A few days ago, as a I haplessly scrambled from the insulation aisle to the heating aisle in a large hardware store in South-East London, I suddenly realized that my entire life so far has been priming me to settle down in a nice home somewhere on the wrong side of the Arctic Circle. Domestic bliss in sub-zero temperature. That seems to be what the 39 years of my life so far have been leading up towards.
Perhaps a brief weather-memoir is in order here. I spent most of my childhood in Abu Dhabi. Yes, yes—air-conditioning was ubiquitous. The climate was carefully controlled in every imaginable place of human habitation, from school bus to hospital to shopping mall and parish church. But still, I did spend a fair amount of time outdoors in the blazing heat. Lunch breaks at school, never more than 15 or 30 minutes in duration, were mostly spent running around a playground playing frantic, formless football under a furnace of a Sun. This was desert Sun. The kind of Sun that bleached buildings white and dessicated anything left outdoors. It was so hot, I recall, that you could the feel the playground radiate heat through the soles of your shoes.
A few minutes of this madness later, we would bundle back into our classrooms, drenched in sweat, our uniforms sticking to our backs, lungs gasping for air.
And then I moved to Kerala for two years, then Trichy for four, and finally Chennai for another two. The heat in South India was a different beast. Whilst not quite achieving the relentless fire of the Emirati Sun, the heat here slowly leached the life force out of you. Also, air-conditioning was at a premium. Thus it was in Trichy, or perhaps Chennai, that I first began to sprinkle water all over my mattress before going to bed during summer.
But hey, at least there was some form of a winter to look forward to. You could hop on a bus and go to Kodaikanal or Ooty, pull on a sweater of some sort, a knitted cap perhaps, and pretend like it was properly cold. Back in the Gulf, there were no hill stations when we were growing up. No doubt, since the days of my youth, they’ve imported small villages from the Swiss Alps and installed them around Dubai.
From Chennai, I moved to Ahmedabad and then Mumbai. Mumbai didn’t seem all that different to Chennai, but there was that one winter in Ahmedabad that was so cold that I bought myself a fleece-lined jacket. It was, I think, the first warm jacket of any kind I’d bought in my life. I still have it lying around somewhere in a cupboard. One cold, cold morning in 2005, I sat in the back of a truck and went to see a wild ass sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch, near Zainabad. It was quite possibly the coldest weather I’d experienced in my life up to that point.
Some years later, I moved to Delhi. And Delhi has a proper winter. In Delhi, you need jackets and sweaters and shawls. And old ladies knit for their grandchildren. And security guards sit around fires. And small children lose their bloody minds when they first notice their voice turning into vapour.
So as you can see, as the years pass, some unseen force in my life seems to constantly move me from city to slightly cooler city to slightly cooler city… until seven years ago, when I moved to London.
In November 2010, I saw snow for the first time in my life. I was travelling in a car, being ferried from Geneva to the manufacturing facilities of a Swiss watchmaker somewhere up in the hills. Suddenly, we drove past a meadow covered in snow. Could we stop for a second, I asked. Why? Do you need the toilet Mr Vadukut? No no. I just want to touch the snow.
So I got out of the car, bent over, and picked up a fistful of snow. It was utterly amazing. Ice. Falling. From. The sky. Amazing.
Seven years later, my relationship with the cold winters of Europe has… cooled somewhat. What bothers me the most is the shortness of the days. I don’t think I will get over the fact that it gets dark by 4pm.
I mean, what the heck man. Surely it can’t be normal for human beings to leave home early in the morning, when it is dark, and then get out of work at 5.30pm, when it is dark, and thus spend the entire day having never stepped out into the sunlight even once? That is not normal.
Oh yes, and there is the cold. The insidious, devious cold. I was in the hardware store earlier this week on a mission to defend my home from the cold. You see, the merest chink in your insulation, and the London cold will rapidly chase the heat out of your house and your bones. The merest chink. The hairline crack. The door ajar. That is all the cold here needs.
Thus, I have spent the better part of the last two weeks hunting down every possible source of draughts, leaks and faulty insulation in my house. Am I getting a bit obsessed? Yes. But there is no room for complacency in this battle. For instance, merely running a piece of tape along the bottom of the front door instantly increased ambient temperature in the corridor by three or four degrees. I had all but given up hope of having a nice, warm living room, when I realized that there was a hole behind the telephone socket through which cold air had been streaming in. That hole has been sealed with a combination of tape, glue, paper, and tea towels. The room is warmer now.
Replacing the ventilator grill in one of the bathrooms—the new grill has three flaps that automatically close when the fan is off—means that I no longer have to use that bathroom as a spare refrigerator. (It was so cold in there, we used to ask guests to keep their jackets on if they had to use it.)
And thus, the war against cold goes on. Which is exhausting. But what I fear even more is the prospect of my next move. Where will life take me next? Trondheim? Is there an English newspaper in Vladivostok?
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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