Diwali celebrations a 'light at the end of the tunnel' for pandemic-weary families
After isolated celebrations last year, residents getting together with families, friends as restrictions lift
For Nadia Narine, Diwali is one of the most important times of the year, but she says the pandemic has given it even more significance.
The Brampton nurse says its meaning, the victory of light over darkness, is particularly important this year as she can celebrate with relatives and friends, unlike last year when the city northwest of Toronto was firmly in the grip of a COVID-19 lockdown.
"It's something I hold very dear to me, the whole notion of good over evil.... Especially in these days and times, there's so much darkness out there, this is a ray of hope that one day it might get better," she told CBC News. "This is that light at the end of the tunnel, something to celebrate."
Diwali, also known as Deepavali, is the renowned festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists.
Narine is just one of hundreds of thousands of people in Brampton, which has one of the biggest South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities in Canada, who are excited to celebrate Diwali with their families and friends as public health guidelines have loosened and most residents of the city are fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.
Data from Peel Public Health — the regional health authority that includes Brampton — shows 88.8 per cent of the region's adult population is fully vaccinated. Harkirat Singh, a Brampton city councillor, says nearly all places of worship are asking for proof of vaccination, following indoor mask mandates and adhering to physical distancing requirements.
"Vaccination rates have gone up significantly," Singh said. "A lot of places of worship are getting ready for congregations and they're getting volunteers prepared to check for vaccine passports."
Families across the city are gearing up to celebrate. But they recognize the pandemic is ongoing, Singh said.
Narine agrees. She says while she's eager to celebrate this year, she's still cautious given her background in health care.
"Last year, we definitely didn't have anyone come over," Narine said. "This year, though, my brother and his girlfriend and their family are coming."
After cleaning the house from top to bottom, a serving of potato curry, daal (lentils), sweet rice (known as kheer) and prasad — a food offering to God — is a fundamental part of her family's celebration.
"It's something we've done for more than 30 years," Narine said. "Everyone I've spoken to from the Indo-Caribbean [community], that's what they do."
'Diwali means family and friends'
Dharmil Vyas arrived in Brampton seven years ago from Gujarat, India, as a student. Now a permanent resident, he continues Diwali traditions taught to him by his family.
Not only does the celebration signify the victory of light over darkness, but also the victory of "knowledge over ignorance," he said.
Back in India, preparation starts weeks before as people rush to buy diyas (lamps), lights and fireworks, Vyas says. As part of the tradition, his sister creates rangoli art, an art form that involves painting patterns with powdered limestone, red ochre, dry rice flour and other materials.
Last year, with COVID-19 case numbers reaching daily highs, Vyas wasn't able to visit his family in India or his relatives in Ontario, so he celebrated with his roommates instead.
"We celebrated completely from home," he said. "We didn't go out; even shopping was a concern."
Instead, Vyas says he and two friends baked some sweets, cooked some Indian food, lit a few diyas and had several video calls with family and friends.
This year, he's fully vaccinated and provincial restrictions have been mostly lifted. As a result, he's planning on visiting the mandir (temple) to offer prayers and spend time with his relatives in Markham.
"Diwali means family and friends," he said. "It's about reconnecting with family and friends, and that's everything for me."
'We stand up for others'
While Hindus refer to the holiday as Diwali, Sikhs also call it Bandi Chhor Divas.
"Because it dates back to 1619, the time when our sixth great master Guru Hargobind Ji was released from Gwalior Fort," said Jaspal Singh Bal, a spokesperson for the Ontario Khalsa Darbar — a Sikh gurdwara, which is a place of assembly and worship, in Mississauga.
Bal is also an adviser to the gurdwara, which is one of the largest in North America and nearly a second home for many Brampton Sikhs. He explains that when Guru Hargobind was released, he demanded that 52 other kings who were held prisoner by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir also be released.
"It relates back to the values of Sikhi, the values of our community and our history," Bal said. "We stand up for others, not just our own rights, but everyone's."
It's those values, he says, that drove the community into action to respond to COVID-19. At its peak, Brampton was one of the hardest hit regions in the country.
"Brampton stepped up," Bal said. "We had unique challenges, but the city stepped up, and places of worship stepped up."
Several places of worship in Brampton, including gurdwaras and mandirs, hosted COVID-19 vaccination clinics.
"They were important partners during COVID-19 in explaining the rules and providing accurate information," Singh, the Brampton city councillor, said.
Last year, because of restrictions, services at gurdwaras, including langar (a free community kitchen for all), were limited if not closed.
"This year, we still have to keep our guard up," Bal said.
"We're keeping the number [of visitors] to a minimum so we can still keep physical distance and be mindful of the threat of COVID-19 variants."
With files from Naveet Nanwa