The former poet laureate of Ohio reflects on the Hindu celebration of Diwali and life as an Indian American in Columbus
There was a time, not long ago, when the 39-year-old Columbus-based physician Amit Majmudar, who served as the first ever poet laureate of Ohio, was reluctant to put up Christmas lights to observe the Hindu festival known as Diwali.
“Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, I was the only Indian kid around, and the last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to myself,” he said.
Diwali celebrates the triumph of lightness over darkness and is observed by Hindus and Jains in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Fiji, as well as by the large South Asian diaspora across the world, including Columbus. This year the festival falls on Nov. 7.
Today Majmudar, who was born and raised in the U.S., finds himself being more public about his Hindu faith, in part because of the demographic shifts happening in this state. According to the most recent census, there are anestimated 24,000 families of Indian origin in Columbus, the majority of whom are Hindu. The Columbus Council on World Affairs estimates that the Indian community has grown here by 80 percent since 2000. Many are concentrated in Dublin, where one out of every six residents is of Asian origin.
When I met Majmudar at his home in Westerville, I asked him if he planned to decorate his house with Christmas lights for Diwali this year. He pointed out the window and laughed.
“See that house, and that one over there, and the one down the street—all Indian families,” he said.
There are currently 15 Hindu temples in and around Columbus, as well as a massive 53-acre Hindu temple in Hilliard set to open in two years. Diwali is observed at each of these temples, as well as at places like Ohio State University, where there is a large Indian American student population. Most of the Diwali celebrations are free and open to the public.
Majmudar, along with his wife, Ami, and three children, prefer to celebrate at home by lighting candles and reciting devotional hymns in a room that they have converted into a prayer room in their home. However, for Majumdar, it is through his writing that he most actively engages and explores his identity.
He began writing as a kid, first working on spy novels, and later moved on to literary fiction and poetry. He knew he had artistic chops early on, but he had little interest in becoming a professional writer. His philosophy has always been, and still is, the idea that “one can create art without becoming an artist.”
Today he works as a diagnostic nuclear radiologist and has published two novels, The Partitions and The Abundance, as well as Godsong, a verse translation of Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita. But it is his poetry, which has appeared seven times in The New Yorker, that is widely read and praised.
From 2015 to 2017, Majmudar was appointed by Gov. John Kasich as the first poet laureate of Ohio and spent most of his tenure urging people of all professional backgrounds to read and write poetry.
In perhaps his most famous poem, he writes about how he was teased by kids who wanted to know if his mother, an immigrant from India, wore a red dot on her forehead, a practice many women observe in India, as well as in the Indian diaspora.
In the 1980s, a group of young men in New Jersey called themselves “Dotbusters” and attacked Indian Americans across the state. Majmudar reclaims the word “dothead” by using it as the title of his poetry collection, and as a result defangs it of some of its painful sting.
“I am trying to speak to the silences, to push us to examine uncomfortable issues,” Majmudar said.
One of the themes that often surfaces in his work is bullying, so I asked him if his kids had ever been the target of abuse in Columbus.
“Yeah, one of my sons has,” he said. “But the thing is, the bully was this other Indian kid. Go figure.”