We have just moved to a new flat in Chennai. So how are we feeling today, asked a friend on phone from Calcutta (which is what it still is to me, not ‘Kolkata’). “Well, kinda hot,” I said. Before my friend could apologise for what she thought was an intrusion in a private moment, I clarified. On the third consecutive night of power cut, I was sitting in my room, sweating by the litres in darkness, and it was hot and humid and uncomfortable.
“Aah!” exclaimed my friend, who has stayed in Chennai for over two years and is well-versed with this menace of a feature in this power-starved city: “Welcome to Chennai!”
Yes, it has been a warm welcome. Warm colleagues, warm long-lost acquaintances, warm people, warm mall showrooms (keeping warm has become a habit with the city people, you see) — and of course, the warm climate.
Add to that, frequent — nay, regular — power cuts which have become a part and parcel for the lovely city of erstwhile Madras, or at least the fringes where I stay.
But when it’s dim around and silent with nothing but the chirping of crickets breaking it, my mind tries to grasp those fleeting memories of childhood — all in darkness.
Back in the 90s and the early 2000s, when I was a kid, my home town of Calcutta used to be plagued by regular power cuts during summers. So, almost everyday — weekends and weekdays alike — we used to brace ourselves for power cuts or what we used to colloquially term as “load shedding” during afternoons, evenings and midnights.
It was such a regular feature that on days when there used to be no outages, we used to feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with the anticipation and anxiety that it could strike at you from any quarter now.
But when the clock struck seven and off went the lights, it was something familiar, something that we have been expecting. Almost like yes, I have brushed my teeth today; yes, I have been asked by my teacher to go out of the classroom and stand in a corner — and yes, there has been a power cut in the evening today.
But however weird it might sound, that heat, that darkness had a magic of its own. That lack of light was clearer.
I remember, on such evenings when the full moon would shine with full resplendence and soak the playground in our colony with wholesome moonlight, we friends would saunter into the field, have long adda sessions, and our voices would pierce the silence around and draw neighbours to shout and complain, hardly realising that they were adding to the din.
We would roam around in the colony, humming a tune or silently making our way along the moonlit streets, happy that a few minutes or even an hour has been shed off from an evening’s study time. At times, a cool breeze would make our hearts pine for our latest school crush. And at times, the shooting cry of jackals from a distant marshland would send a shiver down our spines.
When you were alone at home and could hear the far-away hoot of local trains, tears welled up in your eyes due to some inexplicable reason that impairs most teenagers.
Indoors, we would sit by the fickle and flickering light of green lanterns and strain our eyes - reading essays or doing homework, cursing the neighbour Babloo who would repeat his tables loudly. Eventually, we would end up with headaches and, later, myopia.
I also remember the crucial India cricket match nights when telecast used to be disrupted by power cuts. So just when Allan Donald would bowl a juicy half-volley to Sachin Tendulkar, the TV would go off with a ‘blip’ and we held on to the choicest of abuses, lest it escapes in front of our parents.
So reach we would for granddad’s radio set and tune into the commentary in Hindi. We friends would gather and try to make out the relay over the whizz and crackle of radio waves. With that winning shot, we would jump and yell with joy — anguished that we couldn’t ‘watch’ the game but content that we at least did not miss it.
But that shriek of joy would soon give way to a collective sigh of relief — echoing from all corners of the neighbourhood — when the lights came on. It was a respite but only to expect and experience perhaps a short power cut again towards late night.
In the pre-mobile era, at that time, we would lie on the terrace and listen to music on our Walkmans staring at the bleak sky above, maybe interspersed with glimmering stars peeping out from all the pollution in the air. During late night post-dinner power cuts, conversations would crop up between friends on neighbouring terraces. Everyone would inadvertently climb up the terrace to relax in short spells of breeze. A Sonali mashi would start a Rabindrasangeet and a Tubai would heatedly discuss the Left’s latest triumph with his peers.
And there would be darkness all around. But not a moment of dullness. There was an ‘unmissable’ beauty in that darkness. Something tangible, something instinctive, something unadulterated.
Soon, mobile phones and laptops and iPads and glitzy shopping malls, with their uninterrupted power back-up, invaded that darkness and gave way to light — convenient but soulless, beneficial but fragile.
Soon, the moon shied away and so did most memories.
Some 15 years later, now, we have grown used to material comforts and can’t imagine even a 15-minutes power cut. We sweat because there’s no AC or fan. We crib because we stumble in the dark. We die of boredom because there’s no TV beaming 500 channels - although most of us don’t, living as we do in high-rises with 24x7 power back-up. We are relieved as we have our mobile phones to ‘save’ us.
And somewhere, we miss those impromptu meet-ups and strolls, climbing up the terrace, listening to the radio, lighting lanterns...
In Calcutta, my lanterns must be lying in some corner, with its glass cracked, its frame rusted and cloaked in dust — and so many memories.
In Chennai, I have almost decided to buy an inverter now.
(Yashodeep Sengupta is an amateurish social observer, film buff, and a journalist on a break.)