Wings of Light
A host of fireflies, millions of them, sparkled and twinkled amidst the leaves, decorating the hedge like a Christmas tree. Spell bound, the author, gazed at them, as they winked and glowed. Chitra Singh’s Wings of light become her beacon, banishing the tormenting darkness.
I noticed the blind beggar singing in a melodious voice at the crossroads, while returning from school as a seven-year-old, sitting on the back carrier seat of a bicycle. It is amazing how alert to stimuli a seven-year-old can be, and I started looking out for him each day. I used to ask the servant to slow down a bit as we glided past him. Then one day he said, all that a blind man requires is a pair of eyes, and the poignant statement struck me with wonder. How utterly apt and I marvel at Gandhari for having given up this sense just to be in sync with her husband. As a seven-year-old, I don’t think, I could have given up this sense for a single moment. To behold the world, as God made it, to drink in the myriad colours, to differentiate between the mystical shades, was a pleasure unparalleled. Even with eyes my young mind was troubled by darkness. I wanted the day to go on and on and wished the evening would never come. I hated the idea of the lengthening shadows and of darkness taking over the day. And the idea that everything would turn indistinct and uncertain.
I hated that happening. As dusk approached, I became wistful and apprehensive. It was all due to the fact that there was no electricity in the house, and lamps had to be lit, and their scope was limited. I was the typical Cinderella who yearned for a room flooded with bright lights. Alas it was not to be! The house was old and dilapidated, one of many such, in a small hamlet, on the outskirts of Dehradun. In the early fifties most houses in rural India didn’t have electricity, and it meant settling down on the rush mat, better known as a ‘chattai’, with a lamp positioned in the centre, around which, we siblings assembled, for our evening studies. In its gentle glow we did our homework, with our mother presiding on one side. We wrote compositions, made exotic maps, and generally mastered our subjects to perfection. No one, but no one could gauge the next day, when we gave up our work for correction, in the exclusive school we attended, that it was achieved, sitting cross legged on a rush mat. Rather ironically, I had the best handwriting in the class, and my maps were displayed for all to copy.
It was an unconventional childhood to say the least. Circumstances had forced us to give up a life of affluence and move in with relatives who themselves were in dire straits. But at least it was a roof over our heads, and we were still able to pursue our main objective, that of getting a refined education. Rather daunting to say the least, but timidly we put up a brave front, and optimistically hoped that the dark clouds would soon blow over. But in the meantime, we had to face reality, and battle with the inevitability of the dark evenings and night. Was this how the blind boy’s world felt? Always dark. If only I could magically conjure up electricity and secretly aspired for ways and means of doing so.
The rainy season was the worst to handle. Dark clouds used to bring huge downpours and the rain used to beat down on the roof and hammer the windowpanes relentlessly. There were days when it didn’t let up at all. For a bunch of energetic youngsters like us it was purgatory. Of course, we had devised many indoor games apart from the usual board games of snakes and ladders and checkers, but our hearts were not in it. We roamed from one dingy room to the other, dragging our feet, not knowing what to do with ourselves, and yearned for the freedom of ‘outdoors’. On clear days, we’d be out in the open, assembling all the other kids, in our front quadrangle and devising all sorts of games, like hit ball, where everyone ran madly around, avoiding the ball, which if it hit you, you were sidled out; or playing hide and seek, where the entire village perimeter was the outer limit. No one could ever be caught, and whoever was designated to be ‘den’ was doomed, like he was being awarded a punishing sentence. Not to miss the scaling of the ‘Leechi’ trees, in the opposite house compound, which had a small grove of eight to ten imposing trees. The list of improvisation was endless. We were allowed to play till dusk, and as soon as the sun lost its light, we had to be indoors.
It had been raining for three days and nights continuously. Sometimes the rain poured in a wild drum beat staccato, almost implying that the heavens had opened up, and at others, it fizzled out into a gentle drizzle which had its own pattern and rhythm. But one thing was certain, it was relentless. We returned from school draped in duck back raincoats and squelching gum boots. The grounds were wet and slushy, with the weeds in a constant race with the grass. It was a dull and dreary day, and the prospect of a wet evening dampened all thoughts of playing outdoors and shrouded us in gloom. After completing our daily rituals, I settled down with a book and listlessly turned the pages. Not content, I decided to lure my elder cousin into a game of ‘chaupar ’ which she had customized for us on a longish wooden slate, and where we used small little conch shells as dice.
We had just about settled down, and were laying out our counters, when suddenly something struck me. There was an eerie silence. I no longer heard the staccato of the rain on the roof and went rushing to the window to peek out. Hurrah! the weather God had relented. A lush green vista met my eyes, and the gravel outside was already beginning to drain out. Oh, we could play! Donning my ‘keds’ and hollering to my brother, I rushed out into the balmy air. We knew we didn’t have much time and must make the most of it.
Soon, too soon, dusk set in, and reluctantly we started to make tracks for home. But just as I was approaching our gate the most amazing sight accosted me. Though our house had a six-foot-high boundary wall fronting it, with the canal juxtaposed to its length, the neighbour’s house had a high hedge of wild roses and miscellaneous foliage. The shrubbery was dense and thick and formed a formidable wall and this is what caught my attention. For it was no longer indistinct in the gathering dusk. I gaped in amazement as the greenery was lit up with myriad lights. A host of fireflies, millions of them, sparkled and twinkled amidst the leaves, decorating the hedge like a Christmas tree. Spell bound I gazed as they winked and glowed, till I could see the outline of the leaves, and it seemed that the stars were dull in comparison. Voila! I had a whole bank of light. An idea struck me and with childish abandon I rushed inside and gathered up my Waterman’s ink bottle. There was very little left in the dregs, and I quickly drained it out and rinsed it thoroughly. Clean to my satisfaction, I rushed out with the bottle to the hedge. With nimble fingers I started to pick the fireflies and kept dropping them into the bottle, one by one. To my delight they kept glowing and winkling inside, and filled the bottle with a bright light, like a small beacon. When the bottle was half full and the glass illuminated radiantly, I ran inside with glee, showing off my acquisition to one and all. The fireflies continued to glow and light up their surroundings. I placed the bottle on my bedside table and my world was suddenly bright. That night when I snuggled down to sleep, I kept reassuring myself with this winged light, and slept tranquilly in its ethereal glow, content in the knowledge that I had my very own indigenous electricity.