Summer of '42
"Even a Delhi summer could be tolerable if you had the right sort of companion. And my father was just that... "
My most memorable summer is the one I spent in New Delhi in 1942. Gosh, that's all of 60 years ago! But it does seem like yesterday. And as I've said elsewhere, it isn't Time that's passing by, it is you and I.
I was eight years old, and I'd come to live with my father in a RAF tent on the outskirts of Delhi the outskirts, at that time, being no further than Humayun Road, which was surrounded by scrub jungle and the ruins of old cities. There were no taxis around, and to get to and from Delhi railway station we had to take a tonga.
After a couple of months we moved from the tent to a barrack-like hutment, which was hotter than the tent. And by now it was midsummer. Every couple of hours the bhisti would come round with his goatskin bag of cool water, and this he would fling on to the khus-khus matting which hung from our door and windows. A cool fragrance filled the rooms, until the fiery sun dried all the moisture out of the matting and we would start praying for the bhisti's return.
As an officer on duty, my father was not allowed to keep his son with him in official quarters, so he rented a flat on the Atul Grove Road, where we even enjoyed the luxury of a table-fan. I missed out on school that year (what bliss, having a year's holiday!) and while my father was away at Air Headquarters, I would sit in front of the fan, reading or sorting stamps (my father was an avid collector) or just day-dreaming. When he came home, he would tell me about the day's work, put me abreast of the war situation, and occasionally take me to the pictures at Connaught Place.
The War in the Far East and South-East Asia was at its height, and trenches had been dug along our road in case of Japanese air-raids. There had already been a couple of raids on Calcutta. The trenches were great places to play in, and when monsoon broke, they filled up with water and became small ponds. The landlord's son and I and a number of street urchins had a wonderful time splashing around in these pools. Barriers of race and caste vanished in their muddy confines. It was a perfect way to keep cool, although another bath would be necessary when I got back to the house.
Weather was kept cool in a sohrai, an earthen container that was kept where a breeze (if there was one) could play on it. Summertime in Delhi was also jamun-time, and I feasted on this sour, tangy fruit until lips and cheeks were dripping purple.
And there was the Keventer's Milk Bar at Connaught Circus, only a short distance from Atul Grove. I had learnt to get there on my own (perfectly safe, as there was little or no traffic on the road) and when I grew restless at home I would stroll down Curzon Road (Kasturba Gandhi Marg today) and indulge in a strawberry milkshake or vanilla ice cream at the Milk Bar. Close by was a newsstand, here I'd pick up my favourite comic, Film Fun or Radio Fun, and stroll home in the mid-day sun, my head suitably protected with a sola topee or sun-helmet. One did not venture out without a sola-topee. They were supposed to protect you from sunstroke and brain fever. You don't see them any more. I haven't noticed any increase in the number of sunstroke victims, so I think the value of the sun-helmet was somewhat exaggerated; or perhaps people don't go out in the sun as much as they used to.
Sometimes my father would bring home a 75 rpm gramophone record for our wind-up gramophone. The records would have to be packed flat; otherwise they would assume strange shapes in the summer heat and become unplayable. There were no fancy cold drinks in those days, and we managed quite well on the humble lemonade or a glass of nimbu-pani.
Dust storms were common during the summer. Delhi was open on all sides, and the hot winds from the Rajasthan desert (known as the loo) would be followed by a brief shower of rain, which would bring the temperature down.
Dust storms are not so frequent now, probably because the city has grown so dense, the buildings too high.
All this is pure nostalgia, of course. Prickly heat rashes and dust in your hair, eyes and nostrils were not exactly fun. But even a Delhi summer could be tolerable if you had the right sort of companion. And my father was just that. I could get through the day on my own, but the evenings had to be spent with him.
New Delhi, as India's new capital, was just ten years old. The shops, the restaurants, the cinemas, all located at Connaught Place, had a certain gloss and glamour about them. Ceiling-fans whirred overhead in the more elegant, up-market places. It was only when I returned to Delhi in 1960 that I experienced the luxury of a water cooler. Air conditioning came later. But if you had none of these, you could find a stately peepal tree almost anywhere in Delhi, and shelter beneath it from the blazing sun, enjoying the cool zephyr provided by its eternally revolving leaves.
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