K is for Kal Baisakhi

Last week, I bought Surya a rain jacket. A rain jacket would have come in handy last year when, at the beginning of the monsoon, we traveled north to the mountains in Sikkim and watched as a boulder slipped and rocketed down onto the road we were climbing up. A couple of days later we narrowly missed our Romancing the Stone moment when, on another rainy commute, the cliff above our road gave way. We watched it plunge, the dust of limestone rising while boulders and chunks of what was our road slid down the mudslide that continued below. I hoped no one was down there.

It was a surreal moment. When, in Sikkim, you read such pithy signposts as, “Do not gossip; let him drive,” “You sleep, your family will weep,” or “Driving is risky after whisky,” you point and laugh, and then pull out your camera. That day we sat in our car at the edge of what had been the road, peering down into the gaping hole. We waited a good two hours before the military arrived to rebuild it. I had to hand it to the villagers who simply picked up their rucksacks and bicycles and walked across the foot-wide fraction of asphalt that hadn’t disappeared.

Events like these sometimes happen in India; people don’t let it get them down.

What gets them down, rather, is the heat.

The first time I traveled to Kolkata heat — real heat – blasted into my life. I do not mean to compare the experience to the intolerably high temperatures that hit the Atlantic seaboard last summer. Seriously. Millions of Facebook complaints? Network news headers? Consider for a moment Dubai, Jeddah, the cities that dot the edges of the Sahara.

Kolkata airport is a tad underdeveloped for its population size. Most noticeably, there is no air conditioning in the arrivals area. As I walked out of the plane and into the transfer arm that led me to the airport, India’s heat finally realized itself. One hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit. Eighty percent humidity.

The difficulty of Kolkata’s summer is that for months there is no relief. No desert sky opens wide at night to absorb the heat wafting off the planet. No rain cools the afternoon or the evening. When I was young I watched films about colonial India, where men, women, and children in crisp, white jodhpurs and Gibson gowns languished behind the gently rustling mosquito netting on their beds. From the light of the television set, it all seemed very Romantic. It’s not.

By six in the morning the day is hot and bright. I open the bedroom’s wooden shutters to a mélange of waxy green leaves reaching through the iron window grill. The heat has intensified the fragrance of the frangipani blooms. In fact, every smell is intensified. The frangipani mixes with cumin and pepper in the kitchen, and the spices mix with the aroma of tea that Kakima prepares. A morning stench rises from the bathroom pipes, too. I scramble quietly out of bed for a quick, cold bath, but within the hour I am sweating again.  And I smell something else. It’s me.

When the afternoon comes the house is hotter. We close the shutters and turn off any lights that are not essential. It is an unpleasant measure to make the house bearable. Below, the streets are abandoned. On the worst days, there is no going anywhere. Our movements are slow not only because nothing seems to be open and no one appears to be around, but because the sun has pilfered any last ounce of human energy. While Kakima and Alta lay on the tiled floors for a nap, I settle down behind protective shutters and try to finish my work. Or read a book. Or, better yet, take a nap. The wait for evening begins.

There’s certainly truth in the theory that ethnicities adapted specific traits in harmony with their original environment. When I’m in India my thin, long Caucasian nose makes me feel as though I have a permanent sinus infection. My blood vessels swell; my nose clogs; my head feels thick. In this state I sometimes wonder how many inappropriate As or Fs I have given to my students. To be honest, the thought passes quickly.  In this situation I realize what I should expend my energy for: coffee. A good, caffeinated cup of coffee would do wonders to stir my senses. And then I lay down again because the dizziness has returned and there is no morning cup of coffee, no afternoon cup of coffee. There is only tea.

Surya eventually paid for and installed two air conditioning units in the house. But we are careful both to share them and to avoid skyrocketing electricity bills. We turn the machines on for twenty minutes at a time, enough to feel the chill through our bodies. Then we turn it off again until, a few hours later, a certain malarial delirium creeps in, and we can no longer converse, let alone sit up. It is surprising how well you acclimate to this sort of situation.

During these days of summer chattering and gossip are reduced to complaints. When you are not sleeping off the heat, you are complaining about it. Everyone wonders where the rain is; “the rain seems to be late this year,” they say, though it never really is. The newspapers, as though they had the power to invoke it, present lush articles in the travel pages about the best vacation spots for this year’s monsoon. Unlike most of us in the world, Bengalis see the rain as impetus for travel. A vacation is to sit out on a veranda and watch the steel-gray sky envelop the coast, or to stand inside the fog that blankets the mountains. Bengalis will wait forever in that rain just to watch the clouds break and to take a glimpse of Mount Kanchanjangha.  But the travel pages are only a hope.

And then, with no embellishment, one day everyone chatters about the rain. “There is rain today,” they say. “The rain is here.” I look out the window, over the frangipani tree. The sky is cloudless and blue. I shrug it off, settle in for another day mixed with work and naps, until midday arrives and I find myself a little chilled. Gray has replaced the blue, and it’s getting darker. The wind picks up, the birds dart about, chirping more than usual, and Kakima opens all the shutters in the house to take advantage of the currents and cool air. The sky turns the color of a nasty Midwestern thunderstorm.

In the beginning I can’t even hear myself think. Conversation stops because I’m hard pressed to decipher what anyone else is saying. Kakima sets up a few chairs on the veranda that’s just outside her bedroom. As she stands and leans her head against the door frame, Surya, Alta and I sit and watch. We don’t talk. Though the rain is thick, we can see the banana leaves fly up like albatross wings. Overripe fruit fall, like hail, from the branches. But what I can’t take my eyes off of are the coconut trees. They can grow nearly 100 feet tall, and in the grip of a strong wind, they behave like bamboo, their top halves giving way left and right but their bottom halves somehow standing firm and unruffled. It’s easier then to understand why our driver Sanjit is so comfortable with shinnying up those trunks to pluck the fruit. But the rain gives Sanjit a break. He’ll collect a few from the puddles when the sun peeks through. In the meantime he stays with us, and we sit and listen and eat the sweets that Kakima brought from the kitchen.

The first of these storms begins this month, with a pre-monsoon nor’wester that runs across northern India bringing to Kolkata early respite from the hot summer. They call it Kal Baisakhi.

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