Lamplighter Wallah, I Am Forever in Your Debt.
“Lamplighter wallah,” I name him as we pass on the stone track, in the dark. He is little and lithe and climbs the hill with enviable ease, balancing his oil can and umbrella.
He will not stop climbing until all the torches along the path leading to my mud hut are lit. In the distance I can see the restaurant, ablaze with the oil lamps that he lit before his ascent. On the path ahead I can see where he has been by the lights he left behind him.
In India, he would have a proper title. A very specific title which might end in ‘wallah‘. It would signal his membership of a very particular profession, probably one his father had belonged to and his father before him.
I remember the lamplighter on the river Ganges in India. Every evening for over 50 years, this man has lit the lamps along the Ghats, then filled boats with his flower candles, rowing up and down the river. I’ve never seen anyone smile so intently as he worked, focused completely on his task, and speaking only of his blessings in this life.
But I’m not in India sitting beside the great river. I’m in the jungles of Sri Lanka, on a Yoga and Ayurveda retreat. At night we negotiate acres of darkness to make our way to the restaurant for dinner.
It was darkness which had brought me to Sri Lanka. For some time I had felt as though I was living in an enormous, empty room, and one by one the lights were all going out. Small indignities and minor tragedy had extinguished the flames of many of my most precious dreams. The lure of Ayurveda by the hour and Yoga lessons in a pavilion perched on a jungle ledge had sounded like the spark my life was sorely lacking.
But I didn’t know that darkness came in different shades until my first night in the jungle. I had stood alone outside my mud hut and watched as the daylight turned to obsidian. I don’t know how long I stayed like that staring out into the impenetrable void of that jungle vista, but I moved once I became aware of the strangled sob which had escaped my lips.
Every evening I begin my descent in the dark and rain. Every evening I hope I will meet lamplighter wallah sooner rather than later.
I ask Sudvananthakanivistra, or ‘Jack’, as the manager likes to be called, what this man is called in Sinhalese. He looks at me as though I’m mad for the fourth time that day. He smiles, shakes his head, and mutters something incomprehensible in English. Over the years I’ve come to realize that the ‘incomprehensible English’ is anything but. It is a polite way of informing nosy travelers that they should stop talking.
“Shh, Madam. Enough. You are sullying the serenity.”
And that was the very last thing I wanted to do.
Lamplighter wallah and I greet each other every evening as we maneuver past the other on the slippery stone track. I vary my time of descent hoping he will have finished lighting the path to my door before I set out, but I only ever meet him on the path. There is a delicate balancing act performed with umbrellas, torches and pleasantries.
His torch is kerosene-fueled and slightly awesome. Mine is battery operated and pathetic, but able to discern danger at least. It labors to both light the path in front of me and prepare me for encounters with frogs, insects, and the odd black water snake.
“Harmless, Madam.” Of course they aren’t. Mine has been a path littered with black snakes, and every single one of them was ominous.
And then there are the leeches.
The torch flickers between the path and my feet, scouring for evidence of a direct hit. Damned-bloody-boss-leeches. They are no more than 10 mm long and one-millionth of a mm wide. They rear up on their sticky ends and seesaw across the foot, heading for the delicate flesh between my last two little toes.
Not on my watch. I catch them before they catch my little piggies, or “finger toes,” as Sudvananthakanivistra, or ‘Jack’, as the manager likes to be called, refers to them. I remain equal parts impressed and repulsed by their tenacity.
They stick like malicious gossip and unkind words, and before you know it, have tripled in size, the damage already done. You flick the damned-bloody-boss-leech off and the blood swiftly flows, the damage already done. Why is it no one notices until the damage is already done?
I notice. My trusty torch seeks them out, and I remove them the second they hit my foot. What can I say? I’m more cautious these days.
I want to ask lamplighter wallah why he doesn’t start lighting the torches at dusk. Why does he wait until it is completely dark before he begins his ascent of the path? Are we both dancing to the same ancient song whose lyrics bid us wait until the night is a dark, dark blue, and only then remember the matches in our pockets?
I follow the torchlight to the restaurant where lamplighter wallah started his journey. The room is ablaze with oil lamps like a Hindu temple at Diwali. On every table and practically every flat surface a lamp is burning. Couples sit on either side of the lamp at their table, and the light draws their attention towards each other and away from everything else.
There is no one on the other side of my lamp, so I’m free to watch their faces transformed in the gentle glow. The years fall away as faces appear young again, and lovers smile in recognition at a look thrown across the table from their beloved.
Lamplighter wallah has returned to the restaurant and moves deftly between the tables, topping up the oil in the lamps with a determined sense of purpose. He keeps the flames burning even at empty tables, for those who are yet to join us.
Beyond the boundaries of the restaurant lies complete and utter jungle darkness. Within it, the night flickers with tiny flames that are never allowed to go out. We eat and then make our way along a well-lit path to our rooms.
Minutes after I turn out the lights, exhausted by another day of privilege-funded tourism, lamplighter wallah makes his way to the top of my path to extinguish the torches. I hear him outside my hut as he smothers the very last one he lit, and he will make his way back down the path until all is darkness again.
He may not have been there at the start of my dark evening, but somewhere along the path we met, exchanged pleasantries and sidestepped each other. Me, heading into the light he had set blazing behind him, and he, into the unending darkness of the path behind me.
Lamplighter wallah. The poet in me is unable to draw forth a more befitting title for your evening’s work. The poet in me is a little dulled by the wedding-feast-like banquet we devour in the restaurant you keep alight every night.
But the damned-bloody-boss-leech-dodging-traveler in me is forever in your debt.
Rillos Soklea is an intrepid traveler, learner of languages, and speaker of her heart. Her favorite journey is the one which brings her closer to her truth. Currently residing in the most isolated capital city on earth, she is patiently awaiting life’s next adventure.