That lamp called my heart

As children, festivals were an oasis of indulgence in the dreary journey of normal. A time of excess, especially thrilling for us pre-liberalisation kids. Special clothes, no rationing, no scolding to switch the fan and light off when you leave the room, money does not grow on trees! For a day or two or three, the ritual of festivals provided a feeling of plenitude.

Illustration / Amit Bandre

Of course there was solemnity too. My family wasn’t routinely ritualistic though my father had a five-minute, private prayer ritual every morning when we were not supposed to make a racket. You’d think that should have been easy. But I was always a rotten egg and felt the urgent need to ask a question or sing out loud in those exact five minutes, a behaviour repeated at festivals.

A careful man who believed in treating everything with consideration, my father would also be particular about some parts of the Diwali pooja rituals. The four things I remember we always had to do were: Buy phuliyan-patase — or batashe in Hindi (puffed wheat and sugar discs); wash the idols in unboiled milk; place 51 one-rupee coins on a plate to be offered in pooja and given to the lady of the house; and lodge the agarbatti in a piece of banana with the skin on. I realise today it was a truncated version of what would have been more elaborate rituals carried out by his parents. It was what he remembered of them; how he preserved their memory rather than a sense of religious identity and a way to pass on that love to his children.

We were expected to be solemn in that short 10-minute pooja but of course I would snicker, fidget and sing film songs, undermining the seriousness, earning that deeply disappointed look from my dad.

Perhaps all parents who give their children freedom to be themselves must cope with their rotten egg desire to reject the very things they treat seriously.

Moving to Bombay, I embarked on the grand experiment of living on my own and creating my own home. Becoming yourself a remix of the familiar past, the hectic present and an imagined future; of the ones you love, the fights you have with them, the self you’d like to be and the struggle against what that self is. It takes some doing to get it right.

But, when Diwali came round, this particular rotten egg was searching the market for phuliyan-patase. Never having seen rangoli in my home, I tried to mimick my neighbours with expressionistic results. Let me just say here, that those handy looking rangoli sticks and whatnot are all lies and false promises. Come sundown, my clay murtis had been washed in raw milk, phuliyan patashe sat sweetly in a bowl and agarbatti lodged in half a banana. My neighbour had fixed my pathetic rangoli. It was a mix and match Diwali of where I came from and where I was going to.

This year, I have been a rotten egg of sorts. Beset by deadlines, I never bought the phuliyan patashe. As I laid out the 11 one-rupee coins for the lady of the house, I thought, well that’s me. So what I say goes I guess. The biggest tradition my family gave me, was to define my own.

Marketing blitzkriegs and pseudo-traditionalists might like to prescribe tradition for me. But I know, it is really a way I find to join myself again to a parent who is no more. Tradition is simply the memory of that love, lighting the lamp called my heart.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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