is an event which allows people from all walks of life to enjoy and learn about the celebratory Hindu Festival Diwali. This year the celebration has gone virtual and be just as grand.
Last year the Mayor of London tweeted and thanked thousands of people for attending – this year he will give his speech virtually.
Priya Vara, who is the founder of Shayen’s Masti Box, had a still-born baby, Shayen, in 2017, and this has fuelled her alternative Diwali efforts this year.
Ms. Vara says: “My husband and I started a number of different charitable initiatives. Although the care and support that we received when we lost Shayen was brilliant, the environment could be improved.
“All hospitals should have a maternity bereavement suite where families are able to make their once-in-a-lifetime memories with their child. We kicked off a huge fundraising project last August – the aim to raise £50,000 for Hillingdon Hospital to help them build a maternity bereavement suite.”
Last year, the Varas hosted a children’s Diwali event with all proceeds going to their cause. Covid-19, however, has prevented them from hosting events for most of 2020. To keep the spirit of Diwali alive, they have created celebration boxes for children – including activities and books in each box.
Ms. Vara added: “All of the proceeds from the boxes will be donated to Hillingdon Hospital. I’d like to think that Diwali hasn’t been cancelled – instead, people will celebrate at home and value it even more.”
Sadly, not all members of the community are able to adopt a similar attitude. Those with loved ones in hospital find themselves unable to visit due to Covid restrictions – and this is impacting their mental health.
Rajnish Kashyap, General Secretary of Hindu Council UK, says: “I am going to have a very difficult Diwali as my loved ones are in hospital and I have an elderly dad at home by himself for the last seven days. I am worried about it, it has various effects on you.”
There are many like Rajnish who are unable to travel to see their family at this very special time of year. Among them is NHS worker Priti Surendran.
Priti says: “Every year, around Diwali or Christmas, I visit my family in India. I get to see my parents and other family members. We eat good food and just cherish the time we have together. Having very few friends here in the UK and no family apart from my husband this is something I look forward to every year.
“This year has got to be the worst year in terms of getting to spend time with family. My husband lost his job due to Covid – and subsequently lost his work visa. We’ve applied for a spouse visa and have been waiting patiently since May for a decision. Due to Covid, the applications have all been delayed so we are absolutely shattered we cannot travel back home. It’s beyond lonely being here during festivals with no family around, and a very difficult time for us.”
Another person affected is first-generation migrant Viyeta Gaur, who doesn’t have immediate relatives here but has made friends that are like family.
Viyeta says: “We normally would be celebrating all of the festivals, but this year that won’t be possible. We are a small group of family friends and my kids see these friends more than their grandparents who are based in India. It’s going to be a very lonely festive season this year. Almost all of us do not have any blood relatives or siblings or parents in the country, so we are each other’s family. Not only has this been a difficult year, but the festive season will leave us all homesick.”
Diwali celebrations this year at the popular Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden would have compounded a year-long 25th anniversary celebration. Light, colour, sound and, of course, food – words that are synonymous with the most important Hindu Festival of the year – will give way to other, more intimate moments.
Yogesh Patel, a volunteer at the temple, says: “Diwali is much more for volunteers. It is a time for personal reflection; a time to step away from the ‘beaten track’ of life to reflect upon one’s spiritual journey as an individual and also as a family; and, importantly, a time to help and serve – to bring the light of Diwali to the hearts of others.
This year, in the midst of global restrictions and challenges, there is even greater enthusiasm to help support the community. In essence, the spirit of Diwali will bring people together while staying apart – and all of the celebrations will move online.
Volunteers at the temple have begun their preparations to bring the enriching spiritual experience of Diwali to the homes of worshippers and well-wishers across local communities. A series of devotional online programmes have been planned, which will allow families to participate from their front rooms. Diwali and Hindu New Year services and assemblies will continue from Mandir shrines by resident swamis which will be enjoyed through these online webcasts.
Diwali is celebrated in different ways depending on which part of India you come from. But in the face of Covid every single Hindu is determined not to let the restrictions dim their light.