When I was a child I sat at the study desk every evening for a few hours, opening slim volumes of brown notebooks with a serenely smiling Don Bosco on the front cover, to draw maps, solve quadratic equations, summarize a poem or memorize the years of famous battles. I grew up in a modest locality of a small town in Assam, where the residents were thankful for a few hours of electricity every night. And till the time my father brought home a noisy power generator, a candle and a match box were as essential on my study table as a pen. Every time there was a power cut, it was the perfect excuse to plead to my mother that my eyes hurt reading the tiny print in the faint light of the candle. She knew me well, and after confirming with an ophthalmologist that I had excellent vision, she started bringing home newer sets of large candles with thicker wicks.
When I realized that there was no escape from the study desk, I decided to improvise new forms of amusement or escape routes. Once I dipped all the candle wicks in water, but got a much deserved scolding from my mother when she found out. Then there was the dissection of any unfortunate mosquito that got drawn by the flame and landed on the desk. I took out my pent up frustration of being confined to study on the poor mosquito; I trapped it, dissected its tiny wings with a compass from the geometry box, and then burnt their miniscule torsos in the very flame they had flocked to, rounding off the whole exercise with unblinking eyes and a sinister laugh to scare my little sister who watched it with horror from the adjacent table. I was cruel little pyromaniac burning up dozens of minute winged creatures every evening. My cousin had taught me the neat little trick that if one was fast enough, they can move a finger across the flame and not feel a thing. I did that too, till the fun wore off, and a painful blister erupted on my finger.
And when the electricity decided to favour us by returning after long hours of darkness, there was this race between my sister and me to blow out the candle, accompanied by a wish; a silly hangover from birthdays. Sometimes the loser initiated a quarrel, which my mother resolved by lighting up the candle and giving the chance to blow it out again with a wish. When I was in the seventh standard, I was infatuated by my history teacher and had made it my sole ambition to excel in his subject, and much to the amazement of my family, even a power cut couldn’t budge me from the study desk. Once I had studied the various invasions of India with such fervour and attention that my sister gleefully watched smoke rise out of my hair for quite some time before informing that my curly hair had caught fire from the candle flame. It took a clever hairdresser to minimize the damages, but it was never the same.
Many years later, the candle returned to my life, albeit in a setting when lovers have the crazy idea to grope for their food in the dark, all in the name of romance. I suppressed a smile when I recalled our old hostility, and the mass murder of so many mosquitoes. But I couldn’t reveal it to the one who sat in front of me, without him questioning the unusual sources of amusement in my childhood. So I kept shut, lest he also found out about the evenings of dipping a flour-laced winnow board in the pond and taking it out after a few minutes, filled with tiny prawns. Or about constructing a swing in the backyard, playing table tennis without a table in a long and narrow corridor where the ball bounced off the floor, the long nights of badminton, striking a shot on the carom board I could barely reach as it was set on a tall barrel, catching dragon flies and glow worms and putting them in glass jars, digging for sweet potatoes in the garden, looking for a lost treasure at an abandoned house, climbing trees and hanging upside down from a branch; what can I say about the delights of growing up in sleepy, small towns of India. I merely smile at the memories.