Diwali In Times Square

Chaat made with smashed samosas
Chaat made with smashed samosas

by David Farley

“This is what it’s like every day in Bombay,” an Indian man said to a wide-eyed red-headed woman in her thirties who looked perplexed and intimidated by the crush of people.

We weren’t in Mumbai, as the Indian metropolis formerly known as Bombay is now officially called. We were in Times Square in the heart of Manhattan. The Disney-fied space was taken over by Indians and Indian-Americans on September 22 to celebrate Diwali, a popular holiday in India known as the “festival of lights.” Diwali wasn’t actually celebrated in India until November 3 this year but that didn’t stop several hundred people from coming out on a Sunday afternoon to be entertained and eat good food.

This is the first year Diwali in Times Square, as it’s called, has been put on. But by the looks of it, it won’t be the last. “I wanted to give corporate America and Americans who haven’t been to India, a sense of the Indian community,” said event organizer Neeta Bhasin. “And what better place to do it than at the crossroad of the world.”

As we etched our way through the tightly packed crowd (who were watching traditional dances on the stage), one could overhear the amount of miles people came to be here. “I’m here just for this from St. Louis,” one man said. His new friend responded, “I came here from San Francisco.”

One of the sponsors was the Maharashtra Tourist Board (the region of which Mumbai is the capital) and so it was no surprise that organizers trotted out a plethora of Bollywood stars for the event. Indian celebrities like Ranbir Kapoor, Pallavi Sharda, and the Indian-Canadian singing group Culture Shock all made appearances while the crowd dined on Indian delicacies.

“A big part of any Diwali celebration is food,” said Bhasin, the organizer of the event. “We’re focusing on the street food of Mumbai.”

This might be one of the few times you could eat Indian street food without fear of contracting the infamous “Delhi belly.” We ate with abandon, attempting to cut through the insanely thick throngs of people who were crowded around the food stands. The most popular was at Rajbhog Foods, which has brick-and-mortar outlets in Flushing and Jersey City. There were veggie-stuffed samosas (refreshingly free of grease), chaat made with smashed samosas (which tasted a lot better than it sounds), plus more substantial dishes like a super-fresh palak paneer, the spinach tasting like it was just pulled from a field, washed and cooked.

There were other stands selling Indian jewelry and other subcontinental accoutrements. But we ended up coming back for dessert, devouring kesar peda, a small milk-and-nut-based patty laced with saffron, and syrupy pretzel-shaped jalebi. That’s the sweetest way to end any Diwali celebration, if there ever was one.

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