Icelanders, fall back in your ranks and give way to the Indians. We have at least as many variations on the power theme as you have on the blizzard front
They say Icelanders have more than 50 names for snow. It may be an exaggeration but according to the website of the government of Iceland they do have 20 different ways of saying “blizzard”. If one’s vocabulary reflects one’s environment, little wonder that we in India have so many words to describe life without electricity.
One morning last week I read in the papers that the decision on load-shedding in our State had been put off. Thirty minutes later – no power. There appeared to be a discrepancy between what I had read and what I had experienced. On the same day a non-Indian friend gloomily reported that a four-hour power cut had paralysed her life. I told her very knowledgeably (hoping I was right) that it was most likely an area-specific power failure probably caused by an exploding transformer. That’s when I began to cogitate on the terminology of power and how most foreigners would marvel at the hazaar Indian expressions that denote subtly varying degrees of “powerlessness”.
Let us begin with a peculiarly Indian term: load-shedding. When the system is overloaded, creaking under the weight of a zillion lights burning and gadgets working, it puffs and pants like an obese American. When it finally wails, “I can’t take it anymore”, the authorities take pity on it and “shed” its extra load by simply cutting off power for a certain number of hours every day for several weeks (remember when it used to be months?). They usually wait till the nth hour before resorting to this unpopular measure, and you can bet your last unit that the nth hour is heralded by a blackout: the grid grinds to a halt, and newspapers the next day describe how “darkness enveloped large parts of the State”.
Power-cut is another example of Ind-lish. In few countries do they deliberately stop supplying power in order to save it. A power shutdown is when power is cut off for maintenance or repair. It is not the same as a power breakdown, or power failure, when supply ceases because machinery collapses or equipment stops working. A shutdown is intentional, a breakdown unintended. Power outage, from what I can gather, can be a voluntary or an involuntary break in supply, either a cut or a failure. Power loss, however, is entirely different. It has to do with transmission losses, when current supplied is far less than current generated. These “leaks” could be a result of the poor quality of distribution, or of power theft, when power is illegally tapped from an overhead line.
That’s not all. There are scheduled and unscheduled power cuts: one comes with a warning while the other takes you by surprise. Of late I have been experiencing flashes: the light goes out and comes back on almost instantly. There is another kind that I call the all-nighter. The light goes out, comes back in a blaze of glory after an hour or so, and two minutes later it starts to flicker and finally goes out. It comes back after an hour, flickers and goes out again. That’s when you know you’re in for the long haul. If you have a fridge that dates back to the Ice Age, you prepare for a meltdown by morning.
As intrinsic to our lives as power cuts are surges and fluctuations. A power surge can wreck your appliances in an instant while voltage fluctuations can ruin them over a period. That is why you need a stabiliser, which is not a chemical substance but our fondly abbreviated term for a voltage stabiliser.
Icelanders, fall back in your ranks and give way to the Indians. We have at least as many variations on the power theme as you have on the blizzard front; only, we haven’t officially listed them all yet. We mustn’t fail to include our faithful companions, those who are on stand-by to support us when we are powerless. We know them by their pet names: UPS and gen set. Uninterrupted power supply might seem a redundant phrase to you (isn’t power supply supposed to be continuous?) but when we say UPS we’re referring to a neat little box that gives our computers back-up power. Many of us have evolved from UPS to inverter, and of course we need spike busters to prevent our PCs from going bust. Those with minimal needs have to be content with a gen set, a diesel generator that helps you see at night but makes you deaf in the process.
Everything I have described so far relates to those who cannot live without power – we who live in cities. We know there are hundreds of small towns which have extended, year-round power cuts. We know there are thousands of huts, beneficiaries of the grand “rural electrification” scheme, which have just a single naked 15-watt bulb burning a few hours a day. Think about it: if you have power, you are truly powerful. And the displaced villager pays the price for the power that keeps our cities bright.
Stop complaining, therefore. In fact, power cuts may work to your advantage. From what I’ve been hearing, dinner time minus TV is getting to be a whole lot more interesting.
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