My grandfather is obsessed with turning off the lights.
This isn’t the story of a do-gooder hero, known and loved by millions around the world, wielding the torch of change. This is the story of a 75-year-old man who makes his own impact simply because he considers it his human duty, expecting neither fame nor recognition in return.
It’s 2015. After two weeks of intense negotiations with nearly 200 countries in the City of Lights, nature got a historic win — the Paris Agreement, which aims to slow global warming. Five thousand miles away, in a sleepy town on the southern tip of India, my grandmother bustles around in her kitchen. She is not concerned with global affairs because she has more pressing matters to attend to: a distant relative just called to let her know that he is coming over with his wife. And in India, where the saying atithi devo bhava — loosely translated to “the guest is equivalent to God” — is the norm, there is immense pressure to be the perfect host.
After 15 minutes, the weight on my grandmother’s shoulders has been lifted: The living room is brilliantly lit, the couch cushions sit at the perfect angle and the snacks are tastefully arranged on new turquoise plates. As her guests enter the home and make their way to sit, they admire the spread of snacks, the spotless cutlery, the cushions and the beautiful lights. My grandmother, secretly glad that her prep work did not go unnoticed, nonetheless shrugs off the compliments: “Oh, it’s nothing!” My grandfather, returning from a grocery run, warmly greets the guests. But instead of taking a seat next to my grandmother, he makes a beeline for the living room light switch.
As he speaks, he flicks the switches in unison and the brilliant lighting disappears. “What are you doing?” my grandmother hisses in unadulterated horror — her perfect host title is in jeopardy.
“Why are we switching on the lights when it’s daytime?” my grandfather responds. “There’s so much electricity being wasted. The sunlight is much better for you, anyway — healthwise!” The guests laugh hesitantly. My grandmother looks like she would trade all the vitamin D in the world if the ground would swallow her that instant.
My grandfather’s antics weren’t contained to the house. At his workplace, light-hearted teasing followed as he built a reputation for switching off the lights in places they weren’t needed.
At his house, when I exited the bathroom and closed the door behind me, he would suddenly appear, looking ruffled. With narrowed eyes, I’d ask,“What are you doing?” to which he would reply with pronounced nonchalance, “I’m looking for my Vicks.”
Inevitably I would spot the little blue jar near him, but he wouldn’t, because he wasn’t really looking for it at all. He was squinting at the switchboard, trying to make out whether the bathroom light was still switched on. “I’ve switched off the light,” I would say, laughing as he breathed a not-so-subtle sigh of relief, the topical medication all but forgotten.
To the untrained eye, my grandfather’s actions can look like a scheme to reduce his electricity and water bill. But those who know him know that his compulsive light-flicking and tap-closing are driven by something much bigger.
It’s 1992. Awareness of climate change around the world is small but growing. The outcome of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit — attended by 179 countries — is splashed across every newspaper. The Framework Convention on Climate Change is opened for signatures and Agenda 21, an action plan for sustainable development, is adopted. My grandfather, riding his scooter to the bank, spots in the corner of his eye a public tap that has been left running.
“Keep driving,” he thinks to himself, “keep driving.” But his mind is whirling. He imagines every drop he’s letting go to waste — a thought that grips him with guilt. He stops his scooter, runs to the tap and turns it off. When he returns to his scooter, he rides off once more, a satisfied man.
It’s 2021. The climate clock in New York City warns that we have less than a decade left before climate change becomes catastrophic and potentially irreversible. Heat waves and power supply shortages plague the world. Nature is deteriorating.
Time hasn’t been kind to my grandfather. He is in a hospital room recovering from a heart attack. When I call him on the phone, I hear him asking my grandmother to “switch off the lights; there’s too much sunlight in the room.”
All I’m saying is, before the world got Greta Thunberg, it had my grandfather.
Although he doesn’t lead protests and isn’t a household name, his almost neurotic obsession makes an impact: Each of his four grandchildren turns off lights and taps out of guilt for months after spending just two weeks with him. While discussion after discussion keeps taking place on the global stage, each of his actions is sparking quiet — but real — change.
Right now, when so many things seem to be spiraling out of control and uncertainty is taking center stage, perhaps adding a few years to the climate clock by turning off lights that don’t need to be on and running or leaky taps doesn’t seem like the worst thing.
And hey, “the sunlight is much better for you, anyway — healthwise!”