When the lights were out

For all those who grew up in India, do you remember the times when we were little and the lights went out, especially at night?

This past December in Seattle was more severe than many can remember. Most people who’ve lived here more than ten years recall another one in the late nineties during which overburdened roofs had collapsed under the weight of piling snow. Fabled for its incessant rain, Seattle hardly ever gets any snow to write home about. But this Christmas of 2008, I found myself held hostage in my downtown condo, the steep sloped roads next to my building precariously icy and insurmountable. The city itself got more than eight inches of snow, and though that doesn’t sound like anything to most east-coasters and mid-westerners, you will be surprised at how that pans out when a place is as ill-equipped to deal with snow as Seattle. Everything was shut down, buses were the only way for many to get around, and these too changed their routes and took hours and hours to get anywhere if they did at all. Thousands of passengers were stranded at the airport on the days around Christmas, unable to get to their near and dear ones. My own car’s tires are nearly bald, and not having prioritized their replacement, I couldn’t even dream of driving anywhere.

And yet, this period is going to remain one of my sweetest memories for a while – just like those times when I was a little kid and the lights went out at night. My most vivid memory is of being about eight years old, in the University of Hyderabad campus which encompasses 2200 acres of land, much of which was the untamed rocky wilderness typical of the region, when my family lived there back in the early- and mid-eightees. When the electricity failed at night, a not so uncommon occurrence, all of the kids in the block squealed in delight. For one, homework was not really a possibility. T.V., for the one-in-five families that had it, was out, so no Chitrahaar either. (These were, of course, pre-generator days.) So while our parents flared up their flashlights and brought out candles or kerosene lamps to light every room (oh, and one bathroom), we spilled out in the streets like little errant, rolling peas and found each other even in the pitch darkness of no-moon. We devised games of hide-and-seek, or finding strange objects in the dirt, or pretending trees and rocks were something else, often spooking ourselves silly. Or if there was a moon, we gazed at it and the stars for all their twinkling clarity. An older, more mischievous kid might give us a good scare once in a while, holding a flashlight up his contorted face and we would run away screaming in part-fear and part-thrill and come back for more. Once the lights failed on Diwali night, and the skies lit up all around me with the sparkles of fireworks, and every house looked prettier in the darkness, with little oil lamps flickering in its windows and doorways. While my parents may have been annoyed or distressed, experiencing the power failures as a burden – worrying about the refrigerator’s contents spoiling, making dinner in the dark, warding off the swarming mosquitoes, getting lectures prepared for the next day, and getting us back in the house and into bed, I didn’t have a care. I did not even worry about the many cobras I knew lurked in the holes in the ground all around campus, somehow having faith that they too would understand and accommodate our imaginative games.

Then when I was thirteen and living in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, my Punjabi best friend’s family was building a house in Lajpath Nagar. Her father is a modest businessman, and at the time his resources to build and finish the house were running low. So while the first level had been more or less finished, the whole upstairs was a concrete ghostown of partly constructed space with rebar sticking out everywhere, no lights, no working bathroom, but a roof gracing the space with cover. Once you clambered upstairs, it was difficult (and unsafe) to negotiate the jagged raw concrete steps back down too often. So there we huddled on a little diwan, with a naked bulb dangling by raw wire above our heads, doing our homework or playing games. My friend’s mom, a bubbly, affectionate Punjabi woman with a big laughs and big hugs, had fashioned a “basket lift” – by arranging a large wicker basket to run up and down a pulley-like system along the windows of the house, such that whenever we needed a snack or anything else (even the telephone!), we gave her a shout and she hid unexpected goodies in the basket  along with what we had asked for, which we retrieved by pulling the basket up. It was terribly cold upstairs in the winter, and there was no heating, but we rarely minded. The thrill of snuggling under a heavy razai with goodies in our laps made even the dullest homework seem like an exciting adventure.

This December’s snow closure was reminiscent of those carefree childhood days. My boyfriend had taken two weeks off, and although we had had roughly outlined plans to do certain things (left to myself I’m rather ambitious about time-off), the snow had us mostly homebound. If not for his huge truck, which I often laugh at, we would have gotten nowhere at all. We bought Scrabble and Blockus and played ourselves silly. We did puzzles together, drank hot chocolate, and stocked up on goodies. We brought home library books on roasting, bought a goose (!) and cooked ourselves a surprisingly yummy Christmas dinner. We made it to the downtown theaters and watched movies – action and suspense and romance and comedy; we read many books sitting in adjacent chairs, not always finding conversation necessary. I punched holes into the snowpile on my little deck to make a big smiley face, and my boyfriend promised me a little snowman there, carrot-nose and all, making me giggle and feel like a five-year old again. One day we took a (careful) stroll down First Avenue towards the heart of downtown and threw snowballs at each other. As we strolled back sipping our Ladro’s lattes, we found people using every kind of device, real or improvised, to slide down the steep hill towards the Pike Place Market, screaming in delight, while others clicked away on their cameras, catching rare moments in a spotlessly white Seattle. The sleds sold out in the sport stores, and little kids could be seen being dragged around by their parents or older siblings. All serious business seemed to have come to a halt, but so had the economy, so who cared?

I could imagine, of course, experiencing all of this entirely differently. I could’ve worried about slipping and breaking a leg (it happened to my friend’s girlfriend – she broke it in two places and had to have surgery and a metal plate inserted in her leg…), I could’ve worried about the truck sliding into the curb or other cars (cars were wrecked and marooned all over the place…), I could’ve  fretted that I wasn’t making progress on all my projects and meetings I had wanted to accomplish during this time, I could’ve worried that we weren’t going anywhere special for Christmas … or I could simply allow the dreamy, pristine whiteness to remind me of the beauty in nature and life, calming and rejuvenating my spirit. I could choose to truly experience the slowing down of time, cherishing and savoring every little unexpected gift and drop of love that came my way. Fortunately, I was able to choose the latter; perhaps I had seen the light when I was eight years old and in the dark.

Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta



6 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Beautiful and finally a mention of lattes!

  2. Sarmila

    nice post tana, really liked it

  3. Khushi

    Good writing! I wish I had learnt this but for me load shedding meant mosquitoes, and in Calcutta. sweat sticking to me. I loved the moment when the fan started moving again.

  4. Tana

    Thanks, all! Anonymous, I drink my coffee to you! 🙂

  5. Anonymous

    Very beautiful post. I enjoy this kind of writing. Your eight year old story warmed my heart.

  6. Tana

    Thanks, Anonymous. I really appreciate the encouragement and resonance.

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