Happy Diwali! Celebrating the festival of lights in Sweden

Diwali Day on October 19th marks the culmination of the week-long Hindu festival of lights. But how do you celebrate when you are more than 6,000 kilometres away from home?

Happy Diwali! Celebrating the festival of lights in Sweden
Happy Diwali to our readers! Photo: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

The Local asked some of our readers based in Sweden what they are doing.

“Diwali is the biggest festival for us and every year my family gets together to celebrate. We decorate the house with lamps and diyas (candles) and bright orange marigold flowers. We invite friends and extended family over and enjoy a traditional Diwali dinner,” says Rupali Mehra, a journalist who travels a lot but is currently based on the island of Gotland, about how she used to spend the holiday back home in Mumbai.

“I am travelling to Kiruna this year, and my husband is in Uppsala, so we really haven't got a chance to celebrate. But we plan to have a small Diwali party for friends in the coming days.”

Diwali formally lasts for five days, this year from October 17th to 21st, with each day having its own rituals.

It starts of with the day of Dhanteras, on which people clean their house and decorate it and go out to buy items to prepare for the rest of the festival.

“'Dhan' means wealth and 'teras' means the 13th day of the moon cycle. We went out with the family and bought something for our home. It is important to involve the kids so that they learn about the culture, away from India,” business developer Sujay Dutta explains.

“Because we are Bengalis, we also go to Kali Puja being organized in Stockholm,” he says.

The preparations continue on the second day, Choti Diwali, followed by the main festive day, and two final days which celebrate the love between wife and husband, and the lifelong bond between brothers and sisters. Formally, the bulk of the festivities takes place on October 19th, this year, but many in Sweden are putting the celebrations on hold for the weekend, when there is more time.

Diwali originated as a cultural and religious festival in the Hindu world to mark the last harvest before the winter, and although it is observed by people of various faiths and traditions today, food still plays a major part.

“Decorating the house, making it look festive and preparing sweets at home, also performing religious rituals, is my favourite part,” says Ananya Dutta, a Stockholm-based IT consultant who is a regular artist at the Indian Embassy and is involved in the running of several major Indian events and organizations in Stockholm.

READ ALSO: I wanted to show Sweden what India is to me

“The best part of Diwali is of course the sweets. In India we prepare eight to ten varieties of sweets this season. It's of course sad that we can't buy those here or can't prepare those due to the lack of ingredients. But we will always make four or five and sometimes our parents send from India too,” says Renjith Ramachandran, founder of Search Indie, who moved to Sweden from Kerala in southern India in 2008.

“This year we distributed the sweets at our office, and visited our neighbours and shared the sweets. The fun part of Diwali, especially for the kids, is burning crackers and lighting the house with lamps. We usually light 'tomtebloss' (the Swedish word for sparklers) and it's a lot of fun for kids,” he says.

More than 25,000 Indians are based in Sweden, according to national number crunchers Statistics Sweden, and Indian festivals have played a big part in Sweden this year. For example, the Stockholm Culture Festival 2017 had an India-theme, and business fair Make in India was held in Stockholm earlier this month.

Plenty of Diwali celebrations are also being organized by Indian communities across Sweden, larger festivities as well as smaller get-togethers with friends just to get in the spirit of the season.

“It feels great to celebrate it here, as we try to feel at home,” says Ananya Dutta, who moved to Sweden more than 12 years ago.

For Mehra, who moved to the island of Gotland with her husband earlier this year, she finds it strange being so far away from home for the first time since relocating to Sweden.

“Oh, yes it is. Especially since Diwali is a time when we meet relatives we haven't met all year. There is so much joy, warmth and celebration in spending time with aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins! So being away from that is a bit strange. Nonetheless, thanks to technology I can wish everyone well over a video call!”

Ramachandran tries to get back to India as often as he can: “We usually travel to India every year during any of the festive seasons. Two years back we were in India for Diwali and it's a lot of fun.”

“Of course you won't get the real festiveness in Sweden, but what with having a lot of friends and get-togethers during the season we are happy. It's nice to see the community has grown tremendously in the past couple of years and we will usually have two to three Diwali parties in our closed circle these weeks.”


Opinion: Sweden and India – the many flavours of two thriving democracies

Rupali Mehra compares the flavours of Swedish elections to those in her home country India. Are there any similarities in the democratic process of the two countries?

Opinion: Sweden and India – the many flavours of two thriving democracies
Swedish voters look at election campaign posters in Södertälje. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

In India you don't need a pundit to tell you a political contender will soon be in your vicinity. You can feel them coming a mile away.

SUVs with loudspeakers, blaring slogans from a political party or playing patriotic Bollywood songs alternatively, precede the political procession that is to come.

Indian elections are not called the world's largest democratic exercise for nothing. While the numbers game is the obvious correlation – considering we are talking of 850 million eligible voters – the overwhelming scale of Indian election truly plays out on its streets.

Canvassing in India for the national elections has a festive fever around it. A heady, contagious festive fever that you cannot escape from. Every emotion is heightened; the cheers, the jeers, the anger and the joy; even fist fights and the hugs of bonhomie. And all of this plays out in the public domain.

Elections in a country of 1.3 billion, to choose 543 women and men as their executives, is similar to “a big fat Indian wedding”, as a journalist friend put it. Having covered three national elections over 15 years and several federal elections, I couldn't agree more. Only that it is a “big fat Indian wedding” of 850 million invitees and the infinite complexities that come with it.

READ ALSO: How to vote in the 2018 Swedish election (even if you're not a citizen)

Indian voters wave at Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally. Photo: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

Sitting 3,500 miles away in Sweden, I am witnessing another democratic exercise. An election that is similar in the mechanics, yet so different in its manifestation.

Sweden votes in less than 24 hours. But if you are new here or a visitor, you can't be faulted for thinking polls are a while away. “It doesn't feel like there is a national election on in Sweden,” remarks the journalist friend from India who finds herself in Stockholm in the midst of val, as elections are known here. The comment on the 'feel factor' is telling. Unless you regularly tune into televised political debates and the track the weekly opinion polls as the Swedes do, the atmosphere on the street feels like the tempo is just about building.

Canvassing and public engagement are far more nuanced than you see in India. Parties have designated areas to set up their counters, and volunteers gently approach you to discuss their manifesto. Even public speeches like those at Medborgarplatsen, with supporters wearing the party symbol loud and clear on their sleeve, caps and t-shirts, seem mild when compared to a candidate arriving in a helicopter to address supporters in India.

To a Swede who faces posters of political leaders at every second bus stop and tube station to work, and then arrives home to find their mail boxes filled with political pamphlets, the feeling can be overwhelming. Surely, there will be a sigh of relief when its all over. But for someone seeped in the technicolour of Indian elections, the Swedish polls appear monochromatic.

This, despite the fact that 2018 has been one of most hotly contested elections and the fight is predicted to go down to the wire.

ELECTION VOCABULARY: How to talk about politics like a Swede

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven meeting voters in Linköping the day before the election. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

To give the analogy of food, Indian elections are akin to a red hot Indian curry; each spoonful offers a burst of multiple flavours and spices. For some it is a treat. For others it is hard to stomach. In comparison Swedish food, although flavoursome, is more mellow. Similarly for the elections.

But first impressions aside, scratch the surface and one finds that several issues strike a similar cord among the people in both countries. The most obvious is immigration. Historically Sweden has had immigrants come in during the Baltic wars, the Afghan war, the Iranian revolution and even as far back as World War II. But the influx of 2015, largely from war-torn Syria, is the most volatile and polarised talking point of 2018. Similarly in India, immigration from neighbouring Bangladesh that has been a constant for decades, is now a hotly debated issue.

Politics on immigration aside, there are other bread and butter issues that citizens vote on. These are issues that affect citizens in their day to day life. Issues like housing, water, jobs and transport. According to the country's National Housing Board (Boverket) Sweden faces a housing shortage in 255 of its 290 municipalities. Buying a house in Stockholm or Gothenburg is out of reach for many. It is a similar story in India's financial capital Mumbai, where the per-square-foot prices compares with the world's most expensive cities. This even as the city has an inventory of half a million vacant houses, according to India's Economic Survey.

READ ALSO: Follow The Local's coverage of the 2018 Swedish election

Away from the big cities, towns and rural areas face similar issues of water, transport, schools and hospitals. While a taluk (a block of villages) in interior India could be struggling to get a school for their children, a locality in a Swedish countryside could be struggling to keep open a school for the lack of enough students. What differs is the complexion, scale and extremities.

One could argue that we are comparing apples to oranges here. But that is what democracies are all about. Different in flavour, yet similar in nature.

Rupali Mehra is a former television editor and anchor. She moved from India in the spring of 2017 and runs a communications company in Sweden. She can be reached at [email protected]