Postcard from India's Diwali Festival

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All over India this week, lights are strung up across houses and businesses as Indians celebrate the five-day Diwali festival. The Hindu holiday is often referred to as the Indian Christmas, but the meaning of Diwali is as complex as India itself.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Indians are now observing the Hindu holiday of Diwali. All over the nation this week, lights are strung up across houses and businesses as Indians celebrate the five-day festival.

NPR's Laura Sydell is in Mumbai, and sends us this postcard about how the meaning of this holiday is as complicated as India itself.

LAURA SYDELL: There are strings of lights and multicolored paper lanterns everywhere: red, yellow, blue, purple. They light up mansions in the well-off neighborhood of Bandra, in the hovels of Daravi, the nation's largest slum. It's not easy to sleep on this holiday.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

SYDELL: All over the city, adults and children set off firecrackers.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

SYDELL: There are maybe as many stories about the origins of Diwali as there are cities in India. It isn't even celebrated on the same five days by everyone. But most stories about the holiday talk of victories by Hindu gods like Krishna and Vishnu over evil and the triumph of light on the darkest days of the year.

Mr. GENI SEGANKAR(ph) (Almanac Writer): (Hindu spoken)

SYDELL: Geni Segankar, who writes a well-known almanac of Hindu holidays and traditions, says on Diwali, Hindus worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune. Farmers in the countryside feed their cows especially well this week because their milk is the source of wealth.

One evening, my driver, Sudan Kompli(ph), tells me he will be taking the next day off to worship the source of his wealth - his car.

Mr. SUDAN KOMPLI (Driver): We wash it, clean it. Thank God to giving us safety on the road.

SYDELL: It isn't just the lights of Diwali that remind westerners of Christmas, 'tis the season to shop. Indians give gifts and sweets. They also throw out old clothes.

Unidentified Man #1: Tell me your best price. Not expensive, madam.

SYDELL: This is a crowded market where Indians are out in large numbers buying new clothes for Diwali. And even though it's a holiday, the bargaining is tough.

So how much?

Unidentified Man #2: Five-fifty.

SYDELL: How about 350?

Unidentified Man #2: Five-twenty-five. Okay? Best price.

SYDELL: Retailers in India count on Diwali for as much as 25 percent of their business. Although Diwali's origins are Hindu, in this nation of many faiths, it has become more of a national holiday.

Mr. ABU DURI(ph): (Hindu spoken)

SYDELL: Twenty-four-year-old Abu Duri tells me friends come together, eat new dishes and just have fun. He's out near the promenade by the bay in Mumbai, lighting sparklers and setting off fireworks, which will light up the skies over the city all night long.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, Mumbai, India.

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