Lights for Kajri


Of all the religious festivals, Kajri Shah loved Dewali best. Tomorrow evening, on the first night of Dewali, a myriad of oil lamps would be lit throughout Bombay, transforming the city into a sea of gold. According to Hindu belief, the tiny lamps would burn for nine nights so that the goddess Lakshmi could find her way as she brought good luck for the new year to each home.

It was Kajri’s job to clean and fill the oil lamps for the holidays, and usually she and Angeli, her neighbor and best friend, helped each other. Kajri leaned over the railing. “Angeli,” she called, “come over after breakfast. We’ll do my lamps first this time.”

But Angeli said, “I forgot to tell you. Daddy got a promotion, so he bought colored electric lights for our doors and windows. We’re going to have a very special celebration tomorrow.”

Kajri’s face fell. Electric lights! The mansions on Malabar Hills were always decorated with garlands of such lights on Dewali, but those people were rich. Everyone Kajri knew set out oil lamps to guide Lakshmi and to welcome the new year.

“Besides,” Angeli continued, “oil lamps are old-fashioned, don’t you think?”

Kajri didn’t answer. She turned her back on Angeli and headed for the kitchen.

“Old-fashioned!” she muttered.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” her mother greeted her. “Whom were you talking to?”

“Morning, Mummy (Mommy),” Kajri said. “Just Angeli—they’re putting up electric lights for Dewali.” She squatted next to her mother on the spotless floor and began rolling out the wheat dough her mother had prepared for chapati (thin, unleavened bread). She worked in silence while her mother fried the bread and spread each piece with honey.

As she cleared away the breakfast things, her mother asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Are we going to light those old oil lamps again?” Kajri asked. “They’re so—so old-fashioned!”

“Why, Kajri Shah!” her mother said indignantly. “We always use oil lamps. Besides, where would we get money for electric lights? Your father’s a clerk, not a bank president. And Raj …” Her voice trailed away.

“What about Raj?” Kajri said angrily. Her brother had gone to Ahmadabad for a job nearly three months ago, and they hadn’t heard from him yet. “He’s forgotten all about us!” She bit her lip. I shouldn’t have said that, she thought.

“You had better get started on the lamps,” her mother said softly, ignoring her daughter’s outburst.

The family had three hundred lights. Kajri had counted them last year. She had been excited then, because they had more than anyone in their neighborhood. Of course, Raj had laughed at her. She missed her brother, even though he teased her.

Kajri cleaned the small clay lamps and cut lengths of cord for wicks. Then she placed the lights around the balcony, in all the windows, and along the wall enclosing the flat rooftop. The roof was her favorite place on Dewali. At night she could see miles and miles of tiny fires glowing softly against the tar-black sky, and the sparkling rainbow of lights on Malabar Hills. Tomorrow Angeli’s house will be beautiful, she thought, and mine …

Suddenly her mother cried, “Aiiee! My dhal (lentil soup) is ruined!”

Kajri ran into the kitchen. Her mother was trying to take the lid off the leaking pressure cooker while dhal bubbled onto the burner.

“What happened?” Kajri asked.

“I don’t know,” Mother answered. “Just look at this mess!” She finally got the lid off and began stirring the dhal. “Now what? We don’t have money for a new cooker.”

“Can’t it be fixed?” Kajri asked.

“No,” Mother said, shaking her head. “The lid has cracked right through where the pressure valve fits.” She poured the remains of the soup into a copper pan and put it back onto the gas burner. “It just wore out. I’ll have to get along without it, that’s all.”

Kajri felt sorry for her mother. The pressure cooker was her mother’s prize possession because it saved her so much time in the kitchen, especially during the holidays.

Early the next day Kajri poured oil into all the lamps she had set out. “I wish Raj were here,” she murmured. They had always filled the lamps together, along with Angeli. This Dewali was so different. I don’t even feel like celebrating, she thought unhappily.

When the last lamp was filled, Kajri hurried to get ready for the special noon meal. After bathing in perfumed water, she put on her best skirt and blouse and plaited her black hair into a long braid down her back. Her mother and father, dressed in their finest clothes, were already waiting at the table, and she slipped into a chair between them.

Reaching for the bowl of steaming rice, her father said, “Everything looks delicious!”

“Well,” Mother sighed, “I guess I can get along without my pressure cooker.”

Father cleared his throat. “As soon as we can save enough money, Nilu, you will have a new pressure cooker.” He patted her hand. Kajri knew that they were both upset, partly because of the pressure cooker, but mostly because they missed her brother.

Just then someone knocked on the door. “Who can that be?” her father asked. “It’s too early for visitors.” He opened the door, and there stood Raj!

“Happy Dewali!” Raj shouted. He hugged his father, who was too surprised to say anything, and then his mother, who started to cry. Then he lifted Kajri off her feet. “How’s my favorite sister?”

“Raj! Put me down.” Kajri giggled. “I’m your only sister.”

“That’s why you’re my favorite,” he said, laughing.

After everyone had settled down, Raj explained that he was working in a textile mill. “All the workers got a whole week’s vacation for the holidays,” he said.

“Why didn’t you write?” Father asked.

“I wanted to surprise you,” Raj replied. “Besides, I was saving every rupee (about ten cents) so that I could come home.” He paused and looked at his sister. “I saved enough to buy you a Dewali present, and I bet I know what you want. Lights! Just like the ones on Malabar Hills.”

“Raj!” Kajri squealed. “Really? Can we get them right now?”

“Sure,” her brother said, “if it’s all right with Mother.”

“Go ahead,” Mother said. “I’ll keep the food warm. But hurry back.”

As they left the house, Kajri chattered excitedly, but as they neared the market, she grew quiet. “Raj,” she said at last, “Mummy needs a new pressure cooker, and, well, I can do without the lights.”

Raj looked at her thoughtfully, then pulled out his wallet and counted his money. “OK, little one,” he said. “Let’s see what Mr. Patel has in stock.”

When Kajri and Raj went home with the present for their mother, she exclaimed, “This is the best Dewali I’ve ever had. Raj is home, and I have a new pressure cooker. Now we really have something to celebrate!”

She hugged her son, but he said, “Thank Kajri. It was her idea.”

Mother hugged Kajri hard. “Thank you, dear, I know how much you wanted those lights.”

That afternoon Angeli came to visit. “I brought you a present,” she said to Kajri. “Happy Dewali.” She thrust a paper sack into her friend’s hand.

“But, Angeli,” Kajri said, her eyes shining as she pulled a string of colored lights out of the bag, “don’t you want these?”

“Daddy bought more than we could use,” Angeli said, “and I know how much you wanted electric lights too.”

“Mother was right,” Kajri said. “This is the best Dewali. Come on. Help me string these over the front door.”

When night came, the Shah family sat on the roof to admire the soft yellow glow illuminating the city. Thousands of oil lamps flickered on rooftops while, in the distance, electric lights glittered on Malabar Hills.

“You know,” Kajri said slowly, “I think I like our old-fashioned lamps best.”

Everyone looked at her in surprise.

“They’re like stars,” she explained.

Raj burst out laughing. “Well, Mother,” he said, “I’m glad we bought the pressure cooker instead of colored lights.” “So am I,” said Kajri.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Phyllis Luch