In the next lane over from the house I grew up in, there is a small Shiva temple, commonly known in the area as Mahadevacha Mandir. When I was growing up, my father used to pay a brief visit to this temple almost every evening, along with running any errands he might have. The standing joke was that come dinner-time, the surest place to find him would be over there — cue a very annoyed mother!
I’m not sure if this is a property of all Shiva temples, or whether it is psychological, but the air in this temple is always cool, as is the air in the other, far more famous Shiva temple in the city. Even on a hot summer’s day, you can step inside and feel the cool air. Perhaps it is the water coming down on the black stone of the shivalinga that creates the effect, perhaps it is some erroneous childhood association, but all these years later, I still feel the same way. Another feature, at least of this Shiva temple, is its quiet. There is a major road very close to it, with a noise level that has increased exponentially over the years, but the temple offers respite from the noise even today. It is not a famous temple, and for that I am grateful.
There is a courtyard in the front, and the Nandi at the opposite end is the first thing you come across when you enter through the turnstile. I could be wrong but I feel certain that the exact same squeaky turnstile has stood there for forty years or more, simply being repainted every few years. The courtyard has square grey tiles and an uneven surface — perhaps the ground was not properly packed in before construction, or it could be the roots of the old banyan tree that are the culprits. There are a few wooden benches on one side of the courtyard, and sitting quietly on them is one of the most peacegiving things I have ever done.
Every Diwali, a boy would run an aakaash kandil making operation in the courtyard. Aakaash kandil (literally translated as sky lantern) is a lantern that hangs outside houses in Maharashtra during Diwali. Aakaash kandils may be made of paper, or plastic, or cloth or even thermocol (a kind of stiff foam) and come in a few different traditional patterns, and many many more modern patterns. Their chief property though, is that they are colourful. They often have long strips of paper, called zirmulya, hanging down from lower end, giving them a swaying gaiety in the breeze. And, in line with Diwali being the festival of lights, an electric bulb is hung inside, the light of which takes on the hues of the aakaash kandil and dances outside the house after sunset.
I wonder what people used to put inside aakaash kandils before there was electricity. Oil lamps? Candles? Inside a paper lantern? Hmm. I don’t know how old the tradition of aakaash kandils is, nor how the specific patterns evolved, but I believe that they are uncommon outside Maharashtra. Come to think of it, I have no idea how Diwali evolved either, but for me, aakaash kandils are inextricably linked to it.
Coming back to the boy though. As far as I remember, he always stuck to a single pattern, and made many dozens of kandils using different colours. He would start working in the open courtyard several days before Diwali, a one-boy production line of well-crafted aakaash kandils. Deep purples and pinks were most common, complete with decorative edges and just the right amount of gold or silver highlights. Some were of mixed colours, but his all white one was the most striking. It was an unusual colour to choose for Diwali, and I have vivid memories of it fluttering away in the temple courtyard. His cutest product was where he made a dozen or so miniature kandils and strung them together, to hang along the top edge of a door frame, say. It put a new spin on things.
To my mind the boy’s was a traditional pattern, but my father assures me that it is not. All this means is that my old man did not make this pattern in his own childhood, while it is nearly the only pattern that I did make in mine. I am not sure from where my cousin learnt this pattern, but for several years she and I would make a few aakaash kandils based on it for our own houses. Once you do something repeatedly in your childhood, it sticks in your memory forever. Even today I can run through the sequence of steps in my head, and am willing to make it at a moment’s notice.
And so, the weekend before this year’s Diwali, I found myself making it at my sister’s house. I scrounged for materials around the house, determined not to make a production of it by going out to buy things. I bargained with one niece about exactly how many of her favourite craft sheets I was allowed to use. (“Umm. Two. Or three. Yeah, two to three. You can also use just one. Or zero.”) The papers were not exactly what I had used in childhood, and finding stiff paper for the cylindrical frame was a particular challenge, but I knew to expect all that. The old familiar measuring and cutting of squares, the decorative cutting of the edges that takes time and patience all flowed smoothly, as from muscle memory. The sticking together of reluctant construction paper and less reluctant double-sided gift wrap was less familiar — I missed the translucent purple tissue paper of the past. But the skin of dried fevicol that is so much fun to peel off was deeply familiar and satisfying.
The aakaash kandil was ready late that night, and I carefully put back the unused glue stick of the other niece, so she wouldn’t know that it had been considered for use without her regal permission. The kandil was hung up inside the house the next morning — it was deemed too fragile and effort-intensive, and therefore precious, to be hung outdoors, what with wind and rain being forecast. For me personally, the Diwali celebration was complete that day. That ancient, festive feeling had made its way into my heart, which, after all, is the point of a festival, right?
Back then, the boy would sell his beautiful aakaash kandils for a very reasonable Rs. 15 or so — it seems shockingly cheap now — but we were happy and proud to make our own. And yet, I remember him every Diwali, and every time I visit the temple, though that is a rare occurrence now. I still remember him as a boy, though he must be a grown man by now, and may not even have his aakaash kandil operation anymore. That’s alright I suppose, I am perfectly content with my memories of him and it.
Perhaps that is exactly what memories are for. To join our yesterdays and todays into one seamless, coherent whole.