Ten years ago, I hosted my first Diwali party. Less than six months after my father’s death, I threw myself into preparations, calling my mom for consultations on the proper way to cook the dishes I’d watched her make, but never made myself, my whole life. I lived in Tucson, Arizona at the time, in my second year of graduate school, and I’ll never forget what it meant to me that my classmates, who I knew in certain ways through their writing but who were strangers to me in other ways, turned up to enthusiastically not just to celebrate a holiday but to bear witness to me as I fumbled my way through grief and an attendant longing to still be engaged in and hopeful about the world.
I couldn’t have guessed, a decade ago, how my annual Diwali party would come to structure and witness so much shared history within the community Jill and I have built for ourselves. Over the years, the celebration has gained significance because of so many attendant life events: marriages, losses, babies, cancer. Each year, we gather together and take stock of what has transpired, making time for gratitude and reaffirming our faith in the power of goodness.
The Carroll/Mehra Diwali celebration has become a truly communal effort, a testament to the ways I have grown and changed, learning to actually ask for—and receive!—help. My friend Maconda makes the most beautiful flower arrangements (even this year, when she couldn’t actually attend the party due to the flu), Megan plays wine fairy, Burke brought candles and napkins, Bonnie toys for the kids, and Greg & Sharon once again served as my last-minute, willing-to-do-whatever-is-needed helpers. I throw the party because it’s tradition, because it is an important part of my identity and culture, because it is a strike in the “hope” column that I so desperately still want to occupy, but it would be worth it to throw the party each year simply to be reminded of the wonderful people who fill my life. In the days since the part, lyrics from a song that I haven’t listened to in years filled my mind: “And I act like I have faith / and like that faith never ends / but I really just have friends.”
Diwali, like all religious holidays, has a powerful story at its core. The villain in the Diwali story is Ravana, who is spoken of in the tradition not as a cosmic demon but rather as a man who achieves demonic status via his greed, arrogance, ego, and lust for power. In the myth, Ravana is eventually slain by the hero Rama, but the arc of Rama’s story includes fourteen years in exile.
In its etymology, exile comes from a root meaning “to wander” and is a derivative of a verb meaning “to take out to the root.” There is something potent for me in that image, of pulling something out of the earth, the way that my mom taught me to weed, not the lazy way—simply tearing at the visible green parts—but to go down into the soil, to get dirt under my fingernails, to pull up under stubborn tendrils, to tug until they gave way. It is exhausting and sometimes back-breaking work. It is slow. Sometimes you have to pull up the same weed over and over and over again.
Maybe we are in exile, in darkness; or perhaps we have always been here and the light is just now being shed on it. Either way, we all have some digging to do.
This year, I served vadouvan spiced cashews, pav bhaji & saag paneer (both made by my mom), Indian-spiced sweet potato latkes (improvised & maybe the hit of the night, served with strained & salted yogurt instead of sour cream), the ever-beloved and oft-requested grilled halloumi, tamarind-glazed lamb meatballs, and mini cardamom-and-rosewater-flavored cakes (adapted from this recipe) and these super-delicious coconut-brown-butter financiers, half of which I dipped in dark chocolate.
PREVIOUS DIWALI PARTIES ON THE BLOG:
*We skipped a year because a bunch of our friends got married all at once! (It was the best possible reason.)
I’m so glad it’s November. Yes, I’m biased because it’s my birthday month—and this year, I get to share my birthday with Thanksgiving, which is maybe the best celebration mash-up I can imagine!—but I also feel like November comes as a much-needed sign post along the road, a reassurance and a relief: “You will make it to the end of the semester.”
October was a doozy and there were days I felt like I was drowning. I am not someone who sees inherent virtue in being busy, but there I was, super-full plate and all cylinders firing, lists and schedules and ever-so-many Post-It notes. I think it may just be the nature of the beast, of weaving book-writing into an already occupied life; I feel like I am operating at full capacity and it is exhilarating, exhausting work. There is literally a green index card taped to my mirror with the word “DISCIPLINE” written on it in two-inch-tall letters.
This means, of course, that some things have had to go; not everything fits. I’ve made several recipes in the past two months that I wanted to share here, but I never got photographs or a post together so I just kept a list of them on a virtual sticky note on my desktop. But tonight, I had actually managed to prep dinner in the morning because I didn’t have to go in super-early because I actually already knew what I was doing in my classes today and because I actually wasn’t facing down a giant pile of grading (there’s a pile, still, but it’s medium-sized), so when Shiv & I came home, I was able to cook, catch up with Jill over a glass of wine, and take a warm sheet pan of chicken schwarma outside for her to photograph before we ate it up. Which was very kind of her, as she had been looking forward to chicken-for-dinner all day. Seriously, the woman loves chicken. I don’t know that I appreciated to what extent, even, until very recently. Almost fifteen years in and still learning about each other! Ha.
This NYT chicken schwarma recipe is simple and very, very convenient—you can marinate it in your fridge for up to 12 hours before you plan to cook it, or for just 1 hour if that’s all you got—and it’s reliably tasty. You can easily play with the quantities listed here and make a BUNCH of chicken to have on hand for leftovers, for which you will thank yourself later. Also, if you’ve never cooked with chicken thighs, you should start; they are cheaper than chicken breasts and far less likely to dry out.
If you have the time/energy/inclination, you can trick this recipe out with lots of sides/accompaniments: a cucumber-and-onion salad or a tomato-feta salad or this marinated eggplant. Put hummus out on the table if you’ve got some. Or, if you need to keep things super-simple, just do 3 things: buy some pita bread, add carrots to the sheet pan along with the chicken and onion, and make a simple yogurt sauce while the chicken is cooking. For the sauce, mince up a fat clove of garlic, stir it into 2 cups of plain yogurt, thin that with some fresh lemon juice, fold in a palm-full of chopped, fresh dill, then salt & pepper to taste. Boom. Done.
A few more recommendations/endorsements—no pictures for these, so I guess you’ll just have to trust my good judgment!
* Cranberry harvest muffins – fresh cranberries went on sale at Costco a couple of weeks ago and I couldn’t resist. Instead of designating them all for Thanksgiving purposes, I hunted around for a muffin recipe that would taste like fall, even if it feels nothing like it around these parts. Since I didn’t have any figs on hand, I ended up fudging a little—some applesauce here, some apricot conserves there—but they were delicious nevertheless. Keeping this one in my back pocket!
* Saltie’s focaccia – this recipe has made several rounds around the internet, and for good reason. There’s absolutely zero kneading involved—mix the dough, store it in the fridge overnight, then bake it off when you’re ready. The result is chewy, salty, oily, and delicious. This has become my go-to when I have to sign up to bring something to Shiv’s school for an event; the kids love it, and it doesn’t require a stop at the store for any special ingredients.
* Sweet potato pancakes – the original recipe calls for cooked & pureed butternut squash, but both times I’ve made it, I’ve used roasted, mashed sweet potato with great results. I’ve also subbed in a combination of different flours for up to 1 cup of the AP: whole wheat, buckwheat, teff. And while I haven’t made the maple butter that accompanies this recipe, we’ve found that plain maple syrup + butter works just fine.
Not food, and not sponsored, but an honest endorsement for the Headspace meditation app. While it may sound contradictory to use an electronic device for meditation, I’ve found that the guided exercises on Headspace have really helped me solidify my practice and deepen its impact. I love the various topical series that are offered: motivation, pregnancy, kindness, patience, creativity, focus, and anxiety, to name a few. I’m currently halfway through the series on anxiety and can honestly say that it has made an appreciable difference in my quality of life. And the sleep exercise is revelatory, especially if you’re someone who has trouble falling asleep.
That’s all from me for now. Our annual Diwali party is coming up this weekend, so I hope to be back before Thanksgiving with a post and some pictures from that. In the meantime, I must go watch the most epic baseball game of the modern era!