Chasing Away Shadows

Oil lamp ©Asha Rajan

~ Deepam. Deepam. ~

My childhood Summers were spent mostly at my maternal grandmother’s home in Kerala. My Ammamma, my Mothermother, was brilliant, a self-educated soul who read without discrimination. Sharp-witted, insightful, funny, and loving, with little interest in cooking. She would delight in things of beauty, and my mother would secret away small presents that would thrill her. When Ammamma died, we found an almirah full of Avon hand-painted soaps with beautiful flowers on them. She had squirrelled them away, considering them too precious to ever use.

~ Deepam. Deepam. ~

Ammamma held strong religious beliefs and many superstitions. Children shouldn’t cry in the evening because it would bring out the evil eye. If they did, there was a complex ceremony of roasting dried red chilies and other whole spices, which would then be waved in circles in front of the crying child’s face while prayers were incanted. Of course, the crying child immediately stopped, because they’re instantly distracted with how delightful to be made a fuss of, what is that funny smelling stuff, what’s she muttering, is she praying? Perhaps, it really did ward off the evil eye too.

~ Deepam. Deepam. ~

Ammamma staunchly believed that if you handed money to someone through a doorway, you would be forever poor. That money would go out through the doorway, and the remainder of your wealth would obediently follow. She would actively demand that people step one side or the other of the door to conduct their business.

~ Deepam. Deepam. ~

I can’t count the number of times she scolded me for sitting on a threshold with my legs either side of the door. Kerala houses have framed doorways, and on a hot day, there’s nothing so satisfying as sitting on the wide frame of the doorway between the dining room and the garden outside, catching any passing breeze. In Ammamma’s eyes, this was irritatingly indecisive. “You cannot have each foot in a different boat!” she would shout in Malayalam, and the visual image of my feet in different canoes floating on a canal in the backwaters of Kerala, as I valiantly tried to stay upright and not do the splits, would have me in fits of giggles.

~ Deepam. Deepam. ~

The quietest, most precious of her superstitions though, involved light and shooing away the darkness. Every evening, as the sun went down, before a single electric light was turned on in the house, she would light an oil lamp and pace quietly through every room chanting deepam, deepam (light, light). It was a spiritual sweeping away of all the frightening terrors that lurk in darkness and shadow. Her call would ring in every room, and only after she had waved the lit oil lamp, the mystic broom of God, could the lightswitch be flicked on.

When I was there, it was my job. Reverently, silently, conscious of keeping my footfalls soft and cushioned, I would carry the lamp in my hands, my eyes darting between the oil threatening to spill over the lip of the lamp, and the floor ahead of me. I would chant my breathy deepam, imbuing it with as much gravitas and heartfelt wish to banish the unholy as I could. It is a memory of a stillness of spirit, a quiet prayer, edged with terrifying shadows, that I still find sanctuary in.

I don’t carry on that daily tradition, but in every house I’ve ever lived in, before we have spent a single night there, I have been sure to walk through the rooms, padding softly, lit oil lamp in hand, thinking of my Ammamma, and chanting deepam deepam.

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17 thoughts on “Chasing Away Shadows

  1. Beautifully, gently written. I love your insight into the traditions and rituals of your childhood, and how you unwrap them for us slowly.

    • Thank you, Christine. Memories are such fragile things, aren’t they? Always having to be handled with such care, to be turned over and looked at from every angle. But with the potential to bring great joy.

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