Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains around the world! Many know the story of Diwali in the Hindu tradition: Rama and Sita returns home after defeating the demon-king Ravana, and the people joyously light the kingdom with oil lamps. In the Jain tradition, Diwali marks Mahavira’s attainment of moksha in 527 BC. In the Sikh tradition, Diwali marks yet another kind of return: Bandi Chhor Divas, the Day of Liberation.

Art: @_keeratkaur

Here’s how the story was passed down to me. In 1619, the Mhogal Emperor Jahangir, hungry for power, imprisoned Guru Hargobind, our sixth Sikh guru (teacher). The people cried out for his release, and so the Emperor finally agreed to release the Guru. The Guru refused to leave unless he also freed the other fifty-two Hindu princes languishing in detention with him. The Emperor granted his wish but on one condition: only those who can hold on to the Guru’s clothes would be released. Surely, he wouldn’t lose too many prisoners that way. The Guru ordered the making of a special cloak with fifty-two tassels. As the Guru walked out of the gates of the prison, the fifty-two princes followed, each holding on to his own corner of the dazzling cloak. Guru Hargobind became known as Bandi-Chhor, Liberator. And when he returned home, the people lit candles to commemorate the return of all, Bandi Chhor Divas.

Almost a century later, on October 24th 2022, I was invited to the first-ever big Diwali celebration at the White House!

 

Here’s what this celebration FELT like to me — a homecoming, a century in the making:

Indian music filled the halls. Marigolds and candles and bells were placed at the foot of iconic portraits, so that these portraits felt different — like history reframed through our eyes! Kennedy was in deep thought with diyas, Michelle graced by marigolds. And the bright colors and gold patterns of our traditional clothing made the red room more red, the blue room more blue. Has the White House ever seen more color? They served sweets and snacks — fried pakora and pistachio chocolate barfee and mango drinks. It tasted like home and celebration.

We gathered in the ballroom and waited for the President to speak. I had just been in this room a few weeks ago! President Biden held a summit at the White House on white supremacist violence as a national priority. It was a somber day — so much grief as we shared their stories. Now I was standing in the exact same spot in the same ballroom, this time in celebration. I looked around. I saw so many people I love — South Asian artists and advocates and thought leaders. I have been so focused on racial violence for so long, I hadn’t paid attention to how far we have come, how much we have grown, how strong we are, the light we sow.

And I started to think of my grandfather. This nation did not want him when he arrived as a Sikh Punjabi farmer in 1913. Baba Ji was incarcerated at Angel Island and almost deported. Could he have imagined this? Not just polite tolerance but loving embrace? Tonight the White House said to us — “Come in! Change how it looks and feels in here. We will all be better for it!”

Many of you ask me how I keep doing my work, in close proximity to trauma and violence. I think this is the secret: to let in joy and pleasure as much as the pain and sorrow. Whenever you can.

The deeper I hold joy, the deeper my capacity to grieve. The deeper I grieve, the deeper I experience pleasure and joy. Like two wells carving out the other. This is what resilience feels like.

I wish you joy — and resilience! May we be released from prisons of all kinds, including the ones we build around ourselves. And when we find our way to the light, may we leave no one behind. Happy Diwali! Happy Bandi Chhor Divas!

Please enjoy some of the special moments of my experience at the first-ever Diwali celebration at the White House!