If Job Charnock landed in Calcutta on Friday evening at Dum Dum airport instead of at Nimtala Ghat and caught a glimpse of Salt Lake from above, he would probably think that the marshland has remained what it was 300 years ago.
For he would see a mass of land heaving in the darkness. The specks of light shimmering here and there under a haze of heat and vapour he would probably deem bog lights.
He would not have been very wrong for in the last five days Salt Lake, never mind Sector V, has gone back to being the swamp it was. The concrete buildings seem incidental, as do the roads; the darkness brought on by the relentless power cuts has swallowed everything.
The day begins with a power cut. As one comes to to the sound of the AC snapping shut, accompanied by the laboured groan of the ceiling fan whirring to a stop, one knows that everything that is familiar is about to collapse again. Another day filled with sweat and blankness.
There are other sounds that have stopped. The fridge doesn’t hum. The microwave doesn’t beep. The Aquaguard doesn’t fill up recycled soda bottles to the tune of Fur Elise. The washing machine broods in silence. In the absence of the electronic hums and whirrs and buzzes and drones, you hear every word spoken in the neighbour’s house clearly.
It’s back to the kettle to boil water, back to the kodai and khunti and hata to heat food, back to room temperature water. To fresh food for every meal, or if it’s too dark to cook, only fruits for dinner.
We are done with machines. It’s adieu to lifestyle.
The pump hasn’t worked. How many buckets do we have? Three? Get used to washing your mouth with bucket water. Your ancestors must have done it anyway, with water from the groundwell.
The mobile will go off in the middle of a conversation. Ditto for the laptop. It is all quite pre-technology, though investing in 20-litre jars of mineral water is a good idea.
As the sun rises, and the power has come and gone again, and the hands and neck and back are sticky with sweat, the haatpakhas have come out. There is nothing romantic about haatpakhas to those who are used to being aerated by other sources; the haatpakha induces pain, not nostalgia.
In the evening, candles are fixed to the stands, and one starts counting: One, Two, Three…and the power goes again. The heat by then has drained all energy; the darkness in the streets makes a stroll an uneasy prospect — one may fall off a curb! You are even cut off from IPL. City Centre may not be an escape, for some outlets there had to go without power too.
Having nothing to do, a family huddles together, in one room, for too many burning candles produce too much heat, and has no choice but to talk to each other. Candles are in short supply as well.
In the darkness and the humidity, you feel you are turning into the bog monster.
In addition there is the pressure to learn many abbreviations. West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company, or WBSEDC, we are told, gets the electricity from West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd, or WBPDCL, which claims that there is not enough supply of coal from Coal India. Which claims that Eastern Railway is not helping to transport the coal. CESC is slightly better off because it’s not dependent on WBPDCL too much, but WBSEDC is. (So why did they do away with WBSEB, which was at least a letter shorter?)
But there are places worse than Salt Lake.
In the darkness, two women who work as domestic help in Salt Lake are returning home to the neighbouring Kestopur. If Salt Lake is suffering, Kestopur has lost hope: people are used to staying up the whole night in the heat and the lack of power supply.
But one of the women is laughing. “This is like our Sunderbans,” she says. “We have no problem; it’s only the babus who do.” However, she dreads going back to Kestopur.