In the Leong household, preparations for Deepavali begin more than a week earlier. Security guard Leong Kow Chai, 67, was busy polishing oil lamps and putting up decorative items in their home in Kajang, Selangor when this interview took place.
His wife Valiamah Selvadurai, 64, had been preparing her crowd-pleasing delights like muruku, achi muruku and chittu urundai, and must-have pineapple jam tarts and coconut biscuits.
The father-of-six also helped Valiamah with all kinds of odd jobs before the festivities.
“As we have no daughters, I have always played the role of Valiamah’s assistant,” he said jovially.
After so many years, Leong is now an expert at mixing the muruku dough and wielding the mould to form muruku spirals.
“I will also help with prep work for the meals, such as peeling onions and garlic, and cutting vegetables,” Leong recounted his Deepavali duties while buffing kuthu vilaku (brass lamps).
Observed by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, the festival of lights is celebrated in many different cultures globally. During this celebration, Hindus light diya lamps around their homes to represent the victory of good over evil.
Leong and Valiamah have been married for over 40 years, and celebrating each other’s festivals is very much a part of their lives together.
Learning to give and take has kept their marriage strong, and that includes keeping each other’s traditions and customs, Valiamah says.
The couple – who hail from Teluk Intan, Perak – were introduced by Valiamah’s brother-in-law in 1975. She was initially apprehensive about marrying Leong as she was anxious about adapting to Chinese culture and traditions.
“My parents gave their blessings but it was uncommon in the 1970s for an Indian girl to wed a Chinese man. It took a fair bit of coaxing from my elders to convince me to marry him,” recalled Valiamah, who tied the knot with Leong in a Hindu temple in Teluk Intan in 1976.
But Leong was not at all worried about marrying into an Indian family. He was, after all, not entirely an outsider; he was fluent in Tamil even before he married Valiamah.
“I grew up with Indians. They taught me everything, from the language to food to culture. With so much exposure to the Indian way of life, it seemed only natural to marry an Indian woman,” said Leong, whose mother tongue is Cantonese.
While the family veers towards Indian practices, Leong has also made the effort to ensure his sons are in touch with their Chinese roots. Festivities like Chinese New Year, Qing Ming and Mooncake Festival are celebrated in Leong’s home.
During Chinese New Year, Valiamah observes traditions such as holding a grand reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve, albeit with a more spiced up menu for variety and “ummph”.
“Sambal prawns and ayam masak merah are must-haves as my children love these dishes. These items complement other traditional Chinese dishes like steamed chicken, chap chai (mixed vegetables) and herbal soup,” explained Valiamah.
Over the years, Valiamah taught her husband how to perfect his Indian culinary skills too. She said his mutton peretal, chicken curry, sardine peretal and thosai are romba nallaruku (very tasty).
“I worked as a general worker in the estate for close to 30 years. The hours were long. To ease my burden, my husband learnt how to cook these dishes for the family,” said Valiamah.
The couple’s lives have been enriched by accepting and embracing each other’s culture and traditions.
“It’s been a fun journey for us,” said Leong, who has eight grandchildren.
Their son Suresh Leong Kim Moon, 30, said growing up in a mixed-parentage family has taught him to be receptive and accepting of different cultures.
“My brothers and I grew up with relatives from both families. This taught us to appreciate each culture, be it food, language and traditions. Plus, we live in a multi-racial country so it’s much easier to accept people from different backgrounds,” explained Suresh, a project consultant.
Three of Leong’s sons studied in Chinese schools while another two studied at national schools. Their fourth son, Nandhakumar Leong Kam Seng, was the only one who attended Tamil school.
“We speak many dialects, and read and write in many languages. One of my brothers married a Malay woman.
“We now celebrate Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Deepavali. We are truly 1Malaysia,” Suresh said.
Leong – a Hindu – is looking forward to celebrating Deepavali with his family. He can’t wait to participate in rituals like giving oil baths for his grandsons, wearing new clothes and presenting thenggai archanai (coconut offering) in the temple.
But above all, the patriarch said Deepavali is a time to strengthen the family bond.
“My wife and I are happiest when our sons and other family members are with us during Deepavali. Regardless of religion, race or culture, having your family close to you is what matters most.”
Hinduism is considered to be the oldest religion in the world.
>The word Diwali means “the row of lighted lamps (diyas)” in Hindi.
> The festival signifies the victory of light over darkness.
> The traditional diyas used during Deepavali are earthen lamps, although plastic and metallic diyas have also become available recently. These diyas are filled with ghee or oil, and a cotton wick is used to bear the flame. They are left burning all night long.
> Deepavali is celebrated in honour of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity.
> On the same night that Deepavali is celebrated, Jains celebrate a festival of lights to mark the attainment of moksha by Mahavira.
> Sikhs also celebrate Deepavali, as it marks the release of their gurji – Guru Hargobind Sahibji – and 52 other kings and princess of India that were made captives by the mogul emperor Shah Jahan.
>It is a tradition to clean the house, making it spotless for Deepavali celebrations.