Mahesh Sharma’s sweet memories
They cook for days preparing sweets galore
When the new moon hangs darkest in the sky from October through November, millions of Indian people across the world light up their homes so the deities Lord Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana can find their way home. Diwali is the main event during the annual days-long Festival of Lights, which celebrates the return of Lord Rama after a 14-year exile. Then and now, his people prepare by offering him, other deities and each other more sweets than they will see all year.
“They decorate with sweets, so many sweets, so many kinds, it’s so beautiful,” says Mahesh Sharma, gesturing across the table to his wife, Vijay, and their friends Devinder and Anita Kumar, who own Taj Indian Restaurant on Park Street. Each has his or her own memories of favorite sweets, and continues the annual tradition with hundreds of other Indian families in Madison. “Every person who comes to your house, we will offer a sweet.”
They cook for days upon days, preparing their best creations to share. After cleaning their homes from top to bottom and dressing in brand-new clothing purchased just for Diwali, they pray the Puja–asking for light over darkness, good over evil–then they travel house to house, following the lights, exchanging and feasting on each other’s sweets.
Platter after platter of gulab jamun (goo-lab jahm-un), sugary-sweet, syrup-soaked dumplings served hot or at room temperature. Every imaginable kind of laddu (la-doo), ball-shaped sweets of ghee, flour, nuts and sugar, perhaps soaked into a bright pink with rose syrup, or maybe crusted snowy-white with coconut. Bowls of creamy rice pudding infused with saffron, almonds and raisins; boxes of buttery, sweet Nankhatai biscuits. They also feast on traditional rice, curries and beans because “You cannot fill your stomach with sweets,” says Sharma. Then the singing, the dancing, the fireworks. “We want to offer every single thing to our god, then our family and friends.”
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