By BILL LYNCH
It was as miserable a Saturday night as I’d seen in awhile. Cold rain poured, but the road through Southridge in South Charleston was busy.
But, neither rain, nor sleet nor gloom of night will keep people from getting to Walmart on the weekend.
At the India Center, Bhupinder Gill wasn’t sure if the weather would keep people away from the annual Diwali celebration.
Shaking his head, the treasurer for the India Center said, “You hope that it will not, but…”
The India Center was not Walmart.
Along with membership fees and donations, the India Center counts on events like the Diwali celebration to help support the facility, which is a kind of central location for the local Indian and Pakistani community.
Things seemed to be going well.
Just after 6 p.m., people were still streaming in through the door, shaking off the chill and shedding wraps and raincoats.
Many of them wore brightly colored robes and gowns. They came for a party. Some women wore glittering jewels on their foreheads. A few men and women carried a red dot or had a yellow mark.
A couple of men wore turbans.
I tried not to gawk like a tourist, though I clearly was one.
Acknowledging what I don’t know
I’d only been inside the India Center one other time, that I remembered, for the annual Heritage India Festival years ago. I bought some food, drank something that tasted like flowers and talked myself out of a henna tattoo. (It seemed less permanent than going under the needle.)
My knowledge of Diwali, the reason for the celebration, was vague. It was called a Festival of Lights, but why or what that meant was beyond me. I’d seen a couple of cards for the holiday in a grocery store once or twice, swallowed up in a sea of cards for Christmas.
I knew next to nothing about Indian culture or Indian-Americans and came to the India Center in South Charleston to start a month trying to understand something different from myself.
Most of my friends are a lot like me. They’re mostly white, have a college degree and wish Charleston would get a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s grocery store.
My friends are generally Christians, even if they tend to sleep in Sundays or spend those mornings in quiet contemplation at the International House of Pancakes. Even the ones who say they’re nonbelievers usually put up a Christmas tree and will stock up on Cadbury chocolate eggs after the stores begin marking them down Easter Sunday.
Our family histories tend to be similar, too. Ancestors, generally from Western Europe and mostly working class, immigrated to the area in the 1800s or early 1900s. They farmed. They mined. They took jobs in factories and hoped their kids could do better.
Indians in America — in West Virginia — came more recently.
Their immigrant experience is much fresher.
I know very few immigrants from anywhere.
My few interactions with people from India have generally come at the doctor’s office.
Twenty years ago, an Indian-born doctor named Patel treated me for strep throat after I put off seeking treatment to the point that I could no longer swallow anything more substantial than ice water.
He told me I didn’t need to make myself suffer so much. Then he wrote a prescription for antibiotics and said I should take the weekend off to get some rest.
“Go buy ice cream,” he added, smiling. “For the nutritional value.”
I got strawberry, because fruit seemed healthier than Moose Tracks.
Through the India Center, I hoped to get to know a few Indian people and learn about their culture, which seemed alien to me, but I started cold.
I didn’t know a soul at the Diwali celebration, except Dr. Sanjaya (he goes by just one name), who contacted me several months ago asking if I’d write something about the India Heritage Festival.
Afterward, I asked if he could introduce me around.
He said sure.
We corresponded through email and spoke once over the phone, but I didn’t know what he looked like. He hadn’t shown up yet, and I felt awkward. Next to the gowns and smart suits, I stuck out in a maroon hoodie and T-shirt.
Nobody minded. They took me in, even before I began waving around a pen and a notebook.
I was shown the puja room, a worship space on the second floor available to whoever wants to use it, regardless of denomination.
Gill told me it was the only one of its kind in the country.
“Other places are only if you’re Hindu or only if you’re Sikh or whatever,” he said. “We are open to everyone. Whether you’re Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian or Christian, you can use the puja room.”
He paused for a moment and then said, “Of course, Christians do not use the room. Why would they when they have all of these beautiful churches to choose from?”
But it was open to Christians, if they wanted. A few Christians came to the India Center, he said, but, generally, the place was used by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, the majority religions of the local Indian and Pakistani community.
So, what is Diwali?
Diwali, which has been around for about 3,000 years, is celebrated by all three religions — well, sort of.
To the Hindus, it’s a family and community holiday, signifying the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair.
It’s a little like Christmas and New Year’s Eve rolled into one. Families, friends and communities get together to pray, eat and maybe exchange gifts. They may hang lights, let off fireworks and play music.
Jains observe Diwali through contemplation and charity. They fast and offer prayers.
Sikhs don’t actually celebrate Diwali, but they observe Bandi Chhor Divas (Day of Liberation), which coincides with Diwali and is a celebration of the release of the revered Guru Hargobind from prison in the 17th century.
Bandi Chhor Divas is celebrated like Diwali, however.
Everyone at the Diwali celebration was unfailingly friendly and encouraged me repeatedly to eat something. The food was good, they promised. They didn’t want me to miss out.
Fat chance of that, but, while I’ve eaten at Indian restaurants in town, I didn’t recognize the names of the dishes on the appetizer buffet — palak pakora, gobi manchurian and samosas. Likely, I’d never paid much attention in the first place.
Some of it looked sort of familiar, but I wasn’t sure what was what. Flustered, I looked across the buffet table at a man in a nice, brown suit and asked for help.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I don’t eat meat,” I said.
He looked up and smiled.
“I’m a vegetarian, too,” he said. Then he pointed out a couple of pans that would be good and a couple that would not, including the pile of roasted chicken legs at the end of the table.
“That’s obvious, right?” he said.
Dr. Sanjaya arrived, and after inviting me to eat again, introduced me around. I shook hands and collected phone numbers. I made almost everybody write his or her name down, which was embarrassing, but necessary.
Nearly all of the men I spoke with were doctors or engineers. Most had been in Charleston for decades.
Parvez Wadia, a chemical engineer, came to West Virginia in 1974, a year or so after he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked for Union Carbide.
“I came mainly for work, but this was a good place,” he said. “It had a good community.”
When he arrived, he said there were about 15 or 16 Indian and Pakistani families in the area. His family, he thought, was probably the 17th.
“Now, we have 250 to 300 Indian families, another 100 or so from Pakistan,” he said. “West Virginia has been a good place to raise children.”
I was introduced to several doctors, all of them specialists.
This could be another reason why I didn’t know a lot of Indian-Americans. Many of the people in the room had advanced degrees and were a couple of tax brackets ahead of me. I know about as many bankers and nuclear physicists as I do people from India.
After eating and some socializing, children and teenagers came out on stage to entertain. Little girls, who jingled as they walked, danced intricate traditional dances on stage while proud parents and relatives held aloft their glowing iPhones, capturing every second.
They were adorable.
A trio of teenagers played violin or flute, including “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme from the movie, “Titanic.”
A lot of effort and preparation had gone into all of this. The show had a lot of heart, but what caught my attention were the national anthems.
At the start of the show, a young woman sang both the American and the Indian national anthems.
People stood at attention for “The Star Spangled Banner.” They looked toward the flag with reverence. Some placed their hands over their hearts, and the crowd applauded at the end.
During the Indian national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana,” the crowd sang along in a language I could not understand, but in tones conveying both pride and longing.
It was moving.
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