This particular celebration was based around customs from a particular part of Southern India called Tamil Nadu where my parents and I are originally from. The organizers of the event started planning months in advance and were expecting close to 600 people to join.
This Diwali celebration emphasized heavy community participation. Volunteers were recruited to be in charge of nearly every part of this event.
My parents and I signed up to help with the food prep, and so the evening before the event we made our way to a volunteer’s home after work. He lived with his family in a complex of townhomes in Fremont. When we arrived they had opened up their garage and converted it into a food prep area.
Just outside was a station where nearly a hundred pounds of onions were being washed, peeled, and prepped for chopping. Inside the garage I stood side by side cutting yams, chillis, and onions with Indian aunties. Children ran around us as I listened to them catch up with each other's lives.
Since I cook a lot I walked in with a bit of a swagger, aiming to wow people with my culinary skills. As I got to chopping onions I felt like I was going at a pretty fast pace. After a few minutes I looked up and saw a man who was going at it like a machine, nearly doubling my pace. Along with the chaat snacks I ate some humble pie that night.
As a kid I would take long trips to India every few years over the entire school summer. There were things I liked and didn’t like about these trips. However, what I loved were the moments where I could be near my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and extended family while they talked about old stories or the latest family gossip.
There was always something so peaceful about those moments, which always made me feel truly at home. Being in the presence of people who have loved you before you were even born feels magical.
I felt a very similar feeling that night as I got blisters on my hand from forcefully using a dull knife to dice up some especially gnarly yams. It felt good to work alongside people all working to create a positive experience for so many people.
After about twenty people helped prep all the necessary ingredients, a subset of the group loaded all the prep into a large van and headed over to a kitchen to get to cooking. They would spend the entire night cooking all the food family style so that it was ready the next day. By the time the actual event started, many of this core group of volunteers wouldn’t have slept for over 24 hours.
The next morning my dad and I headed in early to help. When we arrived at 8:00 a.m. there was already a large team of people getting everything set up. One group was decorating the stage with lights and garlands for the many dance performances we were going to have that day.
Another group was tasked with the responsibility of getting massive food filled stainless steel containers from the van to the kitchen. Since my decorating skills are subpar, I decided this is where I would be the most useful. I worked alongside people I had never met before as transported hundreds of pounds of food onto the school kitchen tables.
The actual event itself went incredibly smoothly, especially considering the magnitude of people in attendance. There were a series of traditional dances done by children and teenagers. The dances were great, but what was even greater was watching proud parents pantomiming their kids' moves on the sidelines and in the audience.
When lunchtime arrived a crew of volunteers converted the rows of seats into tables where people could sit and eat. There is this longstanding tradition that people at the event serve each other. What this means is that there were long rows of people seated down with a traditional banana leaf plate in front of them.
Event attendees would sign up for a service spot, and would be in charge of walking up and down the aisles serving food to everybody. Once the initial group was done, they would in turn serve the next group who sat down to eat. To me the tradition helped reinforce the idea of community and that we should all be in service to one another.
There was a small section during the event where all newlyweds were announced to the larger group. This celebration included me and my wife. Afterwards throughout the rest of the day people kept coming up to embrace and congratulate us. People I had never seen in my life were expressing genuine happiness and excitement that we were starting our journey together.
For many years I never went to community events like this. My parents would go occasionally, but I thought I was too cool for them. Instead I spent my weekends doing much cooler things like waiting two hours in line to pay thirty dollars for some eggs at the newest brunch place in the city.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to truly appreciate these community events and the massive amount of work that goes into organizing them. I have an incredible appreciation for all those community members who took a leadership role in not only organizing them but playing an integral part in their execution. It’s a community I’m proud to be a part of.