Despite the best efforts of my Indian mom, I never really celebrated Diwali growing up. When I saw that The Sims 4 was getting items for the holiday, I decided to finally try.
Growing up, my mom tried really hard to teach my brother and me about our heritage. She was born in India, and even if her two children are very inundated into American culture she wanted us to know where we’re from. We had pujas, and I had my violin blessed. We occasionally went to temple. I still own half a dozen small statues of Ganesh. My mom even found a children’s book series about an Indian girl named Gita and bought it for me. Except for the last part, I resented these efforts. I was American, I reasoned. Why did I need to be anything else? My brother and I already got made fun of for our names and our hair—I didn’t feel like I needed yet another way for people to point out how different we were.
I was an absolute dumbass, to put it mildly. Nothing drove this point home more pointedly than reading the latest patch notes for The Sims 4 and seeing that they’d added new items and outfits for Diwali to their free Holiday Stuff Pack. My first thought was, “Awesome! I should make a new family and decorate their house!” My next was, “Shit! I don’t know how to do that.”
So I asked my mom. In the part of South India where my family is from, we actually call the holiday Deepavali. “Deepa means ‘light,’” my mom said over email. “It’s supposedly the festival of light over darkness, good over evil—when Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana returned from 14 years of exile in the forest.”
We didn’t celebrate Diwali—or Deepavali—growing up, despite my mother’s best efforts. She bought bag after bags of tea lights and would give them to neighbors while trying to explain how to celebrate the holiday and what to do with all these candles. Nothing ever stuck, not even with her children. The items that are now in my new Sims game are a traditional lamp called a diya, a few rugs that look like colorful rangoli designs, which are patterns made usually out colored powder that decorate the floors of homes during Deepavali, and some lighted garlands and candles. I rolled up some new characters and dubbed them the Rao family, and then tried to place items where they felt appropriate. Nothing really ever felt right to me. I felt a bit guilty, even. How can I do this for this virtual family when I don’t do this in real life?
When I asked my mom what it’s like to celebrate Deepavali, it sounded beautiful. “When I was a child, living in my grandfather’s house, what I remember is that we would line the low walls of the verandas, the windows, and the parapet along the flat roof with [diyas],” she said. “You decorate your house, and you go visit your neighbors with plates of sweets. ... Everybody visits everybody else, you admire everybody’s lit up house (and I remember how beautiful the night was—you only saw the outlines of houses, not the houses themselves, because the lights are such little points in the darkness), you talk and laugh and eat and stay up all night. In the morning the rangoli design is all blurred from the feet of friends and family coming to visit your house.”
Thinking about it now, I don’t know why we didn’t let her have this, as embarrassing as we used to find it. I would much rather decorate my own house with diyas than one in The Sims. Tonight I’ll light a diya, and eat some burfee, and try to celebrate a holiday I know I don’t fully understand. At least the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, clarity over shadow is something that I feel is worth celebrating. In this game, the Rao family will celebrate those same things, and neither of their children will resent it.