By Nina Badwal 

– St. James Town Press, October 2021 edition –

Each year during autumn, Hindus, Jains and Sikhs celebrate Diwali, known as the Indian “festival of lights.” The word Diwali is derived from deepavali which means “rows of lighted lamps” in Sanskrit, an ancient language of India.  The occasion represents the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness.  

Celebrations for Diwali take place over five days which includes people cleaning and decorating their homes; shopping for new clothes, jewellery or kitchenware and exchanging gifts.  But the main and most important celebration takes place on the third day.  This day is called Lakshmi puja which is dedicated to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune.  Participants pray for Lakshmi to come into their homes and bless them with prosperity for the year.  

This year Diwali falls on November 4th.  The exact date changes every year because Diwali is determined by the position of the moon – it occurs on the darkest day of the lunar month which is the day of the New moon.  People light candles and clay diyas (oil lamps) and place them throughout their homes to light up the night.  

Diwali is a time for feasting on delicious vegetarian food, sweet treats and having fun with family and friends.  Because of the pandemic lockdown last year, many Torontonians were not able to celebrate the auspicious occasion as they normally did.

Indian sweets.

Shova Adhikari is a Community Engagement Facilitator at the St. James Town Community Corner, who immigrated to Canada from Nepal 17 years ago. She doesn’t have many family members here and usually celebrates with her cousins and friends. Adhikari said COVID-19 definitely interfered with Diwali festivities in 2020.

“During Diwali we visit extended families and friends you invite over to celebrate together.  We planned for that but just before the Diwali day, [officials] restricted that – you couldn’t mingle with anybody besides your household members.  So it was a very quiet Diwali last year.” 

Others like Aarti Sharma, a former St. James Town resident who recently moved to Mississauga, felt the lockdown brought her family members closer together.  Sharma left India four years ago and feels strongly about teaching her 8-year-old son about their Hindu culture.  

“In fact, I got more time with my kid – that’s why I made some home-made sweets. Since I came to Canada, we were just buying something ready-made from the Gerrard Bazaar. But because of COVID everyone was at home spending more time together, so I actually got more time to do the more traditional things and get my kid involved.  We also made home-made diyas.  The morning of Diwali we sat outside making diyas, we painted them together and then we put rangoli (decorative art) in our house, we made some designs. I think this was more special because I did a lot of things with him.”

Economic significance of Diwali

Diwali is one of the biggest times of the year for retailers at the Gerrard India Bazaar. The Gerrard India Bazaar is a BIA (Business Improvement Area) established in 1982 located on Gerrard Street between Coxwell and Greenwood avenues.  It is Toronto’s one-stop shopping marketplace for South Asian goods and features more than 100 shops including fabric, jewellery, grocery stores, restaurants and more. 

Tasneem Bandukwala is the BIA Manager for the Gerrard India Bazaar.  She said the COVID-19 pandemic had such a huge impact on sales last year that she can’t even quantify the loss. “We had police there. The police were following protocol so even though people wanted to come to the bazaar and drive around just to feel the vibes and celebrate that mood – there were so many restrictions. And we understand, I understand as a resident and citizen that we all need to take care.  But in terms of businesses, that was the time they thought they could get some sales – but there was a lockdown…It was really disheartening and really impacted business big time.”

Bombay Fashion, 1453 Gerrard St. East, Gerrard India Bazaar.  

Abdul Babul, owner of Bombay Fashion at the bazaar, has been in business for 12 years selling saris, Indian suits and accessories.  He said he lost 75 percent in sales. “Our fabric business is down since March 2020 when COVID-19 started, I lose customers.”

Other businesses like Kohinoor Foods fared a little better because grocery stores did not have the same restrictions as non-essential retailers.  “Last year was particularly bad because everybody was scared, nobody was coming out, and so it was drastically less than what we normally see [in sales]. I would say [the drop was] closer to 50 percent for us,” said Azim Popat, the owner of the store.  

Kohinoor Foods, 1438 Gerrard St. East, Gerrard India Bazaar.

Although Toronto is no longer in a lockdown, Popat estimates his sales to be down about 30 percent this Diwali because he’s not sure if enough people will be encouraged to come to the bazaar. “We’re also restricted in terms of the programs we can do for the community.  We used to be able to do Indian dances and so on and that has, I don’t think, been allowed yet. So if those programs come along then we’ll see a bigger crowd, but we’ll see.”

Bandukwala said because of the social distancing guidelines, she is skeptical about bringing back the live on stage performances just yet, but the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA is working on promoting the marketplace for Diwali.  “We have just installed an outdoor South Asian art exhibition in the bazaar. If you drive around the bazaar you’ll see them on the light poles – those are different pieces of art from South Asian artists in Canada.  Those glass acrylic pieces are etched and in the night they light up. The bazaar is lit up for Diwali in a very creative way, and we are all open for business.”