Saturday, April 11, 2009

A lifetime of darkness

I have fond memories of the days of the powercut. That's how I learnt my first swear word. "Damn it". That's what my dad would say when the power went off. I learnt it quickly. Subsequent power cuts would be greeted by me with an "ooph damn it". I didn't know then it was a bad word. By the time I realized it was inappropriate, I also knew it was cool, and so there was no warrant for not using that word.

But Bangalore used to be rife with powercuts. Sometimes there would be a loud burst of a tranformer, sometimes terrible rain that cut off some cord somewhere, sometimes there would be nothing to tell you why it happened. I never used to bother. It used to be a good excuse to make a call to a friend anyway. Those were the days when there was just one phone, one corded phone attached to the wall, often sitting atop the telephone dictionaries. The ones that had holes into which you had to insert your stubby fingers and dial 7 whole digits. Those were the days of 7 digit phone. The was no such thing as a redial button. There was no caller ID. You simply had to dial again. and again and again until you got through. And I remember vividly how I had this one popular friend. Everyone would call her the moment the power went off (me included), and of course if you didn't get to your telephone quickly enough you'd be greeted with a "ee phone number samayadalli nirikshisavaagidhe, swalpa samayadanantara prayathnisi; this phone number is busy, please try after sometime, (oh and something in Hindi that I cannot seem to recollect). " The length of my "sometime" was as long as it took for me to put the phone back on the hook and get my finger back on to dialing. My fingers have ached and blistered, but I showed impressive will power. A will power that wasn't quite upto the mark when it came to finishing homework in the candle light. I channeled my parents' chiding of "Janani, don't read in such dim light, have the tubelight face your book, don't let the shadow of your head fall on it, you'll ruin your eyes". I channeled it into meaning that doing homework in dim candlelight would mean blinding myself and suddenly I valued my eyes a lot. And thus I would wait till the power came back on, throw a quick tantrum about needing to do my homework, postpone everyone's dinner until I was done (because I used to do the homework on the dining table and there'd be no place for food and utensils until I cleared up) and then and only then would there be any semblance of peace at home.

As I grew older, phones got fancier. Soon cordless telephones (imported of course) were making their way into everyone's homes. I might add that I am referring to middle class bangalore. I have no rosy eyed picture of India that as cordless phones were making their foray people were getting lifted above the poverty line. Nonetheless no one can disagree that our country has made a lot of progress over the years. Such progress of course didn't necessarily include continuous power supply. Mr erratic transformer was forever conspicuous only by his absence. Cordless phones may be cool enough, but every house would still have at least phone that didn't need a power supply and could get connected directly to the phone unit. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge bsnl continues to supply only that variety of phone when it grants a new phone connection. We got mildly fancier though. Our corded phone units now had buttons instead of "dial-me-ups". And so I continued to have phone calls with the same girl (her popularity never faded- ever, not until today when all of us have sprouted wings and are making some awkward attempts at flying independently) in the middle of the hall, loudly talking about some other girl who did something foolish.

It was sometime at this point that I was reaching adolescence, when my first pimples were erupting and my first sense of privacy was making its presence. It was downright ridiculous to hold a phone conversation in front of your parents. The moment the phone got handed to you (that thankful cordless device), you had to shut yourself behind the door and speak for the longest time. Thankfully it was around the sametime that KEB (karnataka electricity board) woke up to the idea of scheduled powercuts, which to me meant, I could schedule these private conversations. No more having to cut conversations when the power went off because the only place to you could talk was in the hall where everyone would be listening. Neither my mom or my dad are eavesdroppers or the type that insist on tracking their daughter's every movement. Having lived with powercuts long enough, all of us had a routine about what to do when the power went off. Some would nap. My mom managed to continue doing something in the kitched. If my aunt and uncle were around everyone would sit about and talk. I don't think the important happenings in my life such as "why x made a face when y mentioned z in class" mattered to them. Yet of course, I had to pretend that way for the sake of my ego. Just to underscore my dumbness, I used to have huge arguments with my dad about how stupid KEB was to schedule a powercut when everyone needed the power the most. Why not do it between noon and 2 pm I would argue. No one needed it then and it wouldn't be such a hassle (and I would still be at school) too. Of course my dad would say "they're trying to save the power that would get spent, there's no saving of power when you're not gonna spend it in the first place". I scoffed at that logic and went powering through with my idiocies.

And then there was the advent of the emergency light. These emergency lights were a miracle. Initially they too were "imported"; from "abroad" and from "foreign". Either US, or Dubai, or Singapore or one of those grand places. Every house would now have one of these. Every household identified a strategic location in the house such that most places got a hint of illumination. Some emergencies would even be tilted by cleverly placed piled up books so that the light would fall at the right angle. Once such strategic placement was found, they wouldn't be altered. These things also came with half-on buttons ; they would be off when connected to power supply. The moment the power went off, they'd come on. What magic! (It need be mentioned that there was a marked decrease in the swearing component at my house). And then these things got bulkier and all bling. The latest ones used to come with the standard 2 emergency lamps, a headlight, a siren, a radio and a clock. I never understood why anyone needed a siren. And the radio was pretty useless because we were still a few years away from privatizing FM radio. You couldn't read the clock unless you shone a candle on it (getting away from the candles were what we were trying to achieve with the emergency light!) And we were still a few years away from admitting that India was slightly shining. To not listen to AIR class India's way of civil disobedience. And then as we became more comfortable in our luxuries many households opted for two emergency lights. One that would stay in that carefully callibrated strategic position. One that could move around. And in all this we muddled through.

And then we had the UPS. Uninterrupted power supplies. That was when PC's started appearing in every home. Sales people quickly realized that no one would by them because they were worried such an expensive device would get ruined due to unexpected power cuts. Soon there were offers with PC's sold with free UPS with 2 hour backup. The 2 hour backup was a farce. Unless you weren't using the computer or doing these funny DOS operations (DOS was what computer class summer schools would teach scores of aspiring children; more correctly, the kids of scores of aspiring parents) such as chdir or mkdir it wouldn't last 2 hours. I used to play three games on the computer tetris and minesweeper on a windows 3.1 (oh what pixellated grayscale heaven that used to be) and prince and pacman on DOS mode. I know that I could never play too long with the UPS. And of course right after the power cut, the UPS would blare the loudest, most horrendous beep that almost made the siren from the good friend- the emergency light such a lovely melody. Soon enough UPS's were getting grander. There were those that would support a computer one lightbulb and one fan. And as we got better and better at our IT skills and got better and better at buying cars and scooters and complaining about roads and infrastructure and marking our movements with huge potholes behind us (a sort of Bangalore walk of fame like the one imitating the Hollywood walk of fame at LA for instance), huge UPs's would come and power up the entire home. It was now left to the poor lightposts to tell people that the area had a powercut.

And so we've emerged from darkness. Powercuts too have gotten rarer. I wonder if emergency light makers have shut shop because one no longer sees hordes of them making their way into homes. And I wonder what happened to those hideous kerosene driven generators that would stink up the whole of jayanagar's 4th block complexes. And I wonder what happened to those tiny burners at the vegetable shops inside the complex. No activity would stop in Bangalore when there was a powercut. Life simply went on as though nothing had happened. And I remember the one year I was in Singapore. An eventless year with uninterrupted power and no excitement. I'd write to my friends back in India that life is very boring if things always went like clockwork. Perhaps being enamored by power cuts is a distant relative of the Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps its what makes life colourful. I've forever been preoccupied with wondering what stories to tell my grandchildren. And surely, I'll tell them about all my antics during a power cut. But I wonder now whether my grandchildren will have interesting stories to tell their grandchildren. AndI think fondly of my grandmom's stories about the cinema guy that would come into the village and screen movies on white linen and wonder how boring a life she must think I lead. And I guess, grandmoms will always have stories to tell their grandchildren. And for that, I am thankful.

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