Diwali in Dubai is truly a festival of lights. More than a week before the festival the balconies in numerous apartment buildings, in predominantly Indian neighbourhoods like Bur Dubai and Karama, look resplendent in beautiful lights and you cannot help but stop in your tracks to gaze at the breathtaking displays. On Diwali the diyas are lit at the doorways, sweets exchanged and colourful rangolis created.
And Diwali is also a time when people, you may not know too well and might not meet a lot during the entire year, call you over to their house to attend puja and aarti. It’s all part of the bonhomie that the spirit of the festival represents.
It was one such family home I stepped into this year only to leave with the feeling of sadness.
This family owns a sprawling apartment with a yearly rent of at least Dhs 120,000 (Around Rs 2 crore), in an upmarket locality in Dubai. The extremely well-educated lady of the house was decked up in a saree and gold jewellery. The children and the man of the house, who is equally educated and holds a top post in a big company in Dubai, were wearing jazzy ethnic too.
Among the guests thronging the puja I noticed an elderly lady in a simple saree which was a stark contrast to the dress code in the household. She was occupying an inconspicuous corner among the last row of guests. Through the minimal interactions the family was having with her, I realized she was the mother-in-law.
As the puja started the family rattled off the shlokas (hymns), all from memory and I shifted in my place uncomfortably, thinking that I can’t chant a single shloka beyond the first line.
Then in my mind I started blaming my parents for my unawareness of the puja rituals and the sacred hymns because they never had a puja at home and my mother always said, “Be good to people. God resides in them. That is how you perform puja everyday.”
I ended up being different. I like going to temples, churches and dargas to pray. But yes, my mother has managed to pass on her beliefs to me to a great extent – I respect all religions, hence all human beings.
So here I was at the puja, arms folded, hoping for God’s blessings. The family took turns doing the aarti. First it was the lady of the house, then her son, then daughter, then husband. What about the mother-in-law? I thought it would be her turn next. But her turn never came. She performed pushpanjali and silently left the room.
I later came to know she was not allowed to perform aarti because she was a widow.
After all the education, all the money, all the veneration for God, they make an old lady stand in one corner and don’t let her perform aarti because she lost her husband?
I thought of my friend who lost his father at 12 and ensured that her mother ate non-vegetarian and wore colourful sarees, and lived a life away from these archaic Hindu customs. He stood up for her during his sister’s wedding and ensured that his mother was present at every ritual. I thought of my father and uncles, who had done the same with my grandmother more than 50 years back.
I felt thankful for what my family taught me and felt less regretful about not knowing the shlokas. I felt thankful that they instead told me about Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the man who introduced the Widow Remarriage Act in 1856.
As the prashad was being distributed I left their home wondering if God would be able to deliver them from darkness into real light one day.