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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ghastly heat

It is the last day of April. I’m sure that when the poet wrote ‘April is the cruellest month’ he had other things in mind, but for me – and for a lot of people I know – this has been the cruellest month so far, in a very crude physical sense, not just in this year but in a very long time span. Summer does not agree with me, and the summers where I live, right on the edge of India’s blistering, sweltering tropical heartland, have never been pleasant in living memory, but (and I recently discovered that this is not my personal feeling alone – the Weather Office has confirmed my subjective estimate) this has been the nastiest summer yet, although summer has supposedly just begun!

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.


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

I feel sad for you. I remember the heat in Durgapur and I fear to even think of the heat in Delhi. I can only wish that it rains soon and you get some relief. Today I was reading in Telegraph that the increased heat felt in Kolkata is not because of global warming only. Kolkata does not have enough trees and neither do the ponds exist. Is it true for Durgapur too? When we went to Durgapur, it was the greenery that attracted me the most.


krishanu said...

It was a relief to know that I am not the only one silently cursing the torturous weather. Being in New Delhi, it seems even worse than the heat we used to face in Durgapur. At least, one could have the pleasure of witnessing a thunderstorm, washing away the tiredness in oneself, and that too in the early evening, when the maximum power cuts were sullenly borne.But, here in New Delhi, there are no such saving graces; probably due to the lack of substantial water bodies around, more aerial pollution, and maybe even due to less 'yagnas' being staged to appease the rain-god than in West Bengal.There is another lingering thought which I reckon has often puzzled many bengalis. Out here, many people have blamed my tendency to sweat profusely, and feel the heat on my being a bengali! According to the (rather well informed, I dare say)Jats, Biharis, Punjabis and a smattering of people from all over India, Bengalis have a very sensitive constitution, are very frail and are easily overwhelmed.'Our' problem lies in the fact that we think too much, and pay no attention towards improving our physical self. Furthermore, bengalis should start eating more 'missi da roti' and other such stuff, and stay away from that damned rice.Although, at first glance, these suggestions might seem trivial, I think they have some merit, especially in their suggestion towards enriching our food habits, by including more Pan-Indian items. I wonder what the readers have to say . By the way, perhaps you would try out some good old 'khus-khus' at your place. It's worth it's reputation. You could not only pay less for electricity, but also become a model citizen with a care for our environment. Besides, it's an Indian invention, notwithstanding what the mughals had to say.
Regards,Krishanu Chatterjee

Shilpi said...

Suvro da,
You have all my empathy and sympathy and prayers. I don't even particularly care at this point why it's so hot or what the long-term reasons and solutions are. I just wish that it would rain and that it would be less hot.

Thinking of that unbearable, awful heat is one of the things that's been grating on my nerves for especially the last three weeks now. Even though I can only barely remember or imagine the heat - that is quite enough. And that's nothing close to the real thing and all I do is to shudder and pray...and where are all the prayers going?!

And not to go overboard or anything - but it's quite amazing to see that you can make yourself think and write and even count your blessings in the midst of that Godforsaken heat.

I don't know what else I can say here or anywhere else. I have been praying for the rains to come as well and I too have wished that the three of you were living up in the mountains somewhere. I'll take the rains for now....I do hope and pray that they come soon.
Take care. All of you have my love and prayers.

aranibanerjee said...


On a different note: I sold books on my back for two years in Calcutta. There 40 degrees plus heat would combine with killing humidity. Then, there was this two hour long journey back home on public transport. On trains, we would have power cuts, and would be stranded without hope or relief. I fainted one day. Back in Barrackpore, power would go off in the middle of the night only to come back after an hour or so.
And even the office wasn't airconditioned. I hated all of that. Now in Delhi, with more of desk work, airconditioned taxis at disposal, office temperature set at 18 degrees (U K standard that is followed in the Harlow office), AC at home and only an hours power cut in April I hardly remember those days.
Yesterday, the mercury touched 44. I had to wire money home. I got out at 10 in the morning. My father's bank is at Daryaganj--some 7 miles from where I stay. Braving the imminent loo, I wired the money. Then, lured by the mecca of publishing in India, that is Ansari Road and Nayi Sadak, I started walking the lanes of that area. I went to Raj Kamal's (premier Hindi literature) warehouse--dark, dingy , and dripping with soot. There was no power and I manged to get my Rahi Masoom Reza and Manohar Shyam Joshi. Then, I walked upto the Oxfors showroom, where finding that I was a peer, they offered some cola and water and a good discount. ( I was carrying my notebook on my back all along). After that, in the loo, took an auto back to office. All this without lunch. You know what, I really got a kick out of it. Strange but true. I could still earn my bread by being a coolie! I hadn't lost the zeal to slave like a donkey greased as I am by corporate fat!

aranibanerjee said...

Dear Krishanu,

Do stick to the Bong grub and do not pay any heed to the Jaat/Punjabi bull. You need all the moisture in the world and as much rest as you can think of. Have some posto. I too live in Delhi


Sayak Shome said...

I woke up today,just to find that my t-shirt was all wet and even the bed had got wet.I tried hard to think and really wanted to believe that I was dreaming or someone had thrown a bucket full of water on me but soon I realised that I was soaked to the skin with my own sweat.After I recovered from the early morning shock,I saw that the fan was not on.Hoping against hope,and being terribly optimistic I thought that it was a prank by my brother who had switched off the fan but all my hopes were washed away when saw that the switch for the fan was on.With unflagging spirit I tried to think that the regulator of the fan was set to zero,but this thought rather wish of mine turned out to be wrong as well.Hence,although unwillingly,I concluded that it was a power cut.What a marvelously awful way to start the first day of May;May day with a bang.Things could not have gone worse,when thinking of washing my face,I opened the tap in my bathroom,and to my utter disgust,there was no water.Hopefully,thinking of situations like this,my mother took the pains of storing water in some buckets last night,and I was able to take a bath.
I had my guitar tuitions at eleven o' clock,and as I loved playing the guitar it helped me somewhat in averting my mind from the fact that there was a power cut.But life is not so merciful and one hour passed as if it was one minute,and I cursed Albert Einstein for that.Could not the theory of relativity be the opposite of what it is.

["If you were sitting on a hot stove for 5 minutes,it would seem like an hour.If you were talking to a beautiful and charming woman for an hour it would seem like 5 minutes.That's relativity"]
-Albert Einstein

Shilpi said...

Unless I'm badly mistaken, a khus-khus works well in places which experience dry heat, and preferably in places where there is no water shortage. So one makes one's pick - consuming electricity or using buckets of water. If there are blobs of humidity in the air however, a khus-khus will not work. Unlike Delhi and Agra - it's muggy in Durgapur.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, Krishanu missed what I said about the cooler, I think, Shilpi: that machine works with khus-khus mats, of course. Unfortunately, there are days here (such as today) when it doesn't work at all, because, as you have rightly said, the air is too damp.

Niladri Roy said...

It's truly very hot this year. I got ill just after attending school for two days. A heavr shower is really the need of the day. Though the power cuts are low now I think it will increase after the elections are over! and your classroom was the coolest of all that i have attended.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the kind words, Niladri. I try to be as considerate to the children in my charge as I can. Not everybody notices, and fewer still remember.

Harman said...


reading about the Durgapur heat bought back a lot of memories: mom storing water for late night showers, drinking cool glucose-D after school, laying wet sheets over the mosquito net at night to simulate cool breeze from the fan, long walks at night during summer power outages.

Sir, reading about your summer experience helped set things in perspective for me. I was just complaining the other day to a colleague that it was still cold in Philadelphia and it was already May.

I count my blessings, and hope you get some much needed summer relief.