Ranjona Banerji: No electricity, no life

After suffering through a 50-hour power cut in Dehradun, one learns to appreciate the joys that Benjamin Franklin’s discovery brings

With great authority, I can state that humanity’s greatest invention is electricity. Yes, yes, I can hear the scoffs and the giggles. I can hear the outrage and the animosity. I can hear brain cogs turning as lists are made that include philosophy, literature, music, architecture, the wheel and so on.

I now bow to Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Thomas Alva Edison, streaks of lightning, electrons, James Watt... who would have thought secondary school physics studied by candlelight would ever be useful? Representation pic/Thinkstock
I now bow to Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Thomas Alva Edison, streaks of lightning, electrons, James Watt... who would have thought secondary school physics studied by candlelight would ever be useful? Representation pic/Thinkstock

But I ain’t budging. Having just come off a 50-hour no-power state of misery, I’m adamant about this discovery of mine. You think I’m naive, right? “What is she saying? Doesn’t she know that millions of underprivileged people have no access to electricity? Isn’t she sensitive to their needs?”

Well that’s my point, dummies: No electricity, no life.

There was a severe storm in Dehradun on Saturday evening, the same weather system, which led to deaths and chaos in Uttarkashi. In our own little world, the devastation was depressing enough. Trees down, homes, shops and buildings damaged.

And therefore, large parts of Dehradun had no electricity from Saturday evening at 6 pm to Monday night, when it took between 7.30 and 10 pm for the electricity department to get everything working correctly. That’s over 50 hours with no power. As I write this, the power has gone once again, as they need to fix various glitches.

At first, we were sanguine. Who thought it would last that long? So we used up inverter power and phone charge. After 24 hours, it hit us, because the overhead tanks ran dry. There was no water in the taps, which meant a mad scramble to fill buckets from the underground sump.

The food in the refrigerator started to go bad. We bought food in on Sunday. Every establishment open was running on generator, so after that you felt you had to make do with whatever was at home because nothing fresh was available. The roads were littered with branches and leaves and wires.

The clichés all became true: you start missing things once they stop working. No television. We missed everything from the IPL final to the Central government’s two-year tamasha, which was shown for hours on Doordarshan, one hears. No news as well either — from important stuff like what happened in Uttarkashi to the usual hysterical outrage stuff like the Shiv Sena and others taking exception to a comedian making fun of Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. Sometimes, no electricity saves you from knowing how foolish we can be.

As the phones depleted themselves towards death, you gave thanks that at least one of us did not own a smart phone. This way, one line of communication was open as we tried to gather information. The landline died right away. Trees and wires in the countryside are a match made in hell. One laptop had a little charge, so a quick check on the Internet gave us some clue about the outside world. Kindles ran out of power as well.

By Sunday night, we were desperate. Two 70-year-olds and two 50-year-olds played “I spy with my little eye” – being able to spy almost nothing in dim candlelight – so you can imagine the extent of our silliness.

I cannot write a paean to the glories of the simple life. There was no glory. There was misery and helplessness and hard slog. And no fan whirring overhead, which is the essence of life. With the fan on, by the way, I can still hear birds singing and watch leaves quivering and clouds gathering over the mountains.

One of my great-grandfathers decided in his 60s that humans are too dependent on technology and not enough on nature. He stopped using the fan in the horror of Calcutta summers. I cannot agree with him.

I spent seven miserable electricity-free years in Calcutta in the 1970s and 1980s. I studied for both my board exams with the help of a sputtering gas lamp. I thought I had paid my dues to the gods of No Electricity. Clearly not.

But having been spoilt by Mumbai’s power management, I now bow to Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Thomas Alva Edison, streaks of lightning, electrons, James Watt, Georg Ohm, Alessandro Volta, Andre-Marie Ampere... who would have thought secondary school physics studied by candlelight would ever be useful?

And the hard-working people of Dehradun’s electricity department, without whom I would not have been able to write this!

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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