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?