[Column] Scorched earth

On vacation with his family in Chennai, columnist Vishal Onkhar experiences the relentless Indian heatwave first-hand. “Venturing outdoors is virtually intolerable,” he says.

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

I step out of the shower and breathe a sigh of relief. The lukewarm water was a welcome respite from the searing heat outside. I say lukewarm, for there is seldom any cold water from the taps – the relentless rays of the sun have turned any remnants in the overhead tank tepid. As I towel dry my hair, I feel fresh beads of perspiration gliding down the small of my back. And by the time I skim through the newspaper, I am doused once more in sweat. Welcome to a heatwave in the midst of an Indian summer!

Temperatures have hovered around 40°C in Chennai for two months hitherto and show no signs of abating. Blistering winds gust through the city streets and render venturing outdoors virtually intolerable. It is not uncommon for people to swoon from a heatstroke. To even contemplate leaving the sheltered precincts of my home, I must avail of the comforts of an A/C car and avoid the peak hours of 11:00 to 16:00. I am told that conditions are graver still in places like Delhi.

Every so often, the indoors begins to resemble a Dutch oven, stuffy and suffocating, with the walls radiating heat. Rustling up a meal in the kitchen during such times is akin to working the bellows at a blacksmith’s furnace. Most nights, it is a Sisyphean task to fall asleep unless the A/C is cranked all the way up. Heaven forbid that the contraption overheats or an electrical blackout occurs (a recurrent nuisance), for then one can expect to awaken drenched in sweat. I grieve for the hardships of those lacking the privilege of household amenities.

‘People pat themselves down with talcum powder to beat the heat’

This infernal ordeal is not peculiar to human beings. Of late, my cat scarcely strays past the house compound, appears more lethargic, and naps more frequently. My mother leaves bowls of water out on the roof terrace for passing birds to quench their thirst, and sporadically, feuds break out over who drinks first. Flowers wilt and wither in the sun despite being well tended to. I suppose we should count our blessings that we are at least spared from drought this year.

Nonetheless, human ingenuity in the face of adversity never ceases to amaze. People here garb themselves in loose-fitting cotton garments, slather their hair with coconut oil, and pat themselves down with talcum powder to beat the heat. Come summer, there is no dearth of advertisements for these commodities on Indian television. Refreshments rich in water and minerals are also widely consumed to replenish nutrients lost to the sweltering sun – watermelons, lychees, ice apples (palmyra palms), tender coconut jellies and water, buttermilk, sweet lime juice, herbal decoctions, and the quintessential curd rice!

Additionally, people overlay their doors and windows with mosquito nets, and throw them open to facilitate the circulation of air while keeping pests at bay. Some even hang their washing indoors and flick on ceiling fans to expedite cooling. The affluent retreat to hill stations and resorts for the summer months while those of more modest means throng the beaches to revel in the invigorating sea breeze. I do neither, content to soak up as much time at home with family as I can manage. And when someone in the Netherlands grumbles to me about how hot certain days are, I cannot help but adapt the words of Old Nan from Game of Thrones to ask, “Oh, my sweet spring child, what do you know of summer?”

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

Do you have a question or comment about this article?


Comments are closed.