It's 112 degrees in Delhi, and civility is setting in
NEW DELHI — It is 3:30 p.m. in the visa section of the South African High Commission in New Delhi, and a crowd of 30 or so visa-seekers stands quietly outside the shuttered windows, waiting for the appointed hour.
The temperature outside is hot even by Delhi standards, about 44.8 degrees Celsius, or as Americans would say, 112 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no air conditioning in the waiting room of the visa section, just ceiling fans that push the hot noiseless air around.
Finally, like the opening gates of the Kentucky Derby, the shutters open, with just one visa counselor behind them. The crowd makes its way to this person's window, and when the counselor moves to another window, almost as if pacing, the crowd tries to move with her. There is no pretense of a line - everyone knows there is just one hour to pick up his finished visa before closing time. And yet, there is not one complaint.
After five summers in India, I've come to the conclusion that summertime brings out the best in the Indian character: patience. Mahatma Gandhi tapped this quality to encourage his mass of followers to stop cooperating with the British colonists until the British just left.
Theoretically, when temperatures soar past the hundred mark, tempers should soar too, but not in India.
Roadside fender benders usually end with shrugs and sighs rather than fists. Slow-moving queues dissolve into sullen crowds.
It's an attitude I can easily understand. It's just too hot to get angry. Blast-furnace heat encourages meditation, not tantrums.
Officially, an Indian summer stretches from late March until early October, but this comes in two distinct parts. One comes before the monsoon rainy season, from around March until late June. The monsoon is a joyous break in the middle, and the inspiration for every wet-sari scene in every Hindi movie ever made. The second part comes along to wipe away the humidity of the monsoon, the way a teacher's rebuke wipes off the smirk from a student's face.
Indians call the dual season garmiyan, literally "the hots." Travel agents and hoteliers have another word for it: the "exodus." Nobody in his right mind comes to India in the summertime. Expatriates and diplomats tend to flee for their home countries. Indians who can afford it travel to "hill stations" in the Himalayas. Journalists head for the mountains too, catching up on war zones in Nepal, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.
Journalists who find themselves stuck in Delhi treat the heat as a news story, printing stories about heat death tolls as if they were keeping score at an Indian cricket test match.
Politicians act as if 2006 was the first year India has had a thing called "summer," promising investigations into the theft of electricity. Bureaucrats bulldoze businesses that have been constructed without proper permission from the government.
This is not India's first summer, of course. The country has had almost 60 of them since independence in 1947, but supply hasn't caught up with the ever increasing demand each summer for electricity as more and more Indians buy electrical appliances and air conditioners, and banks throw out consumer loans as if they were confetti at the Macy's parade.
Several hydropower dams are under construction, such as the controversial Narmada and Tehri dams in Madhya Pradesh and Uttaranchal, respectively. But dams can disappoint, displacing more people than they help, and the growing demand for water all too often means that there is less water to keep turbines going.
What this means, of course, is power cuts, sometimes lasting eight hours a day or more. Sixty percent of small and medium businesses, and all large-scale companies have backup generators to keep their shops and factories lit. The added cost of fuel, with oil in the $70-a-barrel range, saps India's potential economic growth.
Which brings us back to India's capacity for patience.
Power cuts, water shortages, and even an expected shortage of mangoes (probably the only serious benefit of a long hot Indian summer) would have sparked calls for a congressional investigation if this was the United States.
But this is India. It's too hot to be bothered.