An Australian classic by well-known historian Geoffrey Blainey uses the phrase, “the tyranny of distance” to describe how distance and isolation has shaped Australia’s history and its national identity.
For most migrants from India, especially those who have arrived on these shores in the last decade, the distance between the two countries has not been a major issue. The tyranny of distance has been conquered by fast internet, WhatsApp, Facebook, and flights from a multitude of airlines with reasonable prices. Granted the 12-18-hour flight back home is long, but most take it as Phase One of their holiday.
It is around this time each year that the annual pilgrimage to India begins. Airlines, knowing the demand will be heavy, hike up their fares, and the challenge is to get away before this price increase. Time is allocated between various family members, holiday itineraries in India are planned, shopping is done for family and friends, and shopping lists are prepared for India. There is a sense of freedom in the air as one heads towards Diwali and the planned holiday.
Not this time. This will be a Diwali unlike any other.
The local Indian community has by this time of year usually been to an overload of Diwali parties and melas. The fairs organised by various community organisations around Australia have been seeing growing numbers in attendance every year. It is believed that to the weekend leading to Diwali, up to 100,000 Indian Australians will have attended one fair or the other nationally. And this does not include those going to the various temples to offer their prayers, or those tens of thousands going to the garba-dandiya dance nights. The community is buzzing and alive with the festivity of Diwali.
This year, with social restrictions in place, the celebrations will be more personal. Small gatherings at home, restricted numbers at function places, social protocol at places of worship. The theme of this coronavirus pandemic has been to bring families closer together, as people worked from home, and students home-schooled. This will extend to Diwali celebrations too, as people spend more time in quasi-isolation.
What will be more difficult is the inability to travel to India to spend the festival season with family, especially the elders. To most Indian-Australians, having spent the last eight months locked up in this island continent, the inability to travel will start to hit home. Chances are, our travel restrictions may apply well into the next year, and the circuit breaker will be the discovery and mass rollout of a vaccine.
For those with families and strong support networks in Australia, this too will pass; but to those here by themselves, especially students, the next few weeks can be challenging.
Marking festive occasions on one’s own can be gloomy, and a virtual Diwali, though the order of the day, is no substitute for physical proximity and the laughter, fun and frolic of a traditional Diwali.
Perhaps it’s time for the settled community members to open their homes up to these students this Diwali. After all, isn’t Diwali a time when Lord Ram was welcomed home? Time for us to do so now, for those in need in 2020.
READ MORE: The world beyond COVID