MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
In a few minutes, you talk back to us. It's our Backtalk segment. One of the ways we hear from you each week.
First, though, as you heard earlier in the program, President Obama lands in India tomorrow on a three-day visit. And there are sure to be fireworks, not the political or diplomatic kind, but rather the kind used to celebrate a global religious holiday. Today marks the start of Diwali, a five-day festival observed by Hindus in South Asia and around the world. It's also known as the festival of lights.
The president and first lady, Michelle Obama, are scheduled to join a Diwali celebration at a school in Mumbai on Sunday. President Obama became the first U.S. president to hold a Diwali ceremony at the White House last year, where he described the significance of the holiday.
President BARACK OBAMA: And in the spirit of celebration and contemplation, I am happy to light the White House diya and wish you all a Happy Diwali and a Saal Mubarak.
(Soundbite of applause)
Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)
MARTIN: To talk more about Diwali, I'm joined now by Sandip Roy. He is an editor with New America Media based in San Francisco. And he's written about the holiday and he's with us now to tell us more. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. SANDIP ROY (Editor, New America Media): Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Well, first of all, Happy Diwali to you.
Mr. ROY: Same to you.
MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about the origin of the holiday if you will.
Mr. ROY: Well, the saying goes, Michel, that if there are two Indians, there must be three opinions between them. So there's actually a lot of different stories about Diwali.
But the most popular one is that Lord Rama, who is the hero of the Indian epic, the Ramayana, he went into exile for 14 years and vanquished the 10-headed demon, King Ravana. And then when he came back to his capital city, it was the darkest night of the year. And the citizens of his capital city were so elated to have their prince back, that they all lit thousands of lamps to welcome him home.
And to this day on Diwali you'll find the balconies and rooftops and porches of millions of Indian homes lit with these flickering clay lamps or candles, or in America, strings of Christmas lights.
But I mean it's not just a big occasion for Hindus, Sikhs celebrate the liberation of their sixth guru, Jains, which is another religious group in India celebrate the enlightenment of their guru Mahavira. And even among Hindus there are other things associated with Diwali. For example, the birth of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity from the churning of the oceans.
MARTIN: If you've just joined us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy Diwali. I'm talking with writer and editor Sandip Roy about Diwali. That's a five-day Hindu holiday, the festival of lights that begins today.
We found that we could find at least 11 countries where there is a public holiday to celebrate Diwali. So, in Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim. Would I be celebrating differently depending on where I am?
Mr. ROY: Yeah, there are different rituals associated with Diwali, and different parts of the world give emphasis to different parts of the Diwali celebrations. For example, where I come from, Michel, in Calcutta, in eastern India, the bigger emphasis is on the worship of goddess Kali. Different things that other places emphasize, the worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. So there's a lot of all-night gambling that happens in some parts of the world.
But wherever you go, there'll be sweets, there will be fireworks, there will be new clothes, and even though some of the rituals are changing, even in India.
MARTIN: Well, I like all of that. The sweets, the new clothes and the lights part - all of that appeals to me.
Mr. ROY: The fireworks can get a little loud. A friend of mine is a Fulbright Scholar and just moved to India and she posted on her Facebook status, the sparkly colors are pretty, but the explosive blasts not so much. So I hope President Obama is taking a pair of earplugs. It's like Fourth of July, but multiplied exponentially, as many things in India are.
MARTIN: Now, you, as you mentioned, that you grew up in Calcutta, but you live in the U.S. now. How do you celebrate Diwali here? And do you miss being home on a big holiday like that? You know, in a way that many Americans feel sad on Thanksgiving, even if they have their turkey, you know, somewhere else. They just feel it's not the same.
Mr. ROY: It is not the same. And sometimes I feel nostalgic. But here nowadays in the U.S., there are so many Diwali parties and things going on around Diwali that there's always something to do, so you never feel like you're in a place where nobody knows that it's the biggest festival of your country happening.
On the other hand, I have to say, I don't miss the explosive 125 decibel blasts going on all the time, all night long, which doesn't let you sleep. I kind of -I mean I'll be going to a Diwali party that friends of mine have had every single year. And lots of people will show up.
And it becomes a great communal gathering. I think some of the religious significance of it does get diluted in America. But the cultural significance, it really becomes a location for Indians from all over to come together and dress up nice and share a lot of food and fun.
MARTIN: And sweets.
Mr. ROY: And sweets.
MARTIN: Don't forget the sweets.
Mr. ROY: Sweets are always a must. And maybe in the backyard a little bit of illegal fireworks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Well, we'll just keep that between us.
Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media. He wrote about Diwali. We'll link to some of his pieces on our website. If you want to see what he's had to say about particularly his not being so in love with the fireworks. And he joined us from San Francisco. Thank you so much for talking to us. Happy Diwali.
Mr. ROY: Thank you. Happy Diwali to you, Michel.