Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

In Madras, it was always summer

All those years ago, the joke used to be that there are three seasons in Madras: hot, hotter, hottest. That was before global monoculture abolished the heat, along with many other charms of living there

At the time, when we were 16, I did not know he was schizophrenic; I thought he was very close to enlightenment. We spoke a lot about why Indians were more likely than other races to see the absolute truth. He had a theory that white people were least likely to achieve nirvana unless they roamed the tropics—because they wore too many clothes. The cold of the West, he said, made them wear so many layers of garments that they became self-absorbed in style, and as a result materialistic, while Indians were trained to be austere because the weather did not require them to think too much about clothes.

For some reason, we divided cultures into weather—chiefly, hot and cold. I do not recall why we presumed that all nations had uniform and unchanging weather when that was not true even for the northern part of our own nation. We were familiar with the idea of seasons—as something that happened to other people because in Madras (now Chennai) it was always summer. That tired joke about the three seasons of Madras—“hot, hotter, hottest"—was weird because we all knew it, yet we told each other that. Somehow we did not know how to apply the knowledge of seasons to the real world, especially when we made deep conjectures about other cultures. Maybe we thought cold cultures were only “cold, colder coldest". In the world that we knew, nothing ever changed in the course of a mere year—the vegetables and the fruits were the same, and so was the way people dressed. In fact, there was this scorn for people who changed the way they dressed, or changed anything at all about themselves, which was perceived as phoney behaviour. It is possible that a tropical town, accustomed to perennial sights, had an exaggerated respect for consistency.

In the time I spent in Madras, the first two decades of my life, from the mid-1970s till the mid-1990s, the idea of escaping the weather was not important to most of the middle class, nor was it economically possible. Our rooms and public transport were not air-conditioned. Until the age of 17, I was not acquainted with a single person who owned an air conditioner. We sweated and smelled (of jaggery, I thought). Brides sweated, grooms sweated; teachers, students, lovers, priests, thieves and heroes—everyone had a film or a patch of sweat. In response, we were bare most of the time. I read Midnight’s Children and P.G. Wodehouse, and learnt to solve the cryptic crossword bare-chested, some days in a lungi—and that did seem like a cultural anachronism. But the idea of dressing up for an occasion somehow involved wearing foolish clothes. Most Kanjeevaram silk saris are a glasshouse. Almost every Tamil film had songs in which the hero wore jackets. Ordinary men, too, wore sweaters because they thought they looked good in them. For a while, every time I wished to dress well, for romantic reasons, I would wear a black turtleneck—in 40 degrees Celsius heat and 100% humidity. The dandies who attended church in sunglasses, too, wore two layers of garments and they suspected they looked so dashing that they would puff one cheek in embarrassment.

But there was such a thing as summer. It was a time that was hot even for us. People quit wearing sweaters, though at least one boy wore a black turtleneck on some days. The air was so heavy with moisture that it was as though no breeze could blow it away. Life was hot and still and in the evenings there was a great lethargic gloom in our hearts. Water would cease to flow in the pipes and even the middle class had to call for tankers, which were manned by the sidekicks of bottom-rung politicians, all of whom had a special summer swag, as though the class hierarchies had collapsed and they alone owned a vital resource. Middle-executive men and their wives, children and servants stood on the roadside with buckets. As adolescent boys, we were used as mules by parents and neighbours. I mark that time through the visual of an unfailing behavioural mechanism of boys trotting with two large vessels of water and throwing glances at the balconies above for girls whose purpose, we assumed, was to look on with admiration.

In the summers, some good fathers would take their families to Ooty for a few days but mostly people went to temple towns that were hotter than Madras. It was also a time when strange rustic grandparents visited Madras and our colony saw apparitions that reminded me of communal scenes in Star Wars. My own grandparents were the most conspicuous. The enduring image of them is of the bare-chested old man from Kerala walking down the cricket pitch with a jackfruit on his shoulder and his tiny old woman strutting about in an ancient white costume that included a fan-like object behind her. At first I was embarrassed, but then they were so unusual I paraded them with pride.

But mostly we had nothing to do in the summers. We would sit on the walls for hours wondering what to do. And we stared like villagers at any passing sight. As a teenager trapped in Madras’s insufferable summers, I began to go on long aimless walks across the city—in the peak heat of day and in the dead of night. I walked miles every day. The world appears to have forgotten that a walk can be pointless, that it is not something that is invoked only to reach a destination, or to pamper the heart after eating rubbish. The intense boredom of summers gave me one lasting gift—an important part of my life today, as it was then, is walking for no reason at all. I used to walk great distances at midnight too, returning from films I watched alone. I almost never paid for the tickets because I would enter the hall after intermission, when no one checked. Madras at indecent hours was a strange place filled with men who had a dark desperation on their faces. One night I discovered that a bus went around the city carrying prostitutes and picking up men from designated spots. I used to be stopped by policemen who wanted to know what I was about. I would pretend that I did not know Tamil and speak to them in English and they would lose interest in me. It was all so simple.

Almost everything from that time has changed. Now the posh young people of Madras do not look grotesque when they wish to dress up. They wear very little. And it is easy to abolish the city’s heat. The middle class does not sweat or smell of jaggery. The weather at a given point in time in a room is like them, a global monoculture.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets @manujosephsan

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