The darkness is as deep as a black cat, rubbing slow and velvety against me. The neighbour’s amplifiers have been cut off midstream, the incredibly whiny music turned off like a faucet. Even power outages have their advantages.
Are there any candles? When was the last time I had bought a pack? I can’t remember, certainly not on the last shopping trip. Shamik used to be the one into candles, he would get such pretty ones. I couldn’t bring myself to actually light them and spoil their outlines. But he set a match to them and blackened the wicks as if they were just so much blobs of grease.
Pineapple and pumpkins, hearts, stars and flowers, boots, bottles, antique urns and animal shapes. They bled molten wax as they morphed into plainness. The next day I would pick off the remnants. Translucent, smooth like pureed moons under my fingers. The pieces would lift up in flat rounds, whole – like dried scabs coming off old memories. But Shamik is gone now. To a place without a holiday for candle-lighting and where naked flames are frowned upon indoors.
In the darkness, I can actually hear my own pulse, now that the hum of the Air Conditioner has stopped, the shrillness of television news, the constant noises are fallen quiet. I can also hear Shanti fumbling around, trying to find a light, the sudden bangs and thuds startlingly loud.
“Is there anything in this place that works without power?” she shouts, exasperation lining her voice. “Didn’t we have a rechargeable lamp or something?”
“Come, sit here with me sweetie,” I call to her. ”We don’t need a light this very instant. Some things glow better in the dark.”
Her shape momentarily blocks the bleached darkness framed by the doorway. I can feel her sink down on the couch, a deeper shadow in the lightless room, emanating waves of almost tangible impatience.
“What, exactly?” she sounds breathless and irritable. “What glows better in the dark, may I ask?”
“Your eyes,” I tell her, quite truthfully, as the whites are the only things I can see of her. ”And if you can bring yourself to smile, the smile too.”
“That reminds me of Red Riding Hood for some reason. Best not to explore why,” she says and calms down finally, chuckles. The space feels warmer for that brief flash of a smile.
String Beds and Bedtime Tales
Darkness had such irrevocable links to so many things. Stories and story-telling long ago, for instance. Summer nights in the city, which still hadn’t shed the trappings of small townhood – that entire season meant sleeping out in the open on the terrace. The scorching heat soaked up all day by the rough concrete slabs, was cooled first with jets of water sprayed from an old, age-softened rubber hose after sundown.
Grandmother put up an extra charpoy next to hers where her grandkids ranging from two to twelve congregated just after dinner, draping themselves on the string bed in various configurations for optimal space utilisation.
She would do a cursory check to see if everyone was present, then start off with her story for that night – the Breaking of the Bow, Chasing the Golden Deer, the Blind King’s Spoilt Brat. How Lakshmi Followed the Lamps to the Threshold. Just like Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs, only the idea of lights is much smarter, no birds can eat those. The Ferry to Valhalla. Shahrazade’s Cliff-hangers. No, the rest is for tomorrow.
Drawn from mythologies Indian and Greek, Roman and German, Norse and Middle Eastern, condensed into a semi-sung bedtime story, she neatly slotted them into the hour between wide awake and dozing. One by one the children fell asleep, one by one she lifted them gently and took the younger ones to their mothers’ beds. The twelve-year old she left where he was, just rearranged his limbs, fitting a pillow snug under his head.
Unheard of in the Neighbourhood
City lights meant dim incandescent bulbs and fluorescent lamps battling the vast blackness of the night sky. The lampposts were low and sparse then, the streetlights little yellow flares, bashfully pooling in a small circle at their own feet. They were shorter than the peepul and the jamun trees in the neighbourhood park, short enough and small enough not to interfere with anybody’s rest. Every sunset, they marked the end of the play hour and signalled the time for the children to turn back and go home.
The traffic thinned further on the roads as the evening deepened, the occasional headlights of lorries and auto rickshaws picking out the tree trunks in their beams as they went past, private cars were few and far between. Cities slept just as humans and birds did. Rows of uppity sodium vapour lamps did not try to mimic the sun or make crows call out at night. The visibly huge sweep of the Milky Way kept a silent vigil over the neighbourhood till it faded out at the real sun’s rise. No one had even heard of light pollution.
One December, the entire city was blacked out, darkened to the sound of the sirens followed by the power being switched off. The adults did not put a light to their cigarettes even. The women were not sure about using the stove, so the cook sat idle on the low stool, dinner was delayed. Grandmother appeared not to be affected though, she still rolled her betel leaf expertly in the darkness, placed it unerringly between her cheek and her lower molars. Just imagine if this had happened a couple of months earlier! How would Lakshmi Have Found Her Way then? The children huddled and whispered amongst themselves, flooded with relief at this narrow escape from the far greater catastrophe, even as the warplanes circled overhead somewhere. No one in the street had heard of infrared technology either.
More Light, Less Stories
The neighbourhood has changed a little since. Several old timers have gone, moved away to be with their families. Some of the young ones have gone too, to greener pastures abroad. Buildings have been pulled down, replaced with smarter but tighter blocks of low rise flats – open kitchens, less terrace, balconies as narrow as the eye of a needle.
A gate has been installed at the bottom of the lane where it joins the main road, along with the requisite gatekeeper. Though the street itself has been widened by grabbing a swathe off the park, but even so, the road space available is narrower as more cars have been acquired in the block. Fewer trees, more streetlights. Fewer children per household, fewer bedtime stories, more screentime, more gadgets.
No one sleeps here as untroubled as they did once and certainly no one sleeps on terraces anymore, bedrooms now come kitted with ACs. The retirees who remain gather in the park and grumble about too much light, too much traffic, the vanished Milky Way, a vanished way of life.
“Come to think of it, there’s more than just one way of glowing” I turn and address Shanti’s silhouette and her question, ”to me the entire universe seems to glow better in the dark.”
Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written by: Nilanjana Bose [Author; Chartered Institute of Marketing, UK; Mathematics]
‘Power Outage – Once A Way Of Life’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on May 1, 2023