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SHAPES AND SHADES

The lighting of the lamps had a kind of magic to it. Nowadays that time evokes nostalgia, and maybe a sense of the enormous inconvenience of inadequate light. But fiction and poetry and painting produced when lamps had to be lit every evening seem to caress the moment in their various ways, in moods of mystery, elegy, danger, gratitude, sadness, romance — strangely similar across cultures of the West and the East. The gaslight may call up memories of skulking figures on the streets of Paris or London, while the little boy in Calcutta would record his inexpressible excitement at the punctual arrival of the lighting-up man every evening. And in the towns and villages around him, the woman of the house would light a clay lamp and blow on the conch shell, inviting the evening with gentle devotion.

Children grow restive in the dark, and large households had to find ways of keeping them under control. An old servant in the Tagore household in Jorasanko would collect his little listeners around a broken castor oil lamp every evening for stories from the Mahabharat and the Ramayan. The young Rabindranath saw how “in the weak light enormous shadows would reach up to the ceiling, geckos would catch and devour insects on the wall, in the verandah outside pipistrelles would fly endlessly round like mad dervishes” as the children sat still and listened, open-mouthed. The tales are inextricably bound up with shadows, and a child’s glimpses of the non-human life that invaded the circle of magic.

Tagore may have been playing on mystery and piquancy, but Saratchandra Chattopadhyay plays on pure comedy. The young narrator in Srikanta has to study with his brothers and cousins every evening in the outer sitting room on a mattress on the floor after lighting a castor oil lamp. He describes one particular dark and wet evening in the month of Shravan, and the scene, unlit by electricity, becomes imprinted vividly in the memory of every reader. On one side of the verandah outside there is no insane pipistrelle, but Srikanta’s uncle, enjoying his evening snooze on a canvas bed. On the other side, old Ramkamal Bhattacharya is pulling on his hookah, his eyes closed after his evening dose of opium. As the boys study in silence under the strict supervision of Mejda, who has failed his Entrance twice so far, the strains of Tulsidas come drifting in from the room by the gate where the Hindustani gatekeepers sit.

Into this peaceful scene of shadows and snoozing bursts a strange creature, causing Mejda to overturn the single lamp in fear, while the uncle, awakened, screams the place down with his sons tucked under his armpits. The durwans capture a fleeing Bhattacharya, mistaking him for a thief in the dark. As witnesses claim to have seen a bear as well as a Royal Bengal tiger, and masters and their men push one another for space to get far away from the shape in the dark, the mystery is solved by Srikanta’s dauntless friend. It is a scene of sheer delight.

The damage electricity could have done to literature, had it arrived early, is incalculable.