Childhood Sparks

“Anyone know the answer? It’s not quite obvious.” my fifth-grade teacher Ms. Franzia asked my still classroom one day, packed with different shades of students. “Anyone know a bird that just flew more than 7,000 miles from Alaska to New Zealand without taking a break for food or water?”

“A godwit”, I blurted, “A bar-tailed godwit.” The answer involuntarily coming out after suppressing it for nearly two minutes.

I was by no means particularly keen on acing the class, I had my own world to tend to. Sometimes that world spills over. Every day, after the school adjourned, I made my way past the small hill, and across a few streets to my home. My mother would fuel my journey to the world, with biscuits and a warm cup of bournvita

Then, it was off to exploring. My real day of learning was about to begin. I picked up an old Vedic book off the highest shelf in the mahogany cupboard. May have belonged to my grandfather who received it as an heirloom, passed down for hundreds of years. Or this was my imagined origin story for this beloved book of mine. The UPC code on its back cover doesn’t help this story but I tend to look past that. 

And so, Indra made lightning fall, night after night. The stained, earthy pages mentioned. He brought down thunder and water from the skies.

I peered outside the window. A typical, predictable—and by now, boring—California afternoon. Water was probably a stretch, but I could try to make thunder, I thought. Taking a page from Mr. Van de Graff, I decided to bring thunder to my world. And what better place to start the journey to conjure up noise than the desi kitchen. 

The pressure cooker was whistling again. It’s a constant metronome in the cacophonic symphony of my home, marked by morning greetings to Bengaluru, a mixture of Tamil and Hindi programming droning in the background, and the occasional Planet Earth

The whistling grew louder as I made my way to the cabinet adjacent to the stove. It used to scare me, but it’s a rather comforting noise now. It means my mother is somewhere nearby. I picked up two steel vessels. “That’ll do”, I said, proceeding to fill these bowls with shards of styrofoam and a punctured rubber tire from my trusty, and now recouping, Schwinn bicycle.  

I placed this collection aside on a stool while I climbed on top of the sofa, leaping from the armrest to the bookshelf. Standing on my toes, I finally was able to budge my biblical text: the DK Dictionary. I grabbed it with a firm grip. I learned my lesson from last time—dropping the behemoth on my face is not a smart idea.

I flipped the pages and reached page 537. I had found Mr. Van de Graff, in the form of his eponymous static generator. I didn’t have all the parts—okay, fine, I had none. But I got the essence. Accumulate electrical charge on a hollow metal dome. Simple enough, and if these steel vessels can feed my family and me for ten years, surely it can make a few sparks.

After a few hours or a dozen or so pressure cooker whistles of forcing a bicycle tire tube to rotate without imploding the entire contraption, I thought I did it. It was seven in the evening and the overwhelming heat and vibrance of the day were well gone. One hand, now adorned with a rubber glove I found in the bathroom, spun the rubber tire. The other, index finger protruded, reached towards the steel vessel, cautiously, slowly. The toil of the day’s work was about to come to fruition—or evaporate unceremoniously.

And there it was—the spark. A large spark lept from the vessel, bridging the gap from my finger and this contraption. I became Indra.

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