Electrify Me

Over the last few years, quite a few people who run into me have posed a declarative statement masquerading as an accusative question – “You don’t blog nowadays”. And I’ve always given an answer that, in retrospect, was rather stupid – “But I post on Twitter”. I’ve come to realise rather late that there is no greater waste of time and intellectual capacity than scrolling through a Facebook or Twitter timeline. It’s not that I think Social Media is bad. I think we all suck at it, and Silicon Valley has gotten rather good at monetising our collective suckiness.

So, on my 11th wedding anniversary, I’ve decided that I’m going to take my wife’s advice and go back to blogging. The pedantic among you might argue that blogging’s social media too, but hey, here, I get to edit all your comments.

This post is a story I heard from an elderly school teacher of mine back in the 1990s.

In the 1950s and 60s, the government of India undertook a massive exercise in electrifying the nation. No, they didn’t go around setting up disco dancing extravaganzas across rural India. They literally brought lights, fans and electric motors to a population that was, for all intents and purposes, still living in the middle ages. In fact, some villages in India were so disconnected and remote that many still thought “God save the King” was the national anthem.

An English teacher of mine who used to be an electrical engineer in his younger years told me a fascinating story about this undertaking. He was part of a contingent of young engineers that was bringing “Bijli” to a tiny hamlet in Uttar Pradesh in the 1960s and, rather unsurprisingly, the village elders were suspicious of this exercise. All of a sudden, men dressed in strange looking western wear started digging the place up and installing poles and slinging wires across mud paths and bringing them inside homes. And to make things worse, those wires did nothing for weeks on end because the electricity wasn’t flowing through them yet. The plan was to turn the switch on only after everything was thoroughly tested for problems and challenges such as “cow scratched back on junction box, tipping it over” and “Bandicoot rat chewed up wire” were overcome.

If you were a village headman in that era, you had the unique responsibility of being the prescient protector of the populace from all things dangerously modern while at the same time being generally clueless about the world at large. You might be the largest land owner in town with an entourage that included a personal moustache maintainer among others, but in an era before the internet & television, you didn’t know any more than the chap that held your umbrella while you pompously strutted around town doling out ramrams.

One such paternalistic figure called upon our aforementioned electrical engineer (later to be high school English teacher) to express some concerns about this new “Bijli” thing that was wrapping its copper wired tentacles around his village. His first concern was rather representative of that time and place. He wanted to know if this Bijli thing was going to be available to all residents of the village. Our electrical engineer, himself a Punjabi, was able to read the subtext latent the question but still decided to, well, troll the headman. He answered – “Oh yes, of course, every single house in the village will get electricity”.

The headman squirmed in his seat and sighed at the prospect of having to rephrase his concern in more direct terms. “Why do the lower castes need electricity? Wouldn’t the government save money by first prioritising the upper castes?”. Essentially, the very idea that some thing was available to all human beings equally seemed to shake the foundation of his worldview and threatened the social order he was responsible for maintaining. A universal lack of something is acceptable, but everyone getting something new at the same time? That was literally a slap on the face of Manu.

Our engineer had an answer to that question too. It turns out that some of the babus in Delhi who originally came from the hinterland had a pretty good idea of the kind of concerns that rural India will likely have about a new fangled thing like electricity and put together a comprehensive communication plan for the engineers. That included answers to concerns such as these:

Will every one get electricity in the village?

Subtext: Why do the lower castes need electricity? It’s not like they can read, so why need lights?

Answer: Mukhiya ji, don’t worry. One has to pay monthly charges for electricity.

Subtext: They won’t be able to afford the monthly charges, so we will cut off supply to them then.

Is the same wire going to our houses and “their” houses?

Subtext: We refuse to use something that is also available to the lower castes. If they touch it, won’t the Bijli be “polluted”?

Answer: Mukhiya ji, no one can touch electricity. It will kill you if you touch it, so don’t worry about pollution.

But then, this resulted in a new concern – if electricity could kill you, is it not dangerous? Hindi even lacked vocabulary to describe the sensation of electricity. So our headman wondered if Bijli was “very hot” and thus presented a danger. Apparently, temperature & heat seemed to be the closest relatable metaphor to the idea of current and electric shock.

Our engineer then smiled because his training included an answer to this concern too. He said – “Mukhiya ji, this particular electricity that is coming to your village is coming from the Bhakra-Nangal Dam, high up in the Himalayas. So this electricity is very cool, so there is no need to worry!”

When I first heard this story, I was 14 years old, and all that registered was my English teacher’s ingenuity at using his asymmetrical access to knowledge to persuade an ignorant headman. Later came the realisation of how insidious caste used to be (and for most part, still is). But it’s 2017, and there are folks in my WhatsApp groups that believe that a combination of Homoeopathy and Aditya Hridayam chanting can cure Cancer. They share forwards that claim to have scientific DNA evidence of Brahmin superiority. They also believe Nehru was Aurangzeb’s descendant and that demonetisation has fixed the problem of black money. With all the access to the entirety of the world’s knowledge on the internet, most of us are still really no different from that village headman.