As far back as I can remember, my local Sikh community and my family had always celebrated Diwali.
Being surrounded by Tamils and other South Indians, it was generally known as Deepavali, the festival of light. We lived in a tin mining in Ayer Hitam in Puchong, Selangor.
At home, mum would cook exotic food. Dad would have brought back mutton, not a favourite of the kids, though. That’s for him and his friends. It goes well with the liquor. For us, there is the customary chicken, cooked in curry or fried, or both.
Days before Diwali, the kitchen is a war zone. Mum and her sisters would be baking various types of biscuits. We had a roundish-shaped oven. We would snap the cookies hot from the oven. Closer to Diwali, one of the neighbours would come over to help mum with making the murukku, a crunchy snack that originated from southern India. Achi Ma (Aachi’s Mother), as we call her, was stout but strong. Again, we would snack on the murukku and achi-murukku fresh.
On Diwali day, we would put on our new clothes, usually bought from Petaling Street. In one year, our dad bought the boys – all four of us – black, pointy pair of shoes. We despised them, but dad insisted we wear them!
We lighted candles. Diwali signifies the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. Not sure if we had that knowledge back then, but we delighted in keeping the candles lighted. It was fun!
Basically, we imitated our Hindu neighbours, minus the Hindu prayers and certain rituals that they may have.
We would then visit the homes of some neighbours. This is part of a unique Malaysian tradition of rumah terbuka (open houses). During festivals, people throw open their houses for visitors to come over and enjoy food and drinks. Anyone can walk in, enjoy the food, murukku and the cookies. Have a few cups of the sweetened drink. No liquor, of course. That’s under Dad’s command and it will appear later in the day.
So, on Deepavali, we would have neighbours of all races and religions coming over. A band of Malay boys would turn up. They would eat to their heart’s delight the murukku and other delicacies Mum would have prepared. Then our football kakis (team members) would come over. Again, the same ritual will take place. They would sit around the table, eyes on the covered glass wares containing all the cookies prepared.
During festivals like Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the Muslims would host the open houses. Our football team would go from one home to another to enjoy the day. The same with the Chinese New Year and Christmas.
“Silakan makan,” the Hari Raya Aidilfitri host would say, inviting us to help ourselves to the food. Like piranhas, we would first go for the kuih baulu, a delicious sponge cake that is simply out of the world when it is a little dry. The baulu dish would be gone within seconds!
We were among the few Sikh families living in the barrack housing of the tin mine. The houses were linked to each other. We had Malay, Indian and Chinese neighbours. It was a mixed neighbourhood.
In this neighbourhood, we celebrated the major festivals. The community townhall would be decorated when the major festivals come around – Aidilfitri, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Wesak and Christmas. Sikhs were largely counted as Indians. So our designated celebration was Deepavali.
Till the late 1970s, there were some mat sallehs. The British managers and their families lived in bungalows up on the hill. It was fenced up and I remember they had German Shepherd guard dogs. They played tennis and spoke English that we couldn’t really catch. Well, we hardly ever had the chance to interact with them in the first place.
So, we lived in our own little world in the tin mining neighbourhood, surrounded by miles and miles of rubber estates and a virgin jungle on the other side.
But that is not the Diwali story of every other Malaysian Sikh. They were Sikhs who did not celebrate Diwali (or Deepavali), even back in the 1950s.
“We never celebrated Diwali,” recalled retired senior Malaysian lawyer and former teacher Joginder Singh. “My family was quite clear that it was a Hindu festival, and had nothing to do with Sikhi. For those who did, it was mostly a family-affair, not so much in the gurdwaras.”
The 88-year old lawyer, who was the nation’s most senior serving lawyer when he called it the day last year, said there was a sizeable number of Sikhs who did not celebrate Diwali.
In the 1980s, I recall lighting up candles in the Puchong gurdwara. Again, it was fun. We did it in the name of Diwali. Don’t recall anything about celebrating Bandee Chor Divas, as it has become fashionable over the last many years. That is in reference to the release of the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib, along with 52 Hindu Rajas. Perhaps they spoke about in the Darbar Sahib during the kirtan programmes. Well, even when we were seated in the Darbar Sahib, I could hardly understand what the preachers were saying. So, I recall the event being Diwali, and Diwali alone.
The attack on the Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, in 1984 was a watershed for Sikhs globally.
I was 17 then. I did not maintain my unshorn hair and turban as customary for practicing Sikhs. I had very basic knowledge of the faith. A Sikhi camp going kid today would put me to shame. But I was active in performing seva (service) of the gurdwara. Along with other youth, we would turn up for the early morning seva to prepare the Guru Ka Langgar. We would later help in serving the food and the clean up.
The 1984 Indian army invasion of the Golden Temple, as Harmandir Sahib is popularly known, had a tremendous impact on Sikhs. The so-called Operation Blue Star awoken many from their Sikhi slumber, myself included. Many began pondering about what it meant to be a Sikh.
“1984 led to waves of black turbans, refusal to celebrate Diwali in Malaysia, prominence of the Vaisakhi celebration, acceptance of Sikhi as a separate religious entity by the Malaysian government,” Hari Singh @ Paguman Singh, a retired Malaysian civil servant, told Asia Samachar in an interview in 2015. See here. He was the first secretary of the Malaysian Gurdwaras Council (MGC), itself an organisation that was established post-1984.
Many began disassociating from the Diwali celebration post-1984. For me, as a family, we continued to celebrate Diwali, but on a more muted scale. In later years, it was merely the lunch or dinner that my mum would throw.
As the years went by, Vaisakhi began taking on a more prominent role. In the early 1990s, Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia (SNSM) began producing Vaisakhi greeting cards. I was part of the team. We made one error: badging Vaisakhi as Sikh New Year, which it wasn’t. I take responsibility for that mistake. Today, I see a similar error in the making when we portray Diwali as Bandee Chor Divas.
In Malaysian gurdwaras today, Vaisakhi has been firmly established as the primary Sikh festival. Some gurdwaras may still have Diwali events, but Vaisakhi supersedes in primacy.
At home, I now don’t celebrate Diwali, but I’m happy to join any Diwali gathering. My family gets together for the customary Diwali makan (lunch or dinner) with our mum. That is more of a family tradition that my mum still holds dear.
In fact, I had just returned after visiting my mum for Diwali. “How’s your Diwali,” I asked her as I give her the Diwali hug. Happy Diwali!
Hb Singh is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist with some experience in dealing with Sikh organisations, both from within and outside.
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Diwali and Sikhi (Asia Samachar, 26 Oct 2019)
Bandi Chhor Divas – Sikh Divali: The harbinger of Enlightenment and Freedom (Asia Samachar, 21 Oct 2019)
Why Divali (Deepavali) for Sikhs (Asia Samachar, 26 Oct 2019)
Lessons for today from 1984: Interview with Hari Singh (Asia Samachar, 13 Nov 2015)