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Of loss and ‘load shedding’ in Calcutta

Summer afternoons have informed our emotional histories in ways we may not even imagine or remember

Actor Soumitra Chatterjee in ‘Apur Sansar’, the third part of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’, which was made in a Calcutta of relentless power cuts.
Actor Soumitra Chatterjee in ‘Apur Sansar’, the third part of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’, which was made in a Calcutta of relentless power cuts.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the city I grew up in was yet to shed its colonial name, or adorn itself with white and blue streetlights, as it now does, every evening. The arrival of summer in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was announced by a sudden rise in humidity, leading to an infernal sweatiness that refused to leave the skin despite showers and bucket baths through the day. Occasionally, a nor’wester, a thundershower locally called kalboishakhi, would bring in blessed relief in the late afternoons. But, typically, the season would assert its presence with the relentless power cuts that befell the citizens through days and nights, often stretching on for hours.

Apart from its disastrous anti-industry politics and aggressive trade unionism, the Left Front government, which ruled West Bengal from 1977-2011, added a term as ubiquitous as maachh (fish) and rosogolla to the Bengali vocabulary: load shedding, a euphemism for power cut. It could be the middle of the school day or at the time of a post-lunch siesta, or you could finally be asleep after tossing and turning all night from the mugginess (most middle-income homes didn’t have air-conditioning then), there was no knowing how long the ceiling fans would continue to spin. Power cuts in the evenings, which promised a respite from homework, were welcomed by schoolgoers, though adults, turned surly by the heat, often forced us to finish our lessons by candlelight. If the mood was more charitable, our entire joint family of 12 would go up to the terrace of our 100-year-old ancestral home in south Calcutta, in the desperate hope of catching a whiff of a breeze. Impromptu singing or storytelling sessions helped us while away the hours of darkness. For the tired adults, it was also the moment to exchange some gossip.

In the clear skies over the city, far less tainted by vehicular pollution so many years ago, the stars would gleam fiercely. My father, a geographer by profession, gave me my first lessons in constellations, galaxies and the universe, as we stared at the inky vastness of the sky on those summer evenings. Apart from the distant gurgle of a generator, trying to keep a dim electric bulb flickering in someone’s home, the drone of the mosquitoes that flew around like tiny missiles, and the rumble of the trams passing by, there would be little else to hear—maybe strains of reluctant singing from the next-door neighbour’s balcony, where the little girl was made to practise her scales if she refused to work on her sums by the light of a kerosene lantern.

But the afternoons sang out with a myriad other voices. My school, which ended by noon, would bring me back home, to lunch and a compulsory postprandial nap next to my mother, when the heat of the day was at its peak. My earliest memories go back to those hours, when the entire world seemed to be drooping into a stupor, broken suddenly by the tinkle of a hand-pulled rickshaw’s bell or the cry of a hawker selling jasmine buds. Shadows would trickle into the room through the slats in the windows, leaving upside-down impressions on the walls. Unable to sleep, too young to read by myself (or even to sit still with a picture book unsupervised), and not allowed to step outside to play in the heat, I’d fidget in bed, my mother tut-tutting at my restlessness in between light snores. There was nothing else to do but count the minutes till teatime or hope that a brief spell of load shedding would come to my rescue, forcing my mother to get up and throw open the doors to let in some fresh air.

The charm of those Arcadian summer afternoons waned the year my mother died. I was 7 and had, for the first time in my short life, encountered loss in such an absolute form but I didn’t immediately process its implications. There was no one to keep me bound to the bedroom after lunch. No one to berate me for disturbing the peace. Yet, ironically, I felt no urge that year to escape the confines of the bed, occupied by me alone in the afternoons. As the rest of the household sought their forty winks, I discovered the most magical gift of my short life so far: silent reading.

The background score of empty summer afternoons—the neighbourhood boys playing cricket with tennis balls, cats fighting over leftovers, crows cawing for a drop of water—would recede from my consciousness. The fever and fret of the world dissolved as my eyes focused on the mysterious signs that formed words, which, in turn, unleashed an ever-flowing fount of stories. Reading didn’t take away the edge of my grief, which, in hindsight, manifested itself more as confusion than as a clearly articulated sense of loss to my young mind. But books did lead me out of that room, without my physically ever leaving the bed where I felt my mother’s presence most keenly.

The summer I lost my mother, I read a volume of poems called Shishu (which means the child in Bengali) by Rabindranath Tagore, written ostensibly for young readers, and the memoirs of his boyhood days, called Chhelebela, apart from all the Tintin comics. Over the next few years, I would make my way through my father’s bookshelves (mostly filled with the classics of Bengali literature, especially the collected works of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, his personal favourite), before raiding my aunt’s collection. From Russian folk tales to the plays of Anton Chekov to the novels of Charles Dickens to the erotic stories of Guy de Maupassant—nothing escaped my adolescent eyes.

Many years later, in college as a student of literature, I encountered Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, The Lotos-Eaters, where the Greek hero, Odysseus, and his crew hit a shore after being lost at sea for years. “In the afternoon they came unto a land," the poet writes, “In which it seemed always afternoon." Although perceived as a terrible curse by the lost men mired in an inescapable indolence, to me, the thought of such endless afternoons brought back the sweet odour of mouldy books and the dulcet ring of my mother’s gentle snores.

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