Dark matter

Power outages are not unknown in Canada, of course, but in P. K. RANGACHARI's childhood, they happened all the time

By P. K. RANGACHARI

UPDATED AT 8:14 PM EST Saturday, Aug. 23, 2003

Thursday, the 14th, a little past 4 p.m., I took the elevator one flight down to the Health Sciences Library. The stairs in our place are hard to find, and after the SARS affair, for some mysterious reason, they are kept locked. I had just pulled a bound volume of the New England Journal of Medicine circa 1980 from the shelves, when the lights went out. The emergency lights came on shortly after, and I really paid no attention until the librarian came to say that they were shutting the place down. I realized it was more than a local hiccup when I saw people leaving in droves. A rare event for many, but very familiar for me.

Power failures were part of the "ever normal" in New Delhi, where I grew up. Heat, dust and blackouts were the three witches that promised long summer days and weary nights. Power failures came in two sorts, the random ones that left us fretting and fuming while we wiped the sweat from whatever part of our bodies we could expose, and the scheduled ones that got us well prepared. The scheduled ones were termed "load sheddings" and were prominently announced. When I went home on that Thursday, memories of under-development quickly surfaced. We (my wife and I) acted by reflex -- filling up water bottles, storing water in the tubs, bringing out some leftover candles and batteries, transferring milk to the freezer compartment and checking to see what food was left. Mercifully, there was still sufficient light so that by the time darkness fell, we were ready to sit, talk and wait it out.

A similar incident forms the heart of A Temporary Matter, the first in Jhumpa Lahiri's exquisite collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), that won her the Pulitzer Prize. A young Indo-American couple living in the Boston area receive a notice that for five days the electricity to their home will be cut off for one hour each day, starting at 8 p.m. Shobha works as a proofreader and Shukumar, an indifferent student, stays home working on his long-overdue thesis. They are going through a difficult period, having lost their child (born dead in a Boston hospital). They have been avoiding each other, but this situation forces them to get together. Shorn of their familiar trappings, they are forced to look at themselves in the dark for an hour each day. They set out the candles, eat dinner and talk. Shobha remembers that in her grandmother's house in India during power failures, they would all have to say something, a little poem, a joke, a fact. So she suggests that they say something to each other in the dark. Being in Oprah-land, their efforts become confessionals of sorts. The trifles become more serious. Their relationships change ever so subtly. They shed their loads of accumulated guilt. Sadly, they tell each other the worst when the lights come on. Lahiri's limpid, almost monosyllabic prose breaks your heart over and over again with the lightest of touches.

Curiously, the reports in the papers mentioned that many during the enforced black-out recognized the virtues of conversation in a TV-less but starry night. Predictably, the powers-that-be-who-should-never-have-been pontificated pompously. A "wake-up call" was mentioned over and over again. For whom and for what is a moot point. I seriously doubt that we would alter our profligate ways once the romantic aura of chats by candlelight have become faint memories. An award-winning environmental activist from my city wrote recently in her newspaper column that she was contemplating the possibility of a car-free existence. Leaves little hope for lesser mortals, does it not? However, we have a tiny window of opportunity to read and reflect on how we got here in the first place.

Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (MIT Press, 1998) is an interesting book. The author, David Nye, is at the Centre for American Studies at Odense University in Denmark. He notes that his book's title suggests not only the increasing demand for energy but also for the goods that can be produced with that energy. Further, the term hints at wasting or destruction, as in the disease "consumption."

Nye sets out to trace the transformation in the U.S. landscape brought about by the increased use of different forms of energy: muscle power, large-scale water wheels, steam, electricity, fossil fuels, nuclear power. The perspective is that of a historian of technology, and technological determinism is not given much weight. At all times, there were other possibilities, and the present state emerged from "a confluence of cultural choices."

Nye points out early on that there was really nothing natural about a "free market," and the emergence of that notion demanded cheap energy and a surplus that promoted competition. He comments that the energy choices of the past brought the United States prosperity, "but no more than was achieved by some other countries that use far less." If we want to link our destinies with our wasteful neighbours, the choice is ours. One of the fringe benefits of living in a democracy is that we can legitimately blame ourselves. The book is dense and distracting. I am an unrepentant footnotes freak (notes in this case) who finds them more interesting than the main text. However, this text is worth reading, particularly now that we may be in a receptive mood, at least for a very short while.

Prose describes, prose explains, poetry illuminates. My third choice is Holding the Dark (The Muses' Company, 1999), a collection of poems by Melanie Cameron. I know little about the author, and the blurb on the back cover merely states that she was born in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., and now makes her home in Winnipeg. Inside, there is an interesting acknowledgement to Carol Shields for serving on Cameron's thesis-examining committee.

The terms "dark" and "darkness" weave through this work, evoking many different images. The first set of poems in the collection is particularly impressive. In the opening poem, a young woman who has lost her sight temporarily dives inward, since "you can go so many places, come back with so many things, if you keep your closed eyes open in the dark."

The poems have a lovely cadence and demand to be read aloud. So turn off the lights, unplug the TV, light a candle and read these lovely words aloud: "Losing your eyes, you lose/ day and night, you lose/ your understanding of wall and willow/ across the way, but you find/ the earth under your feet, completely/ understandable, you find/ the sky you thought you looked up toward/ doesn't know/ boundaries/ of skin, you find the sky/ you thought was out there, is/ also around/ and inside/ you. And the wall. And the willow." Do you hear what I hear?

P. K Rangachari is the director of the honours biology-pharmacology program and professor of medicine at McMaster University.