They do not understand because they have seldom encountered darkness. They move about in daylight, and the moment it gets dark they just turn their wrist to flood their home with light. If they are outside, they will find the streets awash with street lamps, their way lit by the light in every store, boutique, restaurant, salon and house. If they have blown a fuse at home or encountered a power outage in their town, it would have been a short-lived affair, too ephemeral and inconvenient to merit a single moment’s thought. For them, the long-life, high-strength, low-energy LED lights have now unleashed a torrent of light and more light.
It wasn’t always so. I have lived, like many of my contemporaries, for months in homes or towns where there was no electricity and darkness an ever-present reality in the evening. There were kerosene lamps and lanterns to be sure, but few families could afford one for each room. The lamps were essentially stationary, with a long glass chimney that had a narrow neck to allow a right draft for combustion; the portable lanterns you took if you had to go to the bathroom or kitchen. I was told some Baghdad Iranian had invented the original model and a Polish pharmacist had improved it. It used foul-smelling kerosene oil, a replacement for the whale oil used earlier, and gave no more than five to ten wattage of light, lending even a modest room an eerie glow.
Only a person with a steel resolve and eagle eyes could read in that penumbral light; my myopic eyes quickly gave up. There was no television those days, the radio would not work, the sole source of entertainment was conversation. People talked, urged by boredom, encouraged by nightly silence and prompted by the twin motives of curiosity and caring. Since I was known for my diligent reading during the day, my cousins urged me to tell stories. That is when I discovered my hidden talents for inventing and fibbing. I would name a famous author and even take a cue from his or her story, but then add ghastly elements that seemed appropriate to the dark scene. Every story had murder and mayhem: secret assassins, beheaded bodies, haunted females and dark, dank, dangerous mansions. I developed devoted listeners and a partly undeserved reputation as a raconteur. What I actually demonstrated was the skill to exploit the present ambiance. As the movie makers well know, nothing can be a better scene setter than a dark, ghoulish background.
When my mother took me to a humongous wedding, where the daughter of our rich neighbor, a spice merchant, was being married to the son of another rich man, a coal merchant (because, said my nosey cousin and the bride’s friend, he had already got her pregnant), I saw for the first time, the remarkable device of a pressurized kerosene lamp with a gas mantle, a Petromax. One uses a hand-pump to pressurize air which forces liquid fuel from a reservoir into a gas chamber; whose vapor then burns, heating the mantle to glow and give light. And – what light! – twenty times that of the lamps I had seen so far.
While I saw some advantages of not having electricity, the main one being that people talked to one another and considered it reasonably amusing, I might have thought the blessings of electric lights far outweighed all other benefits. But a month later I was on a train to central India, a small town where lived my two aunts with my grandmother.
My aunts bought from the local stores dozens of clay pots. My grandmother helped them wash and clean them. I wrested the right to fill the pots with oil, not fuel oil, but fragrant mustard oil. Grandmother poured the oil each time from a large can into a small beaker and I used the beaker to fill the clay pots three-fourths with oil, one by careful one. The aunts then set a wick the length of the pot. Then we all went forth placing the oil-filled clay pots on every window sill, door frame, balcony and balustrade.
As the sun set, we took turns and lit the wicks each with a lighted candle. Suddenly, miraculously, fragrantly, each of the tiny clay pots sprang into life as a delicate beacon of light. I looked across the street and sideways. Every home had similar lights, tiny oil lamps, the kind our forefathers had lit centuries earlier, gently dispelling the oncoming gloom. No drums, no fireworks, no sound at all. Just a mild breeze occasionally toying with the tiny flames in every window, in every home. I turned to my grandmother and aunts in that velvet radiance and saw the three most beautiful women in the world. We were in the festival of light and life and joy.