Channy Sookraj-Boodram selling her deyas along the SS Erin Road, Debe.

Divali celebrations in Debe historically have been a momentous occasion.

It was a time when strangers could walk freely from house to house to enjoy a Divali dinner and to get a take-away bag filled with mouth-watering Indian delicacies.

Walking from village to village on the darkest night of the year was normal and the thought of being mugged, raped or killed, never entered anyone’s minds as the community celebration was one of brotherhood and camaraderie.

Today with the threat of crime and COVID-19, the Divali celebrations of yesteryear are all but gone.

During an interview with Guardian Media, Pundit Toolsie Persad, 82, of Ramai Trace said the spirit of unity synonymous with Divali has all but disappeared.

Describing the Divali of his childhood, Persad said back then Divali was a community affair and not commercial exploitation.

“Back then everyone was an agriculturalist. They would make their deyas out of clay, plant cotton trees and make their wick and make their oil from dried coconuts,” Persad said.

He explained that making the deyas took two weeks to set and everyone worked together to ensure that the celebrations were a success.

At dusk, families would engage in a session of prayer following which they will visit neighbours to share food and delicacies.

In the last few decades before the end of the century, Divali celebrations in Debe attracted national attention and people from as far as North and East Trinidad would visit the area to see the magnificence of the flickering lights.

Along Ramai Trace, SS Erin Road, Wellington Road, Ragoo Village, Harripaul Village and Gopie Trace villagers would line the streets holding large basins filled with sweets and parsad, distributing freely to motorists and passersby.

Persad said at the turn of the century, most people stopped celebrating the traditional way and opted to burst firecrackers and hang up electrical decorative lights.

He said the smoke and loud explosions from the firecrackers disrupted the spiritual serenity of the celebrations.

More people from other religious denominations participated in the celebrations.

But Persad said now that COVID-19 has struck, Divali will never be celebrated in the same manner that it once was.

“People will be more sceptical about inviting strangers into their homes. You have to be careful now about distributing anything and most of all we have to abide by the COVID restrictions we cannot have more than 10 people in our house,” Persad said.

Meanwhile, Public Relations Officer of the Penal/Debe Foundation Khemraj Seecharan said they were still trying to uphold some aspects of Divali this year.

“Traditionally, in the Gopie Trace community and by extension Debe, every street would have their celebrations in Debe but in Gopie Trace in particular, we would light up the day before and after. People passing through to view the lights will get sweets. We used to have a Divali celebration at this recreation ground. We would have a Divali art competition and 14 primary schools within the area would take part and we would award the winners,” Seecharan said.

He said patrons had the opportunity of sampling the pepper roti and sharing in the delicacies.

“The entire ground would be set up to celebrate Divali,” he said.

This year Seecharan said they planned to hold a virtual Divali celebration highlighting song and dance.

“To keep up the pepper roti alive, we have a tutorial teaching people how to make pepper roti and other delicacies,” he said.

Seecharan expressed hope that once a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered, Divali in Debe could be revived once more.