Lights out, but Ramachandran has not sought refuge in darkness


(Note: This is Onmanorama's special project that tracks the impact of lockdown on people from different strata of Kerala society. Read all the nine stories here.)

Ramachandran does not look like a man who has been out of job for nearly two years. He is clean shaven, has dyed his moustache, wears a glossy T-shirt, and his house, though small and seemingly away from civilisation, is tastefully done with framed family photographs and Raja Ravi Varma paintings on the wall.

On the whole, he exudes the vibe of a flashy Gulf returnee. This is a pretence, but a commendable one. Official figures show that nine 'light and sound' shop owners and workers have committed suicide during the pandemic (The Kerala Light and Sound Association says it is 12.) Ramachandran, too, has enough reasons to end his life. Yet, he seems committed to life, as if with a vengeance.

Before COVID struck, he was doing reasonably well as a small-time 'light and sound' shop owner in the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram. Ramachandran had a shop, Kairali Light and Sounds, in his village, Kachani, and a head office in Peroorkada, closer to Thiruvananthapuram city. He had handled the 'light and sound' of important functions, including those attended by governors and chief ministers, and religious festivals. He had a vehicle to carry his equipment, and four dedicated workers.

Lights out, but Ramachandran has not sought refuge in darkness
Ramachandran amid his light and sound equipment stuffed in a back room of his house. Photo: Ayyappan R

The competition was intense but he said he kept his basics right. “I ensure three things. One, no one should get a shock from handling any of my equipment. Two, there should be no echo. Three, there should not be that startling high-pitched squeal that comes through the speakers when someone begins to talk,” Ramachandran said.

But after COVID, with public gatherings banned, loud speakers and fancy lights became obsolete; like gramophones, exotic relics of the past. He could not pay rent, so had to vacate his offices. He could not afford his workers either. He sold his vehicle.

The name board of his shop is now kept at the back of his house, placed sideways on a side wall in front of a backroom where his materials – mike stands, amplifiers, mixers, tubelight choke stands, bulbs, wires, serial lights, metal props, junction boxes and speakers – are stuffed right up to the ceiling.

“I am not sure whether any of these would function. I have not checked them for over a year,” he said standing inside the room, in the middle of what looked like an indoor e-waste dump.

Lockdown relaxations have not done him any good. “Only 20 people are allowed to participate in a function. What is the need for loudspeakers when there are only 20 people,” he said. “Even if a function is held, the government has said that the sound from our speakers should be less than 50 decibels, which is lower than a mobile ringtone (128 decibels near the ear). Even normal human conversation is louder (60 decibels). With rules like these, who would want people like us,” he said.

As his business crumbled, it fell on his marriage. His wife sought divorce last year. “When my income stopped, she did not want to live with me,” Ramachandran said. Six months ago, he married a second time, a widow with two sons, aged ten and eight. “I didn't want to live alone. My second wife is a tailor and it was she who supported me during this time. Now, her work has also dried up,” Ramachandran said.

Ramachandran with his step sons Vignesh and Vaishnav near his idling speakers
Ramachandran with his step sons Vignesh and Vaishnav near his idling speakers. Photo: Ayyappan R

He has huge debts, but people owe him also. “It is usual for us in the 'light and sound' business to purchase equipment for our requirements rather than rent them. This we do because one, we can pay a small advance and take these equipment and two, it is easy to sell them after our use,” Ramachandran said.

He had paid advance for many costly items like amplifiers and generators just before COVID, some of which he had used and some of which he could not take from shops before lockdown. “The owners of the equipment I had taken are now asking for the full amount, which I am not in a position to give. But those I had paid the advance, but whose stuff I had not picked from their shops, are not willing to give my money back,” he said.

Nor has he been able to sell the items in his possession. “No one wants them now,” he said. Ramachandran said the organisers of a temple festival nearby had recently approached him for amplifiers and serial lights. They came to him knowing that he was ready to sell them for half the price.

“They were supposed to get back to me the day before yesterday. Probably, some other light and sound person had agreed to sell theirs for a much lesser amount,” he said.

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