A very personal light by Mark Lyndersay An update to my 2006 story on the Singh family in Local Lives 05, published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 06, 2013. The PDF of this published story is here. Just two decades ago, the Hindu festival of Divali had almost totally disappeared from St James. Despite a large Hindu population, there were just a few homes that lit some deyas and one installation at the Harvard roundabout. It seemed like the St James community had become too worldly for the festival.
That was when Bheem Singh, who loved the festival and its spiritual resonance, took the traditional lighting ceremony out of the temple just a few blocks down the street from his home. Singh celebrated it the event in the temple for fifty years, but he wanted to put it front and centre in the community, beginning a tradition of a public lighting of deyas on the street right in front of his home on Ethel Street that continued for 16 years.
It’s been five years since the Singh family patriarch passed away at 74. His funeral, in one of those quirks of a multi-racial, multi-faith nation, was celebrated in the local Catholic church. It was a loss that hit the family hard. His infectious enthusiasm for the festival had been the driving force behind the annual event, which gets no official support from the government or any social agency.
“We don’t ask anyone for anything,” said family spokesman Dereck Singh, “but nobody comes along to offer anything either.” That’s a little surprising, because quite apart from their lavish annual presentation of deyas supported by elaborately bent bamboo art, the family is known for their spectacular spread of food, a sumptious assortment of curried vegetables served with tasty, crisp paratha roti.
There may not be much money available for the annual celebration, but there’s no shortage of commitment to making it happen. “Whatever little we have, we make it do,” said Dereck Singh, one of the late Bheem Singh’s sons. That resolve was sorely tested this year. Of Bheem Singh’s seven children, two passed away in the last year, Fedora in late 2012 and Gerald in April 2013. For the first time since 1997, the Singh family seriously considered not celebrating Divali on Ethel Street.
“People kept coming and asking if we were going to do it,” said Marjorie Singh, Bheem’s wife and the mother of a household that plays host all day long to eight grandchildren and a stream of friends and extended family. Mrs Singh, blind in one eye and with impaired vision in the other did not, on Divali night, join the celebrants in Ethel Street or begin the event with the short religious ceremony at the shrine to Mother Lakshmi that’s always been a part of the Singh celebration.
But her presence was there nonetheless; her decisions about the placement of tables and flowers and the preparation of food were a constant part of the event’s planning. For Divali 2013, the Singh family worked at the celebration with a determination that seemed like nothing less than a decision to face down the family’s sense of loss and the bleakness of that grief by ensuring that the light they had become known for continued to blaze.
“It in we blood,” said Dereck Singh, as he surveyed the bustle of preparation on the street on Divali morning. “My father teach us that all the time. He loved it...he loved it unto death.”
Twenty years ago, Patna Village, a became a popular and unlikely must-see destination for Divali and Christmas celebrations when an explosion of creative bamboo bending took root in the community. One of the men who was responsible for that project was David Kanhai and for the last few years, he’s been bending bamboo for the Singh family at Ethel Street.
“I do it with them because of the sacrifice,” Kanhai says. “This event is different and that’s what attracted me. David Kanhai won the first national bamboo bending competition, but soon dropped out of the competition, dissatisfied with what he perceived as politics at play in the event.
He’s been building bamboo sculptures for displaying lit deyas for three decades now, and his work process is a mix of the practical and the ethereal. He picks the bamboo trunks carefully, starting with the most mature pieces, which have the strength to support his more complex designs.
“Too much of the bamboo this year is green,” he grumbles as he cuts and trims the stalks into long narrow strips before bending them this way and that. He seems to be sketching the shapes in his mind with the cuttings before committing them to completion with deft ties of fine galvanize wire.
For the Singhs in 2013 he built a striking cobra, a stolid elephant, a rocket ship and scales of justice among other supports for the hundreds of deyas that would be lit on Divali night, the pinpricks of light outlining the shapes he designed.
“I like to build things of all kinds,” Kanhai says, “not just Hindu symbolism. It gives people of other religions a chance to embrace the event and to participate.”