By Kripa Krishnan Aug. 14, 2016
Gharapuri island, an hour away from Mumbai, comes to life at 7 pm. Three hours of electricity is all that its 1,200 residents get. But this Independence Day will bring some light.
It is the burr of generators that lulls Gharapuri to sleep each night. The Arabian Sea is right there, lapping at its feet but the chorus of the machines often drowns it out as the residents of this tiny hamlet end their day.
When the din starts at seven every evening, other voices join in: televisions come to life, kitchens become frenzied zones, and everybody rushes for the plug point. They know that the deadline is approaching, at ten the generators will die down. Gharapuri island, home to the Elephanta Caves and an hour’s journey from India’s biggest metropolis, Mumbai, does not have power supply till date. Three hours of electricity generated by diesel-powered generators is all that the 1,200 residents of its three settlements get.
At the foot of the stairs, which lead you to one of India’s most popular tourist destinations, is a dirt track that takes you to the smallest of this powerless trio. The cluster of colourful, haphazardly constructed houses, piled one on top of the other, are perched on a slope, which drifts into the sea.
A hostile howl welcomes you and soon all the stray dogs take up the chorus. They rarely see strangers and they are not welcome. And at first look, it seems that the only residents here are of the four-legged variety.
But the smoke billowing from chulhas gives the humans away. The very first house belongs to a sprightly woman. She talks ten to the dozen but refuses to give her name. She is dressed in a bright red sari, which rivals the eye-catching teal of her house. She points to the locks on her neighbouring houses – they have since moved to places where street lights are not a distant dream. She was born here, she says, in a colourful mix of Hindi and Marathi, and plans to die here. The charm of an air-conditioner won’t lure her away.
She has lived without a fan most of her life and the heat emanating from her asbestos roof does not seem to bother her. Without any electricity until 7 pm, she spends her day cleaning, making bhakris, and doing shifts at the curio shop run by her son, waiting for the clock to strike seven and the night to spring to life with Marathi serials on TV and a fan to cool the sweltering heat. All of it will go off at 10 pm and the village will descend into a static darkness but for those three hours there is light, air, and entertainment.
Televisions and refrigerators are now common in Ghairapuri households. Swati Srivastav
Televisions and refrigerators are now common in Ghairapuri households.
Gharapuri will finally be getting electricity via underwater cables this Independence Day. This forgotten hamlet will get linked to Mumbai’s electricity grid and life, as they know it, will change.
While the government spent all these years trying to find a way around the sea to give Gharapuri power, the residents wisened up to the powers of stored electricity. The inverters are charged between 7 pm to 10 pm and the electricity is then rationed out over the next 24 hours. So, the fans remain unused but mobile phones and torches are charged, the refrigerator remains switched on while television remains a nocturnal activity.
Life has arranged itself around these electricity patterns. Sixteen-year-old Jyoti, who lives with her mother in their small home, where her three cats hold sway, has spent the first 10 years of her life without even a night bulb. The three-hour electricity quota began only in 2010. Jyoti remembers those days fondly – early mornings, while the light was still there, were reserved for homework and after dusk, games like kabaddi would begin. The only way to watch a movie was a trip to the mainland.
Now things have changed. The three-hour power supply has lit televisions and made homework possible even after sunset. But the descend into darkness at 10 pm brings with it other problems on the remote island. The row of common toilets built outside the perimeter becomes a no-go area for women. Jyoti has gotten used to waiting for the rising run to attend to nature’s call. For the weak-bladdered and the loose-bowelled, there is no question of a quick late night trip. The physiology of the women on the island has arranged itself most conveniently around the bureaucracy of the government. Electricity will make the toilets available 24×7 to the residents. Swati Srivastav
Electricity will make the toilets available 24×7 to the residents.
So it is not for this reason that Jyoti and other young ones of Gharapuri have left the island and begun living weekdays at the mainland. The lack of electricity has ensured that there are no practicing physicians on the island and neither are there hospitals or pharmacies. Even the government school is threatened with closure as teachers refuse to work there during the summer months. Jyoti, who currently spends five days on the mainland, may soon start spending more. Her mother, who is ageing, may also leave if medical services don’t kick off.
The underwater cables are expected to change all that. Small kids will go to school, the aged will get relief, and in the ultimate evidence of electricity’s power, women of the island will unlearn the skill of clenching their bladders at night.
Kripa Krishnan is a Delhi girl living in Mumbai, she is a hunter-gatherer of information and has spent the past decade justifying her love of both Germaine Greer and misogynistic rap.