Festival goers dance at Maplewood's Diwali celebration. Credit: Darren Tobia.

Maplewood Diwali Festival

Memorial Park

Saturday, October 28, 2023

West Orange Diwali Festival

West Orange High School

Sunday, October 29, 2023

In Shilpa Mankikar’s film Diwal’oween, a young mixed-race couple gets engaged on Diwali, which happens to fall on Halloween. This clash of holidays becomes a larger metaphor for their blended families and the melting pot of American culture.

“That’s how I grew up here — in a diverse community,” said Mankikar, who grew up in West Orange. “Going to each other’s celebrations like a quinceanera or bar mitzvah, and being in each other’s homes — that’s how people can learn to appreciate other cultures.”

It’s been six years since her award-winning film was released, and Mankikar has watched Diwali become an annual tradition in the Oranges. This weekend, Maplewood and West Orange are bringing back their festivals, full of dancing, art, handicrafts, and food.

The holiday is known as the festival of light. One of the traditions is the lighting of lanterns, sparklers, and diyas, which are candles made with ghee.

“Lamp lighting is a very significant part of Diwali because it drives away darkness and brings light and prosperity to your life,” said Geeta Mehra, president of the SOMA Cross Cultural Works, which has organized the festival in Maplewood for the past six years.

A tree in Maplewood decorated for Diwali. Credit: Darren Tobia.

Visitors at both townships’ event this weekend will see traditional artforms like rangoli — designs made on the floor with crushed quartz, sand, and turmeric — and classical dances like the Dandiya Raas, a circular movement in which the performers bang sticks together.

But the headliner is the food. In Maplewood, festival-goers can binge on Fomo Momo‘s Nepalese dumplings, dosas from Rajni’s in Parsippany, and Kurrywala’s Bengali chaat and pau bhaji. In West Orange, D Doubles, a food truck on East Orange’s Central Avenue, will bring Trinidadian comfort food like aloo pie and pepper roti, Sweet Kneads with Indian-Kosher fusion, Livington’s Rolls & Curries will fry up Pakistani kababs, and Chand Palace will have Indian street food.

“If nothing else, come to the festival just to try the different foods — things that you wouldn’t find in a typical Indian restaurant,” Mehra said.

For South Asian and West Indian families, Diwali is the biggest celebration of the year and includes gift-giving, fireworks, and family meals. This is my Christmas and Thanksgiving and all the holidays combined,” Mehra said.

But Mehra noted that her festival is “consciously nondenominational.”

“We’re celebrating it as a South Asian arts-and-culture festival,” Mehra said. “We have enough division in the world.”

Asian festivals are becoming a familiar sight in New Jersey. The past three summers, Montclair has held a lantern festival, which comes from China and Taiwan. Jersey City’s Holi celebration draws hundreds of gatherers and includes a procession that begins in Hoboken. In 23 school districts in New Jersey, Diwali is an official school holiday. 

Sharing these holidays is a recipe for a more compassionate society, according to Sage Gajarawala, whose organization, United Asian Voices, helps organize the festival in West Orange, held this year at the high school cafeteria. 

“People are curious,” Gajarawala said. “The more you share with your community, the more you help reduce racism.”

Gajarawala said she is impressed by what her community has learned about her culture. Last year, West Orange High School’s step team did a Bollywood dance and her neighbor sang the Indian national anthem. This year, two students from St. Cloud Elementary School will perform a ganesha prayer. 

Mehra said that her 10-year-old daughter’s classmates are now learning Indian classical dance after seeing a performance at last year’s festival. “It gives you a glimpse into a part of the world,” she said. “And maybe something will click and they will take an interest in the culture and dig into it deeper.”

There is one memorable scene in Mankikar’s film — which was shot in West Orange and South Orange — when trick-or-treaters knock on the door. The protagonist’s Indian mother only has ethnic candies like burfi and chakli to hand out to the costumed visitors. But the children don’t mind.

“We used to go over our friend’s houses and we knew all the different snacks they had,” Mankikar said. “We have an opportunity to experience the whole world through our neighbors.”

Watch Shilpa Mankikar’s Diwal’oween, which released a new edition this year, on her website.

Last year's festival in Maplewood. Credit: SOMA Cross Cultural Works.

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