Inside A Historic Celebration of Diwali at the Vice President’s Residence

It sounds cliche to say that “you have to see it to be it”; it’s also not entirely true, as many of the trailblazing guests were the first to mark a certain level of achievement in their fields. But it was beautiful to turn around everywhere and see South Asians of all ages meeting and greeting each other, congratulating each other on their latest personal or professional accomplishments, and the young dancers taking it all in — all of us, quite literally, seeing it. (What happens when you empower a generation to actually believe they can achieve anything they want? I can’t wait to see.)

Zohreen Shah, a correspondent for ABC News and Good Morning America who also attended as a guest, wrote on her IG story that the celebration was “significant,” and “wasn’t just a holiday party.”

“I followed VP Kamala Harris as a senator running for President…for hours every day in 2019,” she continued. “I’ve never seen her publicly embrace her South Asian side as much as she did last night. (Not even close). It was striking.”

As someone who has followed the VP on the campaign trail as well and interviewed her for previous jobs, I can also say that I’ve never seen her quite as comfortable as she was that night. Of course, it makes sense: we were at her home, where she lives with her family. But it was also clear she felt very at home with the community of people surrounding her.

A lot of credit must be given to her staff, including Opal Vadhan, her personal aide, and the many others who decorated her home and welcomed us all in. I enjoyed meeting her young staffers, like speechwriter Alexandra Robinson, associate counsel Medha Gargeya, and the first official photo editor for the VP’s office, Polly Irungu, the founder of Black Women Photographers. Representation behind the scenes, and who you choose to give opportunities to, is just as important as any visible or public role.

2022 seems to be the year celebrating Diwali in the U.S. finally became a noticeable trend. More and more events have been organized this year, with more people than ever before publicly celebrating and continuing to push for official recognition. Next year, New York City is even considering making Diwali an official school holiday. If nothing else, it’s clear that we’re a long way away from what it was like for many of us growing up, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the progress.

“We are not imposters, nor temporarily being brought into the cultural zeitgeist of America,” wrote guest Shilpa Shah of the evening, the co-founder of the fashion brand Cuyana. “[VP Harris] made it [an] official part of the historical record.”

Embracing parts of our culture and heritage, actions that may have held us back before because of the bigotry of others, has now helped make many of us successful. After the speeches and mingling, the VP’s staff asked us to gather on the front lawn of the residence for a surprise. They then handed out sparklers, the handheld fireworks that are commonly lit on Diwali to symbolize the idea of seeking light in the darkness. I grew up playing with sparklers on Diwali in my yard in small-town Louisiana, a tradition that began on the streets of India — again, not something our neighbors always understood. Now here we were, a community supporting each other, celebrating our successes. And most importantly, celebrating our heritage: passing an ignited flame from sparkler to sparkler, in one of the most hallowed spaces in the nation’s capital. Community and solidarity is how we move forward. It’s how we find light in the dark.

And it is, as I’d like to tell those people who came to my door many moons ago, the opposite of evil.

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