Memories and Musings

My memories which have remained with me over so many years, coloured with my thoughts, and tempered by my experiences.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

NIGHTS BEFORE LIGHTS...... life without power

The other day one of my children asked me whether I remembered those days when there was no electricity in our day-to-day life. Yes I do! I do remember this child of mine at the age of two trying to catch her own shadow thrown on the wall by the chimney lamp placed on the floor next to the main room of her grandfather’s house. How she laughed and shouted at the way the shadow too moved along with her!!

Today’s youngsters must be wondering what kind of life we had at that time without electricity. No TV. No music system. No lights. No fan. No air-conditioner, etc, etc. We did not miss those things because they were not there; we had no knowledge of such things. Instead, we had brighter moonlight and nights well starlit. How we enjoyed those games we played in the moonlight on certain nights. Games like “Light and Shadow”, “Corner to Corner” etc.

There were different types of lights and lamps to wave away the darkness: the hurricane and the tall chimney, the short chimney and the round chimney. Lamps all working on kerosene oil. There were also different types of brass lamps, like nila vilakku, kuthu vilakku, kai vilakku, etc which were lit by wicks soaked in oil.

When the sun set and dusk fell, in every household these lamps were lit and placed at the front verandah and the backdoor. The kuthu vilakku was placed in the main room, facing either east or west and little children joined by elders said prayers here every evening. Schoolgoing children too learnt their lessons by the light of this vilakku.

This was all before my schooldays, I cannot recall those early days of my life when there was no electricity at home; I remember we got an electric connection when I was five or six years old, when we were living at the house rented from Shankara Pillai.

A scene I remember vividly is from the days I spent with Manni’s mother in Karamanai, where there was no electricity. It was how the streetlights were lit every evening, exactly at the same time. The men to whom this job was given appeared – each decked with a ladder on his shoulder, a can of oil, a duster round his neck and of course a match box – at the street corner, placed the ladder against the lamp-post, climbed to the top, opened the glass-cased lamp, dusted the glass panes with duster, filled the lamp with oil, lighted it , got down, went to the next lamp-post, did the same thing…and went on doing it till all the lamps in the street were lit. This work was done at the same time in all the streets.

School-going children and even college students used to learn their lessons under these street lights. Word has it that one of these street-lamp lighters, Ramaiyan, later on in life became a “dallavai” (army chief) to the Maharaja of Travancore.

As the evening progressed, for entertainment, children huddled around their grandparents to listen to stories, both real and fiction. Stories about Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, tales about ghosts, spirits etc. There was so much interaction among members of the family, it made family ties stronger.

In today’s world, almost in every house there are at least two bathrooms, sometimes even more, with an attached bathroom to every bedroom, with running hot and cold water. Kitchens are equipped with a sink with running water. Every household has a fridge, air-conditioner, and washing machine. But can you imagine how in those days people managed without them.

Those days, no electricity meant no running water. So it was heavy work for everybody, whether cooking or washing clothes. And not every household had servants to help them with these tasks. People, both men and women, went to the river to have their daily bath and wash clothes. Even children used to wash their own clothes. If there was no river nearby, people used the temple tank to bathe and wash clothes. The water in the rivers as well as the temple tanks was unpolluted, cool, clean and clear.

In the late 40s when I used to go to Babuji’s home in Trichur, Annaji and Kunjappa used to take Raji and Bala with them to have their daily bath in the temple tank, which was 10-15 minutes’ walk away.

Every house, whether rich or poor, had a well, some even had two or three, depending on the size of the house plot. All one had to do was draw water from the well the help of a pulley, a long, thick rope and a bucket. Little children and menfolk, those who did not like to bathe either in rivers or temple tanks had their baths by the side of the well, in open air.

There would also be built-in, by the side of the well, a granite stone which would be used for scrubbing clothes. Even pots and pans were washed by the well-side so that one did not have to carry water anywhere else. Of course, for cooking water was carried into the kitchen, in brass or copper pots, called “kodams”. Every household had at least two or three of these.

No household in small towns or villages or agraharams had a pucca bathroom. I am talking of pre-1940 days. For women who wanted privacy for their baths, a portion of a verandah at the back of the house or a small square place in the backyard, was covered by thatched screens, that too only shoulder high, and were called bathrooms!

We had pucca bathrooms in our house in Trivandrum. But when I went to Trichur, to my in-laws’ place after marriage, there was neither electricity nor a pucca bathroom. I managed with the makeshift bathroom in the back verandah for I did not have the guts to complain. And I also knew it was only for a week or so till I left for Delhi.

When I went to Trichur, Ammaji told me the story of another bride who came from Trivandrum to Trichur. This girl’s in-laws’ house did not have a pucca bathroom. She raised such a hue and cry about it that her in-laws had to build one in the shortest time ever. This girl was a schoolmate of mine and the daughter of a colleague of Thatha. Maybe that is why Ammaji told me the story.

The other day I watched a commercial on TV in which the wife tells her husband that she will have her bath only when her bathroom is fitted with a particular brand of geyser. How priorities change!

In the kitchen front also, life without electricity was tough. Since there were no refrigerators, meals had to be cooked three times daily. That meant womenfolk spent most of the day inside the kitchen, cooking the 10 o’clock lunch, the 3 o’clock tiffin and the 8 o’clock dinner. Even in Delhi in the late 1940s, not every household had a fridge, it was a rare thing. Often I had to cook three meals each day, especially in the high summer when we had guests living with us.

Without mixies, all the grinding had to be done on stone, the ami-kozhavi for crushing masala and coconuts for curries and the attukal for making batter for dosai etc. Grinding the masala was not very hard but it took somewhere between one-and-a-half and two hours to make dosai batter, especially for a large family. It was really a grinding experience till wet grinders and mixies started appearing in the 1970s and 1980s.

But it wasn’t all drudgery. The joint family system of those days made life much easier for the womenfolk in the sense that every kind of work was shared equally. Being together in the kitchen meant enjoying each other’s company, talking, telling stories, gossiping, and sometimes, even fighting.

Today’s youngsters will be wondering how people lived without these modern amenities. But people of those times were very simple-minded. They were easygoing in the sense they accepted their place in life, not greedy and not wanting what they couldn’t afford, so living at a leisurely pace and enjoying life to the full. It was a hard life but a happy one.



  • At 8:32 PM, Blogger Gardenia said…

    'The good old days werent always good' and yet, as you say, 'It was a hard life, but a happy one'. Too true, the conclusion.
    This lovely light and shadow piece is full of atmosphere. Great going!

  • At 6:04 AM, Blogger Gardenia said…

    I love the title too!

  • At 6:02 AM, Blogger RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said…

    You are right, Maiji. Days without power must have been hard, but it meant a lot of time would have been spent interacting with family and friends. Not being aware of entertainment provided by electricity and ensuing inventions, nobody would have missed anything.
    And though I haven't actually lived without electricity, during the first few years of my domestic life, I did not have a mixie or a grinder, but used the good old reliable stone 'ammi' and 'aatukkal'. And I can tell you, it WAS a grind!

  • At 2:18 AM, Anonymous Beena Spencer said…

    thoroughly enjoyed..........just waiting my daughter Donna to complete her exams so that she too can experience the same.........she loves good old-days stories

  • At 1:29 AM, Blogger R Ramasundaram said…

    Thanks for your story patti, mu patti also underwent such ordeals in the 1940 and 50's she used to tell us.

  • At 5:34 AM, Anonymous Marenda said…

    Good post.

  • At 2:04 AM, Anonymous Deepti said…

    Your post reminded me of my grandmother's house. During our school days, we used to go there every vacation. There was no electricity there and i have seen most of the things that you have mentioned in this post. And i really miss those days (may be because i did not have to do all the hard work). But the nights there were so peaceful, you could see so many more stars there at night

  • At 11:30 PM, Anonymous rakshu said…

    this post is very helpful for a girl of my age.thank you maiji for telling us about the good old days


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