Varsha 2020 Issue, Stories - Annapurna Sharma


Earthen lamps and stars

By Annapurna Sharma


We shifted from Hyderabad to this remote village near Krishnapatnam port where my husband worked. We rented a flat and settled comfortably in the rural backdrop. The nearest city was 30kms away and the sea was five kilometres from my threshold, its fishy smell mingled waywardly with the guttural winds and the playful palms.


It was a sort of city away from city, a handful of apartments were built for city people like us in the midst of red-tiled village houses. The village thawed to our needs. Their open courtyards accommodated our narrow judgments.


The apartments appeared as if they had been plucked from a busy city street and transplanted in between the tiny houses, their majestic structures competing with the vastness of the courtyards. Soon the month of Karthika, the month of eleven lamps, arrived.


I gazed up at the night sky – the dark velvet canvas filled with dotted, tremulous, radiant spirits of hope. Was it a gesture? I didn’t know. There were numerous stars, their twinkling created a subtle ecstasy in my heart. Karthika was the season of lights, when lamps were burnt every morn and eve, as though challenging the stars.


It’s an auspicious month, when divinity descended on earth, so believed my grandma who without fail lighted eleven earthen oil lamps or deepams in our courtyard. There were sacred chants throughout the month – Vishnu and Shiva were our frequent divine visitors. My little self giggled at the idea – one with a chakra, another with a trishul sitting beside my grandma.


I knew my limitations, if ever I exposed my thoughts she’d eat me up or rather swallow me up with her mouth as endless as Krishna’s akhanda brahmandamu, the indestructible universe. My grandma’s mornings began as early as three or four in the morning with a cold shower near the well and her teeth chattered the Vishnusahasranama.


I had these perfect dreams of deities visiting our house at that Godly hour. My mother followed her cue. Together they lit earthen lamps in the backyard near the Tulasi, the holy shrub. They eyed the stars before lighting the oil or ghee soaked wicks. It was only when the smell of coffee emanated from the kitchen that the other inmates of our house knew that it was the beginning of human hours. In the evenings, the auspicious scene of celestial beings fusing with mortals was depicted in the front yard – the same love-looks and love-locks between earthen lamps and stars.


On some days even I was woken up. The goodness of the stars ran so high in our house that I began disbelieving their soothing nature. What earthly connections did the stars have? How could they be curative? What was soul remedy? And a bunch of similar doubts conjured up in my little mind.


How could they heal wounds, how could they nurture or care or give hope? I took out my tongue and made faces at my grandma, the old lady, as I called her. After grandma’s death, my mother continued with the family tradition as if the Gods might arrive at our door questioning our inability to follow. By then I was a teenager – boldness crept into my bones and my voice grew loud, assertive and I questioned my mother.


‘Shhh! Don’t say that! The stars are restorative. We light these deepams to strengthen the bond between earth and heaven. Earth tumbles every now and then, bearing the weight of humans and their filth-filled bodies. Our sins create deep gashes on the earth’s surface, as deep as untamed gorges. Can you visualize the storms raging in the seas, threatening to erase mankind? The earth trembles and trembles, its plates shifting under pressure. This month has an aura that cures the soul of earth…’ I laughed and scorned at my mother’s deductions.


A decade later when I got married, I followed the same routine – lighting eleven lamps in the month of Karthika. No one told me to. But when the month arrived, my limbs voluntarily lighted the lamps, without fail. I didn’t know how and why I did that, probably some kind of automaton fixed in my conceited human brain.


But certainly, I noticed a positive aura around my house; I could feel the healing of my soul. A tune crooned from the depths of my heart when the eleven wicks in earthen lamps burned brightly every morning and evening.


From my balcony I spotted an old lady in the adjoining flat. I smiled. She didn’t. She wouldn’t have seen me – was my initial assumption. My marathon smiling didn’t yield any results. I heard about her from other residents. I gathered she was a recluse, a widow who lived all alone.


No one visited her except the milkman and maid. I peered at her from my balcony – a woman in fifties, about my mother’s age or even less. Her hair hadn’t turned grey, her skin un-freckled, clear lines on her face with the trademark – smile-less.


Oh boy! She was a perfect subject for my research – human development was close to my heart. In fact, from childhood I examined and dissected every move people around me made – either it was their brows furrowing like the mice at night in my garden or modulations in their tones giving away their secret desires. My head was often filled with human maps of all kinds.


My favourite pastime was observing Rashmi Aunty, my neighbouring lady, who barked like a dog at the street urchin stealthily plucking guavas from her backyard. I called her a mad dog, though I didn’t know if mad dogs existed or if they did how they behaved. I opined that she should speak sweetly to the boy and offer him a few guavas. Would her tree object to her charitable behaviour?


Instead it might love her generosity and yield bountiful guavas. My mother sermonized that it was her tree and her wish and I had no right to make a decision. Since then I stopped thinking aloud. Several years later, in college, I learnt about Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning and wondered if it could be applied in our daily lives. Undoubtedly, I derived a definite gratification in this whole exercise of discerning.


Eleven lamps or infinite stars – none can appease! This was the last sentence of my conclusion in my dissertation. But this sentence was only hypothetical. It was a mere statement, a figment of my imagination or my likely dream. An outright or open articulation was beyond my boundaries of existence. Not that I was scared but still – the but and still are proof enough of my dire straits – if my mother knew of my growing affinity towards atheism, she wouldn’t shout or yell or beat. Very simply my outdoor ventures will be punctuated with an everlasting period. No more studies, no more friends or movies or parties or night outs.


The house would become my sole refuge. To be precise the altar will become the precipice where I imagined myself clinging in a hope to attain absolute nirvana. Of the altar, by the altar and for the altar: the preamble – my preamble – preamble of our house, resonating in my ears akin to the hurting tinnitus. Not that my family was any less modern. We were contemporaries by all means.


Only the women of the house were a bit nagging, probably they contained more elastic, striated fibbers, explaining the stretch of their meditations. By women, I meant my grandma and mother, both of them meditating in the dungeon of their own belief systems.


I was waiting for an opportunity to be ‘by myself’. Twenty five years passed. My elfin figure grew lanky, fatless spaces of waist and buttocks filled out and my mind wandered in the dirty lawns of life. Somehow without my forethought I too got draped with the same convictions, in the same dungeon. From my windows of hope I saw ‘whoosh’ my dreams vanish and new striations supplanted the existing liberated ideas.


As silent as the silent night I began lighting the eleven lamps.


Having set foot in my new environment, my mode to explore took off rather fast. I was curious to introduce myself to my old neighbour. She didn’t smile – was the only thought swallowing up my wakeful and sleeping hours. Women of her age were hooked on to their smart phones and used all types of social media to express themselves. Why was she following the tenets of an ascetic? The human developmentalist (a word I coined for myself) within me surged.


I studied Psychology and my thesis was ‘Effect of socializing on individuals above 50.’ I particularly chose that age group because middle adulthood was the time when adults underwent a lot of stress – aging parents, bereavement, children’s growing demands, health ailments and a whole lot of other nitty-gritty – that is what a perfect Indian family is made up of.


Wrestling in the squelch of family life was considered an ideal living. When my grandma died, my mother cried. When my mother died, I cried. There was no time to patch up the holes. I would just look at the stars and imagine my grandma and mother to be among them. That was the least I could spare in terms of time to heal that deep felt loss. That is what they told me – look up, I’ll be there.


My research led me to other findings: my old neighbour’s husband was killed in an accident. It was a case of drunk and drive. She refused to file a case against the accused. She declined to see him. It was common sense; even a layman knew the science of getting rid of one’s anguish. Then why didn’t she?


That fateful day she was getting ready to go to the temple and her husband had gone out to fill fuel in his car. She wore a yellow pattu saree, white jasmine leis pinned to her hair, red kumkum on her forehead, a sublime sandal scent wafting from her skin, green glass bangles tinkling on her tender wrists, a soft smile pasted on her face…my imaginations drew a cheerful figure. Instead she went to the hospital to un-cover a blood stained body wrapped in a white bed sheet, neck turned sideways as if saying goodbye one last time.


She never cried. She held the pain in her palms, the same palms that held his face. Her eyes captured his form, his sturdy, blithe, handsome form that held her close to him. She locked his last smile in her heart and closed her doors to all living things. The wound remained as raw as ever. Tears trickled down my cheeks.


I never saw her lighting any deepams in her balcony. She virtually sat in the dark. It was then that I made up my mind to pay her a visit. With a lot of courage, I packed homemade Mysore Pak, a sweet dish, in a box and pressed her doorbell. I sensed an eye scrutinizing my movements through the peep hole. I chided myself for standing right in line of her vision.


She might not open the door. I should have rehearsed my approach. Thankfully, my predictions proved to be wrong and I heard her unlatching the door. I stretched my hand towards her. The box of sweets hesitated to switch hands and my voice almost a whisper, ‘I made it.’


‘Oh! Come in!’ I was surprised when she welcomed me into her house. We sat in a dim lit hall. My eyes couldn’t see any further than the centre table. The glass of the table reflected the shadows from an inner room or was it a gaping hole, with no glass on the table? She placed the box of sweets on the table, once again wiping away my doubts. How did she ever move about in such a creepy ambience?


‘So, you are new here?’


It was as if I was waiting for a thread to connect, for a light to shine, I babbled my full details – from where to here. She listened without interrupting. After about ten minutes I realized I had come to share her grief and not burden her with my whereabouts. I apologized and said, ‘you should light deepams in Karthika, they are soothing.’ Not noticing any reaction on her face, I added, ‘my grandmother often said.’


‘Do you?’


‘Yes. Eleven. Not one less. On all days. Morning and evening.’




‘And you?’


She didn’t answer me. My mind grew judgmental again – I should have come prepared with a questionnaire or something of that sort. I knew I was embarrassing her as well as myself. My hands began fidgeting with my dress and my eyes wandered about to the nearest wall with a few pictures, of him and her, standing in front of a bougainvillea, sitting near a brook, sitting on the temple steps and leaning on a woody stem.


With each picture their grins widened and widened that I could perceive their happiness. My eyes by then accustomed to the dim light could make out the colour (pink and white) of bougainvilleas, the muddy brook, the marble steps and the robustness of the tree. Was my mind playing with my senses? Not knowing whether to talk any further or return home, I turned towards her. She was standing. I too stood up, sure that my presence was not needed anymore.


She said, ‘come’ and led me to her balcony. There was one lamp, a flickering wick in an earthen deepam near the Tulasi plant. She pointed northwards. There was one star in the sky.


‘I light it throughout the year.’


I bit my tongue and like a rodent retreating to its burrow after creating mayhem in the woods, I returned home. In my mind, I changed the maxim – one lamp and one star, a timeless bond.


I conjectured that all old theories had profound connotations. The soul desired the oneness more than the ephemeral tactile sensations. Wordsworth’s not so famous poem, The stars are mansions built by Nature’s hand, links the fine threads between humans and the divine. I took a printout of the poem and stuck it on my refrigerator door.


The stars are mansions built by Nature’s hand,

And, happily, there the spirits of the blest

Dwell, clothed in radiance, their immortal vest;

Huge Ocean shows, within his yellow strand,

A habitation marvellously planned,

For life to occupy in love and rest …




Annapurna Sharma A is Deputy Chief Editor of Muse India. Her works are forthcoming, or have appeared, in Westward Quarterly, Mad Swirl, Spark, Destine Literare, Reader’s Digest, Women’s Era, Assam Tribune, ActiveMuse, International Writers Journal amongst others. She also contributes book reviews to Muse India and Triveni Journal. A nutritionist by profession, but a writer at heart, her maiden book of poems, Melodic Melange was awarded for excellence, 2019 (Pulitzer Books). Her poem was shortlisted for All India Poetry Competition, 2017 conducted by The Poetry Society of India.


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