My Diwali

Below is an amended (and somewhat extended) blog that I wrote for my staff newsletter at work

The five-day festival of Diwali is perhaps the biggest and most well-known festival in the Hindu calendar. It’s celebrated with great fervour throughout the world: not only in India, but also in countries with sizeable Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist minorities. Celebrations are characterised by light, colour, food and fireworks.

Many stories are associated with the festival and each of its days, the most popular of which is the return of the deity Rama to his kingdom with his wife Sita, following a fourteen-year exile (it really is a long story — Wikipedia tells it well). However, central to all of these myths is the victory of good. The triumph of that which allows humans to live in peace, and support one another. But on a more philosophical level, the triumph of that which shatters our delusions about the world, expands our minds, and thus enables us to grow.

Light

It’s pretty well known that light is a key theme of Diwali — the name of the festival is a shortened form of the word “Deepavali”, which literally means “row of lights”. On the night of Diwali, much of India turns into a sparkling fairyland — households traditionally light earthen lamps (“diyas”) with cotton wicks and ghee. The popular origin of this is said to be from when the people of Rama’s kingdom lit diyas to welcome him home. Of course nowadays, electricity has added a whole other dimension to the light theme.

However, a question not often asked is: what does this light represent? The motif of light and dark is a recurring one in Hinduism. It’s often a metaphor for knowledge or enlightenment, which dispels the darkness of ignorance and delusion. Knowledge of what? Of the world and humanity, that which expands the limits of our minds, that which allows us to develop empathy and appreciate realities beyond our own. Ultimately, knowledge that enables us to outgrow ignorance and realise our true selves.

Wealth

It’s possible that Diwali’s origins lie in a harvest festival. It falls at the start of winter, one of the last harvests of the year, which was significant given that India was traditionally an agricultural economy. It was thus a time to reap the fruit of hard toil over the year gone by, and store it up for the winter months.

This gives rise to the other key theme of Diwali: wealth, or abundance. Indeed, the second day of the Diwali festival, Dhanteras, is traditionally considered a very auspicious time to purchase assets, particularly gold. Homes are meticulously cleaned and decorated, to invite in wealth and auspice. Households venerate their stores of physical assets (such as jewellery and precious metal) and their account books, to give their thanks for prosperity received so far and to pray for continued material wealth in the year ahead.

Coming back to the theme of light, knowledge is also welcomed with wealth — so that while we invite prosperity, we can also realise that it isn’t the be all and end all of our lives. So that we realise that the true value of wealth lies in helping us to do some good in the world, and ultimately grow as individuals.

This is embodied in worship during Diwali. Alongside the goddess Lakshmi — who embodies wealth and prosperity — the goddess Saraswati — who embodies knowledge and spiritual growth — is also welcomed. Only with the two together can we move towards realising our true selves.

My Diwali

So Diwali is a big deal for many across the world, and the British Indian community is no exception. The festival is marked by gatherings with family and friends, gifts, fireworks and food. However, Diwali was always, and still is, a much quieter festival for me. I don’t have much extended family in the UK, and my parents didn’t have deep connections in the Indian community. So celebrations in our household were always a bit more basic, and on a much smaller scale.

For me, Diwali also marked what I call an identity crisis “flash point”. As a second generation immigrant, it was one of those times in the year where I questioned whether I truly belonged in either part of my cultural identity. I’d be missing out on huge celebrations in India, and, aside from the big gatherings in the British Indian community, the festival would barely pass with a whimper in the UK. It could be quite sad at times — feeling neither here nor there, always on the periphery. This is actually a huge part of growing up as a second generation immigrant, and probably one to explore in other blog!

Because of this, Diwali became an increasingly introspective time for me. I always linked it back to discovering my place in the world, and figuring out what my religion meant to me. So I read about Diwali a lot when it came around. I became determined to feel more of a part of it, so I started forming my own little traditions around the festival. The most notable of these is that I’m the only one in my household who draws a rangoli on Diwali — geometric patterns outside the house, to welcome the goddess Lakshmi into our home. Mine isn’t anything to brag about (I have the artistic abilities of a three-year old), but keeping up the tradition is my own small way of marking Diwali, and making it mine.

That’s what I’ve come to associate Diwali with — a time that you can get back to basics, and re-connect with yourself, the world around you, and the divine. A time to give thanks, and spread auspice and good vibes. Cultural wranglings aside, I found, and still find, something immensely peaceful and comforting about the festival. The nights are drawing in, and winter is coming — so it’s the perfect time to celebrate with warmth, light and joy. For me, it’s the perfect time to step back, and connect to something bigger than my day-to-day life.

To all those celebrating, wishing you a happy Diwali!

Ecuador — the centre of the earth (part 1)

The prospect of a trip to Ecuador was a thrilling one. It was a country so far away from home (I live in the UK), and would also mark my first visit to South America — a continent so vast and diverse in its history, landscape and people. I would literally be travelling to the other side of the world — I couldn’t wait to dive into this new adventure.

I wasn’t disappointed. Ecuador and the Galapagos islands are amazing places. Dramatic landscapes, uninhibited wildlife and kind, wonderful people. It always strikes me how much happier people are outside of Western Europe. Like so many other countries I’ve visited, the people in Ecuador seem to lead lives that are so much simpler, and for the most part seem calmer and happier because of it.

Our journey began in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, which is high up in the Andes. The first thing you notice about Quito is mountains — they’re everywhere. Silent, serene observers of the city and its people. They give a sense of perspective on human life — here you have a city built by humans, and everything that urban life comes with. But the constant looming presence of the mountains is testament to the sovereignty of nature that lies beyond human constructs. For me, the seamless co-existence of nature and humanity was a big theme in Ecuador.

The mountains became so much a part of my trip that I missed their presence when we were in Guayaquil — Ecuador’s other major city, which lies further south in flatter landscapes. Still, nature certainty continued to make her presence felt: the iguana park in the heart of the city is filled with iguanas going about their business, amid that sideshow that is urban life.

Rural Ecuador

As we got further away from Quito into rural Ecuador, mountains gave way to volcanoes. Still silent observers, but perhaps less serene — many of the volcanic landscapes that we visited had visible instructions of what to do in the event of an eruption.

It’s here that nature shows her dynamism, at least more visibly. Volcanoes are indeed destructive, but my time amongst them also made me realise that they spark creation. This was particularly true of Cuicocha, a lake within a huge volcanic crater. Similarly with Pululahua, an actual settlement within an (active) crater. Both are beautiful, and typically characteristic of Ecuador’s dramatic natural beauty, so definitely worth a visit. And of course, not forgetting the mighty, snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano. A visit to the national park, and a walk around the Limpiopungo Lake in its foothills is a must.

I have a particular fondness for the sleepy towns settled within these landscapes. Mindo was one such town, flanked not only by mountains but also adjacent to a cloud forest. A hike down (and back up) to the Nambilla Cascadas waterfall is highly recommended. I could have spent hours sitting on the rocks, watching and listening to the mesmerising sound of water on water. I’m told that one can also dive into the waterfall, but beware of the shallow waters and the relatively rocky waterbed.

The cloud forest and the town of Mindo itself also provide the opportunity for more thrill-seeking activities — zip-lining, white water rafting, tubing and even more hiking. I zip-lined through the forest for the first time, which was fun — just maybe don’t look down too much.

A visit to Ecuador will likely take you to the town of Otavalo too, which has a large market filled with local products. It’s cheap and reasonably authentic. Otavalo is also notable for its presence of indigenous communities of Ecuadorians, whose ancestors pre-date the arrival of the Spanish. A whole other community of Ecuador opens: one which has its own language, community, customs and traditions.

The equator

A big highlight for me was visiting the equator — from which the country of Ecuador derives its name. This is just outside Quito, and the equator line itself is marked by a monument and a visitor centre. Guides will take you around and talk about the equator itself, as well as traditional tribal practices — it’s worth joining one of these tours if you can.

The equator line is clearly marked, and — as someone who has spent all their life in the Northern hemisphere of planet Earth — I was childishly excited to step on both sides of the line. The confluence of Earth’s centrifugal forces are visibly felt — for example, it’s near impossible to walk on the equator itself in a straight line, because the forces will pull you to either side. But for the same reason, it’s the one place in the world where you can balance an egg on a nail — doing so successfully will earn you a certificate, dubbing you an “egg master” (full disclosure: I failed).

The visitor centre is a little touristy, but I loved it. I loved the celebration of the equator line. It felt like I’d never been this far away from home — never been this far away from the bubble of my day-to-day life. Being literally at the centre of our planet, exploring its many facets, was fascinating and thrilling. It pretty much summed up Ecuador for me as a whole.

Little did I know what was around the corner — Ecuador was a staging point for what was to come: the Galapagos. More on that in part two of this blog!

Practical tips for travelling in Ecuador

  • Ecuador uses the US dollar as its currency. To note that some dollar coins (and coins of lower denominations) are minted specifically in Ecuador, so may be unique to the country.
  • You’ll find public toilets in most petrol/gas stations, which makes life easier on long drives. However, most actually don’t have any toilet paper, to avoid members of the public stocking up on free tissue. Some places will give you the option to buy toilet paper, but an easier option might be to just carry around your own.
  • While you may find some English speakers, the language isn’t widely spoken with a great deal of fluency (at least not outside of the tourism industry). Might be worth learning a few basic Spanish phrases to get by.
  • Don’t drink tap water — it isn’t properly treated. Bottled water is easily available, and most decent hotels will not only give you a bottle or two in your room, but may also have filling stations in their reception.
  • Beware of altitude sickness in and around Quito. The region is high up in the Andes, and the enhanced curvature of the Earth at the equator makes it even higher. I was mildly affected — mostly felt tired, out of breath, and slightly nauseous. It can be far worse for some, particularly if you suffer from heart problems or high blood pressure. If you are hit by the altitude, take it easy for a day or so — consider starting your trip a couple of days early to help you acclimatise. Local coca tea is very helpful for altitude sickness.
  • Invest in sun-screen and mosquito/insect repellent if you’re heading to more rural areas. The latter came in particularly handy in Mindo and the cloud forest.
  • Weather is pretty unpredictable, and seems to be defined more by rain than temperature. We visited during the rainy season, which was generally marked by sunny mornings and rain in the afternoon/evening. But this is by no means guaranteed, so be prepared for all eventualities.
  • I’m a vegetarian, and was prepared to survive on salad for most of my trip. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how vegetarian-friendly Ecuador was. A couple of traditional dishes include potato soup (usually with avocados and/or cheese), quinoa cuisines and vegetable ceviches. At worst, you’ll find pizza, pasta or Tex-Mex food on the menu.

Darkness

I’ve been wanting to write about depression for a long time. The trouble is, when I get round to it, I’m always at a loss for what to say. When you’re depressed, one of the last things you want to do is document it. And when you’re having a good day, you don’t exactly want to go back and relive it. During brief periods of respite, depression can also become difficult to recall, like trying to remember a very vivid nightmare. One reason is because it is essentially a paradoxical experience: intense and all-consuming when you’re in its midst, but also a very abstract and out-of-body phenomenon.

My second reservation was wondering what I could add to all the existing commentary out there. So much has already been written about depression, by people far more clever than me, and by those who have felt it much more deeply than I have. What could I possibly say that hadn’t been said already?

And thirdly, part of me didn’t (and still doesn’t) feel qualified to write about depression. I consider myself relatively lucky in that it hasn’t hit me as hard as it has a lot of people. It’s not something that I’ve been formally diagnosed with – I’ve not felt the need to seek professional help, or take any medication (which is not to belittle those who have done either). But depression is a bit like being in love – you don’t need anyone to tell you that you have suffered from it, you just know.

Nonetheless, the urge to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) didn’t go away. That’s partly because I saw writing as a means of unpicking and understanding what I’d been through – as mentioned, depression is nebulous, abstract and complex, even when you’re in the midst of it. I see understanding a problem as the first step to solving it or, in this case, learning to live with it.

But more fundamentally, I hoped (and still do) that sharing my thoughts would help those going through something similar. I also strongly believe that talking openly about depression and other mental health issues helps to break down the stigma associated with them – stigma that is a big barrier to society working together to tackle such problems.

In my first post, I want to focus on what depression is, and what it feels like. And I say for the third time, that is more difficult than you might think: for someone right in the middle of it, depression can be simultaneously intense and innate, as well as a bit of an out-of-body experience. A nightmare so divorced from reality that it can’t possibly be happening to you: and yet, it is.

That makes depression difficult to define easily. A quick Google search throws up a few choice phrases: “persistently sad”, “low mood”, “hopelessness”. That’s all true, but in my humble opinion those words only scratch the surface. At its worst, depression is a feeling of complete and total emptiness; the notion that there is nothing left in the world that can give you joy, happiness or peace. Like being submerged in a deep, oppressive darkness that slowly smothers all the light within you.

In fact, darkness is a pretty apt metaphor for depression. In this case, I once again defer to the sea of writing out there, for depression has been documented eloquently in many great literary works.

My favourite metaphor comes from JK Rowling’s dementors in the Harry Potter books – the inspiration for which came from her own bout of depression (though I’m a massive HP fan, so am probably biased). Dementors are beings that drain hope, peace and happiness out of the air around them, sucking every happy memory out of anyone in the vicinity. They thrive off negative emotions like fear and despair. I like that metaphor because it nicely captures what I see as the duality of depression – the double whammy of internal and external.

Coming back to the Google search, sadness is certainly a big feature of depression. But a more dominant feeling for me personally is apathy. At some of my lowest points, I had no will or energy to do anything – everything seemed pointless, and nothing would help me to emerge from the coffin that I was trapped in. Even the most basic tasks – making a phone call, going to meetings at work, buying some milk – suddenly became Herculean efforts.

Not only did I become apathetic, but it was as if I had been sapped of all my power and positivity – all of the joy and strength that we derive from our likes, hobbies and relationships was slowly draining away. And the worst thing was, it felt like that strength would never return. I’d never be happy again. I’d never feel anything again except this vast, weighty emptiness. I was trapped in a dark, endless tunnel.

For depression doesn’t just make you feel bad – it also chokes off the good. Like a dementor, it kills the positivity in your mind; allowing all your deep-rooted fears worries, insecurities, and bitterness to unleash themselves, and swirl around in your head. It pokes you; it constantly pushes you down, whispering to you until you’re slowly reduced to nothing:

  • Don’t bother ringing any of your friends. They all hate you. They only hang out with you out of pity.
  • Why are you bothering to buy new clothes? Don’t you realise how ugly you’ll look in whatever you wear?
  • Why are you writing a blog? Who do you think you are, Ernest Hemingway?

That’s why, for so many people, depression is accompanied by anxiety – the crippling fear and panic at the thought of doing even the most menial day-to-day tasks, like going to the shops or paying the bills. It comes back to that dementor-like trait of sapping someone of all of their capabilities.

The bizarre thing is, even with this torrent of darkness, numbness and nightmare going on within a person, everything can seem fine on the surface. To an outsider, someone suffering from depression can appear to be totally OK – even happy. Which seems puzzling to someone going through it – how can no one sense the intensity of what’s going on inside me? Can nobody see that I’m burning alive?

So that’s depression. Darkness. Emptiness. Hopelessness. A void. An illness. That last one is important – depression isn’t just about feeling a bit miserable, it’s an illness of the mind. And it’s not something that one can just “deal with”, “get over” or “snap out” of – anymore than you can “snap out” of having cancer.

But is it possible to overcome depression? Can you really emerge from something so overpowering, so dark, so devoid of hope? The answer is yes – you most certainly can.

Because crucially, depression is one more thing – it’s a trickster. Just like it lies to those around you, telling them that it doesn’t exist, it also lies to you – it snuffs out all the lights, and it makes you feel like there is no way out. And by sapping all your inner strength, it doesn’t exactly give you the will to fight it. It isolates and cripples you, stripping you of everything that you need to claw your way back.

For many, depression isn’t something that can be “cured” – rather, it’s something that you learn to live with, grow to understand, not allow to envelope your life and, most importantly, to define you. In my next couple of posts, I’ll be exploring that process a bit more – looking at things that can help in tackling depression and importantly, how to help someone in your life suffering from it. In this sea darkness, how can we flip on the lights?