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The Rediff Special/Suman Guha Mozumdar
August 20, 2003
I was standing near a public telephone outside the Hackensack Bus Terminal, desperately trying to call home.
It was dark all around. I was using the thin flame of my cigarette lighter to try and light up numbers on the dial pad. After a couple of attempts, I gave up as the call would not go through.
Around me, there were people -- or rather, silhouettes -- waiting around in clusters, hoping for a bus to come along. I couldn't find my colleague Dharmesh Chotalia who was with me. He must be around someplace, I reckoned, without thinking too much about it.
"You know what," a muffled voice said as I turned away from the phone; my eyes, gradually getting used to the darkness, made out two men in their mid-twenties standing near the bus schedules board a few feet away from me.
From their appearance I could make out instantly they are from the same part of the world from where I come. 'Thank God. So, I am not the lone Indian here this evening,' I said to myself as I planned to strike up a conversation with the desi bhais.
Suddenly the voice grew more hushed than before. "You know, I have this feeling that they have kidnapped the President and have ordered him to shut down power totally. I am sure they are acting on a plan," one of them told his friend as if sharing a state secret.
The other person seemed to nod in assent.
For a moment, I thought about telling them the facts; I had been listening to radio bulletins earlier in the evening and was in possession of the facts. But on second thoughts, I stopped myself.
After all, I reasoned, throughout the four-hour journey, partly on foot and partly by bus from Manhattan to Hackensack, I had overheard bits of similar conversations among fellow travelers suggesting various possible causes of the blackout.
Although none of them sounded as outrageous as this, I could sense that like in those post-September 11 days, some more urban legends might be in the making.
At the Hackensack Bus Terminal, it was almost 9 pm. Two buses that were to go to Jersey City did not show up, and I started getting a bit nervous. Where was my colleague? The crowd had by now become thinner as many had left for other destinations by other means.
It was extremely hot and humid. Worse, I was running out of cigarettes that could soothe. Did I have to spend the night here in darkness on the floor of the bus stand?
Suddenly, I spotted a short stocky man wearing some kind of NJ Transit badge.
"My only hope," I thought as I walked towards him hoping to get some information about buses. "Bhai sahab, kya buses ki kutch pata hai (Sir, any information about buses to Jersey City)," I deliberately asked in Hindi, having noticed that he looked like an Indian. "Aa jayegi, phikar mat karna (It will come. Don't worry)," said the man in a very reassuring voice.
I tried to feel reassured despite the darkness and anxiety. After a while -- it was almost 9:30 and there was no sign of any bus. I again approached the man with the same question. This time he sounded a bit irritated. "Arre aap to bahut ghabra gaya lagta hai (Looks like you are very scared)," the man said.
I tried to explain that I was not scared, but perhaps a little worried because of the darkness. He burst into guffaws of laughter. "Worried, because there is no light? Unless you were born here, I am sure you have faced many such occasions without lights in India. Don't you think blackouts are more frequent in our part of the world than here?" my Transit official friend, who turned out to be from Pakistan, asked.
I was speechless. Back home, especially in West Bengal notorious for massive power cuts, I remembered how we used to spend evenings and nights without light thanks to load shedding. So, since when had I begun to worry about lack of electricity?
Standing under a starry sky at the bus terminal, I realized my nearly decade-long stay in the US had made me used to certain earthly comforts without which I now could not do - and electricity was chief among them.
Around 10 I had given up all hope of getting back home, when there came a bus as if from nowhere. Dharmesh, who by then had surfaced, and I got onto the bus along with my new Pakistani friend.
Throughout the one-hour journey, Dharmesh kept insisting that it did not befit a superpower such as America to have power failures of this magnitude.
"Whatever you say, even in India power cuts never affect so many states at the same time. Ours may be a Third World country, but we are better than this," he declared very proudly.
Next day, I scanned the newspapers, and this is what they said: 'A First World country with a Third World power transmission system.'
Dharmesh was right, after all.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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