Days I have held,/days I have lost,/days that outgrow, like daughters,/my harbouring arms.
It is seldom that we Indians manage to write convincingly about our summer in English. To an extent, this has to do with the expanse of the country: Summer in the foothills of the Himalayas is different from summer along the southern coasts, which in its turn is different from summer over much of the northern and central land mass.
When it comes to this “great” summer that sweeps through north India and parts of other regions too, this summer of beaten gold light and loo winds, mangoes, melons and lychees, afternoon naps (not really siesta) and bright insistent dawns, the English language misleads Indian writing in at least two ways. One of them is derived from England and English experiences; perhaps its earliest extant rendition goes back to a 13th century madrigal:
Extreme season: A child cycles on a sunny day. Photo: Stephanie Rabemiafara/Art in All of Us/Corbis
Sumer is icumen in,/Lhude sing cuccu!/Groweþ sed and bloweþ med/And springþ þe wde nu,/Sing cuccu!
(Summer has arrived,/Loudly sing, Cuckoo!/The seed grows and the meadow blooms/And the wood springs anew:/Sing, Cuckoo!).
This is an experience of summer that does not tally with much of the “Great Indian Summer”. Indian efforts to write along these lines are mostly imitative. Perhaps this vaguely resembles the early part of our summer—those days around Holi, when flowers still bloom, birds chirp, and the sun fills with warmth but the wind stays cool. But that is basically spring.
As soon as Holi, the festival of spring, is over, the breeze starts whispering of heat. A few days or weeks later, the occasional gusts are no longer cool: You can sense the resolve of summer heat in them. And a week or two later, by late April if not earlier, the Great Indian Summer has arrived. The sun is a knife dangling over you; the wind slowly grows into a furnace. Most flowers wither, plants turn grey. Those bundles up there in the sky are dust, not rain, clouds. Dogs look dazed and exhausted, their tongues lolling. Birds largely disappear during the afternoons, though you still see and hear them in the mornings and evenings. The weeks seem to stretch on and on.
The Great Indian Summer is not a mild and short season, like the English (north and west European) summer. As Shakespeare puts it in his sonnet 18: “And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” In that poem, Shakespeare’s summer, while essentially temperate, does show flashes of heat and glare. But in India we are not talking of just flashes. The Great Indian Summer is an extreme season. In that sense, it compares more to north European winters than to north European summers:
Fury and respite: Harsh light in big cities masks the nuances of summertime. Matt Mawson/Getty Images
Winter is icumen in,/Lhude sing Goddamm,/Raineth drop and staineth slop,/And how the wind doth ramm!/Sing: Goddamm
This is Ezra Pound parodying the 13th century summer madrigal in 1905. It does not rain and snow during the Great Indian Summer, but Pound’s sentiments, with subtle translation (Burneth sun and staineth sweat/And how the loo doth ramm!), would not seem inappropriate.
And actually, that is the other dominant strain in accounts of the summer in English by Indians—or, more often, by Europeans who have been to India. The famous “heat and dust” school which, in various Raj nostalgia incarnations, continues to provide success stories in Western publishing.
This too, I feel, does not do justice to the Great Indian Summer. For the Great Indian Summer is not just sun; it is also shade. It is a season of extremes as well as nuances, delicately balanced against each other—though perhaps this is less evident now in cosmopolitan landscapes than it once was in rural and small town environments.
The best Indian English poets grasp, instinctively it appears, one or two aspects of the difference between our summer and their summer. Sarojini Naidu’s poem Summer Woods teems with the names of trees: gulmohur, tamarind, molsari, neem. Flowers make an appearance too, as they do in early summer, but at least in the parts of north and central India that I know, most flowers do not survive into the heart of our summers. Hence, perhaps, flowers are secondary to Naidu’s poem, despite her Romantic affiliations. This is apt. Flowers dominate temperate European summers. Poems on the English summer are cluttered with flowers. The Great Indian Summer is much more a season of trees: of fruits and birds in their branches, of people and animals in their shade.
Kamala Das gets another aspect of our summer in her Summer in Calcutta, which is basically a “love poem” that associates summer with dozing and drinking. The Great Indian Summer is also a season of naps and cool drinks: lemonade, Rooh Afza, lassi, sherbet, thandai. Oh yes, and beer or gin and tonic in the big cities.
Bathing in the river to cool off during holidays. Sanket Sanjay Khuntale/Frames of my City
But big cities do something strange to the Great Indian Summer too: They accentuate it towards sun or shade, erase its nuances. In his excellent novel, Moth Smoke, Mohsin Hamid has an interesting narrative about a street urchin in Pakistan (note: most parts of Pakistan also get the Great Indian Summer), who is convinced that the master classes mean “hot” when they say “cold”. This is so because he has only experienced the hot exhausts of air conditioners outside chilled air-conditioned rooms and offices!
I suspect the Great Indian Summer gets split into two extremes in our big cities: The cold and dark of enclosed air-conditioned spaces, and the shadeless glare and heat of asphalt, denuded parks and sidewalks outside. This is perhaps best expressed in our middle-class fear of power cuts during the summer. The Great Indian Summer loses many of its nuances of shade and sun, heat and rest, sweat and breeze, thirst and sherbet in the big cities.
One cannot help suspecting that something was torn out of the Great Indian Summer with the air conditioner replacing the khus-ki-tattie (or its equivalents in other dialects), as well as the palm-frond fan and the sagging charpoy under the mango tree. Perhaps that is the reason why my favourite evocations of our summer seem to exist in other Indian languages, ranging from Sanskrit to Urdu.
I remember summer as it descended in Gaya, the small town in Bihar where I grew up and lived until the age of 25. The sun would harden in March-April; the breeze fill with an intimation of the heat to come. The mango trees would bear yellow flowers, hardening into small hard green fruits. Insects would come out, as would geckos. There would be trails of ants up tree trunks and round the corners of houses. In the afternoons, the streets would seem a bit empty, a little dustier than before. That was when the stored mats of khus were brought out and inspected; khus mats that had rotted were replaced.
Mango time. Photo: Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times
Before the summer really arrived and the fields were visited by occasional dust devils, the khus mats would be already installed—blocking all the windward doors and windows which were not shuttered. When the summer heat fell like a huge iron clamp on the world outside, every afternoon from late April-July, water would drip down the khus, filling the curtained rooms with shade and fragrance.
When I was a child, everything depended on the placement of the khus mats, and water was rigged to drip on them through a mechanical arrangement: Even motors came a bit later, I think in the 1970s. The afternoons of the Great Indian Summer are distinctive, or were so when I was growing up. The world went back to sleep then. But it was not the sleep of the night; it was a series of short convivial naps, broken by cool drinks, delicious fruits and lazy games, like chess, Ludo, carom and flush. In families like mine, it was also a great time to read. Outside, the sun raged, the loo shrieked. You went about, if you had to, with a towel wrapped around your head.
But as the afternoon tapered towards evening, birds started coming out, though still keeping to the shade of trees. We would usually place a bowl of water under a tree-shade, if only to watch the birds. With adults usually having finished their novels or card games and fallen asleep for a while, children could sneak out into verandas or the shade of trees. And then the evening was there, with something like a sigh of relief. Water was sprinkled over the areas where chairs would be placed for the evening tea. The sky filled with birds.
In those days, people still slept in the open during the summer months—in lawns, on verandas or on rooftops that had first been cooled with a sprinkling of water. Charpoys were used for the season; unlike the “Western” beds that were in the rooms inside, these could be dragged out and rigged up with mosquito nets on crossed bamboo sticks. Those nights were deep: much darker than any summer night can be in north or west Europe. You could see each and every star. You woke up with the dawn, into the unbelievably cool and spacious early morning of the Great Indian Summer. Then the sun drew closer, and the first intimation of another summer day touched your face.
The sun doesn’t deter sportspersons. Photo: Reinhard Kungel/dpa/Corbis
The Great Indian Summer is not “Indian summer”, which, as one commentator has noted, is the “type of American weather” that has been accorded most “widespread and unstinted praise”. Neither is it the exotic summer of “heat and dust” or the English summer transported to India. It is not even the summer of places like Delhi, against which the rich barricade themselves in air-conditioned spaces or from which they flee, following the footsteps of our colonial masters; and in which the poor slog away, regardless, on heated asphalt. The Great Indian Summer, as it used to fall in Indian villages and small towns, changed the rhythms of both the poor and the rich for the duration of its passage and in the same spaces: mixing sun with shade, dust with the clarity of stars.
I hope it still falls somewhere.
Tabish Khair’s new novel,How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position, will be released by HarperCollins in India later in April.
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