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November 04, 2010

As Indians celebrate Diwali, no one - certainly not President Obama - is spared a little holiday fun

MUMBAI – Ouch. A holiday pun that packs a punch.

“Dark Diwali for Obama,” declares the lead headline in this morning’s Times of India, two days before President Barack Obama arrives.

Diwali, the festival of lights, is the big holiday of the year for Hindus, who comprise the majority in India, and it’s being celebrated this week. Diwali also is observed by Jains and Sikhs and some Buddhists.

The story goes on to say that Democrats’ “crushing defeat” in the U.S. elections is “casting a shadow” over Obama’s visit and could weaken his standing among world leaders if they sense he’s less likely to be elected to a second term.

There’s a spiritual basis for Diwali – it’s about the triumph of good over evil, and Hindus mark Lord Rama’s return from 14 years in exile after defeating demon Ravana – but it’s also a popular secular tradition, much like Christmas to Americans with a little bit of July 4 flair thrown in for good measure.

During the five-day celebration, observers of Diwali gather with their families, hang strings of fresh flowers, set off fireworks and firecrackers, light colorful lamps and lanterns, eat sweet delicacies and exchange gifts. Much of these were available for sale at vendors’ stalls in open-air markets in Mumbai on Thursday.

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As India modernizes, citizens groups have organized to rein in Diwali-firecracker-produced smog and noise pollution.

Meanwhile, the pop-pop-pops from firecrackers set off throughout the day and night sound somewhat like gunfire, an unnerving sound in the context of a presidential visit.

Many Indians who can afford to do so also buy gold jewelry and new clothing during Diwali and pay bonuses to their hired help. Even amidst high poverty, as more Indians make money, there’s a rush on car purchases during Diwali.

Obama knows all about the holiday. Last year, he became the first U.S. president to observe Diwali in a White House ceremony, along with Indian and Indian-American guests. This weekend, he’ll take part in Diwali festivities at a school in Mumbai.

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