3 years ago, today. Snapchat memories hit differently when your life is no longer the same. I sat scrolling through the pictures and reminiscing about the Diwali celebrations back home. Since it is my first time away from India, it left me feeling a little homesick.

As one of the biggest holidays in India, Diwali is the liveliest and most spirited week of the year. The preparation for this festive season starts weeks in advance. The markets start getting busier as the vendors begin selling colorful and beautifully handcrafted diyas (earthen lamps), lanterns, fireworks, and home decorations. All streets, houses, and public buildings glow with shimmering lights, which make the atmosphere magical. Moms, grandmas, and aunties start cooking the delicious and aromatic festive snacks like Ghughras, Puri, and Chorfali for everyone to relish. The week before Diwali is packed with family get-togethers and parties, religious ceremonies, and a lot of shopping.

Diwali this year was quite different for me. I woke up to a video call from my sibling back home. He showed me around our beautifully decorated house and I could not help but notice how things were the same, yet felt so different. I particularly missed spending hours making colorful, intricately designed Rangolis with my mother each afternoon. I attended the Lakshmi Pooja online with them and interacted with my extended family in the evening. 

We celebrate Diwali to mark the homecoming of Bhagwan Shri Ram to Ayodhya, after defeating King Ravana and serving a 14 year exile. Unfortunately, a lot of international students do not get the same opportunity to return home as they get busy advancing in their decided academic direction.

Being away from home during festivals can be an emotionally challenging experience. So, determined to make the best of what we could and uphold the festive spirit, my friends and other students from the Indian community headed to the Diwali Mela, organized by the Indian Student Association, here at the UBC Okanagan campus.

Seeing the UNC (University Centre) Ballroom walls decorated with marigold flowers and tassels, Indian cultural items on sale, henna artists drawing beautiful tattoos, diyas waiting to be decorated, and everyone dressed in beautiful traditional clothes, brought a sense of familiarity and comfort. Much in line with the multicultural demographic at UBC Okanagan, we saw faculty members and students from other countries join the celebrations, too. As we grooved to the upbeat Bollywood and Punjabi music, I felt that homesick ache in my heart being replaced by warmth and love. It is rightly said: Home is not a place; it is a feeling.

This feeling was shared by a lot of international students in attendance:

Jeet Darji, a Master’s student from the Department of Electrical Engineering, said that:

 “Back in India, during Diwali, we meet with our friends and relatives and celebrate this festival of lights. Being in Canada this year, it was my first Diwali where I celebrated with new people from different countries and cultures. The event gave the Indian vibe I missed from my hometown and I particularly loved eating the Gulab Jamuns and Jalebis [Indian sweets].”

Vidhi Shah, a second-year student studying Microbiology, commented:

“Care packages from home and the sense of community that I experienced at the event on campus have made my Diwali complete. It was a total explosion of happiness, joy, and warmth. Friends have started feeling like family now, and Canada a new home.”

Salonee Rangnekar, another Master’s student, shared her love for henna tattoos and said that: 

“Every Diwali back home, my cousins and I would get together and paint each other’s hands with henna in preparation for the festival. I was so happy I was able to experience the same in a foreign country. Occasions like this can make one lonely, but having friends around makes things so much better.”

Despite the distance from loved ones, festivals can be an opportunity of reaching out to new people, spreading the love, and finding the light in our lives. This year, I, and a lot of other international students, learned to make homes out of rented flats in a foreign country with strangers who seem like family now.