In November of 2018 I celebrated Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, India. If you’ve never heard of Muzaffarnagar, don’t worry, you are not alone. It is not a well known town and hardly a tourist destination.
So how did I end up there?
And what is Diwali?
What is Diwali?
Diwali is known as the Festival of Lights. It is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs to honor the triumph of good over evil.
Do you remember the episode of The Office, where Kelly invites her coworkers to celebrate Diwali in her community? Well, that is the holiday I am talking about. I am by no means saying to go watch that episode of The Office for a crash course on Diwali (because, in true The Office fashion, it is presented through the lens of cultural ignorance and off color humor) but, if you’ve already seen it, know that this is the holiday I celebrated in Muzaffarnagar.
How did I end up in Muzaffarnagar?
To understand this, we have to go back to the summer of 2018.
I arrived in Hoi An, Vietnam at the end of June. I had prearranged through a program called Work-Away to volunteer at a hotel in exchange for room and board. I shared a room with two other volunteers, a married couple in their late twenties, form India. They too were traveling around South-East Asia on a budget. For almost two weeks Astha, her husband Atishay, and I lived and worked together. We checked in hotel guests, made drinks, played uno, and had long talks while watching the sunset from the hotel rooftop. I learned so much from them about Indian culture, especially their religion, Jainism. When they left for Laos, they told me they’d show me around New Delhi if I ever made my way there.
When I left the USA to travel indefinitely, I did not think traveling to India was a possibility. As much as I had always wanted to go, I didn’t think I could. Looking back I cannot tell you specifically why, but somewhere along the line, I picked up the idea that India was too… dangerous? … dirty? … impoverished? … I don’t know? But I didn’t even consider it to be an option.
They, along with a few other travelers I met, made me realize that a solo female on a budget could travel around India, safely. Even so, I still didn’t expect to end up there. And, as sincere as their offer was, I don’t think they thought I would either.
Two months after we parted ways in Vietnam, I found myself in New Delhi. And just as they promised, they showed me around!
They took me out for South Indian food (their favorite), to the Jain temple and to Gurgaon, aka “The Cyber Hub”, which is home to several IT and fortune 500 companies, fancy bars and upscale restaurants.
When I told Astha and Atishay that I had a two month visa, they insisted I celebrate Diwali with them at Atishay’s family home in Muzaffarnagar. I was absolutely flattered by their invitation.
I headed to Rishikesh with plans to meet back up with my friends in 6 weeks for Diwali.
Do not go to Muzaffarnagar
After four weeks of yoga teacher training, 5 days at an ashram on the Ganges River and a few weeks of hanging out at a hostel in Rishikesh, it was time to head to Muzaffarnagar…
Most people in Rishikesh had never heard of Muzaffarnagar, but the ones who had, were horrified when I said I was going there. I’d be lying if I said their reactions didn’t worry me.
No one could seem to give me a straight answer as to why I shouldn’t go to Muzaffarnagar but buzz words like “dangerous” and “riots” and “Muslims” kept coming up.
I googled it…
Immediately I learned that in 2013 riots broke out between the Hindu and Muslim communities in Muzaffarnagar. Over 50 people were killed, many more were injured and thousands were displaced. It was tragic.
I discussed it with a friend of mine in Rishikesh, a young Indian man who worked at the hostel. He had a more positive outlook. He told me things had calmed down since those riots and as long as I knew my friends there well, I’d be fine.
I started to question myself.
How well did I know them? I lived with them for a few weeks in Vietnam and I spent a couple days with them in Delhi but that was it.
Did I really know them?
I didn’t want to offend them with my concerns so I didn’t ask them about it.
After doing a little research I concluded that I would be safe traveling to Muzaffarnagar. Not to downplay the town’s unrest, because skirmishes do break out there every so often, it appeared to me that the negative reactions I had been getting were routed in Islamophobia and bad press.
I hadn’t known my friends for long but I trusted them.
I was going to Muzaffarnagar.
Getting to Muzaffarnagar
Muzaffarnagar is located smack dab between New Delhi and Rishikesh. There isn’t a bus that goes directly there but, upon request, the bus to Delhi will stop there.
My friend from the hostel drove me to the bus station on his motorbike. He explained to the bus driver that I did not want to go all the way to Delhi and to drop me off in Muzaffarnagar. From the look on the bus driver’s face I knew this was an odd request, but he obliged.
It was a cool sunny day when I left Rishikesh for Muzaffarnagar. I took a seat in the front row with all my stuff, including a box of chocolate balls from Kumar’s place, my favorite hole-in-the-wall (literally) cafe in Rishikesh. I had asked around about what to bring to my hosts for Diwali and everyone said sweets. (Ten of the twelve chocolates balls made it to them.)
Watching the countryside roll by out my window, with country music pulsing through my headphones and a few chocolate balls settling in my belly, I dozed off. I woke up just before we stopped at a gas station on the side of an otherwise empty road. The bus driver looked at me and said “Muzaffarnagar” as he opened the door. I gathered my things and jumped off the bus. Not one of the other passengers, most of whom were Indian, got off with me. As the bus drove away, my heart sank. I was alone, in the middle of nowhere India.
Two seconds later, Atishay pulled up beside me in a small white car. His genuine pearly white grin and traditional Indian Kurta let me know I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
From the bus stop, Atishay took me to meet his mother at her friend’s new house. His mother, Alka, and her friend were beautiful, both dressed in colorful sari’s. The house was brand new, super modern, and stunning.
I felt embarrassingly ragged in loose cotton pants, a t-shirt, birks and with most of my unbrushed turquoise hair covered in a bandanna. Plus, I was coated in several hours of bus travel.
They didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they treated me like royalty. Alka’s friend welcomed me into her home with chai tea, pastries, nuts, candies and gifts.
After a brief visit Atishay, Alka and I went back to their home. Astha was there, making a rangoli on the front porch, when we walked up.
I set my stuff down in the large upstairs bedroom I’d be sharing with Astha, Atishay and their friend Stanzin, who was visiting from Kashmir in Northern India, for the next few days. There was a queen size bed for the couple and two cots set up for Stanzin and I. There was an attached bathroom and a balcony that looked out onto the street. It was beyond perfect.
That night, all of us, including Atishay’s father, Anil, went to a few Jain temples and to the market for gifts, holiday decorations, crackers (fireworks) and food.
People stared at me everywhere we went. At the market, several people stopped and asked to take a photo with me. This had happened other places in India but this was the first time I was the only white person in sight.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this day would come back to mind over and over again over the next year while grappling with the realities of whiteness.
I woke up around 7am to the faint sound of drums and children shouting “Happy Diwali Auntie” outside. I got up from my cot and walked out onto the balcony. There was a little parade going down the quiet, almost suburban feeling, street. I watched for a moment before getting dressed in the teal and orange kurti and scarf ensemble I bought in Rishikesh specifically for the holiday.
When everyone was awake and ready, we went back to the same Jain temples we had visited the night before. They were much more crowded for Diwali. At each temple we picked up one round, white, dessert, made of some kind of sugary dough. Atishay said it was similar to a ladoo. With the dessert in hand, I was instructed to ring a large bell as I entered the main part of the temple. Once inside, in front of the main statue, Alka gave each of us a handful of rice and nuts. We offered the ladoo and rice mixture to the gods by placing it in front of the statue, then walked around the statues 3 times. The room was beautiful and bright, covered in white marble and colorful murals.
As we left the last temple, we ran into an older gentleman the family seemed to know well. Astha and Atishay both bowed their heads towards his feet. After nearly two months in India, I already knew that this was a sign of respect.
After the temples we went back to the house for breakfast. We ate a sweet grain dish with nuts and raisins, sandwiches (which I’d describe as a panini with samosa stuffing), chai and biscuits (cookies).
Atishay and Stanzin decorated the outside of the house with marigolds and garlands and Alka put out the chocolate balls I brought. Several family friends stopped by throughout the day. Among the visitors was the woman whose house I had gone to upon arrival. She was accompanied by a young boy, maybe 11 years old. He and I sat quietly in the room while the two woman conversed in Hindi. Every once and awhile the kid and I would make eye contact and smile, connecting in mutual silence. He declined when Astha came in with a tray of desserts. I should have followed his lead, I had no idea what was about to come. When the woman and young boy stood up to leave, he smiled at me shyly and said “very nice hairstyle.”
Visiting Friends & Eating Sweets
We hung out at the house until early afternoon when Atishay, Astha, Stanzin and I went to visit several of Atishay’s friends. At the first house we entered into a dimly lit sitting room in the front of the house. The family and my friends spoke in Hindi. Occasionally I’d catch a word like Vietnam, Las Vegas, or hairstylist, and know they were talking about me. I’d try to participate as much as could, but mostly I soaked in my surroundings, taking note of the colors and smells. The house was nice. Ornate. Marble floors and golden embroidered curtains. Cozy.
After awhile they asked me if I wanted a chai tea or a coffee… I didn’t really want anything, but it was the first English I’d heard in awhile so I got excited and went with it. “Chai please.” I watched Astha firmly decline.
Little did I know, my acceptance of a chai came with a large samosa and 3 jalebis. I had already tried a jalebi in Rishikesh, inspired by the movie Lion. The oil dense, doughy, pastry was fun to try, once. But trust me when I say 3 is way too many for any one person to eat.
Atishay looked at my full plate and said, “you know we’re going to another home after this, save room.” I tried to explain, under my breath that I didn’t serve myself this much and wouldn’t have, but now that it was on my plate I had to finish it. I was almost questioning him, hoping he’d say I didn’t have to. But he comically confirmed what I already knew, “yes you do, good luck.”
In the car on the way to the next friend’s house, all 3 of them laughed about all the jalebis I ate. They advised me that if I say no firmly, two or three times, the host will stop offering.
At the next house, I said “no thank you” to the first dessert offered. The woman looked offended, continuing to hold the tub of silver specked sweets in front of me. When she asked again, I took one, feeling guilty. Astha, Atishay and Stanzin laughed discretely.
When the host brought out a tray of sliced apples, I said “no,” firmly, ready to stand my ground. But Astha said “you should actually eat some of these because they are healthy.” I was so full at this point but she was right, I hadn’t had any fruits or vegetables all day.
When offered another desert, I firmly declined, without letting the woman’s look of disappointment pressure me. Astha said “finally, she’s learning!”
The house was bright, white, and full of natural light. Minus the giant golden statue of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, the decor reminded me of my Aunt Candy’s house. We chatted with the couple for awhile and passed around their three and a half month old daughter. I couldn’t help but think of my sister who was going to have a baby any day.
The evening began with all of us sitting on the bed in the master bedroom watching cricket on T.V. and Astha and Atishay’s wedding video on the computer. I felt like I was at home, watching reruns and home videos.
In preparation for the evening celebration, I did Astha and Alka’s hair. I loved every minute of it! I think they liked how it looked as well.
At about 8:30pm everyone met in the spare bedroom, between the kitchen and the master bedroom, where the worship house had been set up the night before. Pictures and drawings of different gods hung on the wall and little statues of gods and oil candles were clustered on the floor below.
Anil filled each tiny, circular, red, clay pot with oil and placed a little piece of thin, rolled, cotton rope in each one. When they were all set up, he lit the dry end of each cotton rope. We then chanted and prayed in both Hindi and Sanskrit.
The family exchanged gifts. I was surprised and flattered when Alka handed me a purple scarf and the ohm stickers she had seen me looking at at the market. It was so thoughtful. Atishay gave Astha a new smart phone. They were both very excited about it. Atishay told me it had the best smartphone camera available.
After the prayers and gifts we went outside for fireworks. Twinkle lights adorned almost every house and candles lined the street. Every time I moved I had to be conscious of my scarf and the back flap of my kurti, there were candles and fireworks everywhere! I was envisioning the newspaper headline- American Girl Visiting for Diwali, Catches on Fire!
The celebration was oddly familiar yet unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was like a formal Christmas celebration combined with the extreme sports version of the Fourth of July fireworks. I couldn’t believe the level of explosives we were casually lighting off in the streets.
American Girl Visiting for Diwali, Catches on Fire!
But there was a fire…
I didn’t know what had happened when I saw Stanzin come running out of the house with a damp, charred blanket in his arms. We all went rushing inside to see what was going on.
Turns out, Stanzin had gone inside for a glass of water while we were all outside lighting fireworks. He heard a weird sound coming from the room where the worship house was. When he peaked in he saw that it was on fire!
After the initial shock wore off, we realized it wasn’t terrible. The blanket was burnt and the tile charred, but no one was hurt and nothing was severely damaged.
The worship house cannot be moved for several days (something to do with a specific prayer inviting gods into the home) so Anil wiped down what he could and covered the charred tile with newspaper.
Everyone was shaken up for a bit but we recovered and kept the celebration going!
The Last Stop
Around midnight, we went to visit another one of Atishay’s childhood friends.
The house was amazing, at least from what I could see on the outside. At first I thought it was an apartment building- but it turned out to be a row of five connected houses, occupied by five brothers and their families. The complex was white with white pillars and white icicle lights hanging down. The entire building was encased by a white fence topped with lush leafy green plants.
Even at midnight the women of the house came out offering me sweets, by then, I had no other choice but to say no thank you, I could not physically eat one more thing.
The whole family was running around lighting crackers, as if it wasn’t the middle of the night. By the time we left, the ground was covered in firecracker remnants. Astha said if the ground doesn’t look like this, it wasn’t Diwali.
On the drive home Atishay pointed out a neighborhood with no lights on. They not only didn’t have the festive twinkle lights hanging up, they didn’t seem to have any regular outdoor lighting at all. He explained that it was the Muslim part of town. I couldn’t tell if it was dark simply because they don’t celebrate Diwali or because they were protesting it? Either way, it seemed peaceful.
I stayed in Muzaffarnagar for a few more days.
The day after Diwali I managed to hide that I was sick from all the sweets I’d eaten. I didn’t want them to think it was because of their food that I was sick. It was my fault. Everything was so delicious and exciting I overindulged.
Luckily everyone casually hung out at the house most of the day. It reminded me of the day after Christmas. Chill, not much going on. I stayed in my bed, happy to be near a bathroom. (Overshare- toilet paper is not common in India. I learned quickly the art of water guns/water buckets for rinsing.)
Late in the afternoon, we went to visit Atisay’s friends again, the ones who lived in the row of 5 houses. I didn’t feel great but didn’t want to miss out or draw attention to myself. They gave me a tour of their beautiful home and their nearby sugar cane, rice and marigold fields. I really enjoyed learning about about their lives and work.
When we got back to the house that evening, I couldn’t hide how sick I was anymore and went to bed. I was so thankful I’d made it through the outing with no emergencies. I could hear Anil on the phone, speaking Hindi but occasionally using English words like “American,” and “diarrhea.” I didn’t know who he was talking about me to and didn’t have the energy to find out. Anil hung up the phone and left the house as I drifted off to sleep.
Turns out he’d been on the phone with the doctor and went to get me some medicine. Astha brought it up to me in a paper pouch made out of old newspaper. I took the three or four pills as directed, no questions asked. When I woke up, I felt 1000x better.
When I thanked the family for allowing me to spend Diwali with them, their hospitality, and genuine care they said “Diwali is about people, without people, you can’t have Diwali.”