(A Narrative from Nagercoil by Natha Swami)
Electricity was literally unknown in this part of Kanyakumari district till mid-1940s. In the absence of electricity, life revolved around kerosene lamps, hurricane lamps and a few Petro-max lights. Just imagine life in the darkness of those times. In the absence of street lights and attached bathrooms, going out to attend to nature’s call in the nights were a test to one’s animal instincts and presence of mind. As long as kerosene was available, worries lessened. This way, entire villages, towns and cities found their own ways to circumvent the darkness of the night.
When cities and towns of South India were getting connected to the grid system in the 1940s, electric power for Nagercoil town was supplied from generators owned by an local entrepreneur (PKC). He had obtained the contract from the Government to generate and distribute power supply to the entire town up to 10 p.m. Thereafter, power supply was continued from the Pallivasal hydro-power station (now in Kerala). The generators were situated in his business complex near the Nagercoil Clock Tower junction.
As the process involved shelling out a substantial amount of money, only a privileged group was able to apply for electricity connection. Families that could afford to pay for a power connection utilized the opportunity and wired their houses and shops. But one hotel owner was left out. (When I say ‘hotel’, don’t dream of a big enterprise. Far from that - a thatched shed over 3,4 dining tables & benches & an attached kitchen was all that was euphemistically called by the exalted name ‘hotel’. Eating house/eatery would be a better description). The ‘hotel’ was located on Alexandra Press Road, a few yards from the Clock Tower and the one running it, if my memory serves me right, was one Mr. Gopal Pillai.
As he had an ongoing feud with the big entrepreneur, who had got the contract to generate and distribute power to the whole town, his eatery at the center of Nagercoil town was denied electricity. Whatever the reasons were, the hotel he ran was not connected to a power line when all other businesses around were turning bright. These newly electrified shops, turned out to be a serious attraction for the local populace. The whole populace of Nagercoil town, for a few months at that time, was electrified over the coming of “Electricity.” As crowds turned up from the villages and towns around Nagercoil to see, shop and eat at these electrified outlets, business had begun to show a spike for some. But for Gopal, while the shops around were lit up by the tungsten bulbs, his hotel still hadn’t emerged out of the darkness.
In those days, most shops and eating houses depended only on floating population for their business. These migrant laborers and business men came from the villages around Nagercoil town. None had the luxury of electric lights in their homes. Naturally, they (that includes this blogger as well) were drawn to the glamour of eating food under the fluorescent lamps, the new fad that everybody was talking about in Nagercoil town. But Gopal, couldn’t turn on the electric light, which had the potential to draw the crowd. Forget the food! What can Gopal do? He knew, he only chance was to fall flat at the feet of his sworn enemy and beg for electric connection; even then, there was no surety that his hotel would be connected. Being dignified, he knew he wouldn’t stoop too low to satisfy his need.
His circumstance forced him to come up with something good or lose the business. He didn’t want to give up so easily either. Instead, he bought himself half a dozen Petromax lanterns and hung them from the roof, spreading out light evenly, flooding his eatery with the bright light from the bygone era! From the street, nobody could tell if it was electric lamps or Petromax light, unless one walked in. He had hit the jack pot! His idea worked.
Hungry diners were drawn to his eatery like flies to the light. It attracted customers for two reasons - One was his spirit of defiance; the other was that his eatery outshined all others’ electric-powered ones around the Tower Junction and to top it, there was NO POWER FAILURE at all. In this part of the world (the deepest South of India), we (used to) believe that if the lights went out when one had his hand in his dinner plate, it could snuff the light out of his dream! Remember one point – any adversity could be turned to your advantage – with Petromax lights, there was no power failure at all at Gopal’s eatery. Business flourished even without electricity. Later, when the Government took over Power from the Private sector, electricity found democratic consumption and it became common to all.
Discover interesting anecdotes and local narratives about Life in Nagercoil, Kanyakumari form bygone era on Radio Nostalgia @cafekk.com