Memories of Summer
Looking back at Indian summers in the simpler decades
I moved to Delhi when I was four. Plucked from the gentrified confines of South Mumbai, I was deposited gently in the wild north, Delhi with its thick swathe of greens and blazing summers. June was hotter than a witch’s scalding cauldron, dust devils curling on the roads. Ambassadors, Premier Padminis, and a few Mercedes grunted by, along with Sanjay Gandhi’s gift to the country. Maruti 800s floated on the roads without a semblance of a suspension—a boxy travel revolution for the middle class.
The terrace, home to the barsaati, a posse of tailors and the cook, was central to the entertainment to the family. Much crowding and shoving ensued in front of the black and white TV, and later, the colour box TV, with a few assorted cousins, the maid and her family. Someone needed to volunteer to go up to the terrace to adjust the antenna, a second volunteer needed to be stationed at the stairs to holler instructions, and the remainder squinting at the tiny screen, eyes watering, waiting for Chitrahaar.
This human chain communiqué was de rigueur for the water cooler, its pipe snaking up the terrace to one far end, filled perhaps twice a day. Under a sloppy watch, it overflowed, leaking from the balcony to the porch below, till the relay team conveyed the message upstairs to the tailor or the cook.
Smoke spewing generators were yet to choke the city, and inverters were a decade away. One of the many powerless nights I spent on a chair in the balcony, under the stars, my beloved Pekingese for company. The heat garroted my throat and blocked her flat nose, tiny snores emanated from the black bundle of fur as the crickets ribbeted through the night.
There were no deadly mosquitoes with whose bite you could die off back then. The most dangerous of summer ailments was ghamoriyan, which has fascinated me over the decades. Prickly heat ads of jocks in underwear with pink patches have been a staple on TV screens. I’d be surprised that talcum powder wasn’t an Indian invention, given its onerous responsibilities to keep skin fair, scented and droughty, the venerable ancestor of the deodorant.
We drank Gold Spot, Campa Cola and Thums Up, the glory days of actual Indian brands, before they were gobbled up into nothingness. We drank Rooh Afza, ate Maggi and ate at Nirula’s at Chanakya Puri each Sunday, a delectable chicken chop before I gave up eating poultry.
Each summer, we’d bundle up to come to Mumbai, sparkling in its heyday, before the development morass sucked out life from the city. It was still Bombay then, with the strobes still lit in Fire ‘n’ Ice, Three Flights Up, 1900s, and even Polly Esther’s, where you danced and danced and danced, rather than the awkward shuffling in modern lounges today.
The disco was not the thing to fade away. We’d walk down to a tuck shop, stocking up on phantom cigarettes, the rub-your-nose for good luck chocolate candy coins and bulls-eyes. On Sunday we’d go to Juhu beach and sit on big truck tyres, the waves washing over us, and then SGNP, all the kids squished in the Ambassador. On the last day of vacation, we’d troop to the station, with at least six suitcases, many cartons of mangoes and much more in tow, load the luggage in the hold and take the 17-hour–long train ride home, that time, great journeys over the parched summer landscape.
When I think about summer, I remember my childhood. Life was simpler. We had smaller problems, perhaps because we were young? When I was young, I had a life. I have memories of grandparents, of cousins, and most importantly, of myself. I read books. I got bored. I got very, very bored. But I dealt with it.
It’s barely May and the temperatures are already approaching the sickly 40s. It’s noisy and dank outside and I flip the switch on the AC and watch Netflix or scroll through my Instagram feed. There’s no boredom, there’s FOMO. I can’t sleep outside in a balcony anymore, especially in Delhi. I don’t drink khus anymore. Or Rasna. Or Tang. I haven’t seen a phantom cigarette in decades. But I can say I’ve lived through the best of Indian summers. Of roads lined with Amaltaj trees and Thursday markets selling wooden slates with scratch pens. I can escape summer now, to a land far, far away. In my head, to a time that once was.
The illustration has been made by Anmol Arora. you can check her work here.