When we moved to the US from Singapore and looked for houses in a suburb of Houston in 2012, the redundant fireplace in every house was an object of our mirth. We thought, this place in Texas has Delhi weather; it’s almost at the same latitude as Delhi — why would anyone need a fireplace, especially when there is central heating? The answer has been revealed in 2021. Given that there are no Himalayas protecting Houston (in fact, America itself) from the Arctic cold, unlike Delhi, the Arctic temperatures can come visiting as they did this February 2021.
Even though the Weather app was showing that temperatures would plummet to minus 11 degrees centigrade on Monday the 15th of February, we didn’t really believe it would go all that low. So many times in the past there have been false alarms. Still, I went shopping to stock up on groceries on Thursday. On Saturday, I saw my neighbor covering up his plants and sent him a friendly message on his phone. “Make sure to wrap up your faucets and valves outside,” he cautioned. I pushed my husband out of his complacency and got him to do the needful. All those comforters lying unused in the house were pressed into service. Our kind neighbour came over himself with his own jute coverings to help us cover our water pipes outside the house.
It was in the nick of time. The Arctic Devi had begun her dance!
On Sunday night, the cold inside the house made me nauseous even with the heating turned on. My feet felt like they were in bandages with two pairs of thick socks one over the other. But they still felt cold!
Freezing rain fell outside but we could not see any snow on the ground. We went to bed wondering what lay ahead in the morrow. When we woke up on Monday morning, there was a collective gasp of astonishment. Our driveway, our front yard, backyard, the cul-de-sac in front of our house were all covered with snow. It was unbelievable and very disorienting.
Both my husband and daughter had to be at their computers because it was a working day. I needed to finish some work on my manuscript. But none of us could focus on anything knowing there was snow, real snow outside, not the snow of Singapore’s Snow City. We pulled out our jackets that had last been used in Europe and ran out. Of course, we took lots of pictures. It was so cold that I could barely spend a few minutes outside before rushing inside to warm my numb hands.
It had been announced that there would be rolling power outages. Friends living in different suburban cities were reporting outages and we were dreading our turn. We charged our phones and waited. Finally, on Tuesday morning, it happened. The power snapped. The gap between outside and inside temperatures began to steadily diminish. It was scary.
The first thing which hit me was that daylight was the most valuable resource we had. As soon as the sun set, there could be no activity. I told my family that we need to maximize the value of the daylight hours like in ancient times and be ready to sleep as soon as it got dark. I decided to cook a number of dishes as fast as I could. The auto-ignition was not working on the gas stove (because it depends on electricity) but luckily I had matches. Thank Bhagwan that I had my own puja corner in the house. There were matches that I had bought only for the little temple and those came in handy for lighting the gas. But even more thankful was I about the gas stove in the kitchen. Other houses with induction stoves were severely hampered and were trying to use portable outdoor stoves and grills.
We were done with dinner by 5:30 pm. As there was no heating, it got colder and colder so we went on adding layers to our clothing until we looked like mountaineers. We decided to not attempt to use the fireplace since we had never used it before and thus not checked it for blockages. By 6 pm, the sun had set and we got inside two layers of quilts. Since no one felt sleepy, we decided to play the old Indian song game — Antaakshari. The way it works is that each person has to sing a song starting with the ending alphabet of the lyrics sung by the previous player. I couldn’t even remember the last time I played it!
Little did I think we would have so much fun in the midst of such dire circumstances! We could not even see each other’s faces as the game progressed because the dark had enveloped us! We conserved our cell phone charge because we had no idea how long the outage would last. Meanwhile, in the Antaakshari game, the husband had begun his usual cheating antics. When he got the alphabet न (na) he started singing “Na main bhoolunga na main bhoolungi” from “Roti Kapda Aur Makaan”. After a while, I realized something was off and noted that he had cleverly swapped the lyrics which were “Main na bhoolunga”. Daughter and I had to keep a firm watch on every song he sang! The biggest surprise was my daughter who ought to have been eliminated in no time leaving me and my husband to compete. But the girl kept going and going. When she got ठ (thha) we were sure she will draw a blank. But she came up with “Theheriye hosh mein aa loon to chale jaaiyega”! What an endless store of Hindi songs we all knew! After two hours of playing the game, we called it a day; we were all evenly matched. The effort of singing had helped tremendously in making us feel warm.
The night had got even colder. Inside the quilts it was warm but I woke up to apply lip balm and feel my way in the dark to the bathroom. When I returned shivering, the joints in my hands were paining from the cold. The water by my bedside had become so cold that when it touched my teeth, I shrieked and almost spit it out.
To our pleasant surprise, the power came after we woke up in the morning. The house began heating again and it was such a relief! However, the water had reduced to a trickle. I texted neighbors to check if the situation was same for them. Same. I collected the trickling water and began to boil it for drinking. The snow had melted a bit outside but it was still minus 9 degrees celsius. Our phones were charging again. My family in India rejoiced when we informed about the return of electricity. Some of our friends were without power for 48 hours, 75 hours and so on!
I worried if the water and food would last. News of shortages in stores were coming. The pandemic was there too. So many were suffering. Some friends were melting snow to get water to use in toilets. Others were cooking in their fireplaces. We heard of families that spent the night in their cars. There was news of a fire in one house which started from the fireplace and killed an old lady and her grandchildren. The renewable versus fossil energy debate had hit the roof. The Texas infrastructure was stressed to the maximum. But it struck me that even in the midst of all the disaster, there was no looting of stores; in fact there were stories of Texans dropping money inside stores after taking bottles of water kept outside the stores.
Reflecting on the events of the past week, I hope we, as a community, will learn something significant which can be applied in the future. What happened in Texas can happen elsewhere too, maybe in a different form. The only thing we can do is to learn. Perhaps that is why all this happened on the day of Sarasvati Puja, the day Hindus worship the Goddess of Knowledge.