Diwali Lights And The Winged Soul


I have been to Haridwar quite a few times drawn by the grace of the river Ganges particularly at the hour when dusk sets in and the pilgrims gather at Har-Ki-Pauri to watch the Ganga Aarti and make a beeline to the river bank to float boats made of fresh green banyan leaves with pink and red flower petals inside and a burning diya in the middle. And the leaf-boats when placed on the water wobble a bit adjusting to the rhythm of the ripples before they get caught in the current and are pulled away into the darkness. Some of them overturn, the diya going out, and capsize in the process. But others, bobbing and tangoing, keep going before you lose track of them. It makes for a wonderful sight.

When I was rooted to the roof this Diwali, this image popped up on my mind’s screen time and again. Whichever direction of the sky I looked at, I could see upon the river of air tiny glows of light majestically moving one way like the Ganges in Haridwar, almost in a procession towards the southern horizon.

Like the headlight of an airplane, the light would first appear as a speck at the far corner of the northern sky and then move up with a fairly strong wind current and pass me by before going out of sight. Wonder-struck as I kept gazing up and thinking about the torn-kite vulnerability of these lights, I found similar glowing objects (sky lantern, phanush, this year’s show-stopper) taking off from neighbouring roofs.

On closer inspection, it turned out to be an object like a hot-air balloon, its bottom open, made up of silky paper, with a fuel cell at the centre which when lit produced hot air filling the paper-shell. The children held the frame for a few minutes as it filled out and the paper-walls got puffed up. Then it gave an ever-so-gentle tug to be free and they let it go. The wind then took it and the journey into the void began.

But not all of them made it to the sky. I spotted a couple of them that somehow cleared the parapet wall of the roof and struggled to stay airborne before going down. One of them got stuck in the electric wires above the street lamps causing an uproar among the public for fear that it might lead to a raging fire. Fortunately it wriggled itself free and went weakly up for a few meters before gently landing on the ground, the small fire within it still unextinguished.

No two lanterns collided; each was on its own flight path. They maintained the respective altitudes and moved pilotless like drones on a moonless night. What really intrigued me was their fate: what would happen to them when the fuel ran out or the wind dropped? Where were they going to be buried? Would it be in water or land? Or would they finally come to rest on a treetop?

I have inherited a passion for kite-flying from my father who is no more. He had been an expert at kite-duels and had been a kite-runner too! And I, even now, find myself in the midst of a busy thoroughfare, firmly focused on the course of a kite adrift in the air, quite concerned about its extremely uncertain journey, just as I had been when my father suddenly disappeared into the unknown. The sight of the winged lantern fluttering and sailing in the distance utterly exposed to the elements raised the longing in me once again to sail away and see where my father had actually gone.

First Published in The Statesman

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