I hear you, Delhi summer

P Krishna Gopinath | Updated on October 23, 2020

Calm after the dust storm: Even until a few decades ago, the summer aandhi would swirl through Delhi with the force and fury of a Wagner symphony   -  PRASHANT NAKWE

The season, with its bird music and noisy coolers, leaves the stage to melancholic winter

Another summer has retreated and, with it, all its sounds. We miss the early dawn of human voices and the cadences of koels and bulbuls. Many Delhiites try to romanticise winters and despise summer but I hold contrarian views. Barring the Himalayan sub-region, India is a summer country. In the northern plains, in May and June and even later, day temperatures can be forbidding; summer’s virtues lie elsewhere.

As a young bachelor I slept on the terrace of my barsati and woke up fresh to bird music. Sparrows and gregarious mynahs pranced about your feet. Magpies daintily strutted but warblers and parakeets stuck to their arboreal perches on mango trees.

But my first encounter with Delhi’s summer was when I came to the city in 1968. As the sun set, almost everyone put their charpoys out in the open. Those who had houses with gardens, courtyards and terraces used the space to sleep. In government housing colonies of smaller quarters, the open common space in front of each row of houses was used. After 8pm, we could see rows of charpoys, neatly laid, with clear demarcation of turf rights.

Paul Theroux said of Istanbul that the great city had the “soul of a village”. Delhi, too, has the soul of a village, otherwise such community sleeping would not have been possible. Privacy was respected. Within a family, children slept in the middle. There was good neighbourly cordiality, only mild banter between the adults of very close neighbours — Kaise hain aap (how are you) or Mausam saaf hain, aandhi nahi aayegi (the weather is fine, there won’t be a dust storm). The exquisiteness of spoken Hindustani, exuding courtesy and elegance, was unmatched.

Aandhi or a dust storm was the leitmotif of a summer. It blew in, once a week or so, with great force and fury, like a Wagner symphony. Trees raged against the dying light. Windows and doors were firmly shut but still dust crept in and settled everywhere. As the storm ended, rain came in a con brio movement. Temperature fell by a few degrees and the poetry of our humdrum lives returned.

Dust storms have perceptibly changed. They still roar and charge. Dust swirls in a dervish. Fine sand covers furniture. At times a light rain condescendingly obliges. But the city doesn’t get cooler as in days of yore.

But you can still track the movement of summer by the flowering of the laburnum. These resplendent bowers of yellow are true markers of heat. In Kerala, laburnum blooms in March and April and the Vishu ritual is incomplete without it. In the Konkan and Mumbai, the trees bend with flowers in April and May as heat peaks. In Agra, where I lived for a while, there was a sturdy and spreading laburnum just outside the front porch of my house. In the early hours of a summer day, I used to stand under its canopy to receive benediction. When the wind blew, yellow petals carpeted the ground. Both in Delhi and Chandigarh, we had houses on streets lined with the blinding yellow of the laburnum and the flamboyant crimson of the gulmohar.

When New Delhi was designed, buildings were oriented to keep the heat out. Houses had verandas and porches. Shuttered windows filtered sunlight.

Things changed in the ’80s with the advent of a compact, rectangular contraption called the room cooler. Their plastic bodies were light and could be moved to any room. They didn’t really cool the room but filled it with humidified air.

But then something of evolutionary significance happened with the arrival of the desert cooler. They were large and squarish tin boxes. Three sides had khus pads. Inside, a motor and a big fan worked overtime to draw in air from outside. They were a big hit in middle-class homes that were cooled well till mid-June before humidity picked up.

Air conditioners were like moksha and too remote an attainment for most. In Central government offices, where I spent a lifetime, none below the rank of a joint secretary had an AC in the room. The rest had coolers that rattled and reverberated in the afternoon.

I felt the absence of Delhi’s summer sounds on a recent morning in Gali Ballimaran in Old Delhi. It was still early but the street was bustling. Trading had begun, vehicles were honking and pedestrians shouting. ACs were running and fans rotated. But for some reason, electric supply momentarily shut down. A silence unique to a great city fell on the street. I could hear conversations from homes, a man coughing, a child crying and the sound of quick footsteps on a rickety wooden staircase.

There was the crackle of mustard in hot oil. I could hear the reptilian breaths of pressure cookers from countless kitchens. A shuttered window opened above the street and a girl’s beautiful face was framed there. Without the incessant sounds of electrical appliances, men and women seemed stranded in time. I adored that regression.

Summer is like that only. The plains people of the north know it. They embrace summer for its clear skies and dark-leafed trees waiting for rain clouds. Not for them winter’s despairing mornings or melancholy fog.

P Krishna Gopinath is a Delhi-based writer

Published on October 22, 2020

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