The A-Z Series: This series of short articles explores how familiar objects from everyday life embody concepts and values dear to the urban Indian middle class. It takes a light-hearted and humorous look at how objects shape our wants & desires, lives, and lifestyles, ultimately making us who we are as a people.

As a young child, I spent some years in Meerut, where electricity cuts were very common. They came like uninvited guests, interrupting everything important to me — watching my favourite cartoon shows and working on school projects. Schools are often powered by diesel generators; so, evenings at home were the only time when I felt the power cuts’ cruel presence. Maa and I devised a strategy to deal with these. “Light chaligayi!” (there is a power cut!), I would mumble shakily, afraid of the ghosts which lay waiting for me. Armed with a torchlight, Maa would hold my tiny hand, and we would go to the balcony. Under starry nights and the glow of fireflies, we recited our favourite poems together, shared stories and did math quizzes. And magically, in no time, the electricity was restored.

A year or so later, the inverter came into our lives. We were no longer at the mercy of our fate or the electricity board. Most times we didn’t even realise if a power cut had happened. For a child who was seriously concerned about ghosts in the dark, this was a huge relief.

It’s strange what having an inverter can do to a child’s sense of social display. When a power cut happened during a friend’s 9th birthday party, I commented very loudly, “Well, this doesn’t happen at our place!” The embarrassed family got an inverter the very next day.

Life had a way of humbling me though. The inverter wasn’t connected to the television, so my one hour TV time was still severely affected during power cuts. “At least everything else is working, let’s be grateful for that”, Maa sternly told me. I sighed. Alas, she wouldn’t understand the tight schedule I was working on.

I also came to understand that if there were power cuts for hours on end, the magic of the inverter gave way. If you got too excited (like I did, as a young child), you could switch on too many lights and turn on too many devices. The inverter would instantly respond with an intense beep, which can be loosely translated to “I’ve had enough of this”. I would then frantically run across rooms to switch-off all the extra lights and fans till I had appeased the inverter.

If this wasn’t enough, the inverter had an expensive taste. We had to ensure that its batteries had enough distilled water, so that it would run smoothly over long periods of time. “Everything has a cost”, my young, middle-class mind determined.

“In our time, candles and emergency lights were the only backup options”, my nani once remarked. “You should be glad and conserve electricity. Don’t unnecessarily turn on fans and lights.” Needless to say, my dreams of using the inverter for unlimited power supply were quashed entirely after this.

As I’ve grown older and shifted around the country, the inverter has accompanied me everywhere. It has saved me from missing several online meetings, kept my fan alive on hot summer nights and hasn’t let me down when a power cut threatened to ruin parties and gatherings.

My brother recently expressed his disappointment about how the inverter doesn’t power the wifi and his gaming console. “At least everything else is working, let’s be grateful for that”, I muttered instantly, and realised that my moment of true middle-class-ness had arrived. I had truly grown up now. My brother sighed. Alas, I wouldn’t understand the tight schedule he was working on.

(Hamsini Shivakumar is a Semiotician and founder of Leapfrog Strategy. Khushi Rolania is a senior research analyst at Leapfrog Strategy.)