It was Deepavali, the festival of lights. We lit our little clay lamps and set them out on the iron rail of the veranda in front of the house. But it was a windy night and we couldn't keep the lamps burning. Finally, someone suggested arranging them along the windowsill inside the house. After trussing up the curtains and making sure we were not creating a fire hazard, we lit the lamps and went outside to see the effect. One member of the group was rather nervous about the arrangement, but the rest of us confidently declared it a beautiful sight.
Then we brought out the firecrackers. There were all kinds: sparklers, fountains and lots of noisy canons. First we took up sparklers, twirled them or turned them in wide circles. I held mine straight up above my head and declared myself the statue of liberty. This seemed to catch the imagination of five year old Devan who held up each new sparkler that he lit and proclaimed, ‘Liberty.' I was amused. This was, after all, South Africa. The sparklers burned like stars with little points of light shooting out into the surrounding darkness. When all that was left in our hands was a bent and stiff piece of wire, we callously discarded the charred corpse into a sand pit and exchanged it for a new star.
Meanwhile a fountain cracker was set up on one corner of the rail and lit. We waited for it to go off. Voices were heard calling those too near to get away, but nothing happened and the spark died. It was lit again, we waited again, but the spark died once more. This went on several times. A few people tried to coax the reluctant fountain but it would not shower its glory on the night. The more impatient of us then went on and lit other fountains. The first one, which had been pushed into the ground, simply fell over and scattered its sparks along the grass. So our hostess ran in and got a flowerpot into which we buried the next one and it lived up to our expectations. It shot its colours, one, two, three, four, five, six into the air and when it went out, we saw a gust of smoke roll over the road. The headlights of an approaching car cut through and made us aware of its density. All this from a little cracker, what then from a bomb?
Suddenly, someone who had been struggling all the while to light the first fountain, the reluctant one on the corner of the rail, called to us triumphantly to watch and when we saw the sparks, we cheered and laughingly praised him for his perseverance. But then the sparks died and we saw the charred stiff remains of a sparkler which he had stuck into the fountain to give it the moment of glory which it had failed to make for itself. And we laughed at having been fooled.
Next we resorted to the canons which were lit and thrown far off into the street. Gritting my teeth, I waited for each loud bang. Devan seemed to enjoy these immensely and each explosion spelled the end of the Germans. ‘Got them, got the Germans,' he yelled gleefully. I wondered where he could have picked up this private vendetta against the Germans, after all he was too young to have heard of Hitler, so I asked him where he had seen Germans. He pointed at the lawn and said, ‘There they go; see them running in the grass.' I looked for tiny men in the grass but the best I could do, as a grown-up, was to pretend that I saw them too. His mother said
that he had watched the ‘World at War' series on TV and was obsessed with toy soldiers and war machines. How remote from a festival of lights, this fantasy, this little war-game.
Two young boys from the neighbourhood, attracted by the light and noise, wistfully watched our fun from the pavement. A couple of doctors in the group, who were throwing out canons and startling us all with their thunderous bursts, found to their great consternation that when one didn't go off, the little boys would tear after it, pick it up and examine it. Eventually one of them went up to the boys and held a serious discussion with them for a few moments. This put an end to their mad dashing about for some real, rather than vicarious, fun and excitement. But we continued to laugh and shudder at the loud explosions of the tiny bombs. One doctor laughingly reminded us that should anyone be injured, he was off duty that night.
In the midst of all our laughter and lights, we suddenly became aware of a figure in a shroud of smoke standing there, demanding something. It was a woman, somewhat tipsy, saying something in Zulu that I couldn't understand. She kept on calling to us and the mistress of the house answered her. After some haggling, they came to some sort of an agreement. I wondered what was going on and my hostess informed me, laughing a little, that the woman to whom she had offered a meal, had asked for, in fact, had insisted on bread. So I laughed back, ‘If they don't have cake, let them eat bread, eh Marie Antoinette?' Out laughter annoyed the woman and she ordered us to stop laughing at her. She accused us of being rich and ridiculing her because she was poor. Looking at her standing there, with only the juba inside her to keep her warm, I realised that I was rich compared to her. Devan asked me why she didn't want us to laugh and I said that she thought we were mocking her, not just having fun. Of course, Devan had just been having fun. I was too ashamed to admit that my fun had been at the woman's expense.
Thinking that we were ignoring her, the woman regarded us as cold and indifferent. She had not seen our host and hostess moving forward toward the fence, arms extended. Someone close to me whispered, ‘She has only one hand.' I looked and saw a shapeless mass where a right hand should have been. She came forward repeating over and over, ‘Look one hand, only one hand,' as an inducement to us to pity her as a human being, even if we would not respect her as one. And we stood there, helpless and embarrassed, waiting to be rescued by the charity of our host and hostess.
Just as the woman was about to explode in a fit of rage, our host appeared carrying a tray filled with all the good things prepared for the festival. When he gave her the tray, she calmed down immediately and I could hear sounds of gratitude. As she started to move away, I could hear our host saying, ‘Hamba kahle.' This act seemed to release us from the spell that she had cast upon us. We could all return to our fun and games. The good deed had been done.
But I stood there and though I resumed playing with crackers, I had no genuine laughter left in me.
There she was out in the cold, a one-handed casualty from a world constantly at war, wandering the streets forcing gestures of goodwill from all of us. Some of us would laugh at her, some would patronise her and some would even be genuinely concerned. Of all the trays of food that I had seen passed out that day, and there were many, the one she received was the only one tht caught something of the meaning of Deepavali, sharing with those less fortunate than ourselves. All the other trays of foof had gone out to impress their receivers, people who were in no way in want. But this woman had not received a tray from us voluntarily. We had not sought her out as someone less fortunate than ourselves. She had had to come and find us.
I watched our host resume his gracious manner. His conscience seemed to be at ease. I was stuck with mine and all I could think about was every beggar I had seen sitting on the street corners of Durban and the shame I felt when I passed one and the equal shame that I felt when I put a coin in his hand, because he was dependent on my good humour for the necessities of his life. I felt weak and trifling because I could see no way out of the predicament. I was overwhelmed by the inhumanity of it all.
I turned back to the group to watch their fun and gaiety but Deepavali now hung over me like a stiff and burnt out sparkler.