Montrealer’s Diwali book for children lights up the Hindu festival

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Mitali Banerjee Ruths advocates for intercultural respect and inclusiveness in Archie Celebrates Diwali.

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Diwali, the festival of lights, is one of the most popular events in the world. Encompassing most of India and the South Asian diaspora, its celebrants number around one billion.

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A five-day multi-part Hindu religious event that is also observed in subtle variations by Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists, the dates of Diwali change each year with the lunar calendar: it began this year on Tuesday and on the day. main is Thursday. It has many roots, starting with the ancient story of Prince Rama saving his kidnapped wife Sita. The central idea is that of good triumphing over evil and light triumphing over darkness; the most iconic elements are the lighting of small clay oil lamps, the composition of auspicious circular floor patterns, the hanging of marigold garlands on the doors and the service of elaborate potluck feasts.

Although less well known in North America, the profile of Diwali has grown here, in large part thanks to some famous celebrants. Among them is a graduate of FACE and Westmount High School.

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“A year ago, around the time of Diwali, Kamala Harris had just received confirmation that she and Joe Biden had won the election,” recalls Montreal writer Mitali Banerjee Ruths, whose first children’s book, Archie Celebrates Diwali (Charlesbridge, 32 pages, $ 19.99) has just been released. They released a statement on social media saying, ‘We look forward to celebrating Diwali at the White House next year. “

While the restrictions linked to the pandemic will likely mean a reduction in Harris’ plans, the the mere act of an Indian-born American vice president is a touchstone for Ruths, 39. The daughter of parents from West Bengal, India, she was born in New York City and raised mainly in Houston, where her father worked as an engineer for NASA. His elementary school was called Space Center Intermediate, so it’s probably no surprise that as a child his ambition was to become an astronaut.

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“I grew up at the height of international space stations and shuttle programs,” she said. “It was the backdrop to my childhood. I have a vivid memory of being in kindergarten or first grade and watching (the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986) live on TV at school. We didn’t really understand what we were seeing.

In 2003, when another space shuttle crash resulted in the deaths of pioneer Indo-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla and six other crew members, Ruths’ professional goals changed and she became a lawyer. In 2010 – “11 winters ago” as she says – she moved to Montreal and now lives in the Mile End with her husband, a computer science professor at McGill, and their three children, ages 12, 10 and 7 years.

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“My children have names for us,” she said. “We are Québécois-Texois. I like the fact that he is bilingual.

This same multicultural spirit informs Archie Celebrates Diwali, which has its roots in the childhood of Ruths.

“Diwali time was an interesting juxtaposition,” she recalls. “It’s obviously a very big party in India, but in Texas, for a child, it’s a normal school day. Life goes on as usual. But then you would go home and it would be like stepping into another world. So there I was at school, a Britney Spears fan wearing my Jordache jeans, then coming home and putting on my kurta, putting on my bindi and watching Shah Rukh Khan movies.

One year, Ruths had an idea that foreshadowed the new book.

“I thought it would be nice to bring other (non-Indian) people to the celebration,” she recalls. “As a child, there is a vulnerability that can come from showing people your traditions and your family. What are they going to think? But I was very lucky. It went very well. Children are very curious. They want to learn.

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An image from the book Archie Celebrates Diwali by Montrealer Mitali Banerjee Ruths, illustrated by Parwinder Singh.
An image from the book Archie Celebrates Diwali by Montrealer Mitali Banerjee Ruths, illustrated by Parwinder Singh. Photo by Charlesbridge

In Archie Celebrates Diwali, the main character – a young girl whose name is the abbreviation of Archana – invites a group of school friends to his family home. When a storm spoils the outdoor Diwali decorations and cuts off the electricity, they are forced to improvise and the “lights” of the festival of lights take on extra meaning. The book advocates for intercultural respect and inclusiveness; the message is reinforced by illustrations by Parwinder Singh, whose palette creatively incorporates the vivid colors of many of the foods served at Diwali.

A festival that favors public celebrations and neighborhood sociability is naturally faced with major fundamental constraints at this time.

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“Last year Diwali was very low key to our family,” said Ruths. “We lit sparklers in the park and FaceTimed with my parents in Texas. It was a weird feeling, so this year there is the desire to reunite safely with people as much as we can. I coordinate with friends to have Diwali at home – my kids are learning a dance performance for it, and there will be food. It’s just about sitting down and being with each other.

Hoping that next year’s Festival of Lights will regain all its glory.

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE

Mitali Banerjee Ruths will mark Archie Celebrates Diwali’s post with a Live Zoom event via Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, TX on Saturday, November 6 at 3 p.m. EST; visit bluewillowbookshop.com for details.

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