‘Another power cut!’, exclaims my sister, ‘This old apartment doesn’t even have a power back-up’. Flustered she gets up to reach for the match box and candles while I add, ‘Maybe we could get an inverter?’ We light the candles that are placed in strategic corners and quite magically the house is illuminated to a mystical light. Miffed she reaches for her phone, so do I, and an unwelcome whitish glow lights up our faces! I should have charged my phone, I complain, and leaving the annoying little device to itself lest it breathe the last percentage of battery, look around, peering through the darkness which is dispelled in concentric halos where the candles burn. The only one soul joyous and feverish with excitement is our cat. Jumping atop table to shelf, running under the couch, behind the couch, she suddenly rushes into the other room and rushes out with equal fervour! How I wish I had the eyesight of a cat, I lament, and removing my glasses breathe in the darkness, heavy and mysterious.
How happy used to be the power cuts as a child! It always meant no more to study, watch the candle wax drip in slow heavy drops, part the curtains to gaze at the sky, suddenly illuminated by million twinkling heavenly bodies. Growing up in a hill town had its advantages of being closer to the sky, of no light pollution, of starry nights, and power cuts meant the entire town would be cloaked in darkness! A perfect alibi for stars to shine brighter! My sister had stealthily devised a strategic plan during power cuts. Shut your books, scream for dinner and doze off, pretend to be asleep even when lights resume! I was only happy to oblige and we sincerely followed this routine. Maa, our mother, was no fool to this mischievous strategy and played along. Upon screaming dinner, she would dish out the literal fried rice-fry rice with crispy golden fried onions, add grated carrots, temper it with turmeric, salt and chillies, and lo behold a yummy dinner would titillate our senses! How did she conjure the perfect lights-out dinner, night after night, in solemn darkness, fails me to this very day!
Baba, our father, was not so happy and as we pretended to sleep, shutting our eyes, giggling often, we could hear him lamenting! ‘Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar would go out to the streets and study under a street lamp-post and look at these children of mine.’ But he was an equal participant during the night-outs that our town would often face. Oh the North-East of India used to be quite a troubled territory in my growing up days. The local groups, protesting against the government, against anything that caught their fancy, would call for ‘night-outs’. No lights allowed and any lit window, house would face the wrath of stone-pelters. Baba would use dark shawls to cover the skylights. Darker shawls would be placed upon the curtains across doors and windows and then turning on the zero power bulbs in room or two, we would huddle together, laughing, talking. Baba would narrate his stories, our grandmother grunted and listened, while Maa dished out savouries! The darkness brought us closer. We could quite easily be the Croods family!
In the darkness, against the glow of burning candles, we would create hand shadows, a puppy yapping, a deer dancing, a fish quickly swimming or an eagle soaring! We were grossly limited but revelled in the shadows we created often adding a sound if we could! Horror stories was another necessity during the darkness. Shivering, not daring to look beyond the faint light of the candle, we’d pretend to be brave, shuddering at any sound, at any undecipherable shadow!
During my hostel days, a friend and I would, in the darkness of winter nights, head towards the cafeteria and sitting, lying atop the table outside, sipping the customary cup of tea, gaze at stars, at the several constellations, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, brightly shining Pole star! Although weighed down by the heavy yoke of academics leisure came easy to us!
The shroud of darkness was welcoming and we were only joyous to cloak ourselves in it unlike now when we seek means, desperately, to blot it out, to reduce it to brightness, cursing, cussing, agonising the power suppliers. If only we could appreciate the mystery of darkness.
The power resumes suddenly. My sister beams cheerfully and our cat, indifferent, is suddenly quiet and has decided to meditate upon a corner, carefully swishing her bushy tail. Rising slowly on her hind legs, ears twitching she jumps but the fly, that she had her attention upon, swifter for her, has had a sweet escape. Bored she decides to dance around, jump about! We go about our chores, extinguishing the candles. A bluish grey smoke appears and fades away while the molten wax slowly settles.
If only the darkness were to last longer! Candle light, candle bright.