Saturday, July 18, 2009

LADIES WITH THE LAMP(S)

Power-cuts (load-shedding in local parlance) were a regular part of our daily routine when we were growing up (it still is, in most parts if India). Now we fight the darkness with generators and emergency power supplies provided by the housing societies. Then, our weapons were kerosene lamps wielded by the ‘ladies’ of the house. The men would usually sit still, or, at best, provide match-boxes or fumble for torches. It would usually be Maa (mother) or Barama (aunt) who would move sure-footedly to the window sills and light the lamps kept there, dispelling the darkness like Goddesses of Light.

There were three types of kerosene lamps used in our house.

There was the all-glass lampha (lamp), where the glass chimney was supported only at the base, which was also of thick glass. They gave a clear unhindered glow and were kept in the sitting-room, dining table and bedrooms (which doubled as study-rooms for us, with a wooden table placed in a corner next to the bed for that purpose). Being regarded as rather fragile and easily breakable they were generally not subjected to too much movement, but remained in their appointed place and shed a bright yellow light which allowed us to read or eat (and pick out tiny bones from fish-pieces, served with curry at supper) without taxing our eye-sight.

Then, there was the sturdier ‘hurricane’ or lanthan (lantern), where the glass chimney was encased in a supporting criss-cross metal wire, and which had a metal base. This wire formed shadow lines where the light fell and so it was not the preferred choice for light-intensive activities like reading or eating. It had a handle which could be held (and swung a bit, when the elders were not looking) and it was used in the kitchen and for going to the bathroom or toilets.

If the authorities did not deign to deliver us from darkness at bed-time, and the power-cut continued beyond that, then the lamphas would be extinguished or the lanthans left to burn very dim with the wicks lowered. Sometimes, Maa would light a small kupi, which had a tiny tin base and a small chimney and which gave a very faint light, which was regarded as a frugal compromise with the darkness at sleep-time (I could not find any suitable photo of this economical object which is still very popular in West Bengal villages).

The flames would inevitably lead to a gradual accumulation of soot which would darken the chimneys. A weekly job was the cleaning of the delicate glass chimneys with soapy water, gently patting them dry and fixing them back on the lamps. This ‘handle-with-extreme-care’ chore was performed only by Maa and Barama (or Sabitadi, the household help) and we would watch fascinatedly from a safe distance. We were allowed to move nearer when the lamp-bases were refilled with kerosene. As Maa unscrewed the base caps and poured the flammable liquid through a dingy green plastic funnel, I would bend low and inhale deeply. It might sound slightly crazy, but the sharp smell or virgin kerosene was (and is) one of my favourite smells (along with boot-polish, so now you know what an olfactory idiot I was).

One of my distant relations (the elder sister of my uncle’s elder daughter’s husband – if you want the Indian happy-extended-family exact definition) lived in a flat in Kolkata crammed with beautiful antique objects. On one of my several visits there (accompanying my cousin sister – in the approved Indian extended family tradition) I noticed, and immediately coveted, a blue Chinese porcelain lamp. But such delicate contraptions were for decorative display only. Because when the inevitable power-cut happened, it was the nondescript Indian-made sturdy lanthans that helped us to battle even the sophisticated South Calcutta darkness.

ANY MEMORIES OF HAND-HELD WEAPONS OF LIGHT? OR ARE YOU LUCKY ENOUGH NOT TO NEED THEM AT ALL?

17 comments:

Ugich Konitari said...

Your wonderful post shed lots of light on the much heard-of Kolkata load shedding experience. I had heard about this and thought it had something to do with the Communist mismanagement of stuff. I didnt know there was load shedding , even way back then ....like 25 years ago!

I guess now that you are in Borivli, it must be a huge load of your back......

Priya said...

Again a trip down the memory lane...i could relate so well...as for the place to where i belong, is (in)famous for power-cuts.As it is now, there are generators to lighten the dark,, but days back then , "hurricane", 'lampha" were the rescuer...and i also remember only ladies handling the affair of lighting and cleaning the lamp, at times, i also remember my choto kaka and dadabhai cleaning the "Lampha" and "Hurricane" on sundays....

♥ Braja said...

I loved this Sucharita...and of course it's all still going on :) I'm only surprised to hear that it *doesn't* happen in all of India....but as West Bengali wallah, I'm feelin' it :)

And we also see another word (lanthan) that is now part of the English language.

I'm reminded of the English show Goodness Gracious Me, and the regular stint they had of a younger man sitting on the verandah with his father, who constantly remarked how every word in English came from India :)))

There's a bit of a dahl story on mine today, Sucharita :))

♥ Braja said...

And where is Borivli?

Hobo ........ ........ ........ said...

Yes, kerosene lamps were the emergency power supply but at the same time I remember holding burning candle and the wax melting on our finger.
That was terrific but then we started melting wax intentionally & enjoying.

Nona said...

:) Wow! Thanks for the nostalgia inducing trip! We used to depend on candles when we blessed with blackouts/power-cuts!

The lanterns you described was a luxury which would be light only one or two rooms - the more important ones like the living room, or the dining hall!.

The lanterns were used in the paddy fields. I never had to visit those in the harvesting seasons. But my uncle and older cousins would pack these things in the back of the bicycle when they go over to the paddy fields at night.

Aparna said...

Down memory lane and loving it!!
Every summer we used to go to Kolkata for our summer vacation and my strongest memory is sleeping under the mosquito net with a 'haat pakha'. My mashi would fan her small baby if the 'current' went off even while sleeping.
Such expertise! And I really would want to know the English word for 'kupi'.

ZiLliOnBiG said...

yes yes, i do remember the days of the lantern. We still have a lantern, coz kerala electricity is unpredictable during monsoon. Even days on the power is out and even emergency lamps(with battery) doesnt come as useful.Nice psot

Kavi said...

That shed light. And i realise as i type that..that 'shedding light' is different from a 'load shedding' ! What a difference !

And then there are portions of life that are very different in the current scheme of things ! So much so that day to day objects of the yesteryears are sold in art shops !

Hmm !

Jyothi said...

We used to use the first two categories that you mentioned, when we spend our vacations in our ancestral home in Palakkad, kerala. Electricity was a generally a guest in those times there. It hardly visited. In the few hours of the day that there was electricity ,the voltage would be so low, it was easier to blow onto the fans to make them rotate. ;-)

We used to play cards in the light of these lanterns, since there was nothing else to do.....:-)

Aleta said...

We don't have power outages unless there are huge thunderstorms or in the aftermath of hurricanes. That said, we do keep plenty of candles handy for animal happenings. It seems the squirrels like to chew on power. The transformers pop like fireworks and a block will go out at a time. Usually in the heat of summer.

Swaram said...

What a wonderful post Sucharita .. I say that everytime though :P

I seriously had no idea that so many types of lamps do exist!!! It was a gr8 read :) U wield magic with these nostalgic posts again n again :)

Miss M said...

Oh. All I remember of load-sheddings are candles and those emergency generators. Or whatever you call them.

No lamp memory for me. :(

Rajesh said...

You bring back the pleasant memories. When studying in 3rd and 4th standard, I used to stay in a small village where power cuts were regular feature. On the other hand it was power only for some time. So our source of light was only these lamps and lanten

Pradip Biswas said...

I stiil use lantern as Hazak lights invite more insects.In some forests generators in the evening are not allowed for it may distract the wild animals. The lantern glows instantly with no hazzards and gives sufficient light along with calls of jackals and Hyenahs.

lopamudra said...

I do remember the glass lamp which we referred as'oil lamp' ,the hurricanes, kupi and candles.Cleaning the lamps was a ritual in every household I guess.I loved the smell of kerosene and we too had a green funnel ! Your blog should've been called 'trip down a memory lane'.Your blogs brings back such strong memories of sight,smell,emotion.....!

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

A fine post on the contraptions Calcuttans used to dispel darkness, which was a regular feature in the 1980s and 90s. I enjoyed reading it (like all your posts), but since candles don't read blogs, I would like to record that the candles of the world have been hurt to be left out of this little history on the war against darkness. After all, aren't they the foot soldiers who lay down their lives in the first hour of the battle? Let's salute the unsung heroes!