There was a three-day power cut in Durgapur in May 2011. You must know that this town has a very capricious power system. The slightest breeze is capable of dislodging electrical wires and throwing the British-era wires and poles into welter. Knowing this, the authorities take every precaution to avoid major outages: the moment a slight breeze rises and a grey cloudlet appears on the blue horizon, the power is turned off. When we lived there, this inevitably happened at around 3 pm every afternoon, and my mother and I would end up drinking tea on the verandah, watching our elderly, rather plump neighbour fan herself vigorously. A pariah dog that normally followed us whenever we returned from an outing, hoping for a treat, would also saunter in and settle itself under the porch roof.
But this particular May storm turned out to be more ferocious than usual. Branches fell on the wires and a few trees were uprooted. We had just returned from a day out in Calcutta, and didn’t really know of the extent of its fury until the next day, when we spoke to our neighbours. We had a candle-lit dinner and went to sleep, sweaty and tired.
Sleep evaded us, of course, though the mosquitoes did have a marvellous time. Up early the next morning, we waited eagerly for some positive news. I put off my shower till 1 pm, hoping for a miracle. I tried reading The Forsyte Saga, but not surprisingly, family intrigues and relationships that required a flowchart to be made clear were not very appealing at that point. Dusk fell but we had no luck. We tried to hire a generator but not a single one was available. An enterprising gentleman offered us the loan of his lantern, an offer we gently declined out of a partiality for candles.
The person in charge of the electricity department had just been shifted, and a new man had arrived in his place only the previous day. He wrung his hands in despair and struggled to deal with the complaints pouring in. Work on restoring the wires began eventually, and one street after another heaved a sigh of relief at intervals of roughly twenty-four hours. Our house, however, turned out to be an exception. We had dinner on a cot in the garden, but sleeping under the stars was out of the question. We would have been eaten alive by mosquitoes.
The whole town flocked to Junction Shopping Mall. It is the only well-lit spot in Durgapur and a carnival-like atmosphere prevails there all the time, second only to the Durga Puja revelries. People buy fried snacks from the thelas near the parking-lot and ice cream from the shop just outside the mall, then plonk down on the wide steps to enjoy the breeze and a long evening of gossip. This, of course, follows the endless hours of addas under trees in the morning and afternoon, drinking tea and playing cards or carrom. When anyone in Bengal actually does any work is a mystery to me. But when they work, they do so with an enthusiasm that cannot be matched, as you’ll see eventually.
The next day, somebody called to tell us that a generator was available. So at around 2 pm on the third (or maybe fourth, I try not to remember) day of the ordeal, around ten men came to our house in a procession. At the head was a cycle rickshaw with the prized generator tied to the seat. We felt blessed and extremely lucky, if a little bewildered at the number of people who accompanied it, as if escorting a bride to her husband’s house.
After much deliberation and discussion, a few of the men carried what was clearly an ancient generator in. They debated for a while as they hunted around for the perfect spot for it, finally placing it gently near the front door. Then two more men came up to fix the wires. Someone came forward to pour a little diesel into it, followed by another person who cranked it up. I swear to you it was the noisiest generator in existence. Apart from the normal cracked put-putting of a regular generator, it emitted a variety of noises, the worst of which was a high-pitched whine that made your hair stand on end.
The men wiped their foreheads with great satisfaction and drank the lemon juice my mother offered them. In great glee, I turned the AC on. I was the happiest person in Durgapur- till the switch tripped and went off. Evidently, the generator could not stand too much. With a heavy heart, I turned on the heavy brown fan, property of the Steel Plant, and watched it morosely cut through the thick hot air overhead. The generator droned on in the other room. Finally, as neither the fan helped nor the generator, we turned them both off. So much for the delights of anticipation! Never had I been betrayed in such a mean fashion.
Thankfully, the power was restored a few hours later, and I slept the sleep of the dead that night. Coconut vendors did brisk business that evening, temples buzzed with prayer- Lord Shiva and Goddess Kali must have had a torrid three days of it too, after all! A side-effect of this incident has been that I haven’t been able to return to The Forsyte Saga. But in the bargain, I’ve experienced the life many people in our country live, and it isn’t easy at all.