Premlata can hardly wait for Diwali, the Festival of Lights. On that night, the great Goddess Kali goes out to battle the demons of darkness. And all over India, people set out deepastiny lamps shaped like leavesto help Kali in her fight.
But Premlata's family is poor, and Mamoni, her mother, has been forced to sell their deepas. Prem knows she must do something. After all, their house can't be the only one in darkness on the night of the Festival of Lights!
Read an Excerpt
"Ma, isn't it time to get out the lights?"
Prem-Premlatawas a little Indian girl living in a part of India called Bengal. She was fair for an Indian child, with big dark eyes and curly hair which always seemed to be in a tangle because MamoniMa-did not have time to comb it. The lightsdeepaswere tiny earthenware lamps shaped like a leaf and holding a bit of cotton wick in a spoonful of oil. They were for Diwali, the Festival of Lights. On that night, the great Goddess Kali goes out to fight against the demons of evil who spread wickedness, darkness, and bad luck through the world, and all over Bengal people set thousands of little lit deepas on courtyard walls, gateposts, roof ridges, along paths and on boats to help Kali in her lone fight. "She hasn't fought for us in years," said Ravi, Prem's older brother.
"Perhaps this year she will." Prem was ever hopeful.
Most children would have been afraid of Kalishe looks so dreadful. The village potter was making a tall image of her for Diwali. So that no one can see her in the darkness, she is black. She has sharp tusks for teeth and her long red tongue is hanging out because she is a tidy Goddess and licks up the blood of the demons she has killed. She wears a necklace of skulls and has four arms so that she can fight better; one of her hands holds a sword, another the head of a giant that she has just cut off-"She can cut off the hugest giant," boasted Prem. She dances in a frenzy, but something in Prem's own fierce little heart loved and trusted the Goddess. "She has to look like that," Mamoni explained, "to frighten the demons andkill them. They are very strong, and remember, she does it to protect us."
In the puja or prayer corner of the hut in which they lived, Mamoni kept doll's-house-size clay figures of the gods and goddesses on a bracket. Kali stood out among them, and every night Prem went to sleep sure that her family was safe; no demons would dare to come near them.
"Mamoni, it is time to get out the lights."
Mamoni did not answer. She was sitting on the earthen floor sifting rice in her wicker pan, which was shaped like a dustpan. She was so skillful that the good rice grains went to one sidenot a grain must be lostwhile the husks flew out onto the ground. It would be Prem's task to sweep them up with her small grass broom; though Prem was only seven, she had to work hard.
Mamoni had been beautiful but now, like Prem, she was too thin; her cotton sari was worn thin, too. As she worked, her bangle slid up and down her arm and, watching, Prem seemed to remember that once Mamoni had had many bangles, gold and silver ones. This one was cheap bronze and its metal had gone dull, but Mamoni would not have parted with it for all the world: "It was the first present Bapi, your daddy, gave to me when we were boy and girl." All the rest of her jewelry had gone, as so much had gone since Bapi died. Prem, though, still had her little silver nose-ring that he had given her when she was a year old. She wore it in one nostril, which had been pierced to hold it. She did not remember the piercing, only how pretty she looked with the ring. It was sad that there could be no nose-ring for Meetu, her toddler sister, but Meetu, who had been born after Bapi died, was so roly-poly and happy she would not mind. It was Ravi and Prem who minded.
"Mamoni, everyone in the village has brought out their lights."
The village was Prem's world-she could hardly remember the town of Pasanghar, three miles away, where they had lived with Bapi. The village was on a knoll above a pattern of paddy fields; paddy-rice-is grown in water and the water glinted in the sun; white paddy birds waded across it. Small clay tracks led between the fields, paths just wide enough to take a bicycle, a rickshaw, or a careful elephant.
The village itself had coconut palms; more narrow little lanes led between the houses, most of them huts with earthen walls and floors, thatched roofs, and earthen-walled courtyards. There was a smell of hot dust, smoke, and mustard oil from the cooking fires.
In the center of the village was a wide tank or pool where, in the early morning, the villagers washed their clothes and themselves, dipping a Iota, a small brass pot, in the water and pouring it over their heads and bodies as they said their morning prayers, always facing the sun. Beside the pool was a sacred banyan tree, where the village men sat in the evening, and by it a temple, its pointed roof made of hammered-out kerosene tins that looked like silver. The villagers thought it handsome. The priest who looked after it was another of Prem's friends.
On all sides of the village stretched the great plain. Except for a few other knoll villages, it was so flat that the sky seemed like a great bowl turned upside down to meet the land all around.
There was, too, the Big House of whitewashed brick. It belonged to Zamindar Bijoy Rai. Zamindar means landlord, and he owned most of the villages and the land.
"We lived in a brick house, too, when we were in Pasanghar," Ravi often told Prem, and don't you forget it." Prem could not forget it because she could not remember that timeonly in glimpses like Mamoni's gold and silver bangles.