Photo of Anushka in a yellow sweater and black overalls standing and smiling on a fallen tree on the bank of a lake in Burlington, Vermont. Rocky cliffs and autumn foliage rise behind her. The scene is mirrored in the lake.

Introduction:

My name is Anushka Saraswat. Originally from India, but having lived in Cameroon and Senegal, Sterling College here in the United States is my fourth destination, but not the last. I am now in my second semester, and having spent about 8 months away from the places I know best, I would love to share some of the realities of going to school far from home.

Welcome to Part II of my five-part series on my life as an international student of color living in northeast Vermont, as I share with you the Indian festival of Diwali.

 

Far From Home: Part II

Diwali: Driving Away Darkness

What comes to your mind when you think about the festive season this time of the year? Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas? For me, Navaratri, Dussehra and Diwali pop up and remind me of home. October and November have always been the most festive months of the year for my family. All three of these festivals fall chronologically on the hindu lunisolar calendar and are intertwined in their stories and legends. Diwali celebrates the arrival of Lord Rama back to his hometown after a 14-year-long exile fighting the demon Ravana. Being one of the most popular festivals of the Indian subcontinent, it symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and the victory of light over darkness. Growing up Hindu, I did learn the religious significance of the festival, but the festivities and activities that occurred after the prayers and rituals were what I cherished the most. Labelling myself an agnostic now, religious festivals still hold a lot of meaning in my heart because they remind me of my childhood bliss and hold memories that I often reminisce here, far from home.

On November 11th, the International Students at Sterling College organized a Diwali celebration on Campus. Here are some photos highlighting the event:

The art of rangoli has been very special to me. It involves creating different patterns on the floor using colored rice, flour or sand and these patterns are called “rangoli.” The colorful designs are seen as a welcome decoration for the guests being invited to the house during celebrations. Vendors sell the different colors at shops all around my hometown; choosing the colors that I want to use has been the most exciting part of the rangoli process for me. I still remember, waking up early on the mornings of any festivities to make a rangoli with my mom outside our apartment door in India. I decided to video call her as I was making the rangoli at Sterling just to feel her presence in that special moment.

 

There’s something about Naan that no one can resist. Naan ‘bread’ as they call it here, is made from flour, salt, sugar, yeast, yogurt, ‘ghee’ (but we used oil instead), and lots of love. Usually cooked in a tandoor (a clay brick-oven), the pillowy texture of the naan with the spicy and contrasting flavor of the garlic paste on top blends in your mouth like magic.

Palak Paneer is a dish originally from North India that is one of my favorite delicacies of all time. The use of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaves and green chillies really elevates the Indian cuisine. Eating this gravy of Spinach and Paneer with Garlic Naan (with hands, of course) brought back so many memories of home. Since paneer (loosely translates to cottage cheese) is hard to come by in Vermont, we had to go back to our Indian roots and channel our grandmothers to make homemade Paneer in the Sterling Kitchen.

Diwali is often referred to as the Festival of Lights. We light diyas, which are clay lamps with cotton wicks, to drive away darkness and also welcome the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi, into our homes. The vivid memory of me painting diyas, and lighting and decorating them around the house, is still very recent to me. At Sterling, we put candles in the diyas and placed them on tables across our dining hall for dinner. Lighting fire-crackers is also seen as a huge part of the festival, but I’ve shied away from it because of the growing pollution across India.

Red Tikas, between the eyebrows on the forehead, are considered a form of blessing. It has various meanings and symbolism in different regions. My family always applied Tika before starting a prayer or prior to doing something important in our lives like buying a new car or going for a job interview. It usually consists of vermillion powder and rice grains. At Sterling, we welcomed and honored everyone entering our dining hall with the gesture of applying the tika.

Building community and spending time with your family is a huge attribute of the Diwali Festival. Making Sterling College our family, as international students, has been an ongoing process, and Diwali might just have acted as a catalyst.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sweets on the serving table. Diwali sweets like Kheer (rice pudding) and Mango Lassi are a huge part of the Diwali experience.

I am so grateful for the people in the photo above (and the ones that are missing in the picture) for bringing Diwali to Sterling College. As international students, being away from home and family, we find home in each other and consider ourselves a family in this foreign abode.

Check out Part I of the Far From Home series: Changing Seasons.



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