Memories of Hot Summers Elsewhere

Talking about the weather is supposedly a concession, an admission that a conversation has run aground, spun off into irrelevancies; nothing, it seems, quite shows the lack of an agenda for an exchange of words like a discussion about the heat, the cold, the rain. Well, I admit defeat; I admit I’m tongue-tied and incoherent. This has been a hot summer in New York City, and its driven me to blogging about the heat. More to the point, what has finally sent me over the tipping edge was a rumor floated earlier this week that temperatures in the city would approach 104F. Because I spent the first twenty years of my life in climes calibrated by the Celsius scale, I occasionally still convert temperatures into that set of numbers, to ascertain whether my childhood reckonings of temperature extremes have been tickled or not. And 104F is the Fahrenheit equivalent of a grim marker in Celsius: 40C, the temperature at which, as a boy, I knew the real summer began.

I grew up in a very hot city: New Delhi. (A quick glance at a chart of world temperatures will show that it is, quite easily, the worlds hottest large city.) 40C came early in the year, as early as April, and you could experience 40C days into August. In between, the monsoon intervened, and its drenching showers brought some relief, but very often it would result in days marked by low-lying cloud, suffocating, stifling humidity and temperatures in the high nineties (in the mid to high thirties if we are talking Celsius). For the rest of the time, Delhi baked, day after day, in searing heat that enervated and exhausted, sending adult and child, when possible, into cool refuges, all the while hydrating themselves with any fluids at hand. (A simple injunction I received as a child was: ‘Drink a glass of water when you leave the house; drink another glass when you arrive at your destination.’) Airconditioners were rare; evaporative coolers common.

The serious heat began at finals time, and branded the vacations. School ended, and we retreated indoors. We were glad to not have to ride crowded, non-airconditioned school buses anymore, with their sweat-stained seats, but unless trips out of the city–to, hopefully, a salubrious ‘hill station‘–were planned, we faced the prospect of lengthy confinement at home, hemmed in by a cauldron of hot winds and glaring sunshine. Temperatures climbed into the nineties by 7AM or a little after, and after a few brief forays outside, the more prudent among us quickly retreated. The reckless often ventured out, even in the middle of the afternoon. Playtime at local parks in the evenings began late, after some nominal cooling.

Delhi summer nights and days were often made more miserable by the loss of electricity. To this day, I don’t think I have heard anything quite as terrifying as a ceiling fan grinding to a halt, its supply of electric charge cut off by an errant power grid. And nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever sound quite as sweet as the sound that came to me, as I would wait patiently outdoors in the warm summer night–dazed and confused after being woken up by a power failure–of dozens of cooler fans starting up in my street. That was bliss; every other human pleasure seemed insignificant in comparison.

Except perhaps, the taste of cold water after a stint in the sun.

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