When my father was eight years old supper was cooked early in the evening and the kitchen was cleaned before the inky blue sky blurred dark grey. The most important job for the evening was lighting oil lanterns. Hurricane Lamps were lit and placed at various rooms; other smaller kerosene lamps were placed at soot filled corners and triangular crevices on the wall to cast light on the passages between rooms.
Palani, the old servant, helped my grandmother in this chore. He took the lanterns to the stone seat at the entrance of the house. He cleaned the soot from the glass domes, trimmed the wicks, filled kerosene, lit the lamps and kept the flame low. He then took the lanterns to various rooms and left them there. It was my father’s job at sunset to gently turn the knobs of the lanterns to push the wicks out and the flames burnt brighter. My father ran from room to room bringing light to the house. Just then my grandfather returned from school where he was the Headmaster.
After an early dinner my grandfather retired to his room to look through his school files and read books. Cool breeze blew from the open window, the starless night hung outside like a dark blanket, flowing like thick tar to fill the corners of the room where light from the lanterns could not reach. When his eyes got sore with exhaustion my grandfather dimmed the light and waited for cues to end the day.
Sharp at eight o’clock the night beggar came rattling a spoon on his aluminum plate. And everyone retired for the day, closing their doors, returning the quiet street to the beggar and his family.
My grandfather heard the heavy door closing, heard the patter of his son’s feet on the floor. His son would soon come up carefully carrying a jar of hot milk sweetened with palm sugar, a layer of cream trembling on the surface. The boy would first search the walls and the ceiling for the lizard that frightened him so much and kept him away from his father’s room. Then he would place the jar of milk on the small table beside the bed, squeeze himself onto his father’s lap and reach for a book from the pile on his father’s work table.
(Kumbakonam is a town in Tamil Nadu, South India.)
published 18 April 2012