New Yorkers Observe Diwali and Celebrate the ‘Triumph of Light Over Darkness’ Becoming a School Holiday Next Year
That’s not quite a done deal yet, but it would be a welcome change for families whose kids were marked absent from school to celebrate this year and those whose kids missed some of the celebration to be in school.
A pair of hand-drawn signs adorned the front door of Abhishek Gupta and Prerna Kapur’s Upper West Side apartment. “Happy Diwali,” one of them read — the handwriting noticeably the hard work of a younger child.
Inside, Anoushrie Gupta, the third grader responsible for the signs, was eager to explain the many origin stories of the holiday celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.
She showed off the fresh marigold and diya oil lamps at her family’s makeshift altar: Lighting the diyas, she said, will guide and welcome the gods home.
Anoushrie and her two siblings skipped school on Monday to spend the day with their parents for the pan-religious holiday — which is celebrated by Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists along with Hindus like the Guptas. But the day is not yet a public school holiday in New York.
The Gupta siblings, like many of the hundreds of thousands of families who celebrate the festival of lights, simply took the day to spend with their parents, Abhishek and Prerna — who was roasting almond and coconut flours for a vegan version of barfi, a traditional Indian sweet, when THE CITY visited on Monday morning.
“It’s so important to preserve the culture,” said Prerna, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 2000s. “I think more than anything I want [my kids] to feel a sense of pride about who they are and where they come from. And I definitely want them to be very comfortable talking about it, and discussing their culture and their rituals.”
Case in point: The eldest of her three kids, 10-year-old Pranati, gave a presentation about the holiday to her fifth grade class earlier this year. She said on Monday that she’s happy to see some of her classmates’ curiosity about the holiday, but frustrated that Diwali isn’t more celebrated at school.
“It’s not even in our school planner. I wrote it there.” Pranati said. “They even put other days like Earth Day, which they don’t give off, but they don’t even put Diwali.”
Abhishek’s phone rang soon after — a video call from his parents in India, who had just wrapped up their puja, a nighttime Hindu worship ceremony for the holiday. “Quickly go talk to Dadu and Dadi and say Happy Diwali,” he instructed his two daughters. Sounds of fireworks pierced through from the other end of the call — one that the children would’ve missed had they been in school.
“Having Diwali as a school holiday would mean that we’re no longer outsiders, you know — that we were truly an equal part of the community here,” Prerna said, adding that she was concerned about how missing the day would impact her kids attendance records and, potentially, where they will get admitted to for middle school.
“The point remains that their attendance is going to get dinged,” Prerna said, “because it’s not an excused absence in the sense that everybody else is going to be there today.”
‘Long time coming’
On Monday afternoon at P.S. 100 in Queen’s Little Guyana, Khemraj Chetram awaited his third grader’s release from school as others walked out donning hand-crafted paper hats reading “Happy Diwali.” Here, about 50% of students are Hindu, said Kayshree Seshadi of the Indo-Caribbean Alliance.
“If you look right here, the line is usually longer,” Chetram said. “So a lot of people didn’t send their kids to school, right?”
But Chetram said he is indifferent about whether the city makes Diwali a public school holiday. His family’s celebration ritual, he said, usually happens at night. As a Guyanese immigrant of Indian descent, he is used to a less hands-on way of preparing for the holiday — meaning store-bought food rather than homemade dishes.
“I think the reason why people keep their children home is because of the preparation,” he said. “Some people cook different kinds of food, so if you want to do that, then people stay home.”
Seven blocks down Lefferts Boulevard from P.S. 100, the Sikh Cultural Society gurdwara expected about 5,000 visitors on Monday evening. Long lines began to spill out of the main hall of the Sikh temple as followers waited their turn to receive prayers from the Granthi — the head priest. Among them was 16-year-old Manveer Kaur, who traveled from Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay with her family for the occasion.
Kaur, who is in 11th grade, took the day off from school to decorate diyas, help with household cleaning, and most importantly — to be with family. Her older sister Raveneet Kaur, who took some school days off for Diwali when she was still a student, was excited about the idea of having the day honored as a public school holiday, as she said is already the case with some other religious holidays.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Raveneet said, adding that it’s the one holiday that Indians across faiths celebrate. “It’s high time that public schools have that day off — the population is there.”
As the dusk passed and the night arrived, people filled diyas with mustard oil and placed them on a sandy patch set up outside the gurdwara. As they lit the wicks, warm lights permeated throughout the space even as the misty rain fell.
Rajwinder Kaur, who had just arrived with her husband and two school-aged children, stood near the diyas atop of the stairs leading into the temple.
“They didn’t take the school day off,” Kaur said. “That’s why we’re late.”
Harmanpreet, Kaur’s sixth-grade daughter, said even though her school in Forest Hills “didn’t do much” for the day, that she still felt “really happy” that many of her classmates asked her questions about Diwali.
“And next year it will be a holiday, right?” Kaur asked.
“It’s not a holiday,” community organizer Harpreet Singh Toor chimed in, explaining to Kaur and her daughter that the state legislature would still have to pass a bill before it becomes official. Because New York City presently has 180 school days, the minimum allowed under state law, the bill would replace Brooklyn-Queens Day, a 19th century Protestant holiday celebrating the founding of the First Sunday School on Long Island, with Diwali.
“What?” Harmanpreet responded in disbelief.
“Everybody just assumed, you know?” Toor added. “But they just punted the ball to the state.”