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Light in the Dark

When I was four, I spent a month with the paternal side of my family in Sabah, Malaysia, to celebrate Eid. They lived on kampung grounds and owned two large, multi-storey wooden houses that homed several families. Behind us was a thicket of woods and we had a vast, unpaved space at the front where kids could play and the adults could park their cars.

One night, we experienced a blackout, and while not uncommon, it was new to me, and it was exciting. The first thing I did was look for my mother by screaming for her throughout the house. I found her in the kitchen rummaging through the drawers, and she shushed me.

"You don't have to be so loud," she said. In the darkness, I saw her procure a candle, which she placed onto a copper candleholder and light up. I was fascinated. I knew what candles were, but I’d never used one before.

“What happened?” I asked, watching the small fire dance.

“I don’t know. But your uncle will probably find out.” My mother replied, cupping the candle flame with her free hand.

“Ok, what do we do now?” I ask.

“I suppose we’ll have to wait,” she said.

And then I heard a commotion outside and of course, the hyperactive four-year-old me couldn’t contain my curiosity. I dashed out and in the faint moonlight, could see the shapes of my relatives. My aunts and uncles bantered cheerfully with each other, their voices ringing out into the night.

It wasn’t long before I found out what they were doing. They’d each carried a few long, bamboo sticks with small, wicked oil cans fitted at the top. One by one, they lit the wicks and there was light!

It was a glorious sight. My uncles began affixing the makeshift torches into the ground, and suddenly, the open space was lit by the warm glow of torches. My cousins were also outside and busying themselves with something. I ran up to them, inquiring about their fixations.

“Do you wanna play bunga api?” one of my cousins asked.

“Ok!” I said, and he handed me a sparkler. I could barely contain myself. I watched eagerly as he lit his first, which erupted into bright, white sparks before lighting mine. The rest of my cousins played with other variations of sparklers—some of them emitting a crackling sound, others effusing rainbow-coloured stars, and one resembled a toy rocket that shot up at least five metres into the air, complete with a shrill, whistling sound loud enough to be heard far and wide. I'm not sure if that's still legal today, but it was the 90s!

One of my uncles determined that there was a power outage, and we had no choice but to wait it out. Interestingly, no one seemed to be bothered by the news, and during that time, my cousins and I continued to toy around with the sparklers while the adults sat outside chatting and smoking. It was altogether homely and exhilarating and I’d never experienced anything like that before.

In retrospect, it never occurred to me to question to the unusualness of it all—that my family would simply leave their houses during a blackout, light up candles, torches and fireworks, and just hang out.

It likely wouldn't fly in Singapore—since pyrotechnics and general hubbub are reserved for celebrations. But maybe it’s not such a terrible idea. To simply drop everything for a while when the world stops functioning and simply lean into the moment. I totally recognise it's a privilege but for those of us who struggle to relax when we should, this approach might just teach us to be less distressed when things don't work out, and create our own light to ride out the unexpected twists in life.

This piece is part of a writing challenge between me and my friend, Lisa. We've essentially agreed to write around 500 words daily, for seven days, about randomly picked topics. Today's topic is candles. There are no hard and fast rules—except to have fun, and not worry about our pieces being too polished. To read Lisa's interpretation of the topic, click here.


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