As summer slowly descends upon India, I think of times past…

When we moved to our new home from the government medical quarters after my father retired, I was looking forward to my father keeping his promise.

I wanted an air conditioner. I wanted it as my 16th birthday present.

In our former two-bedroomed ground-floor flat, summer afternoons had a well-practiced routine. Two buckets of water that were filled up early in the morning – before the afternoon sun heated up the water in the overhead tank – were brought out to the living room.

Gently, my father and mother splashed the water on to the mosaic coloured-tiles. Then the ceiling fan was switched on. As the water dried off, the tiles felt  cooler against our skin. We would then bring out our chatais, pillows and get ready for our afternoon siesta.

The curtains would have already been drawn, the room now dark, cool and inviting like the tomb of some ancient, benevolent king.

In the evening, my mother would dab the ends of our bedsheets and pillow covers with ittar – it could be anything from mogra, raatrani or nagchampa. When the blades of the ceiling fan swirled, they would take the fragrance with them, letting it fly to any corner it wished.

These were our talismans against the summer heat; and we needed these protections because it wasn’t unusual to have temperatures touching close to 40-degree Celsius during the peak.

Asking for an air conditioner back then was unthinkable. My father, a Gandhian would have scoffed at the very mention of one. We didn’t even have a television set for so long.

If you felt very hot after cycling back from school, you were handed a glass of nimbu paani (homemade lemonade) or aam ka panna (a drink made from raw mangoes and rock salt) to protect you from a sunstroke. If you went over to a neighbour, your playmate’s mother would welcome you home with kokam sherbet (a drink made from a tropical dark purple fruit).

Flowers of the flame of the forest tree were meticulously collected and dried and stored. These along with Nycil powder were supposed to be a protection against the prickly heat. You had to immerse a handful of these dried flowers into your bathing bucket, watch the water turn a deep yellow and then splash it on your back or at your nape where the prickly heat ran unhindered like a wild, flaming bush.

A branch filled with bright orange flowers stands out in the sky. It is the flame of the forest tree.
The flame of the forest tree. This photograph is from the database of flowerpictures.net

I remember once asking my father if we could order a crate of aerated drinks to beat the heat. I had seen an assorted crate of Gold Spot, Thumbs Up, Limca and Fanta arriving at a neighbour’s and I thought we should follow suit as well.

No, never, he had responded. These are bad for your health. Have the muskmelons and watermelons, the mangoes and mulberries, khus sherbet if you don’t like Roof Afza. But never a soda.

So, I only picked up the nerve to ask for an AC when I turned 16 and we had a home of our own. This was because my father had promised that he would give me some of the things I always wanted when we moved into a home that wasn’t rented.

I had to wait for five more years. When we renovated the house, my father finally gave in to my cajoling.

I still remember the first night the air conditioner was turned on. We all shared the room it was installed in, because obviously it was always going to be just one room with an air conditioner.

My mother tugged at her blanket, motioned at the air conditioner and said, ‘It is blowing out cold wind.’

What else do you expect it to do, mummy, I asked.

I don’t know but I feel very cold. Can you shut it off?

This was just barely 10 minutes after we had switched it on.

I am now over 40 and my mother is in her eighties. There’s still just one air conditioner at my mother’s place. My father is no more. Every summer when the temperature peaks, my husband whispers in my ears as I call my mother. Ask her to use the air conditioning please, he pleads.

When I visit my mother in India, and seek out her caretaker for a private chat, she tells me that my mother only allows the air conditioning to be on for half an hour in the night. And that it is barely switched on in the afternoons.

When I confront my mother, she denies it at first and then comes up with –

Do you know how it affects the bill? The bill is on fire when it is on.

I switch it on all the time when I am at her place. My husband accuses me of having turned too fancy. Where is the girl, he says, who never had an air conditioner whilst she was growing up and did not own a smartphone till she was over 30?

When I visit my mother in India, I try all the remedies of my childhood. The flame of the forest flowers aren’t available as easily as they used to be, so I simply fill two buckets of water when it’s still early morning and keep them aside for my two showers of the day. I try different kinds of ittar. I revel in the mulberries, how beautiful their stains appear on my fingers, and how lush they feel on my lips. I eat all the mangoes I can. I grate the muskmelon to thin, long shreds and dust it with powdered sugar and let it chill in the refrigerator. I read the books of my youth, The Bridges of Madison County, The Bridge Across Forever, with the hope that they would lull me into romantic-dreams-filled sleep.

Nothing works. I toss and turn, a steady trickle of sweat running down my back, sleep ghosting me like an unfaithful boyfriend.

I turn on the air-conditioning. Only then, the sleep returns to me, like a guilty boyfriend all set to make amends.

That young girl is lost. Forever. The one who could brave the Indian summers armed with a mul-mul frock, Nycil powder and a crate of mangoes. This 40 something woman cannot do without the comfort of an air conditioner. Worse she wonders that how can one air conditioner work for an entire tenement? We surely need one in the living room or the other bedroom?

When I ask my mother, she simply shakes her head. We don’t need so much. I only have a few years left. A second air conditioning unit would be an unnecessary expense.

Here, eat some mangoes, she says. Don’t you remember what your father always said? Summer always comes with its own sweet mercies.

16 thoughts on “As summer slowly descends upon India, I think of times past…

  1. Precious memories. One suddenly realises the changes life brings…we can only look back, life then was tough but not without pleasures. In fact I often feel the pleasures then were more intense, more sustained. Your post brought back many old happy memories and some that make me feel keenly the passage of time.

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    1. Jaya, thank you so much for writing in. It was such a different time and sometimes it feels so long ago. I remember my dad did not allow a television set at our place for so long, we did not even have a landline for so many years! All of those eventually arrived but life was, without doubt, much simpler. He was a man of few needs and tried and lived that way till the very last.

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      1. I started my married life in a small industrial town. Small independent houses, tongas and bicycles, little English and hardly any fancy fruit and vegetables. Having always lived in cities, I loved the life! Still do. So I really get what you mean about your father. Lovely post, as usual.

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  2. Sweet, nostalgic post! Thanks for sharing your memories, many of which are familiar to me too. But I never knew about the flame of the forest treatment for prickly heat. Is that a palash? It’s clearly not gulmohar, which is what we used to call flame of the forest.

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    1. Thank you so much for writing in. It is palaash, which in Gujarat is known as ‘kesudo.’ My mother would make small potlis of these flowers and we would use these potlis (made out of cotton cloths) for our bath water. The kesuda flowers, when they first came home, offered to the gods, and as they dried out, they were laid out in the sun and preserved for these potlis. My father was also allergic to Holi colours and he never played holi, but the orange coloured water that came to be when the kesuda flowers were immersed in the water – we were allowed to use that water on him on holi day. Unfortunately not a lot of these trees remain in my hometown.

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      1. How interesting! I knew they were used for Holi, but not all the rest of it. I don’t think I’ve seen palash planted as avenue trees or in parks anywhere. Fortunately it is part of the native flora around our farm. Such a lovely blaze of colour!

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  3. Apologies for all the typos in my comments. And I forgot to add – the kesuda/kesudo (flowers) infused water worked on prickly heat and it seemed to work on a lot of skin rashes and allergies. It was very sought after while I was growing up and it helped that we had a beautiful tree in the backyard of the government-provided accommodation. There was a sort of a wild area, wooded and plentiful with lots of native trees and the kesuda tree stood there – lone and proud and raging during the summers – all orange and yellow, like the mane of an Asiatic lion.

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  4. You are a gifted storyteller, writer. thorougly enjoyed reading, brought back memories of lviing in DELHI summers, i used to cool the floor tiles splashing water:) but ittar…aaah never tried that

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Veena – thank you so much for reading my blogs and for taking the time out to write in. Your words are lovely and kind and so motivating. I just had a look at your blog and I am going to come back for more. I love the way how you have centered it around markets, food and storytelling. (As for ittar, we also used to have these special ittar bottles – miniature in size – for the gods in the puja. The gods would also get an appropriate ittar of their choice for summer and so would we. My favourite was nag champa and mogra. It made the summer afternoons so much more pleasant and cooler.)

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