Only two long hours in intense heat and dust of summer afternoon, with strong hot dry wind, (loo as if is referred to in India), devoured not just the body but the soul too. It simply sucked life out of me. Mostly confined to the stabilized city life of 20 degrees Celsius in air-conditioned homes, offices and even public transport, the metropolitan dwellers are devoid of the true experience of summer that sweeps northern India and some other regions in the months of April to July. With coming up of malls and supermarkets, even those visits to local bazaars, bathed in sweat and grime , laden with cloth bags overflowing with groceries etc have become rare for us.
Indian summer is not romantic, short, and full of blooming flowers and mild sunshine like the English Summer nor is it anyway near to the descriptions we read in the western stories. It is a furnace that engulfs all that comes within the range of its gaping mouth, an extreme season with heat rising from the asphalt and sweltering hot winds screaming through towns and villages like a lunatic. In big cities however the summer almost loses all its nuances of sun and shade, thirst and cooling sherbets, sweat and breeze. There are those for whom summer is cold dark air-conditioned places and others for whom it is dusty heatwaves, sweat, prickly heat and a doomed existence under the merciless sky with sun spitting fire.
In northern India summer is a season of trees. I have spent endless summers in north and everything revolves around shades of trees for a common man and the other creatures that are destined to atone for their sins under the surveillance of a cruel barren sky.
Sitting in cool comfort of my 20 degrees Celsius room and sipping a chilled beer I was suddenly filled with a longing for those summer afternoons that stretched languorously, endlessly. When life moved at slow leisurely pace, when long power cuts made us yearn for comforts, when preparations to combat the hellish summer was a meticulously planned task, when something new was invented everyday to pass those still, listless days and nights, when adults were too wary of controlling the children and afternoons were spent under makeshift huts of upside down chairs and cool white sheets, when we read and sang and played indigenous games, climbed trees, plucked fruits or simply lazed on a straw mat (chatayi) or under the tree shade, mainly flaming Gulmohar, Neem, Tamrind, or Molseri, like a buffalo immersed in pond thankful that it doesn’t have to swish its tail to shoo away flies.
Even blinking an eyelid took effort so we just lay there, very still… sometimes carelessly nibbling on a twig of grass and trying to decipher the cacophony of crows, mynas, barbets, parrots and other birds hidden in the thickly covered branches. We even had the house sparrows then.
As the day progressed the shops pulled the shutters down, streets wore an empty look, people dozed under huge trees in parks and roundabouts. Schools had holidays and parents had one more trouble on their mind – how to keep the restless kids engaged but we found our own ways and even conjured up mischief , knowing none of the adults would lift a finger , leave alone come chasing us.
We have lost peace and joy to comfort and stress in these modern times. There was ample time to just do NOTHING and it did not matter at all. As the fragrant mango blossoms began to turn into small green fruits, we knew it was time to gear up for yet another summer. Earthen pots (ghada and surahi) were bought with utmost care to keep drinking water cold. We even had small earthen pots called kasoras for making curds and chilling kheer and phirni (Indian sweets made from rice and milk).
Khas mats were rolled out and a systematic arrangement was made for them to keep drenched with water. The sweet fragrance still intoxicates me as I think of the cool breeze that used to filter through them to fill the curtained room.
In the evenings water was sprinkled on terrace and garden which steamed angrily but eventually cooled down under our bare feet. Wooden woven charpoys would be neatly arranged in verandas or terrace as most people slept outdoors on summer nights. A big table fan would sometimes add some music to the stillness or we would lazily sway a hand pankhi (fan) made of cloth or straw, even old newspapers served as fans .
The nights were deeper, darker and full of zillion stars. It was a fairy tale that came alive outside the mosquito nets. We would lie down wearing the minimum clothes needed and listen to the night sounds.
The fabric used in summer was usually handspun khadi, thin handloom or mulmul ( voile). I remember cursing the men and boys for having one advantage over us girls – they shed everything except their lowers and let the breeze flirt with them. It seemed unacceptable and cruel. We also wrapped wet gamcha ( thin cotton towel) on our heads and half of face when we stepped out in heat.
Summer food included everything that acted as a coolant. Fresh green coriander, mint, raw mango, coconut Chutneys, fresh salads of kakdi and cucumber, fresh chilled sherbets made from khus, lemon, phalsa, bel ( stone apple) were kept ready at all times. Even thandai, rooh afza, aam panna, Kokam sharbat, nariyal pani (coconut water) were great favourites.
At our home there was a tradition to offer petha or peda (Indian sweets) with cold water to anyone who came from outside. It protected against the excessive heat. Various raitas ( condiments made from yogurt) were included and dahi bhat (curd rice) seasoned with curry leaves was a must every day. Curd, in various forms was included in every meal.
Most of the meals ended with mangoes. Dashehree, langda, chausa, neelam, safeda… the variety was endless. Even the little chusee aam ( to be sucked) came in abundance. Fruits also included jamun (java plum), phalsa, watermelon, musk melon, loquat (Japanese Plum) , plums, apricots, peaches and pineapples. Mango eating was a ritual in itself. Mangoes were soaked in cool water in big tubs or buckets. None ate one or two of them. They were eaten with passion and abundance with juice dripping from between the fingers. we had to drink a bowlful of kachchi lassi or mix of water and cold milk to calm the heat after eating mangoes. Green raw mangoes were used for chutneys, pickles and aam panna (drink).
Burf ka gola (balls of crushed ice dripping with colorful sherbets) , faluda kulfi were a healthy substitute for ice cream which was a luxury at that time. We even had chilled phirni, custard, jelly, fruit smoothies etc as everyone had sweet tooth.
Roasted / boiled corn cobs with masala and lime or butter and spicy tamarind chutney (Sonth)were the delicacies we enjoyed in the evenings.
A staple thing for us kids was roasted wheat flour mixed with boora cheeni (kind of powdered sugar considered to be cooling) and namakpare or mathri. Sattu made of powdered barley, horse gram and other pulses was another coolant which we had to drink with salt or sugar. I began to enjoy it much later though. Sattu is made with seven cereals, millets and pulses.
There was a certain pleasure in sweating it out to prepare these delicious things, serve and relish them with family. A pleasure mostly lost these days, with everything delivered and available at one call’s distance.
Being born in a family which has confluence of two cultures, added to the summer delight.
The only thing that I resented as a kid was to travel in DTC buses to public libraries and cultural centres. Reluctantly I would walk out of house at snail’s pace all covered to protect myself and believed that time was a conspirator who deliberately moved slower than ever but at later stages as a teenager I began to enjoy those outings. Sometimes we also went to India gate lawns and to see circus or visit old city, monuments, parks and museums etc.
I itch to go back to those days, and to the true Indian summer which is now only a memory. I am glad that I made my kids experience at least some of it by taking them to village and other places I had visited and introducing them to many of the summer rituals that not just brought joy and helped pass the endless days but also brought the family together.
Lines from a favorite song come drifting to me …..
Dil dhoodhta hai phir wohi , fursat ke raat din ….