Most humans can live comfortably only within a very narrow temperature range – between 10 and 35 degrees Celsius (a little below body temperature, that is). Although some, through the ingrained habit of countless generations, can tolerate either greater cold or greater heat a little better than most, sub-zero or above 45-degree temperatures begin to kill if you are exposed to the elements for too long – that is a hard universal fact. Strong winds or extremely high humidity make things very considerably worse. This year I began to sense that things were getting abnormal by the end of March: not only was it unpleasantly hot already, but (at least in my town, and more or less all over south Bengal) there had not been any significant rainfall for six continuous months! Then April came, and the horror began.
Day after day after day, one woke up to find that it was already too warm for comfort by seven in the morning, and the sun, which hurt your eyes even then, began to blaze with pitiless fury by eight. By ten, the roads were empty – nobody went out unless he or she absolutely had to – and all you could see was the dogs panting and looking for a patch of shade. By mid-day the house started feeling like an oven, and the only people out on the road were using umbrellas, or at least caps, and those on motorcycles (except the mad few who seemed immune!) had big handkerchiefs wound tighly around their faces, and sunglasses to ward off the glare. If there was a wind, it raised little dust storms. The schoolchildren came home exhausted, red and puffed in the face, and started going down with the pox, the measles or heat fever right and left – until (recently) the authorities took heed and did the sensible thing; brought the school hours forward, and then started giving early vacations.
We cannot stay upstairs in my house in the afternoons, even with the cooler going full speed (its efficiency varies very greatly from day to day, depending on how dry or wet the outside air is). Downstairs, I sweat with the poor kids I teach – or feel as though I am on fire on days when it is absolutely dry, the whole skin one gigantic itch, which grows worse if you scratch. All I can do to feel better is to thank my stars over and over again that I don’t have to make a living outdoors or running around most of the time, as so many people do, from hawkers of all sorts to bus drivers and traffic constables and factory workers who toil before open furnaces and news reporters and even supposedly ‘successful’ people like busy doctors I know who always have to be on the move: they can keep their success, I don’t envy them! One must be thankful, too, for small mercies – at least, unlike in so many places in this same country, I don’t suffer from shortage of water (it’s only three or four cool baths every day that’s keeping me alive, and drinking lots of iced water, though that’s taking a toll on the throat…) or long daily power cuts. I know there are lots of Indians who’d tell me ‘You’re in heaven, what are you cribbing about?’ I’d like to be somewhere close to Nainital or Mussoorie now, only a little higher, a little away from the din and bustle.
One might imagine that the evenings would be better, once the sun has gone down. But wait – something weird begins to happen with the brick and cement houses we live in. The walls begin to give off heat or something, so if you are indoors, you feel you are being cooked. The only relief is outdoors: after nine, if there’s a good breeze (as there has been these last few days), and you can sit on a high roof (third floor is good, fifth or sixth much better) after a bath and wearing as little clothing as possible, you can start breathing comfortably again – but going down for dinner is a nightmare. I have grown weak and ease-loving: I have spent decades tossing and turning on a hot bed sticky and smelly with sweat until the wee hours brought a little fleeting bit of relief, but now I cannot go to bed without the air-conditioner on. If there’s ever a really serious cash crunch in summer time, I’d sell off every other gadget I have around the house before I get rid of the fridge and the ‘a/c’. I am dreaming of the day when I can install an airconditioner in my classroom too: I’d have done it already if the local power facility could give me a strong assurance that the line can bear the load.
Then you wake up and it’s hot already as soon as you turn off the a/c, and you open the windows and the sun hurts your eyes again, and it’s already unpleasant to draw the dusty, muggy, foul air into your lungs. Day after day after day. There hasn’t been one single thundershower this whole month to give us all a few hours of blessed relief. After one wild prediction about a coming cyclone which went wrong, the met. office has gone all coy, hedging its bets, talking only about how it expects an almost-normal, on-schedule monsoon – though that is almost six weeks away, and there’s the terrible month of May to be gone through first. Heaven help us all.