On November 14, Pasadena City College held its very first Diwali celebration. Diwali, also known as “the Hindu festival of lights,” is an ancient five-day festival that is celebrated throughout India. It’s also recognized globally by not just those of Hindu faith, but also Sikh, Jain, or Buddhist faith. Its messages of light over darkness, community, and preparation for the new year are things that everyone could acknowledge that transcend religious affiliation.
“Happy Diwali” cards could be found on each table in the event space, offering some background on the festival for those who are unfamiliar. Laughter and chatter filled the room, accompanied by the intoxicating smells of samosa, garlic naan, paneer tikka masala, and more. A blend of classical and contemporary Indian music inspired the atmosphere, and seeing people indulge in the arts and crafts provided was nothing short of heartwarming.
Near the end of the event, I sat down with main event organizers Semmy Patel and Leisha Jhamb to hear everything they had to say about this historic moment for the college.
This is PCC’s first Diwali event. Is this your first time celebrating it? What’s your relationship with the festival?
LEISHA: Coming from an Indian background, this isn’t my first time celebrating it. I celebrate it every year. My family is very traditional, so they’ll set up the house with the candles, we’ll cook food, then we’ll do fireworks—that’s every year since I was born.
SEMMY: I grew up in India, so it was a lot more traditional with the people around—the community. It was essentially the same as hers with the candles and everything. It was created around New Years so new clothes, new gifts—more like Christmas even. It’s very westernized here, and in India they’ll change traditions a little. There’s no singular way of celebrating.
What aspects did you keep in mind in order to achieve as best a festival as possible?
SEMMY: We tried going through the traditional Diwali, asked people what states they’re from, and got special input from them on what they wanted to do. The food was discussed with everyone as well, like what they’d like to have there. We mostly wanted to get everyone’s opinion.
LEISHA: Yeah, what we planned to do was make it so that it was accessible to everyone, so that everyone can have a similar experience. Like she said, Diwali is something that’s nowadays more westernized, so for me I’m always trying to keep tying everything back to my Indian roots, so you stay within your culture or your religion, so we definitely tried to make sure it was catering to people’s opinions here, but also true to our background.
Can you share a little bit more about the food, music, and activities that are here?
LEISHA: So, the music is mine. I’ve always been very very traditional. I don’t listen to western music. I only listen to Indian music, eat Indian food, because I’m so far away from my culture and my roots. I always want to bring my attention back to my culture and my roots. Since it’s Diwali I already know what I want to do—I’ve been doing it for so many years—the food and the activities are things we already do at home, so we knew what to incorporate.
SEMMY: It’s really nice getting to do it here, and getting other’s opinions. I wanted a lot of people to join in, and it was extraordinary to hear people ask about it—how we celebrate it. It’s also a chance to meet new people, especially Indian people. She [Lesiha] is the first Indian person I’ve met in my two years of being over here in the educational system. So, at least, the chance to meet new people with similar cultural backgrounds. That’s always really nice.
Diwali is recognized as a celebration of light over darkness. This message could not be more relevant in light of what’s happening between Israel and Palestine, and the impact that’s had globally. How do you think festivals or holidays with a similar message can impact people?
SEMMY: By the end of Diwali, the celebration, we try helping people out back when I was in India. That was a way to, because you’re spending so much and enjoying yourself, but you also want to help people by the end of the day. We’d give out food and other things, so I think that’s a similar message to light over darkness. We have to think about what’s the actual purpose of Diwali, and think back to the stories—the Hindu stories.
LEISHA: In my family, my parents go out and distribute food and sweets. Back in India, my grandparents and other family try to help out by going to temples and distribute food there. That’s usually done after Diwali or on special festivals. I think Diwali, the main message behind it, is bringing people together. It’s the one festival in India that is celebrated throughout the entire country, so we all kind of come together. It’s not just the North or the South. It’s commutative.
Can we expect this to be an annual event on campus?
LEISHA: I would love to see it as an annual event. This is my second year here, so I’m going to be done after this, but I would love it if they brought me back and got my opinion. I’d love to see it expand more, because like we’ve [Semmy] talked before, there isn’t a wide range Indian community here—it’s a small population. Even glancing around here today you can see very little Indian faces, which is totally fine, but we want to attract people of our culture and background as well. The fact that this is the first one is a little bit weird to think about, because it’s a very very old festival, and it should’ve been celebrated before this.
SEMMY: This is my first year here, so I’d love to see it again. It’s getting people together and sharing our stories and experiences. We can learn so much from each other, or make a connection with others of the same culture or background.