Lighting a Bucket Lantern with ‘Uncle’ next door !

GAYA FERNANDO

Today was such a special day when I was a child.

Weeks ahead, the front room of my neighbours,’ the Wijesuriyas’ home, would be gradually filled with Vesak stuff. No last-minute rush or mess was allowed, for Uncle (as we used to call him) did things at a ritualistic pace repeating the activity in precisely the same way down to the last detail, each year in May. I knew the important months when I was a child in which I did something with someone and this was something special joined in by other people in the community as well and so it made that month important like Christmas in December, Palm Sunday, Easter and Avurudu in April, Vesak in May, the temple Perahera in August down the lane and the Church Harvest Festival in October.

Vesak Lantern VI

So in the front room the bucket lanterns and the candles would appear separately in their brown paper packs. As no one slept in this room there was plenty of space on the floor for preparing and lighting the bucket lanterns. I think Uncle ordered the bucket lanterns from the same person for they were always the same; red, green, yellow, blue, orange and white the colours of the Buddhist flag, except green. We never hung those Atapattam or more audacious flamboyant things. This is why they never somehow were Vesak to me. The humble bucket lantern is the only lantern I will ever like. The bucket lanterns were made of tissue that we would carefully crush down in order to fix the candles into the metal socket, which was glued onto the cardboard base of the bucket lantern.

I would impatiently wait till evening till the dark was nearly upon us, and calling out to my mother would skip through the opening where once a wooden gate stood. No one bothered to replace it, so often did we scamper through the ample opening in the vine-shrouded, broken down excuse for a fence.

I knew exactly what to do and we did it in silence. Totally happily.

There was never a lot of shouting going on next door unlike at ours cos Uncle was a down-south person who was quiet in his ways and I never heard him raise his voice once during the 20 years or so I knew him. He used to talk though and taught me things he had figured out such as how the Andy Capp cartoons were designed, things that you would not think interested him. He never tried to teach me Buddhism or make me believe anything he did. He went to school with a slate he told me. I was amused. He was a civil servant, a teetotaller, a vegetarian and a practising Buddhist and was happy to have us, the Christian children of a little-working, much-drinking, meat-eating, aetheist father come into his home and leave as we pleased. We never even bothered to tell anyone we were going next-door. Anta and Uncle were always around. We hardly even bothered to notify our presence when we entered, it was all taken for granted.

Screen shot 2013-05-24 at 3.15.20 PMIn return for company, ‘Anta’ as we called the mother would tell me all the Buddhist myths. Those stories made your hair stand on end. But they were far more interesting than fairy stories. In the afternoons, I would sit and do stuff with her while she dozed off and she would recite stories half-asleep. There was always plain tea in the pot and we never had milk or sugar, but a piece of jaggery which I loved. I still remember the taste now and the pale pink ceramic tall tea-stained pot in the kitchen where I sat on a wooden stool, my customary tea-drinking spot where the domestic then called servant girl would tell me gruesome tales of family tragedy in her village while making me paper dolls from the red Maliban Biscuit wrappers.

How on earth people managed to cook and get work done and entertain us was a mystery and one that makes me feel that we little knew how stressed, focussed and community-less life would become when we grew up. I wonder where Sumana is now and whether she has children of her own now? We took all this in our stride somehow and never got unduly worried or paranoid about stuff. No one made a FUSS.

There were three grown daughters in the family. Kau akki was the eldest, dreamy, an avid reader and quiet. Mimi akki was working as an accountant and very well-dressed and proper. She used to take me to school sometimes and I pretended to my friends that she was my mum 😉 She also took me to see The Jungle Book at the Majestic Cinema and to a cream bun tea at Green Cabin later. I was well looked after. Janakki was more tomboyish and all three of em were very attractive and lovely personalities. They let me watch while they tried on sarees on Saturday mornings in the middle bedroom in front of the big almirah with the full mirror. I remember the faint smell of Calamine Lotion from the recess where the hair brushes were kept.

Anta used to take me to temple sometimes and to see her nieces. ‘Guyya’ she used to call me and she was very fun-loving and light-hearted with dancing eyes. ‘Just put a dress on and tell Ammi we are going to see my brother’ and I would be back in a trice to get on the bus and go wherever we were going. Such indulgences.

All this comes back to me at Vesak. What it used to be and who we used to be and still part of us remain. It’s a time to give thanks to all the neighbours who made these festivals a time to get the little children involved in and to share the multi-faith cultural heritage together. I remember choosing the araliya branches and other places in the tree-filled garden on which to hang the bucket lanterns and coming home at last, would press my cheeks against the bars of the third room window facing their garden. I would gaze and gaze at the jewelled garden with its little bucket lantern lights and hope that none would catch fire.

A bucket lantern is probably lit in California these days, one still lives on next door and another in Colombo 3. The trees, those great big araliya and mango trees, siyambala and coconut are felled to make room for the partitioned off properties and today the little bucket lanterns today are elbowed out by the more grander koodu and horrible electric lights. Uncle would have hated to see the neon kaleidoscope  that Vesak has now become.

Giving thanks for that community we shared in a neighbourhood where people made time for children in their homes and festival rituals in the right spirit.

Happy Vesak to you all and especially to my neighbours in your homes today!

Vesak Lantern

Photocredits : Ranga de Silva on Flickr

Comments

  1. Felt very nostalgic. Thank you very much for awakening some fond memories. People today are so busy in a way such that they dont have time even for themselves. As you pointed out they make sure they purchase ‘ready made Koodu’ on their way home and hang them somewhere and thats their Vesak!

    • Am sorry i delayed to post this Sabith and thanks for the comment. Please engage and ‘like’ the page if you are on Facebook.

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