Friday, May 04, 2007


A pleasant shower a couple of days ago gave Kolkata some temporary relief from the stifling heat of the past few days. Summers in Kolkata are usually like this: a few days of sweltering heat followed by a thunderstorm that brings down the temperature.

It is not the same way everywhere in India. North Indians are usually not so lucky.

Kolkata lies almost exactly on the Tropic of Cancer, and predictably has a climate which is best described as “Tropical”. The temperature usually rises up to around 40 degrees Celsius and this is accompanied by a very high relative humidity. The result is very uncomfortable. Often after walking a short distance or traveling by a crowded bus one will find their clothes soaked in sweat. However, a few days of this heat is usually interrupted by a thundershower and things are pretty much bearable after that.

Nights are usually cool, and though the Bay of Bengal is far away, a southerly sea breeze is felt. The daytimes are problematic; with power cuts and mosquitoes and irritating skin rashes due to the heat, everyone’s temper is perennially on the edge. This is especially felt in the evening buses and trains, where quarrels break out at the drop of a hat. After a hot day in office, everyone needs some way to vent their irritation.

This was my idea of summer heat in my childhood. When I was five, my father got transferred to Allahabad in North India. We went there in mid-April and then I came to know what real heat was. As we stepped outside the station, the hot air hit us in the face like the blast from a furnace. Looking back now, I don’t really think the temperature was at its highest, it being only mid-April. However, it was enough to give us a taste of the ‘loo’, the hot dusty wind that blows over the North Indian plains in summer. We traveled home with our heads wrapped up in towels as was advised by some local people.

That first summer was one of the most uncomfortable for us. I hardly remember what I felt, but I clearly remember the discomfort that was faced by my parents and my maternal grandfather who had accompanied us there. The nights were almost as hot as the days. We used to wet the floors of our bedroom to bring the temperature down. There was no perspiration: the weather was bone dry. As the summer progressed the temperature rose well above 40 degrees Celsius. We were told two rules: if you want to stay alive, drink a glass of water before every time you leave home during the daytime, and when the ‘loo’ is blowing, cover your face and head with a towel. In the Allahabad heat you do not sweat, so you really do not realize how much fluid your body is losing. In the humid weather of Kolkata the sweat sticks to your body, but in Allahabad it vaporizes as soon as it comes out, leaving your skin dry. You can die of dehydration before you realize what hit you.

You can die of heatstroke too. Heat deaths occur regularly during the summer months in Northern India. The official figures are often lower than the actual figures. People die on the streets, maybe some labourers who had come from remote villages to work in the city. Their bodies lie unclaimed in the morgue, and then they are dumped on the river bed. Yes, barbaric as it may sound, it is the truth. In the summer of 1995, the temperatures remained 45+ for over twenty days (touching 47 for three days if I remember correctly), and during this period I saw carts full of rotting human corpses being carried towards the river. I have also seen cattle lying dead on the roadside during subsequent summers. It was during this summer that I recorded a temperature or 62 degrees in the sun, and a lump of paraffin wax kept in the sun used to turn to clear liquid in fifteen minutes. We always have to keep candles in the refrigerator during the summer. Candles kept outside the fridge get disfigured. Standing ones bend down, and lying ones get flattened and spread out. And mind it, this happens inside the rooms, not out in the open.

Occasionally dust storms or “Aandhis” do occur, accompanied by light showers that dry up as soon as they fall and emit that wonderful earthly smell. When they occur they slightly lower the temperature. However, they are not as regular and predictable as the thundershowers in Kolkata. The monsoons dry up before they reach Allahabad, and the rains can be expected only after mid August. So spending May, June and July in Allahabad is like spending three months in hell.

Strangely, however, I have come to love both the summer and the winter (which is also quite extreme by Indian standards) of Allahabad. Not that I enjoy being roasted alive very much. No way. Especially since there is no power during the day (and often no power during the night as well) during the summer months. But somehow working in that pure heat gives one a sense of adventure. And as I said before, although much worse for health, that climate is actually much less irritating than the sweat filled Kolkata summers. Besides there used to be that two-month long summer holidays that we had in school!

The Hyderabad summers are very much like the Allahabad ones: dry with temperatures reaching 42+. One funny thing I saw there was how the hill lakes and ponds dried up. However, there we had showers every few days of heat, and that drastically brought the mercury down. And being in South India, Hyderabad gets the monsoon much earlier.

This post would be incomplete if I do not mention about another city. The people of Chennai say they have three seasons in the year: the Hot, the Hotter and the Hottest. I spent two months in the hotter season there. People from all over India dread Chennai for several reasons, and the climate is one of them. However, I feel Chennai has been unfairly criticized over the years. The climate is just as bad in Kolkata. The humidity may be a bit on the higher side, but there is always a strong breeze blowing due to the presence of the sea (this blows sand from the beaches into every nook and cranny of the city). But overall I’ll say the Chennai climate is not unbearable to a person who has spent summers in Kolkata and Allahabad.

Anyway, summer is my least favourite among all the seasons, especially now that I’m out of school and have no vacations. Even then I thought a post was in order, for unless we think of things that we dislike, we really don’t appreciate the things that give us joy.


  1. Humm..makes me believe why I dont feel like leaving Bangalore:))I dont want to remember how i shut myeself in my room in Delhi during my MBA days...Also, not out of place is to mention the increasing heat in my city..they are cutting down trees in the garden city and making buildings for software companies the temperatures are on the increase..i have never seen a hotter summer in the city.....!

  2. Oh man, the Allahabad heat in June! You know, I'll take that over the humidity of Bombay or Chennai any day.

  3. There was an Old Man of Calcutta,
    Who perpetually ate bread and butter;
    Till a great bit of muffin,
    On which he was stuffing,
    Choked that horrid old man of Calcutta.

  4. Lucky me!! :)
    I was allocated to bangy.... also summers here are not as cool as u get 2 hear they r but still.... till now things have been fine with me.... more so ...coz i spent my last 4 years at Vellore.

  5. Well written, there is an easy way you write in thats appealing.

  6. @monami: Same for Kolkata, the temperatures are rising every year. Allahabad, however, has become a lot more Kolkata like.

    @km: Yes, the sweat gets on one's nerves.

    @mansi: Good limerick.

    @aurindam: Lucky indeed... I've also heard that Bangalore summers are pretty cool.

    @shreemoyee: Thank you! Thank you!!

  7. "Often after walking a short distance or traveling by a crowded bus one will find their clothes soaked in sweat."

    I guess that is true for those who prefer western clothes designed for a temperate climate.