My Sweet Bengali Diwali, Framily-style

Author Madhushree Ghosh reminisces about her Bengali Diwali celebrations.

Person holding a tray with two plates of food

The Spruce Eats / Madelyn Goodnight

For an agnostic immigrant and daughter of Bengali refugees, there is one Diwali tradition I gladly hold onto: mishti mukh in Bengali or muh meetha in Hindi, which translate to ‘sweetening the mouth.’ It’s a Diwali tradition where we eat homemade dessert to celebrate sweet new beginnings. 

I grew up in a middle-class Bengali family in South Delhi in the ‘70s and ‘80s, where the focus was to study, do well, and then study some more. When we did celebrate festivals, we highlighted food, family, and sharing joy with parents, grandparents, and children running around. This is the case for all festivals, but in my Bengali family, Diwali was special to me because it encompassed my childhood.

What is Diwali?

Diwali, the festival of lights, marks the time when the citizens of Ayodhya welcomed their rightful king, Lord Rama, the ideal son/husband/king, back to his throne by lighting the path with diyas, lamps, to ensure he would return safely to the kingdom after vanquishing the king of Lanka, Ravana, who had dared kidnap Lord Rama’s wife, Sita. Rama returned victorious, wife and brother Lakshman in tow, and good won over evil. 

Memories of Our Ghosh Bengali Diwali

We Ghoshs never celebrated Diwali for its religious significance. Ma always asked us to question blind faith. Did Sita need rescuing? Was Ravana, considered intelligent, really evil or an equal match to Rama? Could we instead, celebrate Diwali as a festival of joy, of family eating together, of parents blessing us, and us eating to our hearts’ content? So that’s what we focused on. 

The Diwali festivals with which non-Indians are familiar, are the extravagant joyous events choreographed in larger-than-life Bollywood musicals. Navratri, the nine nights of dancing till midnight, with the lead actors making eyes at each other, running around with diyas in their hands, loud dholak drum beats matching their steps, ah, that too is Diwali. However, my childhood Diwali memories are of lighting diyas with my sister—pouring mustard oil in clay lamps and then dipping cotton wicks to light them around the balcony in addition to a few phool jhadi sparklers, making sure to hold them far away so we didn’t burn ourselves.

Our Bengali Diwali celebrations were a reflection of what the year has already brought us. An occasion of gratitude, joy, and being with family. And if the family was together, we had to eat lots of food and of course, dessert.

Sweets of a Bengali Diwali

Every Diwali, Ma made sabudana payesh, or tapioca pudding—slow cooked milk with jaggery, a few saffron strands, topped with raisins and cashews roasted in ghee. We sat on the floor, the plate of payesh in front of us, a small diya next to it. Ma and Baba blessed us with a stalk of green grass, a few unhusked rice, signifying new life. Didi and I touched their feet, a sign of respect. They blessed us with a long and good life. These simple actions conveyed how we connected and respected each other and were blessed to continue that tradition. Then we lit our diyas and wished for peace for all. And dug into the payesh. Simple. Solid. Family.

Alongside sadudana payesh, Ma made narkel naru, or coconut balls with a hint of cardamom, held together with gur/jaggery and molasses. I popped one in my mouth every time I passed by the plate on the table. The idea was to eat, and eat well. Joyous.

My Bengali Diwali Today

It has been decades since my parents died and I’ve lived in America longer than India. However, I continue to hold my childhood traditions close and have evolved them to include the life I live now. In my house, on Diwali, I invite my friends to celebrate our kind of festival. We eat, read poetry, light diyas and wish each other well. 

Every year, I make a version of Ma’s sabudana payesh that I cook with coconut milk and molasses with a hefty helping of blueberries making it as American as it is Indian. I slow cook coconut flakes in molasses, add cardamom powder, and roll them into small round balls. I make the narkel naru as a reflection of who I am now by adding a berry—raspberry, blueberry, or blackberry—and sprinkle coconut flakes on top. The desserts remain Bengali, Indian and yet, also very American.

Diwali remains a festival of family, of joy, and of hope. Even when the family is no longer intact, friends become family—and the transformed Bengali desserts hold the same sweetness that Ma’s naru and payesh used to.

A simple Bengali tradition of mishti mukh has now morphed into a Diwali for my friends. The family has transformed into a 'framily'—that wishes joy and peace for all.