Before going to sleep, I usually read a book in the white light of a CFL bulb placed on the wall behind the bed. Later, after I have shut my eyes, and in the moments between wakefulness and slumber, I think I can still see the shining white orb. I find this intrusive white light a necessary, but disquieting, presence. R.L. Stevenson, I was glad to learn from Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Disenchanted Light, had also loathed electric white light, describing it as “horrible, unearthy, obnoxious to the human eye”. I often wonder whether such anxieties tell us anything about specific forms of illumination — the white light of a CFL bulb in my room or the “bright-white-electric-arc street lights” that Stevenson mentioned.
Compared to the incandescent bulbs that have now been replaced by the Compact Fluorescent Lamp, the latter gives more light while saving energy. It has been estimated that a CFL bulb uses only 14 watts to produce as much light as that of a 60-watt incandescent bulb. The CFL is undoubtedly an important weapon in our battle for the environment, which is being threatened by unregulated emission. But is the CFL bulb’s popularity explained only by its role in reducing emissions? Isn’t the bulb also valued by society because of its power to satiate its hunger for excess? After all, occupants of spacious apartments fitted with expensive gadgets feel that they need to be illuminated in brighter light. This clamour for excess is by no means an urban phenomenon. It has led to imperceptible, but significant, changes in structures and relationships in the hinterland of the Indian city. On a journey to the interiors of Odisha, I had met a man who had told me the story of how the fabric of community life in his village had changed with the coming of powerful electric lights. While children did not need to sit up late into the night with books any longer, the abundance of light also meant that they no longer studied together. The elders, too, preferred to stay indoors in the evening, forsaking the local teashop or the ancient tree that was the fulcrum of a vanishing community life.
This new white light is also a register of other, equally subtle, changes in the city and its public spaces. One of my earliest memories is that of being on a rickety aeroplane about to land in Calcutta. It was the early 1980s, and I remember the city reeling under prolonged power cuts and being cloaked in darkness. But just as we were about to land, the power suddenly came on. Innumerable yellowish points of light flickered slowly to life, not at once, but in clusters. The city lit up lazily, as if welcoming me home. I also used to imagine those yellow bulbs on Calcutta’s lamp-posts to be some sort of magical clocks that marked the passing of seasons. Before the onset of winter, wisps of smoke and mist, together with fireflies, would gather around the yellow haze of each light, reminding us that autumn was giving way to winter. The coming of the white street light has led to my reimagining of the city as a vast and brilliantly illuminated Panopticon. Is this because the city is no longer a place of memories, secrets, shadows and autumn?
The CFL bulb has also brought about the end of illusion. I have noticed how, in my room, each object — the curtain with the fading blue stripes, the solitary chair, the mirror, the low table — that comes to life once the shadows have lengthened outside, or changes its form if one watches it intently in muted light, experiences a kind of death once I turn the white light on.