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Tossing coins, demonstrating faith in Hindu holiday

Diwali, the festival of lights, is an ancient Hindu holiday honoring the triumph of good against evil, hope over despair. Lakshmi, the four-armed goddess of wealth and prosperity, is its principal deity. Looti is a Diwali tradition for the Chabria family.
Diwali, the festival of lights, is an ancient Hindu holiday honoring the triumph of good against evil, hope over despair. Lakshmi, the four-armed goddess of wealth and prosperity, is its principal deity. Looti is a Diwali tradition for the Chabria family. Merced Sun-Star file

This weekend, I will throw caution and coins to the wind during a religious tradition called “looti.”

On our back patio, my father and I will toss handfuls of change – dimes, quarters and even golden dollars bearing the image of Sacagawea – to a crowd of children. My octogenarian dad tends to aim right at the kids, making me apprehensive about injuries. I prefer to arc it gently in the air, letting it rain down.

The distinctive clang of copper-nickel hitting concrete provides the soundtrack to a boisterous scramble as kids grasp and hoard, stuffing red paper bags with their bounty and worrying who’s getting more.

I’m half Indian, and this is our celebration of the Hindu holiday of Diwali, the festival of lights honoring the triumph of good against evil, hope over despair. Lakshmi, the four-armed goddess of wealth and prosperity, is its principal deity.

India is fragmented by thousands of geographic and caste divisions, and looti isn’t a widespread ritual. But it is one of my earliest memories for the fun of the frenzy.

It’s not always joyous for everyone, though. I’ve seen parents cringe while watching their kids go all-in. They endure what must seem like a distasteful show of greed, featuring their children. Most of these guests come from Christian backgrounds, and likely have an Anglo attitude that money is private, not to be discussed and certainly not to be pitched pell-mell at a party.

In western ideology, the closest idea to Lakshmi is Mammon, a brutish devil who personified material covetousness. He lives in biblical tradition with the admonition that cash is the great corrupter. From Matthew 6:24: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

But Lakshmi, the opposite of avarice, claims no relation to him. It wasn’t until I was eight months pregnant with my first child that I understood this. My husband was diagnosed with cancer and my reality came undone. I was afraid he would die, and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to protect and provide for our unborn daughter. I was unemployed at the time and even with a job couldn’t have paid our Los Angeles mortgage. My fear was unruly, secret and enduring. His sickness pounded home that stability is ephemeral, knowledge that eats at my peace like termites through wood.

Thankfully, the cancer is gone and we have two healthy girls. And now I understand looti as an adult, the way my father, a refugee who lived in camps, probably does. It’s confronting the arrogance and self-deceit of believing that anything we hoard – money, power, even an abundance of caution – can defend what we love. It’s a bleak truth that can only be offset with faith.

When I hurl those coins, I am physically throwing away my fear. Each one pays tribute to the belief that serendipity will overpower sorrow, though there’s no real reason it should. I pray for Lakshmi’s gift of spiritual prosperity, her wisdom that like gods, demons have only the power you give them.

I am grateful to my guests, distressed ones especially, for allowing their kids to help in this sacred offensive. Despite our cultural gulf, they are tolerant – confident and kind enough to take part in our strange ceremony. It’s an unexpected community that we discovered when we moved north five years ago. For all the urbanity of Los Angeles, it’s among these Sacramentans that we found an inclusiveness not bound as tightly by the divisions of difference.

In science, tolerance is deviation from the mean – the amount a part can be off-kilter and still work. The beauty of our Diwali is that these people accept that my family veers from the common center, but make it work even when it’s awkward or vexing. Their friendship is a wealth I do not fear losing.

Anita Chabria is a freelance writer in Sacramento. Contact her at anachabria@gmail.com.

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