Monday, December 17, 2007

Rain - by Michelle

To me Christmas Eve in Africa means rain. Soft rain. Warm rain. African rain. *Pula! (rain) a blessing and a wish as powerful as “bless you” is to the Western soul. In a country where rain fall never lasts longer than an hour and puddles evaporate within minutes of the clouds parting rain is precious. Rain is survival. Rain is life, resurrection and birth.

Every Christmas eve we gather at my grandmother’s house. My dad is getting the presents out the car as my mom goes to open the gate. It’s dark leading up to my grandmother’s house, but the door is open and I can see light and hear voices. The door was always open, and the smells of cooking are hanging in the warm wet night air. Guti - soft soft rain on your face and hands that is more like a heavy mist than raindrops.

The dogs are barking and my grandmother yells at them, but they just ignore her with loving disregard. Inside it is hot and noisy with people everywhere. The Christmas tree smells dry and crackly in the heat, but the smells of meats roasting and puddings boiling is heavenly. Lots of tall people in the semi-gloom. The only lights are the Christmas tree in the entrance and the TV in the lounge (black and white). People are everywhere talking, nibbling from plates of snacks piled up on every empty flat surface, watching the TV in a vague sort of way grown ups do.

By contrast the kitchen is very bright… and full of women. Mothers and aunts and daughters in all their permutations are hovering around my gran as she barks out orders like a regimental sergeant. There are drinks being poured, sauces stirred, meats basted and puddings checked… and nothing in the kitchen is glowing more with heat than my grandmother! Her cheeks are red and her hair is stuck on her face with perspiration, but her eyes are bright and she still has the energy to tell my dad off when he tries to tease her.

I wander back out into the dark to stand by the Christmas tree. There are dozens of bags and boxes below it, since all the family will gather here again tomorrow to unwrap their gifts together. I’m not allowed to touch, so I can only peer sideways at labels and cards in the hope of seeing which have my name on them.

There are nuts in their shells and fresh baked mince pies and a Christmas show with ladies dancing and lots of music. Nuts in their shells are a special treat we only get once a year. My grandfather helps me choose a good one and cracks it open for me and I sit on the piano stool and eat it slowly. How delicious is a nut when you are only allowed one each.

Later I will fall asleep on the couch or a bed somewhere and be carried to the car and home. Tomorrow it will be Christmas day and if we are lucky, there will be soft rain to cool the morning and bless this special day.

Pula, pula…

* "..pula means more than just the wet stuff which falls out the sky: it stands for luck, life and prosperity.."

Friday, December 07, 2007

Older - by Michelle


“Be careful!” My mother says, handing me the big candle. I nod. I understand. This is a very big and serious task. I am being allowed to light the candles on the tables for the party my parents are having. My younger cousin, Len follows me outside. He wants to light candles too, but he’s not allowed. I’m only allowed - because I am older.

In our yard my father has put lots of tables and chairs and hung coloured lights on the fence. He is busy putting in the last of the light bulbs and he smiles at me from the top of the ladder. I walk very carefully with my candle from table to table. Len helps me by pulling the candles closer for me to light. Each table has a little bowl with a small candle. They are my mother’s bowls – pink, soft green and lemon. As each candle is lit they glow like magical lotus blossoms floating on the white tablecloths. It looks so pretty. I want to stay here forever with the stars above me and the candles and coloured lights.

My mom lets us put out little bowls of peanuts and biscuits on each table too. Len keeps eating the nuts. I frown at him and drag him away from the tables. He is a year younger than me and still a baby. I am five. I am BIG. He’s just four. I have to tell him what to do, what to be careful of, and he listens to me… sometimes. Sometimes he just laughs and runs away.

I like being older. Len has to go to bed, but his brother Alan and I will be allowed to stay up later. We will get to see the grown ups dancing and throwing streamers. I’m not sure why grown-ups throw streamers, but I like them. The colours are pretty. We sit on the step into the house and watch them dancing. Sometimes we go hide under the tables and eat nuts and watch legs and shoes going past. It’s good being older.

Monday, December 03, 2007


image courtesy

I am assigned to watch. Watching out for the thieves who come for the traditional stealing of lamps. It is a tradition to steal lamps and children find great fun in cheating the eyes of the watcher to steal a lamp. These lamps are not greatly money worthy. They are just mud lamps. Some people store them, well most people store the left ones, but do not worry if they break. Buying some just before kaarthihai doesn’t cost too much and it also brings some smile on the ladies’ face when they bring some new lamps for the new season. Stealing many lamps and good collection is not going to take it anywhere. Those lamps may not stay for the next season, but children find the game fun filled. Watching is traditional too. Not letting any of our lamp stolen gives a feeling of great victory too. It is great fun too. I somehow did not develop skills in cheating and stealing so I prefer to watch. Senthil finds great joy in running around and stealing these lamps. There are six lamps, two for each padi (entrance stair) on either side of the padi. I sit on the top padi, moving one lamp slightly inside to make room for me. Seeing these winking lamps flirting with the wind is joy too. Every house has at least six lamps arranged in the same manner, as most houses have three padis as their entrance stairs. Some have some extra lamps on their outside windowsills too. It looks nice too. Small boys are running like crazy playing their fun game of the day. Small girls are assigned to watch, as they sit pretty in their new clothes with twinkling illumination breezed on them by these flirting lamps. Men and women do not seem to show interest in this game.

Here he is, Senthil brings two lamps. “Akka, look I have got two lamps”. His palms are soaked in oil. “Wasn’t the oil hot?” I ask. “Yes it was. Take it. I have to run”. “Don’t go. Hot oil will hurt you. Do not steal lamp with oil in it. Throw the oil away before taking it”. “Yeah right! Do you even know the art of cheating and stealing and its time calculations? She is telling me to throw away the oil first. Ha ha.. They will come and grab me if I stayed there for more than a fraction of a second”. He is laughing hard. “Then don’t steal. What is the fun in this? We do not keep these lamps for next season. I do not see any better use of these lamps other than lighting them on some occasions. Every time we need these lamps mother buys some new set anyway. Why do we need more lamps?”. “Ha. Ha. Ha. I always knew your brain has never developed. It is not about collecting, storing and using them. It is just fun. Mere fun. And it is the tradition for Kaarthihai anyway. You just do your job. Do not let any of our lamps stolen”. He runs again. I sit alone watching lamps. “Mother, oil in one of these lamps is running out, come and refill please”, I call my mother.


*Kaarthihai is the eighth month of Tamil Calendar, which falls during November 14 to December 13. Kaarthihai is generally spelled Karthigai with a g but pronounced with ha sound and also with one a, But I have added one extra a to give that lengthy a sound as in 'arm'.

**Kaarthihai is a festival, celebrated for consecutive three days during the Tamil month of Kaarthihai by decorating the house with mud lamps. The decoration can be compared to christmas lighting or Diwali lamps.

*** similar to Diwali, I assume Kaarthihai marks the onset of winter.

Its all started here

They are fighting. The whole street has gathered here. Yes I can see some are bothered. They are concerned only about how to end this, not about why and how this should happen in the first place or about any shame this display of drama brings. Words games are at their best. Everyone tries their hands at it. Have I told you these people are the best in playing with words and throwing questions for questions rather than giving any answer at all? I can bet the Sangam originally started here or at least they conceptualised many Sangam debates by observing these people here. You can enjoy too. If only it is not personal.