Today, to observe Diwali, one of the biggest Hindu festivals, I asked for permission to leave early to celebrate with relatives on Long Island. I was granted permission to leave only if I could connect Diwali with one of ND’s many Indian titles. I was ecstatic (and relieved) to learn that New Directions publishes Great Sanskrit Plays, translated by P. Lal, a publishing legend known for his masterly Sanskrit translations. Quite conveniently (for me), this anthology includes Bhavabhuti’s “The Later Story of Rama” (the very same God whose arrival Diwali celebrates)—I began to weave my Diwali with threads from the legendary Sanskrit playwright.
Reading a play on Rama is not exactly a Diwali tradition for me. Back home in Calcutta, I would normally be busy decorating the house with flowers and lights and lamps, and getting stressed about finishing my rangoli (a decorative floor-pattern made with paint, or the traditional rice-flour, or colored powder, or anything and everything that glitters, shimmers, or appeals) to place in front of my home to welcome the Goddess Lakshmi) before the evening festivities began. For me personally, the rangoli was a crucial part of my celebrations, and I would undergo immense creative pains and pleasures to conceptualize, improvise, and execute its design—for that was my main responsibility for the day.
A lot of Indians are raised with their grandparents’s tales from the two famous epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The older “original” Ramayana, written by the sage Valmiki, is the common source of the popular tales on Rama from the Ramayana. Most people, including myself, only know the story of Rama in some detail, though everyone knows Rama is to be guided back to his kingdom by a row of lamps, or Deepavali (deep – lamp, avali – row). So I have always wanted to know what exactly happened after his great homecoming—and Bhavabhuti’s tale narrates just that!
I hence feel that I am now revived with the intellectual fervor of mythology-enabled-erudition that only a fellow reader of Lal’s works would understand. This tale and other slightly American alterations I hope to include with my otherwise traditional Diwali festivities of prayers, big Indian dinner, fireworks, and even a Poker all-nighter at my aunt’s house in Long Island, far from my family in Calcutta and the Diwali celebrations I know best.
But other than meetings and greetings with family and friends, a pleasant surprise was President Obama’s two-minute video greeting to all “members of some of the world’s oldest religions [who] celebrate the triumph of good over evil,” which was meaningful and hence found resonance with people from many different walks of life—from what popular social media seemed to suggest. Diwali for Rama was all about homecoming. Although it may not be exactly that for me, the President and enough others in this country are making sure I feel the festival’s presence here, too—a good few thousand miles away from the land of Rama. Just as Bhavabhuti ends his play with Valmiki asking Rama, “And what can I do for you, Rama?” and Rama replies, “Is anything left undone? All is gratitude, and all is love.”