Summer 2024: Snigdha Agrawal

Snigdha Agrawal
Summer of discontent

I was ten, that summer of 1962.  Like every other year, the khus-covered bamboo blinds in the veranda, were down from dawn till dusk, during those three months of April, May and June, serving to block the glare and heat. The garden hose pipe sprayed on the khus, releasing a rich, earthy, and woody aroma with a cool undertone, was a time-tested practice for cooling homes. Two tall stand fans facing the chicks (blinds) aided in stirring a breeze which accelerated the process. The khus perfume lingering in the air, conjured images of playing hide and seek amongst the tall grasses growing on the fringes of the gated community. That year, nothing helped. Nothing could beat the heat and dry winds from making its presence felt.  

Being grounded indoors for the entire day was hard to deal with- especially for the ten-year-olds. Interacting with friends halted which added a further dampener.  Of course, that did not stop little notes written on ruled pages, torn from exercise books, being sent back and forth between homes checking on each other.  As the heat hit with greater force, blistering the asphalt on tarred roads, I was the first to break out in blisters, with the cursed chicken pox. Painful and energy squeezing. And though I was kept in isolation, soon my siblings followed, and then friends. It seemed the air-borne virus was visiting homes uninvited, to cut down our vacation fun times.  A killjoy.  With the constant comings and goings of domestic staff, no one had a clue as to who was responsible for the spread. The Community doctor sent out a “do’s and don’ts” pamphlet to contain the spread.   Room coolers did little to alleviate the discomfort.  Nor did the skin itching cease.  Ma spent hours stroking the affected areas with neem branches in an attempt to soothe the inflamed skin spotted with pustules.  Her hands were more than full, that dreadful summer having to deal with whining kids and coaxing us to eat. Drinking glasses of homemade lemon/barley juice diluted with water had a soothing effect on the throat and stomach.  Otherwise, the tummy rebelled, rejecting any solids that came rushing up the gullet. Soaked flattened rice mixed with yoghurt to a soft consistency, and drizzled with sugar, became the staple diet for all three weeks of the isolation period, compelled to swallow under threat of being locked, beyond the prescribed period.  

Lying in bed, the sudden dust storms in the afternoons without any warning, would give me gooseflesh, sounding like the symphony of a thousand hissing snakes.  On one occasion, out of curiosity, I watched in awe, an approaching dust storm. Dust rising from level zero, swirling and twirling up and up, its mouth widening, resembling a kerosene stove funnel, gathering speed as it grew.  And carrying with it all the debris, dried leaves and trash strewn around.  A spooky sight. The only comfort was in reading books and disappearing into the world of the ‘Famous Five’ characters of Enid Blyton…racing with them across meadows with the wind on my face; jumping across little gurgling brooks running between the cottages.  

These dust storms accompanied by hailstorms were responsible for wiping out the mango blossoms and with it the promises of a good yield. Trees that bore the green unripe mangoes, met a worse fate. The velocity of the wind shook the tender fruit hanging from branches onto the ground, dashing hopes of enjoying the ripened yellow mangoes. The King of fruits. Whatever could be salvaged of the green mangoes went for making green mango pickles. That year, the pantry wore a vacant look, with fewer ceramic jars of pickles on shelves.  Likewise, other fruit-bearing trees in the garden bore the brunt of premature death; mulberry, papaya, and Jamuns (Java plum) trees, were stripped naked of their fruits, lying on the ground, dust-covered.  The scattered black seeds of the papayas split open on impact resembling an old woman’s paan-stained teeth seemed to be smiling mockingly, at the immeasurable damage wrought. Pets, birds and wildlife were not spared.  We lost a few Budgerigars kept in the cage. Pained to find them lying upturned, wings open, their fluttering eyelids stilled forever.  The heat had taken a heavy toll.  Most homes followed the practice of leaving water in clay cups on balcony ledges, for the pigeons.   The lack of avian visitors suggested the worst.    

That horrible summer, the Club swimming pool was drained and closed.  Too risky they said.  News of the chicken pox outbreak had alerted the management.  Another wet blanket to add to the woes. The club premises were closed for fumigation, which meant all sports activities, indoors and outdoors, were suspended.  Recall Baba sounding disappointed when he broke the news to Ma.  The expat community, mostly Britishers, were impacted the most. The old proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” applied more to them, at not being able to sit in the Club bar in the evenings, guzzling chilled beer, in between breaks of a billiards game.

The water scarcity was evident, with the reduced water pressure from taps. Residents were advised to be jurisprudent on water usage.  The luxury of soaking in the bathtub called off till the water level rose in the reservoir from where pipelines were drawn, providing water to houses.  No one resisted.  Hard times call for hard decisions. Moreso, when some were dependent on water from the river for domestic purposes.  With the lowering of the water table in the Khudiya River, they acutely felt the shortage, hardly enough to fill a bucket. Water that smelt putrid with dead fishes floating around, raising an unbearable stink.  Wells had run stone dry. The clanking of buckets against stone, reminding of how cruel summer can be for the underprivileged.  

that year of discontent…
          summer logged in
          putting filters to keep out the rains
          and logged out
          leaving devastation and pain
          corrupting the landscape
          till monsoons arrived 
          restoring life and faith

After a thirty-day of no rain in April this year, with temperatures peaking at 38.1 degrees Celius at Bangalore on 2nd May, the hottest day in forty years, opened long-forgotten doors in my memory, to that summer of 1962, when I was ten!

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