Those ’90s Things: When the Seat Under the Fan Was Reserved for the Family’s Most Important Member


Those ’90s Things: When the Seat Under the Fan Was Reserved for the Family’s Most Important Member

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Ever since the advent of modern air-conditioning and staggering Diwali discounts, the AC has become the fourth member of what was once a threesome of middle-class roti, kapda, and makaan. And now we can’t imagine a life without an AC in our homes, offices, or cars. Even though most of us grew up at a time where we were hardly exposed to the pleasures of an AC set to a sweet 20 degrees.

Growing up in the ’90s, when I was a clammy teenager, the only way to beat the manic Mumbai heat was to make do with a bucket (or two if there are no water cuts) of cold baths, then lie diagonally under a ceiling fan wearing a pair of old boxers and voila… you felt like the king of the world again. Mama would sweat it out in the kitchen and would be relieved only once she sat right under the fan. After dad returned from a hard day’s work, he’d sit under the fan, take a deep breath, and ask me for a glass of water. When I’d come home angry, after getting into a fist-fight with friends, mama would make me sit under the fan so that I could “cool down”. It is only logical then that the fan was treasured. Twice a year – ahead of Easter and Christmas – it was carefully taken apart to have its gears and bearings greased.

Back in the day, the fan was every middle-class family’s prized possession. I remember innumerable weddings where the bride and groom would sit on a cheap, red-trimmed wrought iron sofa rented especially for their big day. The gifts from the bride’s family would be proudly on display for the world to witness. And it would invariably include a brand new Khaitan or Usha fan. In the chawls of Mumbai, newly weds were offered the mezzanine floor for some privacy. It would be dingy and stuffy, but Khaitan or Usha played Cupid, providing much-needed relief for some good old lovemaking. You’d instantly know that the bride was loaded, if you saw an Orient fan on the floor post-marriage.  

Fans were at once a necessity and a marker of luxury. But I realised the extent of our emotional investment only when it was time for us to move houses and leave the family fan and other ghosts of our past behind. My father got sentimental, reminiscing about his school days, when his mother would fan him using a piece of cardboard while he studied. They had an old fan which needed repairs every few months and it would invariably give way when his exams arrived. That changed one day. Ahead of an important exam, my grandpa purchased a new fan for the house, after digging into his savings. In a way, that 50-year-old off-white fan was testament to the bond my father shared with his.

When we moved to a slightly bigger room in a neighbouring chawl, along with the ceiling fan, a first-rate table fan was purchased. With this change in the fan situation, the politics of cool air drastically changed. You see, when you have a bevy of bodies in a booth-sized living space, things like fans come with their own pecking order.

As the smaller fan with its tiny steel blades could cool only one at a time, naturally the most important member of the family, usually its patriarch, had the luxury of placing himself at the centre. And secondary family members, usually my cousins and I, would be placed at either end, forced to wait an eternity for the little gust of wind to alleviate our sweaty existence. If the 10×10 kholi was our kingdom, the place right near the fan, was the throne.  

A throne that was abdicated only for guests of honour like visiting relatives from cooler climes who had made a long journey to pay you a visit.

A throne that was abdicated only for guests of honour like visiting relatives from cooler climes who had made a long journey to pay you a visit. I’d serve them coffee with gritted teeth and listen to them prattle about how hot Mumbai was. I’d curse them because for the next few days, I’d be relegated to the corner of the house devoid of any breeze.

Ours was the only household in the chawl that had two fans. For mama it was a matter of pride, when Kulkarni Kaku from the opposite kholi would borrow the table fan each time his son-in-law visited. During the sarvajanik Ganpati festivals, the mandal would request mama for the fan – they’d place it facing the idol, and everytime we had a function in the chawl, the fan was placed right behind the chief guest’s chair.   

The only time I got this elusive throne next to the fan was during my Std X and XI final exams, when it was understood that I needed a good night’s sleep. That sweet fantasy would last till the day the exams got over, when I’d be kicked back to the end of the room to sweat it out in the cheap seats.

It was only when I grew up and when the summers get hotter than a threesome officiated by Monica Belluci, that we busted out money for an air conditioner. The AC remote has now replaced the fan as the most sought-after item in the house, but the rules of our home haven’t changed. It’s only switched on when father complains that it’s too hot to breathe or when my NRI relatives come calling.