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The Citizen

Power outage leaves international students amused

By Citizen Staff

Thursday Nov. 29 was a challenging evening for students at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). A two-hour-long power outage affected most of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, causing cancellation of key events and disruption of routine activities. With HKS running on emergency power like most other Harvard facilities, the buildings had to be evacuated. But among all the furor, a group of international students accustomed to power outages back home were left amused. Below are the opinions of a few of these international students who talked to The Citizen.

Flavia Goulart, MPP ’14

In Säo Paulo, we have rather frequent power outages. Almost every time there is a storm, power goes down because of fallen trees and/or damaged transmission lines. The bad thing is that the dark usually lasts longer, from 3 to 6 hours. Our utility company is not that efficient and responsive: In fact they usually turn off their customer service line, so users can’t get information on what happened or how long will it take for power to be restored. We usually just sit and wait.

In Cambridge, I felt very safe because the emergency lights were still on and there was a lot of police and security around campus. There was nothing to worry about.

Jaya Bhagat, MC-MPA ’13 & Mason Fellow ’13

I grew up in Kolkata, a city in Eastern India, which was ruled by a leftist/communist government for most of my childhood. The communism resulted in a flight of investment out of the city and the state. But if you would have thought that with fewer industries, the power situation would have been ideal with no outages ….think again. Obviously, generation and distribution of electricity was not on anyone’s priority list. And so power outages, colloquially called ‘power-cuts’ or ‘load-shedding’, usually followed a rotational pattern, with different neighborhoods going without power at different times of the day during the months when electricity consumption was at its peak. When transformers broke down, of course, the city itself went without power for a few hours.

I didn’t love these occasional forced interruptions to my day. But I didn’t always mind the power outages either. When backup generators or electricity was not pressed into service, the candles and lanterns would come out and we would sit bathed in the light of their yellow flame. Siblings would gather around; we would read, play board games, sing songs and chat. The family dog would scamper around and then sink into a fitful sleep near our feet. It wouldn’t be dark enough to be bedtime, but it would be dark enough for a somnolence to take hold of the house. And yet, instead of us doing our own thing and working or resting in different rooms, the darkness would lead us to spend time as a collective, cohesive group. When the lights came back on, it would be an interruption of a quieter time – a return to the real world. And there would be a sense of gratitude and great cheer.

I still remember the sense of otherworldliness that would grip the city, bathed in pale moonlight, during an outage. Or the quiet lull that would descend on a busy summer day inside the house and its environs. It was a forced pause, which made us realize how much we take for granted.  And how the presence of electricity – essential and lifesaving – can also bring with it so many distractions.

I was at a seminar, away from HKS, when the lights went out last Thursday.  It was a busier area of Cambridge, with office space etc.  As I walked back from school enveloped by the darkness, I found that Cambridge looked different – there was a nip in the dark air, a sense of urgency as people gathered at street corners, hurriedly trying to make their way back home.  Police cars, fire trucks and ambulances stood by, their beacons punctuating the darkness with a chiaroscuro of colors: Exclamation marks on a blank page.

I felt a difference in the darkness around me.  In my childhood, in my country, the darkness was frequent and familiar – it brought a sense of time slowing down. Here, it was a disruption; a pause forced upon a city not ready to stop.

At Harvard, constantly busy being busy, quiet time and being without power is not only unfamiliar, it is also unwelcome.

Subhash Ghimire, MPP ’14

When I came to school only to find that there was no power at HKS, it reminded me of my home country Nepal. It is very interesting to see the reaction from the people here. We often forget how dependent we are on electricity; a power outage stalls everything. Back home, we are used to having power outages of up to 18 hours a day; basically you don’t have power the whole day. In such a situation, we would plan our activities according to the limited power supply we had. And I survived that! Having a MacBook with a long battery life definitely helps, but somehow you learn to adapt.

For me, a few hours of power outage is really not a big deal. It was definitely a time to reflect on how reliant on technology and energy we are and how our lives completely change if we don’t have that for a second. This was definitely a time to reflect and a way to connect with nature!

Ishani Mehta, MPP ’14

The last thing I expected to encounter at Harvard was a two-hour long power outage. And yet, on that fateful Thursday afternoon, as I sat working on a third-floor computer in Littauer, the light above me flickered ominously and it was all over in an instant. Having lost my Indian habit of continuously saving my work in the fear of a ‘power-cut’, I ended up losing my work. But in exchange, I gained a cultural experience beyond measure in value.

I had three important realizations from all the frenzy that followed. First, with power outages and grid failures being part and parcel of life in urban north India, it was exciting to see how concerned my American counterparts became as soon as the lights went out because it signaled to me the possibilities of efficiency that fully-functional infrastructure creates. Second, I know it caused many troubles in terms of traffic jams and event cancellations, but being the conservationist I am, it was great to see all the lights and machines switched off (even if by force) for at least some time (like Earth Hour).

Third, and the most important of my realizations was that despite all the troubles it causes, I somewhat missed the power outages I experienced in India. It would be that one hour when neighbors would just come out and take a technology-free walk, engaging in real conversations with friends. I really value that community time and, for the first time since my arrival here, I felt the warmth of people on a cold night; people not rushing to anything in particular. A dark Harvard Yard similar to how it might have looked before the advent of electricity really heightened my cultural experience.

Tarun Cherukuri, MPA-ID ’13

I live on Central Square and, as I was walking home with a couple of friends, I mentioned how it reminded me of India. We told a few jokes about the possible conspiracy theories for the blackout. Drawing inspiration from movies which I would never recommend watching, one of my friends cited that this could be a possible electromagnetic pulse attack. In the end, we did what I did growing up, or do even now when we have ‘power cut’ — get around a source of light, give up work and have a lighthearted conversation about people, events and ideas on the state of the world!

The only time we ever cursed the electricity board for a power cut in India and seemed to hold it accountable was if it robbed us of our weekend movie or a cricket match. Otherwise, we were content with making the most of what darkness had to offer. On a less frivolous note, it did remind me of places in India like my ancestral south Indian village (Kapileswarapuram), where sleeping under the dark star light sky with the company of mosquitoes is still considered a luxury, relative to the other vagaries of life.