Trinidad and Tobago is a complex and beautiful place. In our national anthem, the standout line is “where every creed and race find an equal place.” Because of our multicultural society, Trinidadians are very embracing of traditions and celebrations from different communities. One of the best examples of this is Divali. This Hindu festival celebrates the triumph of darkness over light, and is a festival of renewal for Hindus all over the world, and right here in T&T.
On the day before Divali, at offices and banks across the nation, it’s normal to see employees of all races wearing traditional Indian garb, and if you’re lucky, there will be a service representative at the door handing out bags of Indian sweet treats to customers. One of the beautiful things about Divali is the outpouring of love and generosity shown by members of the Hindu community as they welcome relatives and friends to their homes on the holiday.
My first proper experience of Divali in a Hindu household came in my mid-twenties, when I visited my friend Ricky at his home in Penal in south Trinidad. Not that I hadn’t had a traditional Indian meal before, eaten with my hands from a banana leaf — I’d experienced that at an Indian wedding— but Divali was special, because of the spectacle of the many illuminated deyas all around the house.
Ricky’s mother, a short, busy lady with twinkly eyes and a welcoming smile, took pride in letting us light some deyas, too, which we placed on a handmade bamboo bird. Ricky’s mother had a humble upbringing. but now that she had her own family and a beautiful home, built after years of hard work, she was happy to entertain friends and family at a time when community and togetherness come first.
My friends and I couldn’t help but notice the scent of curry wafting from the kitchen. Admittedly, I hadn’t eaten much that day, so I could totally enjoy the epic meal that was in prospect.
“Our family takes Divali like Christians take Christmas,” Ricky explained. “Since earlier, people have been coming around to eat, and my parents love it. Mummy also makes sweets for the temple, and they give them out to kids and the people who come to worship.”
I was amazed at the lavish spread that evening. There were delicacies like samosas, saheena, and baiganee to start. This was followed by a host of delicious vegetarian dishes: tomato choka (smoked tomato that’s mashed and served with fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley), curried spinach, pumpkin (roasted, mashed, and generously seasoned with geera and garam masala), curried chataigne (a chestnut-like seed), curried channa, potato, carailli (bitter melon), all served with silky paratha roti and huge helpings of salad. As I was eating, I wondered, is it just me or does eating with my fingers from a banana leaf make the food taste better and earthier?
Divali is meant to be an extremely happy event, but there are times when circumstances prevent that. Because the holiday occurs during the rainy season, it’s not unusual for heavy rains to affect the celebrations.
In 2018, some parts of rural Trinidad were literally washed away when the equivalent of a typical month’s rain fell over a three-day period just two weeks before Divali. Many homes were extensively damaged, and some people lost everything.
What happens then? In Penal, the Penal Debe Foundation, a community group started by some civic-minded friends, was able to bring cheer to families who were affected, with the aid of generous donations from the public. “Our group is four years old. We are a group of friends who wanted to do more for the community,” says Khemraj Seecharan, a member of the foundation. “We’ve done various projects with schools and for people who needed assistance.
“Where there were floods in 2017, we were first responders and we got a lot of help, so it was no surprise when the devastation took place in 2018 that we would be there. The same people, plus more, donated to the cause,” Seecharan explains. “For Divali, we recognised that many people were not going to be able to cook, so we made meals that included buss up shut [paratha roti], channa, pumpkin, and mango talkari.”
In addition to the food distributed on the day, the Penal Debe Foundation organised a Divali celebration at the Bakal Recreation Ground, which was like “an oasis” from the destruction of the floods. “We had the celebration in the heart of the flooding, and did everything including food and sweets like kurma and prasad. Over a thousand people came — we even had pepper roti. It was well received,” Seecharan adds.
He explains that the celebration will take place again this year, but they’re praying — of course — for no rain.
So in one celebration, you have the perfect demonstration of the Trinidadian spirit of generosity, and a true triumph of light over the darkness of catastrophe.
If you visit Trinidad in the days leading up to Divali, you must visit the Divali Nagar, a ten-day event that showcases the best of Indo-Trinidadian culture. It’s a full-on experience, because of the number of exhibits, tents, and the sheer volume of people there. Obviously, the lines are longest at the food stalls, many of which sell freshly made dishes — like legendary pepper roti.
As the name implies, pepper roti is extremely spicy. But it’s not just about the heat, it’s also bursting with flavour. This type of roti is not widely available in commercial roti shops — it’s generally found in homes where mothers and aunties have the special knack for cooking it.
Pepper roti dough is made to be stiffer, with a texture akin to flaky paratha roti. One round of dough is rolled out and covered in a vegetable mix that includes mashed potatoes, carrots, hot roasted peppers, and pimento peppers, seasoned with garlic and chadon beni. The vegetable mix is then covered with a layer of grated cheddar cheese and another rolled-out round of dough is placed on top of that before the whole thing is cooked on a hot tawah or griddle. Making pepper roti is truly a labour of love, and for some, the excitement of seeing the cooks in action makes the long wait for a slice of cheesy pepperiness truly worthwhile.
The Penal Debe Foundation has partnered with the Living Water Community to help rebuild homes in their community. So far, nine houses have been rebuilt. If you’re interested in assisting, visit their Facebook page for more information: www.facebook.com/thepdf