HT Brunch Cover Story: Diwali with the Rainas

Last night as the country lit up for Diwali, at least one eight-month-old turned into a squirming bundle of never-ending chortles as the lights of what seemed like a million diyas flickered around him at his home and in his city.

This was baby Rio’s introduction to a festival that his big sister Gracia and parents Priyanka and Suresh Raina hold very dear. The three of them have loved every Diwali they have ever had – though little Gracia has had only four in her life, so far. This year’s celebration, however, was super special because it was Rio’s first.

Rio was born on March 23, just as the nation-wide lockdown was announced. Cricketer Suresh Raina was grateful to be home with his family and newborn son. “The unprecedented situation that gripped the entire world forced us to rethink the way we were living our life and also look at our priorities in a new light,” says Suresh as he cuddles a happily shrieking Rio whose baby joy clearly delights four-year-old Gracia.

Diwali present

Given that Suresh was home this year and he and Priyanka could prepare for the festival together, they went all out for a Diwali to remember.

“Had this been a normal year, we would have had a big Diwali party, especially since it is Rio’s first Diwali,” says Priyanka. “We would have organised a big puja for the whole extended family. But since the situation is different this time, we had invited only a few people from the immediate family, including the grandparents, uncles and aunts, and had kept it very simple. There was a Diwali puja, of course, and we were all dressed up for the occasion – and enjoying the food!”

Entrepreneur Priyanka Raina has been married to Suresh for five years. The two of them were childhood friends, growing up together in Muradnagar, Uttar Pradesh. But they were never childhood sweethearts. They spent too much time apart for that. At the age of 12, Suresh moved to a sports hostel in Lucknow to concentrate on cricket. Then Priyanka spent several years in Amsterdam. That means both of them often missed being with their families during festivals.

“Diwali has always been my favourite festival and I really miss the fun, frolic and the planning we used to do as kids in Muradnagar,” says Suresh, who announced his retirement from all forms of international cricket in August this year. “My father was in the Army and worked in the ordnance factory. We had people from all regions of India staying together, so every festival was celebrated with equal enthusiasm and fervour. Even when I was in Lucknow, I would try to come home for Diwali.”

Priyanka was her family’s Diwali leader. “As a kid, I didn’t realise the significance of following all the rituals during a festival, but now that I’m a mom myself, I know the importance of doing everything in detail,” says Priyanka. “I want to make my kids aware of every festival. There are some very beautiful stories behind them.”

Suresh’s memories of Diwali at home are a lot about food and mithai. And the puja was also important to him. “It was always the highlight of the day,” he recalls. “The whole family was meant to be present for it and only light the firecrackers after it was over. After the puja, all the kids would put lights everywhere, even on the trees, which would be retained for Christmas. Among the fireworks, I was very fond of the charkhi and anaar. Group rivalries were common. Some groups would show off by bursting as many as 10,000 crackers while we would be happy to have even 100.”

Play from home

Since they married, Suresh and Priyanka have been celebrating Diwali at their Delhi home. “Fortunately, our playing season usually starts after Diwali so we cricketers manage to spend a few days with our families before leaving on tours,” says Suresh. “The weather changes around this time, which adds an extra sparkle to the festivities.”

Family bonding is not the only reason Suresh and Priyanka make a big deal out of festivals. “While I was in Europe, I saw the people there lay a lot of emphasis on celebrating their festivals to help their children learn about their traditions. We want to do the same with our kids too,” says Priyanka.

This year, though the celebrations were not on a large scale, it was Rio’s super-duper extra-special first Diwali! And Gracia was totally involved right from the start, helping Priyanka with the preparations as Priyanka had helped her own mother in the past.

“Gracia was very excited to see Rio in his Diwali ethnic wear,” chuckles Suresh. “And Rio loves lights and reacts to them.”

Priyanka ensured that their lights were just perfect: traditional mitti ka diyas, with cotton wool wicks in oil that had Rio enthralled when they were finally lighted.

“The pandemic made us realise the importance of being with our families, our loved ones and I feel happy that I have always given priority to my family over everything else,” says Suresh, hugging Gracia tightly.

Rio squirms in Priyanka’s arms as Suresh speaks. He doesn’t care what his parents are talking about. He just wants to look at the diyas.

From HT Brunch, November 8, 2020

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