This Tuesday or Wednesday (November 6 or 7) is Diwali depending where you reside – coinciding with the darkest night of the autumn. This Indian festival of lights is celebrated by Hindus world over. In Guyana, Diwali is Wednesday and in the Caribbean and US it is Tuesday. Diwali or deepavalli (Sanskrit), meaning row of lights, is one of the most celebrated festivals for Hindus. In Guyana, almost everyone (regardless of ethnicity or religion) celebrates the spirit of the festival even if they don’t light deyas or mount electronic lights.
Diwali is celebrated at offices, businesses, and educational institutions across America and the Caribbean. In New York, I organized Diwali celebrations at City College (CUNY) in 1977 and several years thereafter during my undergrad and grad studies. My experience in organizing Diwali celebrations was obtained from Corentyne High School (CHS), now renamed JC Chandisingh Secondary School. There, I helped organize Diwali celebration and emceed its program. Diwali was first celebrated at CHS with a cultural variety concert and the lighting of deyas on October 22 1976, the day before Diwali. This celebration inspired and set the precedent for Diwali celebration in other schools on the Corentyne, Berbice, and across Guyana. Diwali celebrations at CHS illuminated minds at the school and the Corentyne coast. It beamed smiles on the faces of students and staff after a dark somber period of a students’ strike losing time in their studies from an uncaring administration of the school. The Diwali celebration there signified the triumph of the students in their struggle against an administration that sought to penalize them for asserting a democratic and natural right to form a student union (council) and religious clubs. More importantly, it created a space for all to enjoy their cultural festivals at school ground.
The (CHS) Diwali celebration was organized by the newly formed Hindu Society of CHS whose faculty mentors were Dr Chaitram Singh, Dr. Indradat Jagnandan, Ms. Vijaya Poonwassie Tewari, Mr. Iserdat Ramdehol, Mr. Permaul, Mr. Aslim Khan, among others. Initially, the school administration agreed to the formation of a Student Council (Society) but then had a change of heart and banned it. The leadership, including this Vishnu Bisram, Tejram Raghubir, Miss Ann Ramoutar, Miss Shanti Oneshwere, Miss Diana Peters, Miss Debbie Lalchan, Miss Basmattie Girdharry, Miss Geeta Singh, Miss Susana Rawana, and others, were directly instructed (by the principal and his son Rohan Chandisingh) to cease and desist from activities relating to the student organization. This led to a school strike by students (who walked out of the school) over several days including picketing of the building.
I was serving as roving Head Prefect at the time; myself and a few other prefects assumed leadership positions for the students strike. The students appealed to (petitioned) Berbice Education Officer (Mr. Solomon) for intervention to end the strike (boycott of classes) with the restoration (rescinding of the ban) of the Students Council society: I personally delivered the letter to the EO at his home in Portuguese Quarter. The EO initially refused to meet with the students’ leadership unless they ended the strike and returned to class. But the students objected to the condition and remained on strike until the EO agreed to meet their demands. The EO relented and met with students and later staff members who were sympathetic with striking students. The EO and administration agreed with the students’ conditions to end the strike – that included rescinding the ban on and recognition of the Students Society and the formation of religious clubs. Another demand was staff would not be penalized for supporting the students – a condition that would later be violated by the administration and the EO (Ministry of Education).
Hindu, Muslim and Christian Clubs (Societies) were subsequently formed. All four student organizations endorsed the idea of a Diwali celebration as it was the first major festival after the launching of the four organizations. A Diwali concert was organized in a collaborative effort with students of all three faiths (Hindus, Muslims, Christians) assisting in the planning and organizing of the festivities.
With voluntary labor from students and staff and the school’s janitor (popularly known as Watchie), classrooms were re-arranged in the main building into a huge hall and aesthetically decorated (festooned with balloons and party favors) for the occasion. A stage was constructed and decorated in the front of the hall. A band volunteered to play music gratis. It was a festive atmosphere at the school. The mid-afternoon event involved a brief Pooja and the distribution of Prasad (mohanbhog). The celebration during the afternoon at CHS was welcomed by students and the community at large. It was the largest celebration of any event at the school. Needless to say it was a magnificent elegant affair in which the students displayed their singing, drumming, and classical dancing talent. The band provided back up music for singers of appropriate Diwali songs. The beautiful Diana Peters, dressed in a sari, performed scintillating classical dance (Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram). Students and staff from all faiths joined in the celebration. The jam packed audience cheered the artistes. Schools followed pattern and hosted Diwali celebrations in subsequent years. It was a dignified celebration that beamed the energy of students. And it also demonstrated what can be achieved if people are united in their goal. A debt of gratitude is owed to those pioneers of the celebration at CHS and those who participated in the struggle for freedom of organization formation.
Students from CHS that migrated to the US helped used their experience in Guyana to help organize Diwali programs which are very popular in areas where Indo-Caribbeans are settled. They have revived the tradition. Students at my college were able to get an experience of Indo-Guyanese culture with Diwali treats and vegetarian dishes (including dhal puri, alou curry, bhara, baiganie, phulourie, etc.) prepared for the occasion.
Some half a million Indo-Guyanese Americans and 250K Indo-Trini Americans make their home in America many of who are Hindus celebrating Diwali. The largest numbers are in the New York metro area. Diwali is celebrated in the greater New York area at temples, colleges, and halls with cultural variety shows. Several former staff and students of the CHS are involved in the planning and organizing of these Diwali celebrations at mandirs and schools. They also partake in the annual Diwali motorcade which is this Sunday November 4 evening.
Diwali Day is accorded recognition in several locales in America. November 6 is a parking holiday in NYC. Also, school students are excused from attendance. Staff can also be excused if they so choose to take the day off. Several graduates of CHS are staff of schools in the greater NY area as well as in Florida where Diwali is a big hit. Several districts in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, and California, among other states grant a school holiday for Diwali.
The NYC Hindu community lobbied for Diwali as a school holiday but the Mayor, Bill Di Blasio, refused to grant it. There are two Muslim and several Jewish and Christian school holidays. Nevada-based Rajan Zed, a renowned Hindu activist and President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, has been leading the movement for inclusion of Diwali in the US school holiday calendars. Many Guyanese, some former attendees of CHS (including this writer), are behind the push for a school holiday for Diwali in NYC. They proudly display their deyas and electronic lights in front of their homes. As in Guyana, celebrants spend days preparing for the festival cleaning up their homes and sprucing up the yard. Bright colorful electronic lights hanging around the homes flicker attracting onlookers about the occasion. On Diwali night, lit deyas will burn alongside fluttering American flags and Jhandi prayer flags.
The exhilarating Diwali celebrations in NYC and at City College of New York (CCNY), of which I was associated, bring back memories of my youthful days in that students’ struggle for the right to form student clubs in a school as well as in planning and emceeing the Diwali celebration at CHS. The CHS Diwali celebration also set the stage for the celebration of other Indo-Guyanese festivals like Holi.
Vishnu Bisram – Class of 1977 and former Head Boy
Dr. Bisram, a 1977 grad, is an educator in New York; he researches and writes on the Guyanese, Caribbean (Indo-Caribbean), and Indian diasporas.