Warm memories of India's heat

My most memorable summer is the one I spent in New Delhi in 1942. Gosh, that's 60 years ago! But it does seem like yesterday. As I've said elsewhere, time isn't passing by, it is you and I.

I was 8 years old, and I'd come to live with my father in a Royal Air Force tent on the outskirts of Delhi. The outskirts, at that time, were no farther than Humayun Road, which was surrounded by scrub jungle and the ruins of old cities. There were no taxis around, and to get to and from Delhi railway station we had to take a tonga, a two-wheeled horse-drawn rickshaw.

After a couple of months we moved from the tent to a barracklike hut, which was hotter than the tent. And by now it was midsummer.

Every couple of hours the bhisti (water-carrier) would come around with his goatskin bag of cool water. He would fling water onto the khus-khus (reed matting) that hung from our door and windows. A cool fragrance would fill the rooms, until the fiery sun dried the matting, and we'd start praying for the bhisti's return.

As an officer on duty, my father was not allowed to keep his small son with him in official quarters. So he rented a small apartment on Atul Grove Road, where we even enjoyed the luxury of a table fan. I missed out on school that year (what bliss, having a year's holiday!), and while my father was away at Air Headquarters, I would sit in front of the fan, reading, sorting stamps (my father was an avid collector), or just daydreaming.

When he came home, he'd tell me about the day's work, put me abreast of the war situation, and occasionally take me to the movies at Connaught Place.

World War II was at its height in the Far East and Southeast Asia, and trenches had been dug along our road in case of Japanese air raids. There had already been a couple of raids on Calcutta. The trenches were great places to play in; when the monsoon broke, they filled with water and became small ponds.

The landlord's son and I and a number of street urchins had a wonderful time splashing around in these pools. Barriers of race and caste vanished in their muddy confines. It was a perfect way to keep cool, although another bath would be necessary when I got back to the house.

Drinking water was kept cool in a sohrai, an earthen vessel that was kept where a breeze (if there was one) could play on it.

Summertime in Delhi was also jamun-time, and I feasted on this sour, tangy fruit until lips and cheeks were dripping purple.

There was also the Keventer's Milk Bar at Connaught Circus, only a short distance from Atul Grove. I had learned to get there on my own, which was perfectly safe, as there was little or no traffic on the road.

So when I grew restless at home, I would stroll down Curzon Road (Kasturba Gandhi Marg today) and indulge in a strawberry milkshake or vanilla ice cream at the Milk Bar. Close by was a newsstand, and here I'd pick up my favorite comics, Film Fun or Radio Fun. Then I'd stroll home in the midday sun, my head suitably protected with a sola-topee (sun helmet).

One did not venture out without a sola-topee. They were supposed to protect you from sunstroke. You don't see them anymore. So I think the value of the sun helmet was somewhat exaggerated; or perhaps people don't go out in the sun as much as they used to.

Sometimes my father would bring home a gramophone record for our windup gramophone. The records would have to be packed flat, otherwise they would assume strange shapes in the summer heat and become unplayable.

There were no fancy multinational cold drinks in those days, but we managed quite well on humble lemonade.

Dust storms were common during the summer. Delhi was open on all sides, and the hot winds from the Rajasthan Desert would be followed by a brief shower of rain that would bring the temperature down. Duststorms are not so frequent now, probably because the city has grown so dense, the buildings too high.

ALL this is pure nostalgia, of course. Prickly heat rashes and dust in your hair, eyes, and nostrils were not exactly fun. But even a Delhi summer could be tolerable if you had the right sort of companion. My father was just that. I could get through the day on my own, but the evenings had to be spent with him.

New Delhi, India's new capital, was just 10 years old then. The shops, the restaurants, the cinemas, all located at Connaught Place, had a certain gloss and glamour about them. Ceiling fans whirred overhead in the more elegant, upscale places.

It was only when I returned to Delhi in 1960 that I experienced the luxury of a water cooler. Air-conditioning came later. But if you had neither of these, you could find a stately peepal tree almost anywhere in Delhi, and shelter beneath it from the blazing sun. There you could enjoy the cool zephyr provided by its eternally revolving leaves.

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