Where heat that beat conquerors still molds society
NEW DELHI — It comes at the end of March and doesn't leave until the end of October.
Its kiln-like heat shortens the lives of mosquitoes, dries up rivers and streams, forces trees to drop their leaves, and sends sentient beings - from stockbrokers and shopkeepers to ants, cattle, peacocks, and even cobras - into shady areas, gasping for breath.
No, it's not some biblical plague. Meteorologists call it "summer." Already this past month, temperatures have ranged from the upper 90s to well over 110 degrees F.
Locations like Death Valley or the deepest Sahara may lay claim to hotter temperatures, but none of those places has a population as large as India's (No. 2 in the world and gaining), or a civilization that has achieved so much by adaptation and resilience.
It's a process of adaptation that goes well beyond the mere selection of lighter clothes and deep into the Indian psyche, from culture and religion to methods of protest and governance. The strongest tools of adaptation are creativity and, if all else fails, patience.
"When summer comes, everything changes," says novelist Khushwant Singh, speaking from his cool, dark library with high ceilings. High up on the walls, geckoes patrol for insects. "The loose clothing comes out, carpets are removed and stored, and food changes as well - and this is most significant. You eat cucumbers, vegetables, and watermelons of different kinds, all of which are supposed to be cooling to the body."
"And at night, we always slept in the open air on rooftops, because the house was too warm," he says. "I learned to tell the time by watching the stars and their movement across the sky." He pauses. "Of course, all that will change with air conditioning," which is increasingly an option for the urban middle class.
Over the millennia, India's heat has brought out a strange but powerful reaction from conquerors and conquered alike. Around 1800 B.C., invading Aryans from Central Asia initially adored India for its wide-open plains and well-watered fertile lands. Then summer came. Suddenly, Sanskrit poets began to toy with the idea of returning to the steppes.
The Mogul conqueror Babur had a similar love-hate relationship. "Hindustan [India] is a country that has few pleasures to recommend it," he wrote in the 16th century. Even the stiff-upper-lipped British wilted. "During the hot weather, the Briton is not himself," one late 19th-century British letter-writer wrote. "The Indian climate throws its net over him, and struggle as he may, he must yield to its embrace."
Some Indians say the unrelenting heat is at least partially responsible for the Indian people's famed long-suffering attitudes toward everything from oppressive invading armies to abusive bosses to lazy, corrupt, or neglectful bureaucrats.
"Those who can afford it go to the hills and cool off; those who cannot, craft the theory of karma," jokes Mrinal Pande, a New Delhi-based writer. Karma is the Hindu concept of justice, that a person's good acts in this life will help him be reborn into a better life later on.
The problem with all this righteous suffering, says Ms. Pande, is that "it takes away the physical ability to craft a well-organized opposition. In this way, Gandhi was brilliant. He created a form of protest called dharna, which fits our predilections perfectly. It's not marching around with placards and shouting. You just go someplace and sit there and lay siege until the other guy relents."
On the streets of Delhi, where temperatures range from 106 to 110 F., nearly everyone appears to be engaged in some form of dharna, more out of necessity than out of protest. Many shops close their doors until dusk. Pedestrians stay indoors, giving Delhi a ghost-town feel. Bicycle rickshaw drivers stretch out on top of whatever they are carting - coconuts, watermelons, bundles of laundry - for a short afternoon nap.
Guddi, who irons clothes in a shady spot in the fashionable Jorbagh neighborhood, says she works a little more slowly to survive the heat. But all things considered, summer is good for business. "I get more clothes to iron in the summer, because people discard them faster after a hot morning," she says, her gold bracelets jangling as she loads pieces of charcoal into a heavy, hot iron. "Plus, people wear more cotton ... and cotton requires more ironing."
For many Indians, summer is neither a boon nor a blight, merely something to endure. At an embroidery sweatshop in the Shahpur Jat district of New Delhi, 20 young boys crowd into a medium-size concrete room, stitching beads and sequins into elegant saris, scarves, and skirts. In the adjoining room, another 20 boys lie sprawled out, resting for the next shift.
"We are poor people," says a 20ish supervisor named Abdul Midday, standing next to a large common water tank. "However hot it is, we have to bear it."
Nazrul, a worker from West Bengal, admits he misses the cooler sea breezes of his home state. "Bengal is cooler, but there is no money there. Here, there are jobs."
India's working poor tend to be stoic about the heat, while the upper classes, which have the most elaborate traditions for coping, complain vociferously when overtaxed systems cause power cuts or a breakdown in water supplies.
During a recent hot spell, when water pressure diminished to nil, Delhi police noticed a spike in calls from some of the growing prosperous residential areas of South Delhi. When one apartment-dwelling family gets water, and their neighbor does not, arguments occasionally can turn ugly.
"Now, because of globalization, the rich and the middle class can't take their vacations up in the hills; they have to work in this heat," says Pande, the writer. People accustomed to one or two months off are being given shorter vacations by competitive companies that want to keep employees at their desks.
"For the first time, the rich realize what summer months are like. You can have the most expensive air conditioner, but no electricity to run it. And you can have the most expensive Italian-marble bathtub, but with no water."
She chuckles. "It's made for black comedy."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor