Every year, Leicester’s Golden Mile – the city’s length of road famous for its South Asian connections – becomes a noisy, joyous mass of colour and light as residents and visitors from around the world celebrate Diwali. But this year’s lockdown means festivities will look very different.
For years the city has played host to one of the biggest celebrations of the festival of light outside India, with Hindus, Sikhs and Jains catching up, dressing in their finest clothes, cooking feasts and exchanging gifts.
For two nights of the year the road attracts 40-50,000 people for the lights switch-on and an evening of music and dancing.
Joshna Ramji, 62, who lives in nearby Oadby, said she loved the “buzz of the Golden Mile” during Diwaili but this year felt very strange.
“Normally all the shops have decorations and signs up in their windows,” she said. “[The Golden Mile] is full of people buying gifts, food, new clothes or getting their hair done.
“But this year nobody is doing that and it is very, very quiet as businesses are closed. The atmosphere is very different.”
Leicester is the only British city to have been living under coronavirus restrictions continuously since March, meaning even though its usual celebrations have been severely curtailed, the urge to enjoy the festivities has for many people in the city been stronger than ever.
“Diwali is all about light over darkness and good over evil, which is even more important this year,” said Mrs Ramji.
“It will bring a lot of pleasure to everybody at a time some people are feeling isolated and alone.”
Instead of the usual week-long of celebrations with friends and family, Mrs Ramji will just be cooking for herself and her husband at home.
“Normally we wake up early for prayers, light up candles and then have a lavish, lavish Indian meal at my sister’s house and have fireworks,” she said.
“This year it will just be us, but I’m going to put candles at the front of the house, inside, the back of the house and in the garden, just to make it feel as special as possible.
“It is a bit sad but we have to try and keep the Diwali spirit however we can otherwise it would be miserable.”
Owners of businesses on the Golden Mile who had hoped to rely on Diwali to make up for their losses this year described the road as “very eerie”.
Dharmesh Lakhani, who owns Bobby’s restaurant, said: “The lights are up, the decorations are up but there are only a few people shopping for food and groceries.
“This festival is like our Christmas. So this is our Christmas gone.”
Mr Lakhani said takings around the festival would be 15% of the usual trade.
“Businesses all down the road would be gearing up for this period with their new clothing designs and making all the sweets and we would have bookings of families meeting up for dinner,” he said.
“Usually our shop is really busy, the road is busy and it’s something celebrated by not just Hindus and Sikhs, but the whole city.”
Karan Modha, who owns clothes shop Anokhi Sarees, said people would usually be buying new clothes for their Diwali celebrations or to give as gifts.
“People who are furloughed or lost their jobs are not going to be thinking about buying new outfits this year,” he said.
“If they are doing a Zoom, they will just put some make up on, do their hair and wear something old.”
This year will be the first time the shop has not hosted an in-store party for the celebration since the 1970s.
“It’s going to be sad sitting at home instead, not knowing what to do with myself,” added Mr Modha.
“The whole street feels weird at the moment. It doesn’t feel like Diwali. There’s not that jolly, vibrant feel.
“We are known for our window display at Diwali and we did it anyway because we wanted to still keep that tradition.
“This year I included a statue of Ganesh to spread some luck and joy, not just for ourselves and the other businesses on the street, but for everybody.
“We all need some kind of luck this year.”
Praful Bhatt, who runs meals on wheels charity Jalaram Sadvrat Leicester, has been delivering Diwali goody bags to elderly people to lift their spirits.
“This time has been pretty bad for the elderly and the vulnerable,” he said.
“We’ve put together some bags with special Diwali foods – ghughra, chakli, mathia and Indian sweets barfi and halwa.”
Mr Bhatt, who has been delivering food to elderly people since March, said it would be a very different festival.
“This time it’ll be staying home as opposed to going out to celebrate but people are still upbeat about it,” he said.
Despite the lockdown restrictions, the city council said it wanted people to enjoy Diwali from their own homes with a virtual celebration.
Councillor Piara Singh Clair said a video including messages from community leaders, as well as religious, musical and cultural elements, would be available on the Visit Leicester website from 19:00 GMT on Saturday.
He said his “heart went out” to businesses on the Golden Mile.
“It was a big day they were looking forward to,” he said.
Mr Singh Clair said he was disappointed so many key celebrations for the city had been disrupted this year but hoped one positive of the virtual Diwali event was that it would be shared with families worldwide.
Indeed, there have been hopes the quieter tone of this year’s celebrations could bring other aspects of Diwali to the fore.
Nima Suchak, a volunteer at the Hare Krishna Temple in Granby Street, has been taking part in virtual meditation and prayers every evening this month, which she said had been “comforting” during lockdown.
“In one sense it takes away all the external stuff of Diwali that people do get caught up in – the food, the gifts,” said the 43-year-old from Knighton.
“Diwali is the pinnacle of the year for us, of bringing light into our lives, and there are opportunities that have come with lockdown that have meant personal reflection.
“Covid has impacted us all, so in one sense we might not be celebrating in a big way but we can take this time to look after ourselves and each other.
“We are going to be thinking about those less fortunate and see Diwali, just like Christmas, as a time that’s not just about eating and drinking, but about thinking of others.”