Being an impressionable nine-year-old with scant sense of geography, I repeated that story at home to my family’s amusement and my chagrin. Years later, I realized why it had filled me with so much longing and awe.
I have never gone anywhere for a summer vacation. We were more of a Durga pujo vacation kind of family since that is when my father had time off. Summer was always spent at home in Kolkata. Enid Blyton was my escape, my summer vacation.
An Enid Blyton summer was a thing of wondrous beauty. There was cake and lemonade and ginger beer and potted meat sandwiches. There were walks with Timmy the dog on beaches and moors. There were magic strawberries and enchanted toadstools. Those children in Blyton’s world collected tadpoles, ate freshly baked tarts, went on picnics and had adventures every day. No one sweated.
My Kolkata summer was as sticky as sap, endless days of baking sun, power cuts and the monotony of aloo-potol (potatoes with pointed gourd) for dinner almost every day. My grandmother’s garden would wilt. Not a whiff of breeze would stir the trees. Mangoes and litchis were about the only consolation, along with the drama of a sudden kaalbaisakhi storm that brought the sweltering heat down by a few degrees for a few hours. Otherwise our only saviour was the tingling tangier Liril girl cavorting in that waterfall, promising the exciting freshness of lime. Summer was about three showers a day (not under a waterfall) and Metro coaches that smelt of communally drying sweat. No one I knew baked tarts with summer berries. There were no summer berries.
I understood that these summers, the ones I endured and the ones I imagined, would never overlap. Nobody in Kolkata would ever dream of saying “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?" and expect to get anywhere romantically. Nobody in Enid Blyton had heard of prickly heat powder.
Both seasons were termed summer but they meant entirely different things, like denizens of different continents. Deep down I accepted that. I had never even been to England as a boy. I knew nothing of an English summer first hand. But I still daydreamed about it sitting in a puddle of sweat in Kolkata.
As an adult, I once visited an old school alum, as much a Macaulayputra as me, on a summer afternoon. “Shall we have some shandy?" he asked. Then we sat in an air-conditioned room, sipping our shandy, unwittingly acting out some Kolkata charade of an English summer.
Summer exposed the yawning gap between our colonized daydreams and our post-colonial reality. Sitting in Kolkata, I would sometimes hear Cliff Richard singing on the radio about going on a summer holiday. “We’re going where the sun shines brightly," he would warble. I would hum along in 40 degrees Celsius, oblivious to the irony of going where the sun shone brightly while surrounded by people who unfurled umbrellas in a desperate attempt to shield themselves from even the hint of a suntan. Summer was our time to hide.
Now that gap seems to have widened even more. What once existed in daydreams comes vividly alive on social media. As Kolkata’s brief winter of content gives way to a brutal gasping summer (with hardly a spring in between), my Instagram feed is filled with friends in North America and Europe excitedly welcoming the first hint of summer. People are elated about the “first real day of summer". They are looking forward to long hours of daylight, posting pictures from barbecues, in tank tops and shorts, whipping up salads with avocados and cherry tomatoes. There are pictures on Facebook of happy families in New York headed to the beach. Meanwhile, in India my hairdresser shakes his head and says reprovingly, “Sir, you don’t want a facial? Bahut tan ho gaya (you are too tanned)."
The conflict between these two summers had been part and parcel of my growing up. With time I came to a certain uneasy peace with them, tentatively embracing both as part of who I was. I remember reading Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange And Sublime Address and feeling the shock of recognition of the warmth of familiar summer afternoons seen through slatted French windows. I knew of Apu and Durga running in search of the perfect tart green summertime mango in Pather Panchali. But that was a village in India almost as remote as Enid Blyton’s, perhaps even more unfamiliar to the likes of me. But in A Strange And Sublime Address, the torpor of my drugged summer afternoons in the city had finally acquired a literary voice that felt sweatily familiar.
“A mist of drowsiness hung over the lanes. In the still houses, families had eaten their lunch of rice, dal and fish and fallen asleep. Afternoon was a time of digestion, a time of fullness and contentment, full bellies and closed eyes. In all the shadowy houses of Calcutta at this moment, gastric juices were solemnly at work."
I would like to claim that the beauty of Chaudhari’s summer afternoon prose led me back to my Indian summer roots. But it might have also had something to do with finally experiencing an English summer first-hand. I had my scones and clotted cream and strawberries. It was underwhelming, the scones dry, the strawberries tart. And who in their right mind wants to eat anything called clotted anyway? Potted meat too lost its Blyton sheen.
Last year, I went back to England in the summer and discovered a London red-faced and gasping for breath. It had been their hottest summer in years and the allure of a hot summer was wearing a little thin. “You are from India? Tell me how to deal with this heat," huffed my Uber driver. In the US, I read about elderly men and women discovered dead in their apartments, alone, in the middle of a heat wave. I realized I had always dreaded summer but had never been scared of it. Now the heat was laying bare the loneliness.
Anyway, there was a new summer fantasy in town, set neither in London nor Kolkata. I had just seen Call Me By Your Name. The new dreamy summer, untouched by climate change, as perfect as a fuzzy peach, had moved to a villa in Italy. But I had no intention of going there to find out because I know the perfect summer can slip through your fingers like the juice of that sun-dappled peach. I would rather savour it in my mind like the memory of those long-gone red oxide floors, as cool as a drink of water on a hot afternoon.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues that we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.