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Lady with the lamp

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MAKING LIGHT OF POWER CUTS A glow filled the room, warming it, expanding it...
MAKING LIGHT OF POWER CUTS A glow filled the room, warming it, expanding it...

How the night of a power cut was lit up in a way long forgotten

He came back from work to a gloomy house and a grumpy spouse. "The power's been gone for an hour and a half," she said.That didn't sound too extraordinary. City nights were often devoid of city lights. But there was more coming. "I switched off the emergency lamp after an hour. I saved it for you." The battery would last only two hours, he knew. A stub of wax was fast melting in an old ashtray on the dining table. "We're down to our last candle," she said, "and I haven't finished cooking. You know I hate cooking in the dark." He looked at the clock. Restaurant kitchens closed at 11 p.m. Too late to order now.The lights flashed on and off in the twinkling of an eye. "Same thing happened half an hour ago," she said, and added ominously, "It's like what happened last time." The previous time they had experienced periodic flickering, there was no power the whole night.Calmly resigning himself to another all-nighter, he switched on the emergency lamp and turned it towards the kitchen as she raced to wrap up her cooking. The candle expired. She bolted down her dinner. Unperturbed, he nursed a drink, a torch by his side. The lamp went off duty. He knew that in the dark she would be scowling. He shone the torch and smiled to see her frowning face. He had to distract her, quick, to stop her being so crabby."Are you sure there are no candles left?" he asked. She was sure. She had stood on tiptoe and felt the top of the kitchen shelf but her scrabbling fingers had only found an empty plastic packet that had once contained six large candles.Suddenly, the darkness was illuminated by a bright idea. "Where's the oil lamp?" he asked.A friend had gifted them an old bronze Kerala lamp over a decade ago. She hurried to retrieve it from where it lay choking under a coat of dust. As she searched for a rag to wipe it clean he hid a grin. Two birds with one stone: natural light, and a wife who was huffy no more."Now for the wicks," she said. "Five of them. I'll use cotton wool.""Cotton won't work," he pronounced. "You'll need cotton tape." He was talking about the ladi that one uses as string to tie underskirts and such like."No cotton tape left," she said. "Remember how we used the last bit for the mosquito net when a corner string broke?"In torchlight she took out the first-aid cotton from the drawer and pulled out a handful. Dividing it into smaller portions she started rolling it between her palms, testing it against the lamp to measure the length. Four straggly wicks took shape, one much fatter than the other three."Cotton won't work," he repeated, and she began to have doubts. "Let's try cloth," she said, and went to the cupboard to take out a piece of soft cotton cloth. She cut a long, thin strip for the remaining wick. "We'll do an experiment: compare the effectiveness of cloth and cotton wool." Mimicking the movements of some long-forgotten relative in a distant memory, she rolled out the strip with her palm against her bare thigh. The fifth wick was neater but much longer than the other four. She arranged all five in the hollow of the lamp, leaving half-inch tips sticking out of the grooves at the edge."What oil will you use?" he asked."What else? Refined groundnut oil."Fuel that costs Rs. 86 a kilo didn't make economic sense, but what else could she do? The two creatures of the city wondered aloud how people in villages with no electricity lit their lamps. She remembered reading about oil from the honge seed, in a Shivaram Karanth novel. Somehow the words "cottonseed oil" entered her brain. "I'll go to the shop tomorrow and ask for cottonseed oil," she laughed. Or was it linseed? Never mind.She opened the bottle of cooking oil and poured. Relying on memory once again she moistened the edges of the wicks with oil. He lit them with his cigarette lighter. The lamp was the hanging kind, suspended by a chain. She hung it carefully on a handlebar of his exercycle.They watched the uneven flames, the cloth wick burning modestly and the fat wick the most luminous of all. "The fat fellow is drinking up the oil," she said, slightly alarmed. They watched in peace as a glow filled the room, warming it, expanding it. Who had last seen this glow? Did it hang in a temple or in the verandah of an ancient house? Did a girl light it every sundown and chant "Deepam, deepam" (or in the Malayali way, "Deebum, deebum")?He ate in lamplight. She poured more oil and tended the wicks. Just before going to bed she allowed the remaining oil to be soaked up. The wicks blazed fiercely and disintegrated into sooty fragments just as their heads hit the pillow. The next morning she climbed on a stool and checked the kitchen shelf once again. There, resting in a corner after having played truant with her searching fingers, was a solitary candle.Send your feedback to ckmeena@gmail.com

C.K. MEENA

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