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Hindus In Wyoming Find New Ways To Celebrate Diwali Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Every year, the Hindu festival of Diwali commemorates a new year and a fresh start. But that celebration will look very different during a pandemic. Wyoming Public Radio's Naina Rao reports from Laramie.

NAINA RAO, BYLINE: Diwali is a four-day festival celebrating the Hindu New Year. It represents new beginnings, that goodness will triumph over evil and that light will overtake darkness. That's why people light candles and set off fireworks. To mark Diwali, families and friends come together, but that can't happen this year because of COVID-19.

SARITA TALUSANI KELLER: I just miss the whole family being together at that time.

RAO: That's Sarita Talusani Keller. She's a museum educator, wife, mother of two and a resident of Laramie. Usually, she celebrates Diwali by hosting a big potluck.

S KELLER: So I wouldn't put all the pressure on me. And everybody could feel good about what they brought and show off. And it was really fun.

RAO: This year, though, she's having a much smaller gathering.

S KELLER: There's a friend of mine. Her and her husband just had a daughter. So we might have them over. I have two other singles that are here. I think this is something they might need right now.

RAO: And usually, Keller's parents would visit from Houston. It's a chance for Keller's mother to give Indian sweets and mango juice to her grandkids.

INDIRA TALUSANI: I used to really enjoy - and kids are into it. I miss that.

RAO: That's Keller's mom, Indira Talusani. While she's disappointed that she can't visit, she knows that she can still celebrate Diwali, which is also known as Deepavali.

TALUSANI: That spirit of Deepavali is not going to go anywhere.

RAGHA MOHAN: It definitely was different.

RAO: Ragha Mohan is an international student and senior at the University of Wyoming. She was born in India and raised in Kuwait. She's been involved with Diwali celebrations at school every year.

MOHAN: Because, you know, you want it to feel home - like home. So you - you know, you want it to be with someone who has or shares the same values as you.

RAO: Mohan found that community in the university's Indian Student Association. The togetherness is something she misses during this time of social distancing.

MOHAN: Everyone knew everyone because it's a close-knit community.

RAO: That community is clear from this video of Indian students singing for Diwali night in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

RAO: Every year, the association would hold a huge party. In fact, around 500 people would usually show up. But because of university pandemic restrictions, that can't happen. Instead, Mohan will celebrate Diwali with her boyfriend and her roommates.

MOHAN: So I'll probably just wear my traditional clothes that I have - pick my favorite, wear it - maybe make some really good Indian sweets. Or maybe just - we'll just get Indian takeout food, and we'll be good.

RAO: For Sarita Keller, the museum educator, she and her daughter, Leela, are looking forward to one way Diwali is different this year - Kamala Harris as the vice president-elect and what she represents.

S KELLER: Because we were like, look; it's, like, someone like us, but also, like - that she is representative of Blacks, too. And it's a woman. I mean, all of that. All of that.

LEELA TALUSANI KELLER: There's never been, like, a woman in, like, the presidential history, like, ever.

S KELLER: Yeah, and a woman of color and a woman that has a familiar background. She's also South Indian.

RAO: A light of its own for many people celebrating Diwali this year. For NPR News, I'm Naina Rao in Laramie. [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous version of this audio story incorrectly said Leela is 7. She is 9. ]

(SOUNDBITE OF ANUP JALOTA SONG, "OM JAI JAGDISH HARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 14, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this audio story incorrectly said Leela is 7. She is 9.