Mattresses being heaved off to the roof to get their spot under the early winter sun… one of my more visceral memories of late October in Northern India. Not just any day in October, but about two weeks before the festival of Diwali. Because what is ostensibly the Festival of Lights—not to mention an occasion to devour all the snacks and desserts—is also prime time for most Indian households to play an extended game of “spring” cleaning.
The mattress sunning was often just the start of it at my own home, to be followed by a Byzantine checklist of cleaning tasks: washing foot mats and rugs, wiping curtain rods and windows clean, disinfecting knobs, emptying out and rebuilding the insides of (perfectly neat) closets, and dusting fans. It was a purge-and-reorganize marathon that got much of the household involved, usually starting at the two-to-three-week mark to the festival.
Much of the reason for all this frantic cleaning is because, in some parts of India, the day after Diwali is seen as the start of a new year—but also mythologically, it is a festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil. (It also makes perfect sense because it's a cool-weather holiday: the preceding seasons of summer and the monsoon are far less conducive, in my opinion, to the exertions of a deep clean.)
Given it wasn’t just my home that got purged for the occasion, I asked a few others to share their favorite pre-Diwali cleaning routines and memories with me.
Asha Shiv, food writer and author of Masala and Meatballs, is now based in San Francisco but remembers Diwali cleaning all too well from her childhood in Bengaluru: “This would be the time for walls to get a fresh coat of paint; but also for all the tube lights (old-tech but energy-efficient fluorescent lights found in homes across India) to get cleaned with a simple soap solution; the already clean fans to get a thorough wipe-down; and cushion covers and bedspreads to get switched out. Out with the old, and in with the new, was the mantra. There’d even be new curtains if the budget allowed for it.”
Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of direct-trade, single-origin spice company Diaspora Co., has a particularly striking memory from her parents’ home in Mumbai. “I knew Diwali was around the corner when I’d come home from school one day to find the ceilings being washed!” she says. “We would have moved out all the furniture and people would be throwing buckets of water at the ceiling.”
She continues: “There was also a LOT of window cleaning, which is terrifying in a Mumbai high-rise apartment—eventually, we fashioned a harness to secure whoever was cleaning them.”
While our older memories are the most vivid, newer traditions might be evolving. “It’s becoming more of a gadget fest,” says Sana, “I was speaking to Prajakta, our family's cook and can’t-do-without-person in Mumbai, and she was excited because she has borrowed the neighbor’s fancy new Dyson for this year’s deep clean—and wants me to convince my dad to buy one, too.” In her own home in Oakland, Sana has roped her entire household into Diwali cleaning—their garage just got its first taste of a power wash.
The other major reason behind the Big Diwali Tidy-Up is to create the cleanest slate for the important (and more fun) things to follow: holiday decor and hosting. As Asha says, “It’s all about creating a welcoming positive energy, being good hosts, and presenting a clean environment—as well as getting rid of unwanted items and any residual negative energy of the past year.”
In the home of Sonal Ved, content lead at Tastemade India and author of Whose Samosa Is it Anyway?, these annual decorations take the form of fragrant mogra (jasmine) in brass urlis (or urns), garlands of marigold woven around doors and curtains, rose petals in terracotta bowls—and rangolis or decorative patterns drawn on floors, typically at the entrance of a home. “We try to stick to using organic colours and flower petals, although these days we’re more likely to draw memes than go with traditional rangoli designs.”
Sana adds, “My mother wouldn’t let a rangoli go on until every inch of the floor space under it was sparkling, which is funny given you’re then drawing all over it.”
There won’t be any rangoli drawing for me in Brooklyn—wrapping my head around the geometrical principles behind it is on my list of things to learn when I visit home next. However, for the last few weeks, my compostable cleaning cloths and scrubbers, baking soda and white vinegar, and DIY cleaners have been steadfast companions. So far, I’ve decluttered my medicine cabinet and cleaned out the utensil drawer, vacuumed my blinds (yes, with a Dyson), washed out all my trash cans, and wiped down the windows before winter streaks them again. There will also definitely be marigolds in every vase and plenty of Indian mithai (traditional sweets) consumed. Now, if only I had a terrace to sun my mattress…
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