Lighting a diya: more than just a flame
Akshaya Annampedu, Director of Public Relations for the USS and creator of The StudentOp, opens up on her meaningful culture and how it has shaped her into who she is today.
Before quarantine started, I honestly didn’t think as much of my culture as I should have. To be quite frank, I was often too busy with schoolwork or driving to my SAT practice center, giving me little time to indulge in cultural events. But, after staying at home for months with my bright family, my outlook on my heritage changed drastically and helped me realize that I have an invaluable South Asian identity.
For starters, during quarantine, my schedule started to free up, as I had no commute to different commitments. So, I had the rare opportunity to help my mother plan and arrange deities and flowers for our religious events. Even recently, we had an event that is sacred to South Asian culture, called Karthika Deepam. It involves a beautiful lighting ceremony, and like in most of our festivals, glamorous and rich lehengas. This time, unlike in past years, I experienced something different. I felt a very divine connection to who I am, who my family is, and who my ancestors were. This is saying something, because before 2020, the year of unfortunate events, I wouldn’t even know how to pronounce the names of most of these festivals. Who knew that staying at home due to a deadly virus would teach me the importance of staying culturally aware?
“To be quite frank, I was often too busy with schoolwork or driving to my SAT practice center, giving me little time to indulge in cultural events.”
My mother starts pushing the cotton wick into a clay diya, which is a small clay lamp that can hold a flickering flame. It’s small, yet symbolizes years of complex religion and history that culminates in the Karthika Deepam. I stand in my elaborate lehenga, holding my own diya, still waiting for my mother to light the flame. She brings over a match and lights the wick, creating a beautiful glow that stands out from the dark evening light seeping in from surrounding windows. My face lights up, not only from the flame but also from my growing smile.
That was the first time I have ever held a diya. In fact, I didn’t even know that “diya” was the term used to refer to the small clay vessel. After we put out the flames from the diyas and changed out of our fancy Indian wear, I started to reflect on the spectrum of emotions I felt from this auspicious event. Happiness, satisfaction, and regret.
Why haven’t I lit a diya before? Have I not filled the shoes of a South Asian identity?
I started to ponder over characteristics that are unique to me. I prefer chai over coffee and a little bit of chili spice with all my food. I never fail to respect my elders, a common South Asian virtue. But, I’ve never really held all of these things to a high value. I should have.
The Karthika Deepam festival quite literally illuminated my environment, but it also shed light on one glaringly obvious fact: I don’t think I would be who I am today without my distinctly South Asian traits.
Like Steve Jobs once said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
I don’t want to be one of the thousands of cliché girls that watch Gossip Girl on weekends, and get Starbucks for Snapchat photos.
Ironically, COVID-19 has helped me, by keeping me at home and teaching me the value of my history. I want to grow up into a young woman that eagerly waits once a year for Karthika Deepam, makes spicy biryani with family, and uses the South Asian stereotype of natural intellect to make the world a better place.
After all, I’m Indian, aren’t I? I gotta stick to it.