Local Lives 05

A Light in the West
The Singh family of Ethel Street brings Divali back to St James
Photographs and story by Mark Lyndersay

Once a year for the past seven years, retired businessman Bheem Singh, his wife Marjorie and their adult children have brought the lights of Divali to the St James side street just outside their home.
The Singhs have celebrated Divali at their Ethel Street home for the last 45 years, but seven years ago, looking around at the young children in the home who had never taken part in a proper “lighting up,” the family decided to embrace the neighbourhood and open their celebration to the public.

“They didn’t know about Divali,” says Bheem Singh. “I wanted them to see how it should be celebrated.”
And he’s succeeded, the children are now called on in school to explain Divali to their classmates and bring deyas into class as the festival draws nearer.

The Ethel Street event has grown over the years into one that commands the whole block with ornate bamboo bendings depicting (this year), a cannon, a cowboy style cart and a blimp, raised high on a wooden riser studded with blazing deyas. It cost the family $20,000 to prepare for Divali in 2006 and they do it with no official help and valued assistance from extended family and neighbours.

The work is guided by the second generation of Singh men, Derek, Sean and Gerald, and the work accelerates in the week before Divali with the help of a rotating group of young men, some extended family, some friends from the neighbourhood. They put hand, cutlass and pliers to work bending, shaping and binding the bamboo into the designs that will eventually decorate the street, illuminated by the flickering clay pots.

The formidable Singh women, led by chief cook Cheryl Boodoo and aided by a phalanx of serious aunts, nieces, in-laws and supporters begin their work the night before the celebration, stripping bhagi and slicing pumpkins in huge mounds.
The food, prepared in a massive cooking session that begins at mid-morning will eventually feed more than 500 people later that night, anyone who comes to share the in the light that the Singhs have set to flame against the darkness.
“When I’m gone,” Bheem Singh says with a satisfied smile, “my children will carry this on.”

Postscript: Bheem Singh passed away in November 2008.
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