Diversity Reflection - Pankaj Taneja
In Dr. Pankaj Taneja’s native India, Diwali is the country’s biggest holiday, celebrated for 5 consecutive days. Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, begins Friday, November 5.
The festival commemorates an ancient legend, says Taneja, a research associate in the Section of Tumor Biology, Department of Pathology. “The story of Diwali goes back to 7200 BC,” he says. The festival marks the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom of Ayodhya after killing the demon king, Ravana.
The festival is a joyous occasion celebrated with the exchange of sweets and with fireworks, candles and religious rituals, Taneja says. The rituals are performed to welcome Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, into the home. “Wealth,” in this case, does not refer only to money, Taneja explains. “It is any kind of thing which can bring happiness.”
The five-day celebration centers around Diwali itself, which falls on the third day. That night, Taneja’s house will stand in stark contrast to others in his neighborhood. As porch lights at nearby houses are darkened and indoor lamps switched off for the night, lights in Taneja’s home will glow until dawn.
“The lights will be switched on, and all lights will be on all night,” he says. On the night of Diwali, which falls on a new moon day, the glow of candles and lamps symbolize good conquering evil.
While most of the festival is observed with family at home, Taneja draws co-workers and other friends into the celebration by offering traditional Diwali sweets. While accepting the offered treats, many ask questions about the holiday’s meaning.
“A lot of my American friends have a fascination for this kind of festival,” he says. He, in turn, has developed an interest in America’s biggest holiday during the six years he has lived in the United States.
“I get fascinated with Christmas,” he says. He enjoys holiday programs, distributing candy, and even dressing like Santa Claus on occasion. While the December holiday is not widely celebrated in India, Taneja’s participation fits the multicultural society in which he grew up.
“India has a mixed culture (and) a lot of religions,” he says. “Everyone has equal liberty. They respect each other.”
He passes that cultural acceptance on to others, occasionally delivering lectures to the Winston-Salem Indian community about religion and culture. “Every people (group) should respect each other,” he believes.
“I am very happy in the United States,” he says. “The US is a good country. It is quite advanced also. It is inviting to … foreign people.”
Still, the ties to his native country remain strong. He enjoys seeing Americans in the Indian restaurants he visits – “more American people than Indian people,” he says – and takes notice of the locals at the Indian festivals he attends.
“I see their expressions, and they’re fascinated,” he says. “It makes me proud of my country.”