Darkness at Deepavali

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October is a festive time for south Asian Indians, particularly Hindus, who celebrate the victory of good over evil with the festivals of Deepavali (“row of lights”), Navratri (“nine nights”), Dussehra (“ten days”), and Durga Puja (“tribute to the Goddess Durga”).

Not this year, though. A few days after the World Trade Center attacks, the Association of Indians in America met hastily and for the first time since its founding in 1987, cancelled the Deepavali celebrations they had scheduled for October 7 at the South Street Seaport Museum.

While honoring myths praising good over evil seems perhaps more needed now than ever in New York, “According to Indian heritage, we do not celebrate when there is a death in the family or in the neighborhood,” explains Hari Khera, the association’s president. Khera, for one, lost a cousin in the attack, and an estimated 200 natives of India were lost amidst the rubble.

So this annual mela, or festival, that has brought the smells and the spectacle of colorful ethnic dress, hundreds of performing artists, dozens of food stalls and tens of thousands of Indians from around the tri-state area will not take place.

“I’ll miss it, but what can you do?” asks Ramesh Mohan, a 14-year-old schoolboy from Jackson Heights. “Perhaps it would not be good to bring so many thousands in one place so soon,” adds Priya Patel, his cousin.

Whether these holidays, some of the most important in India, will be celebrated elsewhere has yet to be decided. Several smaller but equally flashy Indian celebrations usually held in Long Island, Flushing, and Edison, New Jersey, are on hold as organizers watch events unfold both at home and abroad over the next few weeks.

The cancellations have stemmed from more than just grief; hate crimes committed against Asians since September 11 have left many in dismay. A Huntington, Long Island, man tried to run down an Asian woman with his car, a Sikh man in Richmond Hill, Queens, was assaulted with a baseball bat and shot at with a BB gun, and a south Asian woman was spat on while riding the subway, according to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Notwithstanding Mayor Giuliani’s exhortations for citizens to get back to normal and enjoy the good things life has to offer, some immigrants feel this may not be the best time for ethnic communities to proudly display their difference. “As long as passengers look uncomfortable while driving in my taxi,” said Mohammed Hussain, a Calcutta-born yellow cab driver, “I will not feel safe sending my wife and child to a public community celebration.”

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