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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Life in Chennai #8: Inconveniences and Outages

The power has gone out again, throwing us into darkness in the office. The UPS backup, a necessity and normal appliance for businesses and any homes that can afford one, has just run out so computers are out.

When the UPS is drained it makes a terribly annoying high-pitch whine, obstinately to warn you to shut down your computers properly before it dies, but it seems more a headache-causing inconvenience than a useful function (I suspect they are designed to carry sound through Western-style IT closets rather than out in the open in the corner of our room). It does make one scurry though.

Being on a laptop, I’ve got a couple hours of buffer to keep working, unlike my colleagues who are more or less shut down now. Of course, I’m not the lone soldier enough to feel compelled to be the only one working so I’ll take the chance to write this instead!

Power outages are a fact of life here. Usually the power goes out a few times a week from a few minutes to an hour. Sometimes also the lights flicker or dim from more limited brown-outs or when we lose a phase (electric power is 3-phase and technically lights and some electronics can run on just 1. This sort of power splitting is quite common in villages since in a work-around-way it triples the supply of a given unit of power). Varying throughout the city, they happen at home too at random hours. It is funny that I’ve gotten so used to the constant staccato of the overhead fan that the sudden silence of an outage instantly wakes me. The water gets cut about as frequently, compensated in every office and household bathroom by at-the-ready filled (and brightly coloured) plastic vessels to bath and flush the toilets with. It reminds me of the recommendations of all the pamphlets and community trainings they push in Vancouver on earthquake emergency preparedness (that very few get around to following) and reminds me how societies will adapt to inconsistency and reliability of service and simply carry on around it. I even recall a particularly dramatic performance at a play in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario where the theatre suddenly went pitch black during a thunderstorm and the actors continued on in the darkness without missing a beat and demonstrating what people here know well: the show must go on. But equally it reminds me just how less robust and more fragile our modern society is: our modern businesses and offices, with computers, electronic files, emails and faxes, cannot operate without absolute, constant power; water maybe, but not power. We lose the ability to roll with the disruption. Like the power and the water, the Internet goes out regularly (and isn’t great even when it is on) and when it does, our office is nearly as crippled. We’ve built this wonderful global system, but it is a fragile one.

At least the trains always run on time…
(Ha, just kidding, where do you think this is, Japan?)

The power outages usually don’t last longer than an hour thankfully, but a couple weeks ago, the power was out at the office the whole day and I got a taste for what it was like working prior to modern infrastructure. It is stuffy, sticky, sapping heat: no air conditioning and worse, no fan to compensate. You start to really understand the reason and value of siesta (actually, I’ve always been a firm backer of the idea, and who wouldn’t, just can’t seem to convince employers to go for it!). In fact it is probably worse than historically because the buildings today are not designed with cooling or airflow considerations at all. The power companies inoffensively call the outage “load shedding” since their problem is that too much demand load is threatening their systems. So from their operational perspective, they solve their problem by shedding load, which happens to be us...They kept saying another couple hours, then stopped answering the phone. Twiddling our thumbs and shooting the shit grew tedious and eventually even my laptop battery depleted. We went home early.

Today thankfully there is a nice breeze passing through the opened French doors (one of the many little differences in Indian architecture), although paperweights have had to be frantically added to any pile of documents on our desks as you snatched your recent meeting notes or report from its escape for freedom. We order an extra afternoon tea from the chai wallah and I catch up on my writing (been caught up in evenings in a book, will share that later). It’s a quarter to 5. If it goes another hour, there is no point staying. I’d rather be writing or reading or talking with my colleagues around a nice open-air café. There is a lovely one nearby. I think I’ll suggest it...

...5:30. Drat, the power just came back on, just as we were thinking we could make a break for it. Oh well, back to work! ;-) These ups and downs are just the way of life and commerce here. You adapt.

1 comment:

erica said...

Aww, sad story about the belated Christmas...though that had to be a hell of a nice surprise! I'm kind of jealous about the power outages. They have a certain romantic, rustic appeal. Well, maybe not the 67th time in so many days... :)