Delhiites once used to remark, colloquially, that it was so hot you could fry an egg on a bald man’s head. This was in the days before the urban legend known as “climate change” gained popularity. (It’s a lie. The weather is not getting hotter; we’re getting colder, duh.) Anyway, so Delhi is at a consistently frosty 44ish degrees these days. Which means many things: aam panna and nimbu-paani, ice-cream at India Gate, quick weekend vacations to the hills, non-bathroom loos, irritability, sexy tans on me.
And power cuts. Oh, the power cuts. They’re really the worst. The lights go off; the fan makes that wheezing sound when the inverter becomes active. The wifi goes off! The world becomes so much smaller when I see that exclamation mark! on the bottom right of my screen to notify me that the internet is down (shut up, Mac users). Now the city has a coal shortage as we speak — like literally every place in the world. We could return to a primitive state of suffering. The horror.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when we had this guy named Desu, or DESU, running things in Delhi. Not a guy, really; it was an organisation responsible for the city’s power supply. We didn’t think much of their competence. Delhi used to get power cuts all the time, both irregular, unplanned ones - these could last anywhere from one to eight hours to a few weeks - and then there was “load shedding”. (There was a bonus one that popped up every now and then: the dreaded “fault” in the main system, which went on for ages.)
While “load shedding” was scheduled so you could plan ahead, death really came by the thousand impromptu cuts. Call up Desu from your landline to his, and he’d have unhooked his phone. (We used to call this “ghosting”.) You turned into a slightly obsessive ex-lover and showed up at his place deep in the night: the “sub-station”, the local DESU outpost. A harrowed-looking man sat at the counter, fending off hundreds of disgruntled exes. Welcome to the capital.
They’d feed us some lies about “load shedding” and we’d nod along. Everyone knew it meant nothing. We just had to wait, light the candles, and maybe play cards. Even in a post-inverter world, there was always the likelihood that you’d end up sleeping out in the open, letting the mosquitos do their thing. Those machines had enough juice to keep the fan running for a couple of hours or so; four-to-six-to-eight if your parents were rich. But no more — after a certain point, you could hear and feel the fan slowing down to a crawl with every subsequent spin. The genuinely rich people, the ones who called themselves “upper-middle class” had actual generators on their terraces or backyards and no such problems; the genuinely not-rich people didn’t have fans or inverters so they didn’t have these problems either.
Memories of those summers generally convey a feeling of resigned acceptance. The depression that people who can’t financially afford to be depressed feel; a distant sense of resentment that today is going to suck, just like yesterday and tomorrow. That this is just how it is.
It sounds horrible. It is exactly how it was, until - momentous! - the power came back on. Fan! TV! AC! Other gadgets! I’d turn on literally every single light in the house, simply because I could. A middle finger to the electricity gods.
I don’t feel sad or upset when there’s a power cut now. I don’t suddenly become resourceful. I don’t switch off all the extra switches to maximise inverter capacity. I don’t wait in hope and anticipation. I get pissed off. Like I don’t deserve this. It’s a special kind of entitled panic: “What do I do now?!” The lights coming back on aren’t greeted with relief, but disgust. About damn time, I say in my head, smirking bitterly.
The electricity situation improved significantly — from Desu to DVB to now, the BSES — after the privatisation of electricity. All-nighters are no longer so common. Further, our — or at least mine — dependence on electricals and electronics has increased to a point where I’m helpless without power. It’s a hundred degrees outside, so my body’s trained itself to be rich and can function only in AC rooms, much like the motherboard of my laptop.
Within seconds outside my chosen simulation, my sweat glands begin to run amok. Without the internet, I don’t even know if the world still turns, and I really don’t want to have to switch to phone data to find out. Take a shower in warm water? Reheat my dinner? Bake a cake? Am I really expected to climb stairs? You don’t just give a Delhi man something without expecting that he wants still more of it. Bring me my coal, dammit.
Akhil Sood is an arts and culture writer living in New Delhi
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