Once upon a time loadshedding and Kolkata were inseparable. Thankfully, this scenario is a thing of past. However, one day, when the power went off for a few minutes, I was suddenly reminded of the good old days of power cuts and how we all took it in our stride.
The entire city cursed the government, albeit I loved power cuts. It’s weird but true and I have my own reasons. The prime being it provided a legitimate excuse to not do anything. Just like getting ill. And while the latter had side effects of pain and suffering, the former one was harmless. Pure and sublime bliss.
When I was still a kid, they were regular, unlike today. Every evening anytime from 6:30-9pm without fail, the lights would go off in my side of the city. My mother would finish her cooking and me my homework and by 6:15, we would get ready with torch and lantern in place, fully prepared to wage our war with the darkness to come. And precisely on time, the lights along with the hum of all the electronic gadgets would go off. The sudden darkness and peace always made me feel that the earth had stopped rotating. Everything came to a standstill. And then slowly, the gap created by the missing hum of the electronic gadgets would get filled by the hum of human voices. The walls would get thinned, and people’s voices from the lane outside and of my neighbours would get audible. Nobody complained.
For the first half an hour, my mother would stand at the door of the house. The entire neighbourhood would be found at their own respective entrances for a round of adda or gossip. Or we would gather at the terrace. For kids that meant antakshari time or storytelling sessions while tired adults exchanged their daily chit chats. We were fortunate to witness clear skies over the city, not yet sheened by pollution. I remember Shantu Kaku who lived next door from so many years ago, showing us constellations and we staring at the vast slate above, joining stars with the help of imaginary lines to create Zodiac shapes. In the complete silence, the only voice audible were of a mini generator from Neda da’s shop whose real name nobody knew. Occasionally a rumble of tram passing by the Laxmi flour mill at Chitpur could be heard. Sometimes tea, chop and singhara’s also flew around us in saucers. We jumped on yummy and juicy Jhilipis sponsored by one of the families.
When I was in class six, my mother retired from the post of my home tutor, and I started going for tuition. My teacher was an old widow who lived by the riverside or Gangadhar as they say in Bengali. There too sometimes the loadsheddings would invade our academic sessions. Our teacher would then ask us to gather our bags and shift to her terrace. She would, in the meantime, unfold a few shatranj and plastic mats and light few lanterns. Amidst burbling of the river, barks of dogs and tinkle of a hand-pulled rickshaw’s bell we would learn our lessons. I would return home with my mom finding our way with the help of a big Eveready torch. Back home, I played with the torch. My palm, when placed over the light, looked red and transparent. Eyes wide, I wondered at the mysteries of life.
Back home I would cajole my mom for her graphic storytelling session. The cream wall beside our bed would turn into a screen. My mother and sometimes my father, too, created images of animals with the help of their fingers against the lantern and I would squeal in wonder and joy. Later, I started conjuring stories myself that might have been the keystone of my passion for writing.
Summer days were, a little tricky. Power consumption increase meant more power cuts and surviving without fans. The Hanth Pankha or handheld fans definitely helped. We had one such made up of palm leaf, bordered with a red silk cloth. There were flowers painted on it. Newspapers and thin books too served the purpose pretty well. During exams too loadshedding used to increase and cursing the government would become mandatory for all adults. Nonetheless, I loved reading under the lantern. If great scholar and educationist Vidyasagar could study under the lantern, why can’t I? Admittedly, the primary reason was that I loved the smell of kerosene. Lol!
During Durga Puja due to power theft by pandal owners load shedding hours saw an increase. But then those evenings most people went out for pandal hopping sipping zingy Gold spot. So, nobody complained.
The prime bet those days amongst my mother’s friends were whether the power will be back in time for their favourite TV program, Chitrahar, Humlog etc. Sometimes it did and sometimes it did not. There were no repeat telecast and recordings. Hence, the missed episodes had to be guessed.
All said and done I disliked one part of the loadshedding the most. When sometimes the power didn’t return even after dinner. That meant sleeping inside the mosquito net, staring at the fan and feeling the drops of perspiration sliding down the neck and back. It felt sticky and uncomfortable. However, when the swish of the fan returned at midnight, it felt heavenly.
“Joy came always after pain.” -Guillaume Apollinaire