Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Heat, Wind & Dust: A disgruntled newcomer's account of his first Delhi summer

On the rare occasions I find myself in relative proximity to a pretty stranger, I - not being the quick-witted sort - try and begin with a, "Pretty hot/cold/wet/dry, huh?" Depending on whether she screams and makes for the exit... or... well, whether she stays put, I go about expanding on the theme. The plan, of course, is to quickly dispense with the weather stuff, and move on to other topics of larger interest. Sometimes though, as happens ever so often to all of us, divine inspiration takes hold. And before I know it, I have a mini opus on The Weather in my oeuvre.

That essentially is what happened with this post. It started out as the fourth entry in my sci-fi series - a review of "It Came From Outer Space." And then a seemingly innocuous scene on the weather set me off. Granted, there's nothing more mundane than the weather. However, that doesn't necessarily mean this post wouldn't amount to anything. As the esteemed Joel Stickley put it, "If a thing's worth doing badly, it's worth doing badly well." I will attempt to bore you on a giant canvas; with scope, with boldness, with ambition - David Lean-esque almost (post black-and-white British dramas, that is). Rohan of Borabia might as well be the alternate title of this post.

Heat, Wind & Dust (Not a Merchant Ivory Production)

Sheriff Matt Warren: Did you know, Putnam, more people are murdered at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once - lower temperatures, people are easy-going. Over ninety two, it's too hot to move. But just ninety-two, people get irritable. 

When I first saw the scene, I was of course suitably impressed. We don't use the Fahrenheit scale here, and while I knew that the figure would be much lower in the Celsius scale, it still seemed unbearably high. And then there's the superb acting of Charles Drake, with that mad gleam in his eyes, that note of suffering buried deep in his voice, and that furtive reach for his gun. I was sold: "Gosh, 92 °F, eh? Wow!"

But now, I just wish I hadn't been drinking coffee, when I opened up that temperature-calculator web page. I must do something about these explosive outbursts of scorn - coffee stains are so hard to get out of everything. 92 °F is just 33 °C! You pussies! You complain of 33 °C? Why, here in Delhi, at 33 °C, we switch off our air conditioners and our fans, dig out our sweaters and hunch miserably in all that cold. (Unless it's winter, when we switch on the fans, and strip down to our undies, should the temperature get as high as 5 °C. A city of extremes.)

Let me tell you, you toe-rags, something about the heat. When I checked last week, the temperature in the shade was 48 °C. Yes, that's right, fuckers. 48 °C. 118 °F. 321 Kelvin. If you think there's no movement above 92 °F, you obviously have never driven on the NH 8. You feel irritable and murderous at 33 °C? Well then, right here and right now, this is the time and the place for Grand Guignol bloodshed; for emptying that vial of anthrax, for letting loose them rats by their millions, for carrying that pick-axe through the streets. Not even the blood of thousands upon thousands surging through the pathways, turning the lamp-posts and the pavements and the statues bright, bright red, shattering windows and oak doors; none of it, none of it, could even get close to quenching my thirst. That call you hear, my friends; that's the thermometer - and it's a cry for carnage.

How many weeks has it been since I've had a good night's sleep? Half my mind is perpetually awake, dreadfully conscious of the stifling heat, of my bed that is now a frying pan. Waking up in the morning in a pool of sweat, I drag myself to the bathroom mirror. Looking at the crazed, unshaven figure with bloodshot eyes, I wonder if I know who he is. Then the third-degree burns from my hands on the steering wheel; it'll be several kilometres before the AC cools the car down from the oven that it was.

And now I sit here with a sheen of sweat on my brow; the dull ache has been throbbing in my head for over a week now. My eyes are beady, my breath rasping; I stare furtively at the girl opposite me in the parking shuttle. She manages, as only women can, to look as fresh as the early-morning dew. In all this heat. My God, the heat! I must... resist... should not... reach across... grab her (in a totally non-creepy way, if this is getting too disturbing for my women readers); must not try and drain every bit of that freshness out - to its last delicate drop - until she's just a shriveled heap on the floor. I want to bathe in all that coolness, soak it in, and feel life surge back into me.

Now, you must be googling for the heat records, and would probably be wondering what on earth I'm on about. No doubt, you've noticed that Death Valley in California is the hottest place on the planet, with the temperature touching the mid-50s. Perhaps you're right there. But the thing is, when a place is named Death Valley, it's unlikely that anyone would ever mistake it for prime real estate.

Delhi, on the other hand, is a city of art, of history, of beauty, and of wide, wide roads; of great food, cheap booze, and beautiful women; of the dome of the Jama Masjid, framed against the full moon, rising majestically above centuries-old neighbours; of the Red Fort; of the Parliament buildings whose grandeur you'd think you couldn't describe in a thousand words, that could never ever be topped - until you turned your head to the right and saw the India Gate. This is the city of Khan Market and of Chandni Chowk; a city that's a stone's throw from Jaipur, from the Thar Desert, from the Taj Mahal; from Chandigarh, Amritsar, Rishikesh and Dharamshala; from the awe-inspiring spectacle of the Himalayas. This is where, near midnight on the 14th of August, all those years ago, Nehru proclaimed the birth of a nation, declared us free of the shackles of colonialism: "At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance." Delhi is no Death Valley: it's a nation's capital, for God's sake! It just isn't fair!

The heat is bad enough, but we haven't yet got to its evil twin, The Wind. I was brought up in Cochin - a sea-side city 10 degrees north of the equator. People brought up there know a thing or two about the heat. But, even for us, associating the wind with the heat is anathema. The wind is the balm; even on the hottest day a gust of it will have us turning our faces to it. Come the dark, every fibre of my being, every cell in my body, is programmed to expect the wind to calm and to delight. The vestiges of the day is a time for deck-chairs out on the terrace, or a walk to the riverside. But that was before I moved to Delhi; before Loo, the Evil Wind.

When I first heard of the Loo, I romanticised it, partly due to thinking it originated from the deserts of Arabia. (It is, in fact, from closer home - from the Thar Desert.) I imagined standing on the balcony of my flat on a warm summer afternoon, a drink in my hand, the wind ruffling my hair. I fancied hearing the battle cries of Lawrence's men on their raid of Aqaba; the tinkling footsteps of gorgeous, mysterious belly-dancers; a waft of the wisdom of Persepolis; a touch of the wild hallucinations of Hashish, perhaps; the odd flying carpet rattling my window panes. Not in a million years would I have imagined that the wind would be stripped of all essence, bar that of the boiling oil destined for Ali Baba's forty thieves.

The thing is, no matter how much sweat and toil I put into these descriptions, those of you who've never experienced Loo, you wouldn't get it. You'd imagine it as slightly warm wind, with your own variations of romanticism. It is a wind that makes your face melt and go drip drip drip on your shoes. You do not welcome it, you do not turn to it. You hide from it, hunting desperately for shelter: a pillar, a tree, maybe even an orange, if you're desperate enough.

Let me try cinematic imagery. Ever seen a scene where our heroine is lazing about in bed, blankets up to her chin? The curtains billow, and the gentle wind has her smiling lazily, rubbing her eyes and wondering what further delights the day would bring. Last week, after a very late night out, I carelessly left the door to my balcony open. Cue billowing curtains early next afternoon. What you wouldn't have caught, if you were an observer, was a content smile, and a languorous return to consciousness. You would've instead been startled by me springing out of bed like a scalded cat. I kid you not, I exaggerate not in the slightest, when I tell you that I thought my pants had been set on fire.

And then - oh so rarely - out of nowhere, thunder rumbles, lightning flashes, and the smell of rain is in the air. The wind blows harder than ever, but this is a tender wind. One that you would gladly let wash over your face - except for one thing. And that, my friends, brings us to the final chapter in our story - The Dust. Admittedly, a little brother to The Heat and The Wind, but nonetheless as mean as either of them. What's so shocking is that it's just so unexpected. For eons, single men have had a tender, loving relationship with dust. We co-exist peacefully - breed it even - in our homes, in our cars, and in offices, schools and other public places that are left to our care. We recognise it as a fellow child of Nature, and accord it due respect. In return, they mark out the movies and the books on our shelves that are best avoided.

After days and sometimes weeks of torture, would even the most vicious sadist on earth begrudge us our time in the open - dancing, laughing, joyful? Apparently, this creature would, one that we'd treated as one of our own, one that we'd held to our bosom; for it grows fangs and horns. It whips around densely, waiting for the smallest orifice to sneak through. We stare out the window, at the cool delight that we know is out there: the sigh that escapes is heartfelt. We think of all the good times we had with each other, of the times we lovingly nurtured them in our very homes. It stings us to our core; we feel betrayed.

I know that some of you, right now, would be heaping scorn on me; asking what right have I - as one who spends his entire working day in a climate-controlled office, one who could have an air-conditioner installed in his bedroom anytime, one who doesn't have to step out into the sun at any time of the day - to complain? What of those who take in 2 or 3 people on board their rickshaws, and cycle them around, with just a towel over their heads? How do these people get through a day? What of those who live in the large swathes of this vast plain that has no electricity, or very little of it? How do they sleep at night? I complain of a little bit of dust spoiling my rain dance? Well, what of those who, not so far away, deal with murderous dust storms? Have I no shame, no sense of proportion?

Well, I can think of no stinging retorts. I humbly ask, instead, that you compare my little complaints with Sheriff Warren's whingeing, and go no deeper. After all, if you're reading this, it's most likely on a nice LCD screen, in an air-conditioned room somewhere. You're of my ilk; what do we care of the others?

Epilogue: The Disgruntled Newcomer sits at his desk, with a pensive eye cast out the window. It is still early June: the Sun's northward march will not cease for another 3 weeks; the monsoons are not expected until mid-July or whenever - whichever comes later - as my battle-hardened Delhi friends tell me. What will the next few weeks bring?


pritika said...

Just to make u feel a little better,it rained in pune yesterday and the monsoons are expected here in the next 4 days,and it will rain continuously for the next 4 months....just so you know :)

Rohan said...

Sounds bad. Hope you don't catch a dreadful cold, or something, Pritika. Better stay indoors all the time.

missjane said...

Blimey - you're obviously going for an adults-only rating as well!

It's interesting how cities name their winds: here in Perth we call our afternoon sea-breeze 'the Doctor,' and it sounds a bit like your Cochin-wind. Mind you, we also have the rather unimaginatively-named evil sibling, the Easterly, which (duh) comes from the East, and hence straight out of the desert. Most days it does not reach the extremes you describe, but there are days (usually when I'm playing cricket, for some reason) when I do feel as if I am in danger of being completely dessicated, and ending up a small pile of dust at mid-off, perhaps with a stripe of zinc and a cap on top.

I'd also like to say that there is no way any disclaimer can make that paragraph not creepy. Just so you know. Also that if you ever saw me during or after playing cricket, I'm certainly not looking fresh at all. Mind you, there are certain annoying types around the place who manage it.

missjane said...

But the Delhi paragraph is lovely, and has moved it up my 'places to visit one day' list, albeit with a note about checking the weather first.

Also, if I'm reading this correctly, the wind is called the Loo, which in Australia (and so probably the UK) is slang for toilet.

Neha said...

Why is Delhi suddenly so ugly? The post is disquieting. The city, which not only has more trees than two Mumbais put together, is perhaps the only place where the roads are wider, so your car can drive on 'em with or without air conditioning. This post certainly reeks of grandiose imagination of someone sitting in air conditioning and talking without a hint of modesty. Yes, the weather is bad this year, but don't blame the capital city for not attracting the right kind of winds. And, because of the ever expanding girth of the landscape 'cos of the soaring populace, soon it will only be all heat and dust and no heritage.

Rohan said...

Jane: Thanks for the props! October and February are the best (from my rather limited experience); and if you can stand lows of 5 - 10 °C, the winter months are really nice, too. We use the same slang for toilet in India, too. It's just that Loo has been around for a Very Long Time, and so we're kind of used to the dual meaning.

The pile of dust, with a cap on, at mid off is a great image! Does it make me a bad person that I imagined Jacques Kallis turning into one? (Though, admittedly, I haven't seen him at mid off much.) The disclaimer didn't work? Damn! There goes my boy-next-door image.

Neha: What can I say? Except maybe, "I like to whinge."

missjane said...

I think you mean that in terms of 'imagined Kallis turning into one because I dislike him so much,' which might make you a bad person, but a bad person with lots of company. The alternative is that somehow I remind you of Kallis, which would be strange and possibly insulting, but not bad, and would explain why you have trouble talking to girls. :)

'Grandiose imagination' ... 'without a hint of modesty.' It sounds like Neha knows you. :)

Rohan said...

Thanks for putting that image in my head, Jane. I don't think I'll ever be able to so much as look at a girl again. I was astonished to find a Kallis fan page on Facebook, with 4000+ fans. I wouldn't have thought it possible for there to be any such thing as a Kallis fan; life keeps finding ways of surprising us.

And yes, yes. I'd thought that Paras #2 and #3 (from the end) would be bullet-proof at covering my rear end. :sigh: The perils of hubris...

missjane said...

Hey, I'm the one who was (potentially) reminding you of Kallis, I have the most right to be insulted! Let that be a lesson to you to express things more clearly next time. (heh... this is so going to be quoted back at me at some point, isn't it?)

I quite like Kallis, actually, as a cricketer.