I always feel a little maudlin at this time of year. When I was a child my sociable parents often had friends round for coconut pastries and about 12 fireworks in the garden. We always worried that my dad would not be able to light them, especially as he could barely even see the blue touch paper but we muddled through and wrote our names in the air with gas cooker-lit sparklers, watching their illusory tracery fade in the air. Not having a brother or, indeed, any male relative of my generation meant that we could dispense with bhau biz, the brothers’ festival, and Diwali wasn’t sufficient excuse to buy new clothes that weren’t stricly necessary anyway, so the social part was the extent of our suburban Diwali experience in the 70s and 80s and, pairing up with a gora, I scarcely celebrated it at all after that.
There have been a couple of family get togethers at the home of more recently-immigrated distant cousins but that’s the extent of it. Some years Diwali would come and go and I’d barely be aware of its existence but increasingly, as the UK has embraced the festival of lights rather than resenting, Daily Fail stylee, the fact that their children were taught effnik songs, I’ve been aware that I should be doing SOMETHING to reflect my roots. Peskily, though, Diwali usually falls in the middle of the week, at a busy time in the school calendar; around Halloween; around piano/brass/woodwind competition time, or practice for Armistice Day or preparation for music exams or a busy time at work. And so, in our household, it’s been squeezed almost out of existence.
Neighbours in our overwhelmingly elderly white neighbourhood decorated their house with lights last Thursday and I watched suspiciously, wondering if they were just doing that for Halloween. No doubt other neighbours must be thinking “It’s a bit early for Christmas,” as they have stayed illuminated since then. This morning I switched our house lights on too. But it wasn’t enough. There will be no fireworks. People don’t like private fireworks anymore. Obviously it’s deeply inconsiderate (and illegal) to set them off late at night, and the pets don’t like them. (Although I must say we’ve never made a fuss around fireworks at Bonfire Night, and Oscar seems not to be phased at all.) I can’t help wondering if at least some people who moan about how the fireworks “Seem to go on longer and longer every year,” are either being resentful or just ignorant of all the different festivals that can be celebrated around this time of year. Plus I didn’t make anything special to eat. I’m just not capable, you see, because I’ve never learnt. No, mum. People don’t learn by osmosis, even if they are clever. They have to be taught.
I’m afraid, you see, that I am a coconut. A term of abuse but trenchantly accurate. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. While I understand Marathi, I can’t readily speak it without exhibiting my English accent. I virtually never cook anything remotely spicy. I have no religious faith, let alone an Indian one. I make a big fuss for Christmas yet ignore all the Indian festivals. Except that Diwali is too big to ignore and I am found lacking. I’m not a proper Indian and it comes home to me even more sharply when people ask me where I’m from.
Strangely, they don’t seem content when I answer, “Bromley.”
“No, originally. Where are you from originally?”
Well. I was born in Bromley but my mum and dad came from India in the 50s and 60s.”
“Oh I see. So you come from India. I like Indians.”
I wonder if they ask everyone new they meet this question or just the brown ones. And off they go with their reveries of life in Raj or how they like their curry really hot, or how they prefer exotic women. I’ve granted them a fantasy, you see, and they’re revelling in it. The people who make spiteful sharp comments or pointed racist epithets or shout at me in the street have usually dispensed with such niceties, of course.
I used to get this a lot and after a gap of several years people are asking it again. Three times in the last two weeks. People no longer comment on the weather, though and tell me that I must find this cold difficult to get used to, so I suppose progress has been made.
Do I look more Indian that before? I’m not wearing a sari or anything? The way I look and the way I speak must be mutually incongruous, I understand that, but voicing this question just makes me feel uncomfortable. As if, at 48, I still don’t belong here. But you see, I certainly don’t belong in India where, at 9 in dungarees on a visit, I was called “Gora” and shouted at in the street by a gang of local children and more recently I seem to be a target for all the nationalistic, anti-Western tirades that lie dormant in the heads of my rellies and their friends. When I’m in India, I do wear Indian clothes and I look just like them, but I draw their venom about cultural pollution and Western Values. This inferiority complex does not seem to apply to English relatives and husbands, who are met with the utmost solicitousness and grace.
So, neither one thing nor the other, conscious of it, and drawing the worst of stereotypical assumptions and prejudices from both sides. Lucky me.
But Diwali is a new year and celebration of new beginnings, right? So my lights are lit and we marked the occasion with a lunch of authentic Indian food at the fabulous, Michelin-recommended Cinnamon Culture restaurant. I shall continue to mark Diwali from now on, because celebrating the positive is surely always worthwhile.