As an agnostic immigrant and daughter of Bengali refugees, there is one Diwali tradition that I like to stick to: Mishti Mukh in Bengali or Muh Meetha in Hindi, which translates to “sweetening the mouth.” It is a Diwali tradition where we eat homemade desserts to celebrate a sweet new beginning.
I grew up in a middle-class Bengali family in South Delhi in the 70s and 80s, where the emphasis was on learning, doing well and then learning some more. When we celebrated festivals, we emphasized food, family, and sharing joy with parents, grandparents, and children running around. This is the case with all festivals, but in my Bengali family, Diwali was special to me because it spanned my childhood.
What is Diwali?
Diwali, the festival of lights, marks the time when the citizens of Ayodhya welcomed their rightful king, Lord Rama, the ideal son/husband/king, to his throne by lighting the path with diyas, lamps, to ensure that he would return safely to the kingdom after defeating the king of Lanka, Ravana, who had dared to kidnap Lord Rama's wife Sita. Rama returned victorious, with his wife and brother Lakshman in tow, and good triumphed over evil.
Memories of our Ghosh Bengali Diwali
We Ghoshes have never celebrated Diwali for its religious significance. Mom always encouraged us to question blind faith. Did Sita need to be saved? Was Ravana, who was considered intelligent, really evil or an equal to Rama? Could we instead celebrate Diwali as a festival of joy, of sharing a meal with family, blessings from parents and eating to one's heart's content? That's what we focused on.
The Diwali celebrations that non-Indians are familiar with are the extravagant, joyous events choreographed in larger-than-life Bollywood musicals. Navratri, the nine nights of dancing until midnight where the main characters cast glances at each other, walk around with diyas in their hands and loud dholak drum beats match their steps, ah, that's Diwali too. However, I remember Diwali from my childhood of lighting diyas with my sister – I would pour mustard oil into clay lamps and then dip cotton wicks to light them on the balcony, in addition to a few Phool Jhadi sparklers, being careful , to keep them far away, so we didn't burn ourselves.
Our Bengali Diwali celebrations reflected what the year has already brought us. An occasion of gratitude, joy and being together with the family. And when the family was together, we had to eat a lot and of course dessert.
Sweets of a Bengali Diwali
Every Diwali, Ma Sabudana made payesh or tapioca pudding – slow-cooked milk with jaggery, a few strands of saffron, garnished with raisins and ghee-roasted cashews. We sat on the floor, the plate of Payesh in front of us and a small diya next to it. Ma and Baba blessed us with a stalk of green grass and some unhusked rice as a sign of new life. Didi and I touched her feet, a sign of respect. You gave us a long and good life. These simple actions showed how we connected and respected each other and how we were lucky to carry on that tradition. Then we lit our diyas and wished peace for everyone. And dug into the payesh. Simply. Solid. Family.
Alongside Sadudana Payesh, Ma made Narkel Naru, coconut balls with a hint of cardamom held together with gur/jaggery and molasses. I popped one in my mouth every time I passed the plate on the table. The idea was to eat, and eat well. Cheerful.
My Bengali Diwali today
It's been decades since my parents died, and I've lived in America longer than I have in India. However, I continue to hold on to my childhood traditions and have evolved them to include the life I live now. In my house, on Diwali, I invite my friends to celebrate our festival. We eat, read poetry, light diyas and wish each other well.
Every year I make a version of Ma's Sabudana Payesh, which I cook with coconut milk and molasses with a hefty helping of blueberries, making it as American as it is Indian. I slowly cook coconut flakes in molasses, add cardamom powder and roll them into small round balls. I make the Narkel Naru as an expression of who I am now by adding a berry – raspberry, blueberry or blackberry – and sprinkling coconut flakes on top. The desserts remain Bengali, Indian and yet also very American.
Diwali remains a celebration of family, joy and hope. Even when family is no longer intact, friends become family – and the transformed Bengali desserts have the same sweetness as Ma's Naru and Payesh used to have.
A simple Bengali tradition of Mishti Mukh has turned into a Diwali for my friends. The family has transformed into a “family” – wishing everyone joy and peace.