Peek Into a Mumbai-Meets-Oakland Diwali Celebration

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Home for the Holidays is a special series featuring our favorite food and home experts and their diverse homes—and holidays—from around the world. From Los Angeles to Mumbai and Hong Kong, we get a peek at how each family approaches the most special of seasons—in a way that’s uniquely theirs.

Sana Javeri Kadri has a striking childhood Diwali memory. “I knew Diwali was around the corner when I’d come home from school one day to find the ceilings being washed,” recalls the founder of direct-trade spice company, Diaspora Co.. “We would have moved out all the furniture in the room and people would be throwing buckets of water at the ceiling.” It was one of several pre-Diwali cleaning routines that got the entire household in the mood for what was to come: days of feasting and gathering.

In her current home in the hills of Oakland, California, Diwali isn’t announced by anything as dramatic, but it’s no less festive. As Sana mentions, she hasn’t been home (in Mumbai) for Diwali in nine years, so it was important to her to find a way to celebrate its spirit of sharing and togetherness with her partner Rosie and their community (not to mention their pup, Lilly Sprout). It was just as important to the couple to find occasions that bind their ethnically diverse worlds together; Sana herself raised in a family of mixed faiths. “While Rosie has deep memories of Christmas morning, I get weepy around Diwali and Eid,” says Sana.

And so, each year, Sana recreates her most treasured Diwali memories. Snacking foods are procured or made—fried farsans, or salty snacks, and mithai, or traditional Indian sweets, are favored over a sit-down dinner menu—and laid out over the “shiniest, most colorful tablecloth you have” and a field of fresh marigolds and roses. “Diwali is not the day to hold back!” she says.

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It’s also an occasion to trot out your nicest dishes. The newest entrant on her Diwali tablescape this year is her mother Shimul’s hand-forged bronze dinnerware that Sana may or may not have stolen from right under her nose. “We grew up eating on bronze thalis for special occasions—birthdays, festivals, the works—so to have a piece of that set with me in Oakland—even if procured through illicit means—is very, very special,” she explains. At this very moment, she adds, she’s bartering a deal so they can stay put in Oakland.

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Diwali’s colors and aesthetic blend seamlessly into a home that Sana says is purposefully very bright, colorful, and cozy. “It’s designed to be the one roof in the U.S. under which I won’t ever feel homesick for India because I’m surrounded by so many pieces and colors of my motherland.” On each trip to India, Sana carts back a little something special for her California home. “As a family, we’re all deeply inspired by the craft of India. No matter where we traveled in the country, we’d come home with textiles, sculptures, and paintings… I think I’ve really held onto that.”

And what would a Diwali celebration be without holding a place for Diaspora’s spices—and Sana’s passion for building an equitable spice trade. She calls out her nani’s favorite gin and tonic—its flavor racked up by the addition of Pragati turmeric, one of several spices that Sana sources from more than 150 regenerative farmers across India and Sri Lanka. It’s one of many signature Diaspora-flavored Diwali dishes that appear (the bhindi or okra is another one of Sana’s personal favorites).

We had to ask: Who’s invited to dinner this year? (Just to be clear, we’re not not angling for an invite next year.) “Dena, Diaspora’s e-commerce manager; Asha, our recipe editor; Eve who is both my assistant and the glue that binds the team together; and my partner Rosie. It feels wild to be sitting in my own home in Oakland eating biryani and arguing about the similarities and differences between carrot halwa and sweet potato casserole, and feeling like I’ve finally found a warm little corner of the world to now call mine.”

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For more, here are excerpts from our longer, nostalgia-filled chat with Sana Javeri Kadri:

Walk us through the preparations your family would undertake for Diwali.

I was raised in a family of mixed faiths—Islam, Hinduism, and Jainism—with all three religion’s festivals and customs followed equally with joy and respect. So while Diwali wasn’t a religious holiday in our home, it was still recognized as the start of the new year and a way to come together and fill the house with diyas (oil lamps), sparklers, lots of family, and way too much food. Diwali night itself is about fun—my nani’s stiff gin and tonics, several rounds of card games, lots of firecrackers, and all the sweets and snacks.

You split your time between Oakland and Mumbai. Does being so far from home make Diwali more meaningful to you?

I think it initially had the opposite effect! To cope with not being home for Diwali, I had mostly ignored it and stamped it out. It was only a few years ago that I began to feel like I was at a place in my life where I had the bandwidth and the community to begin celebrating it here.

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How do you and Rosie celebrate the different holidays you observe?

We’re still figuring this out! She has deep memories of Christmas morning whereas I don’t; I get weepy
around Diwali and Eid whereas she has no idea what holidays are in August or October. Just like my own mixed-religion family where we celebrated each holiday for its culture and as a way to bring us all together, I’m hopeful that we can create our own traditions and bind our worlds together.

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What is your POV on people of other faiths and cultures adopting Diwali customs?

I have to believe that celebrating a holiday respectfully and in the spirit of sharing and togetherness is the only way we’re going to push through all the bigotry and hatred. Sure, there may be examples out there of Diwali being appropriated, but I’d like to believe that everyone who celebrates Diwali and understands its significance is using it as a way to spread joy. It sounds corny but Diwali has that effect on me!

Ever since you started celebrating Diwali here in the States, how have you adapted it to fit your lifestyle?

Dias de los Muertos and Diwali usually line up within weeks of each other, so most of our friends set up their altars full of marigolds and memories. I love using the day to tie the two celebrations together, honoring those who have passed and setting intentions for the year ahead.

Food can be transportive. How do you feel when you eat a traditional Indian meal during the holiday?

It makes me really proud. When I first moved here, I felt incredibly isolated and confused. I didn’t identify with first- and second-generation Indian-Americans to whom my Mumbai childhood didn’t always make sense, and I had too much of a culture shock to identify with Americans. I’ve now been here close to nine years and created a community that allows me to accept and celebrate my many identities as a queer Indian immigrant living between spice farms in India and the hills of California.

How are you celebrating Diwali this year? Tell us about your traditions in the comments.

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