Every summer of my childhood, my mother and aunt would gather together my cousins and me and take the train from Bombay (it was not yet Mumbai) to Kanpur where my grandmother lived. I don’t think there was any air-conditioned travel by train then—or if there was, we certainly didn’t opt for it—so at some point during the 24-hour, hot and dusty journey, we’d rent a great big block of ice which would be placed in a metal container. This “cooling device” would pretty much take up the entire compartment. I don’t believe it worked at all, at least not in dramatically bringing down the temperature. What it did do instead was create a huge puddle as the ice melted and invariably found its way out of the leaky container. And, yes, it gave us the opportunity to invent fantastic games—who could keep their feet on the ice longest—while our mothers gossiped away, oblivious to the fact that their children were getting frostbitten toes.
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Memories of those hot summer days came back to me as I read architect Aditya Dev Sood’s column, My Experiments with Cooling, on the website 3QuarksDaily. Sood writes about the loss of traditional architectural features—central courtyards and chajjas (horizontal projections off windows from which you could hang chicks or place plants) that were designed to facilitate coolness within Indian homes.
It is true that contemporary architecture with its glass and concrete facade is climate-inappropriate. Features designed to create cooler homes seem to have disappeared—the central aangan (or courtyard) that Sood refers to, where the radiating heat generated by the walls would rise up and out of homes.
Older homes had chuna or lime, not cement, which kept them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And, of course, ceilings were high and walls were thick for a reason.
But it’s not just our style of building homes that has changed over the years. It’s also our heat-bearing threshold. Global warming might have pushed the temperature up a few notches, but global aspiration has blown our heat-enduring ability through the roof.
In the old days, my dad’s Ambassador car had a little fan propped up on the dashboard. As its puny blades whirled around, tossing the May and June loo winds within the interiors, we drove about New Delhi in the happy delusion that our car was somehow, miraculously, being cooled by this ridiculous contraption.
Today, the first thing I do as I step into my car is to crank up the air conditioning, even if it is for a five-minute drive to the grocery store.
There was a certain frugalness too that is now absent. Before the humidity set in, it was the desert cooler (cheaper, less taxing on the electricity bill) rather than the air conditioner that was the centrepiece of our homes. Air conditioning was a rare luxury, not something that ran 24x7. And when we used it, we used it sparingly, conscious of its rare privileges.
For all the years that he lived, my father would wake up early in the morning, at about 4 or 5, switch off the air conditioner and save those few hours of expensive electricity.
In Kanpur at my grandmother’s house, we’d have delightful nights sleeping outdoors underneath the stars (slathered in slimy yellow-green Odomos). I remember waking up mornings when it would be chilly and we’d have our sheets tucked all around us.
And then, of course, back in the old days many families took a leaf out of the British Raj by simply escaping the plains into the far cooler climates of Shimla or Kasauli or Mahabaleshwar. Those month-long vacations now seem like extravagances—try telling your boss you are taking a month off this summer—as we scout around for bargain three nights/four days holiday packages to Bangkok or Phuket (just as hot but with more efficient air conditioning).
I’ve heard parents speak about the “necessity” of sending their children to schools that are air-conditioned in school buses that are air-conditioned.
At home, families exist as individual units contained in air-conditioned boxes shut out from each other, doing their own thing on Facebook or with the plasma TV, oblivious to what is happening in the next room. What does this mean for families and relationships? I don’t even know where to begin.
None of this, of course, is to imply that the vast majority of Indians still go without basics such as electricity and water. But there is a category and class of citizens that are unfazed by power cuts and shortages, their gensets and inverters kicking in seamlessly every time the lights go out. For these privileged citizens—and I’m included in this lot—life is cool, but that coolness comes at a cost.
Still, all is not lost. A few weekends ago, I sat with some friends in the garden of my new fabulous glass and concrete house under the light of the full moon. Not a leaf stirred that still night. And then my friend Priya turned to me with the promise of a long-awaited house-warming gift: a mist fan. I’m waiting, but the promise of cool evenings is almost too much to resist.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to email@example.com