GOWANUS 
            Winter 2005
 
Heat Wave
by Lila Rajiva
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Lizards were falling with soft thuds into the dried bushes. The pie dogs sank 
dispirited every morning into the darkest crevasses of the gully. On a nearby estate, a leopard that had fallen into a well while raging for water kept us awake all night with his yowls. 

Still, Nasira our new servant girl insisted on setting fires all over the ompound. Despite the heat wave, or maybe in insane retaliation for it, she set up scorch- ing blazes to cremate the piles of rags, papers, and refuse that she first fana- tically sorted in the garage. "Pyromania," said father, who had spent his career identifying germs of all sorts and had a connoisseur's eye for disease. But Nasira also had a mania about water. Everywhere, from Sathvachari to Ranipet, water was so scarce that people were storing it in drums, skipping their baths, performing pujas to the rain gods, and stealing it from the mun- icipality. But not our Nasira. When I left in the morning I begged her to turn off the taps or at least keep the flow to a minimum. And every evening I would come home to find every shriveled weed in the place lovingly watered, an assortment of necessary and unnecessary laundry washed and folded, and all three floors of the house glistening wet. There was no use scolding her--she had her fixations. After all, we were not dying like the plants, were we, she asked severely. So which was more important?  If I would not let her water, she would pay the neighbor from her own salary for water for the garden. 

It was not an idle threat. She had once insisted on paying us for two overripe guavas that had fallen off our tree. She would become physically ill if someone tried to give her something for free. So I eventually gave up trying to convince her to save water and instead took to sneaking behind her and turning off the taps when she wasnít looking. 

"Monsoons Delayed," announced the newspapers unnecessarily, since now in the second week of June, even a jackass would know something was wrong. In fact, the jackass tethered at the corner of the road was rolling its limpid eyes at us as though to ask what we had done to make the weather so in- sufferable. In the state of Andhra a thousand people had already died. If the crisis had been a cyclone or an earthquake, the area would have been de- clared a disaster, the central government would have been pouring money in, and newspapers around the world would have been carrying thrilling pictures of bullock carts and palm trees tossed about on the crest of the tidal wave. But because it was merely heat, it seemed in the order of things that the pop- ulation should die as stickily and pointlessly as flies. 

Father suffered the most because his body was a highly ingenious heat trap. First, he was quite hairy and, as cats and dogs know, a fur coat is no help in the heat. Then, on top of that, he sweated profusely from pores that the rest of us didn't even seem to have. Finally, he was by nature so restless and fidgety that in the course of five minutes he would expend more energy than we would in an entire day. 

"Why can't they seed the clouds?" I asked brother. Surely the government had a spare plane on hand. What did silver iodide cost, anyway? 

Brother waved his hand dismissively. "If there was an elephant raging in the jungle and you sent a gnat after it, do you think the gnat would change the elephant's course? Silver iodide is only a gnat. If people are serious, they should green the hills." 

We lifted our eyes unto the hills, but the pre-Cambrian stone was not en- couraging. It looked as though several geological ages had passed since anything green had sprouted on them. 

Meanwhile, the electricity came and went in phases like the moon. During the first phase, the front room and dining room fell dark. In the second, the bedroom. The kitchen lost its life in the course of the third. The electricity board had developed a regular fugue with it. First, phase one would start, making us retreat to the bedroom. Then, just as we had stretched out under the fans, phase two would begin. There was nothing left except to wander outside envying those who lived in huts where the thatch and straw at least allowed in a little breeze. Phase three would start only when mother was actually in the middle of cooking something. Until then, the lights would be blazing fiercely, luring us into the kitchen as though we had ample time to cook up a feast. Then when some particularly delicate operation had begun, everything would suddenly shut down leaving us in the dark splattering boiling oil onto the floor and shredding our fingers along with the onions. 

It was only at about two in the morning, after all hope had disappeared and we had fallen asleep in damp exhaustion that we would be wakened by the arthritic crackle of the fan and the winking and spitting of the lights. Then we would stay awake from sheer excitement until the paper-wallah dropped off the Hindu, which informed us that indeed, yes, the monsoon had arrived but in Kerala only where it was even now lashing the coast. We were hopeful that we too would be lashed in the next few days, but they came and went with only some saber-rattling winds and a few noisy drops, leaving us still as dry as the cracked cow-dung patties frying on the walls of our neighbors' huts. 

T.V. John, the managing director of the hospital, had been outsmarted. He had built brick slews to catch rainwater off the roads and channel it to where it could be tapped. Of course he hadnít bargained for the rains not showing up altogether. Still, it was a distinctly bright idea and why it had taken so long for anyone to come up with it was the only mystery. 

T.V.J. was an all-round enterprising fellow and ditches were just the beginning of his Hannibal-like ambitions. He had, for example, painted clear signs everywhere showing how to get to Vellore. In the old days there used to be signs in English, but the Tamil fanatics felt this would not do and was an abject colonial aping of the west so they had painted them over, replacing them with tiny signs in Tamil that no one from any other state could understand, not even Tamilians themselves, because they were written in as inscrutably miniscule a hand as one of those rice grains in the Hyderabad Museum inscribed with half the surahs of the Koran. To read one of them you would have had to leap out of the car and dash over to inspect them with a magnifying glass. T.V.J. went in for bold lettering announcing the presence of the hospital several miles ahead of it in the best western style and his arrow marks actually pointed in the same direction. 

Once at the hospital, the signs got more specific: Pathology, ENT, Surgery, and in even finer detail: General, Neuro, Plastic, and so on. But his best work was next to the lift where the operator's working hours were posted with blazing clarity: Mr. Shekhar, 8:00-10:00; 11:00-12:30; coffee break: 12:30-2:00. Mr. Shekhar, 2:00-5:00; tea-break 5:00-6:00, Mr Shekhar, 6:00-8:00. What happened after 8:00 was not clear. There was always the staircase, but it was hard to see how stretchers and trolleys could manage them. And in the heat no one wanted to climb even one flight of stairs. So, although the lift could not hold more than six at a time, there were always crowds of people waiting during Mr. Shekhar's coffee breaks. 

On the social front, T.V.J. had also begun to invite staff into his office for coffee on their birthdays. The man was a veritable dharma raja, but we were half waiting for his downfall, for it was impossible that anyone with that much drive and commonsense should survive as managing director. 

"A single gnat might not change the course of an elephant," I persisted that evening, "but a handful of gnats might." Brother thought this over, then told me it was not simply a matter of harassing elephants. It could be there was no elephant there to begin with. A cloud has to be just right, he said, dismissing the puffs of cotton strutting across the early evening sky. "No hope of rain from any of those. You have to find one that is just ready."  And could you keep a plane and some silver iodide available just on the off chance that the right cloud might decide to show up? Clouds did not show such cooperation. Perhaps if there were a coordinated effort, he went on, with radio hookups between Bangalore, Coimbatore, and Madras, there might be some hope: 

"Cloud on horizon--approaching quickly. Fairly chubby and thunderous in appearance--40 km from Madras. Send Pilot 137 in ASAP." There was a moment of silence as we contemplated the unlikely possibilities of cloud- busting in the Deccan. "The police can't even control what is going on here on the ground," said father with a snort, "let alone in the sky." 

We had stopped that morning in town to buy bread and fruit. It was my first time there after many years, and the intricate chaos of the streets was ob- scurely fascinating. There seemed to be an unfair battle of wills going on between a crowd and two policemen. 

"Why are there two policemen, anyway?" asked mother who, having worked in Madras for the last ten years, had developed a considerable condescension toward the town. "In Porur they have traffic lights and cameras. Much more efficient." She sat silently absorbed in this profligate waste of manpower. 

Father was dismisive. "No shortage of manpower in India. In that at least we have a surplus. At least let the police do what they are supposed to be doing instead of trailing behind some VIP like pie dogs." 

The policemen nowadays were wearing full-length trousers which may have been hotter but were more dignified than the old half-pants which left their legs sticking out like match-sticks. One stood on the traffic dais under an umbrella, the other stood his ground on the road, defying the elements and the swarming hordes of cycles, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians, and bullock-carts. After examining the current of traffic for a few moments, it was possible to discern a pattern. When police-wallah #2 raised his baton it was a signal to those to the left of the umbrella to stop crossing over to the right side of the road but instead to press straight forward. Actually, a dotted white line was supposed to keep this crossing to a minimum, since one side was supposed to be traveling north and the other south. But no one paid much attention to this rule normally, and to the undiscerning eye it seemed as if at all times everyone was moving in whichever direction they wanted and yet somehow miracu- lously surviving intact. Father, who must have been a reincarnate Prussian officer groaned and tore fiercely at his whitening eyebrows. "This is why nothing can get better in this place!" he muttered.

To me it was a mystery where so many people came from in the first place, as there didn't seem to be that many buildings in the area. Like ants they mater- ialized out of nowhere and disappeared just as mysteriously at the end of the day. 

"Nung-u-u! Nungu-u!" shouted the vendors lyrically, thrusting the succulent 
halves of fruit into our faces, the juice dribbling from their fingers onto the car 
windows. Mother bought several whole nungus and stashed them in the back of the car beside the flask of cold water, half a tin of Marie biscuits, and a container of grapes. She had never learned the art of traveling light, and on hot days her handbag expanded into a hold-all where one could find secreted in various tiny compartments--in addition to the usual keys, handkerchiefs, and pens--a whole pharmacy for everything from heat stroke to diarrhea: a small plastic bottle of salt, a thermometer, dark glasses, scarves, sun-lotion, and a small foldable umbrella. 

"Why not just pack an air-conditioner next time?" asked Father irascibly. 
Mother looked mutinous and hugged her apparatus closer to her sari, secure in the memory that the last time in Coimbatore it was the foldable umbrella 
that had saved the day. Secretly, she went over in her mind whether in fact some kind of small electric fan could not be fitted into her black bag, but she knew better than to say anything. 

At noon we listened to the BBC where a blonde woman who may have been speaking English although it was not entirely certain said several completely indecipherable things rapidly, pausing at odd and irrelevant parts of her sentences. "Must be an Australian," said father, for whom this was as dire an insult as possible, Australia having just thrashed India in the latest one-day cricket match, thanks to some daring play and even more daring cheating. The Australian  spent several minutes on the weather in Manchester, Leeds, and Scotland, and then in her random fashion jumped to the east coast of China, which was then having some bad storms, before casually tossing out a quick line or two about India--the monsoons were delayed but on their way and the death toll was mounting. Father said tchah! and turned off the wireless just as she began wandering off to Brazil. "If those fellows had to endure one tenth of this heat, they would call a national emergency." New York was only  34 celsius and they were calling it unbearable. Let them try 44 or, for that matter, 54, as in Guntur. That would give them something to think about. 

On a ledge under the window, Pashmina the cat was in a state of nervous 
prostration. Brother, who had a soft spot for cats, wondered aloud if she should not be brought in. "Why?" asked father, who detested Pashmina. "She's probably got indigestion from stuffing herself with a bird." 

But brother was convinced the cat was suffering from heat stroke. "Shall we take her temperature?" asked mother, eager to see if the thermometer in her 
handbag actually worked. Father stalked off to his room in indignation, but the idea became popular with the younger folk, and soon Pashmina was lured down into the shade of the verandah with a combination of fish skins and milk. Brother and I held her down while mother prepared the thermometer. There was a brief dispute about where it should go--under the fore or hind leg or under the tongue. Finally we decided on the tongue, but Pashmina had ob- jections which she expressed immediately and wrathfully.

"Serves you right!" shouted father from inside the house as we rushed back to wash the scratches. "Told you to have nothing whatsoever to do with that beast!" He threw open the kitchen door and flung water and Kannada expletives in Pashima's direction until she leapt back onto the wall. "The trouble with the whole country--you can't help a blessed soul without suffering for it. You'll be lucky if you don't get infected. As if there wasn't enough trouble already without all of you going looking for more as well" 

Greenery was what was needed, brother said, returning to the weather problem. The farmers were burning the vegetation every year, and what they didn't burn the cows ate. An NGO called Sonora was trying to undo the mess by planting trees, recycling bio-waste, and so on. "For ten rupees they take your plastic away, and for another ten the rest," father mused. He could not quite get over the fact that someone was actually using public money for the common good. "More than the government itself has ever done!" 

Recycling was getting to be quite the thing, added brother. Had we heard of the latest innovation? They were catching young male calves and lining them up in sheds. Into one end of the calves they stuffed fodder, from the other predictably came cow-dung, which promptly went to fertilize the soil. That helped produce crops which in turn went down the calf's mouths and came out the other end. Although it curtailed their ability to roam about unchecked, the process kept them productive. 

"Quite a useful idea for males," said mother approvingly. "Male calves, I 
mean," she added quickly as the men glared at her. Females of course had their work cut out for them--providing milk and more calves. So, perhaps after all there was good reason for all those skeletal cows wandering around in a state of bemusement. Surely there was some equally clever innovation that would help the water situation. Where did all that rain water go, anyway? Cherapunji, in Assam, which had the highest recorded levels of rainfall in the whole world, was nevertheless still short of drinking water. It was simply a matter of collecting it, and for that you needed tanks, drain pipes, dams, and some cooperation between states. But Andhra, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka couldn't see eye-to-eye long enough to share the water. One had the river, the other had the dams, and the third had the fields. How was it possible to be afloat in three seas and still be short of water? And if indeed there was a water shortage, how did these teeming bicyclists, cows, dogs, farmers, alley cats, beggars, urchins, goats, buffalo, monkeys, sadhus, politicians, housewives, fishermen, and loafers all survive--yes, and proliferate too? There was water surely somewhere circulating underground like black gold, but in the wrong places.

Through the window we could see that Nasira had washed a fresh pile of clothes and was hanging them out to dry. As she had just finished the washing that morning, brother went out to explore this phenomenon and came back spluttering. Apparently she had taken down the dry clothes from the line and washed them all over again because she was certain they weren't clean enough. "Obsessive-compulsive disorder," brother muttered at his wife who was beating mango pulp for us to drink. "I told you to get rid of her, but you keep taking her back." They got rid of her every other month, but in a few days she would be back, taking over without any debate from whoever had usurped her place and with temperatures five or six degrees higher than ever, we could not afford any wasting of water or breath. 

We went on arguing about why it was getting hotter. Mother said it was all 
because of war and smoke and nuclear waste. They had been testing the Prithvi, Agni, and all sorts of other missiles, and then there were those wars in the gulf--who knew where all those cinders and burning oil had spread to? Meanwhile, the population swelled like a colony of termites, wiping out the forests and greenery. Only the other month, a hundred-year-old banyan tree had been chopped down to make way for the new road between Delhi, Bangalore, and Madras. No cloud cover, no foliage; so the sun got a full, clear shot at the land. 

Mother put salt into everything--curds, lime juice, kanji water. We drank hot tea and hotter coffee, and the sweat poured from our scalps to our soles like burning mountain springs. No wonder all the gods lived in Hrishikesh and Gangotri. They knew better than to come down from the Himalayas to the plains. 

"Pretty soon, we'll be like Australia--one great desert in the center and the rest fringed around," said brother with the objectivity of the scientist. "Actu- ally, temperatures in some places are already as high as the desert," he added with a certain ghoulish pleasure. 

"Why do people keep on living here?" I asked petulantly. 

"Where else should they go?" asked mother with a shrug. "Can't even sell land these days--too difficult. Easier just to roast in one spot." 

Father announced that he had just discovered that if you didn't move at all, 
didn't speak, and breathed only minimally, you felt cooler. "Why not just 
stop breathing altogether?" asked the little fellow and was told to shut up and not answer back to his elders. Anyway, what was he even doing downstairs in the evening? Didn't he have tutoring? If he didn't get ninety-five-plus this year, they would wash their hands of him and he would have to go to work like Nasira. He didn't mind, he crowed, and began enumerating all the advan- tages of Nasira's life over his own, but by then brother had grabbed him by the elbow and escorted him back to his room. 

At five o'clock father went out to run the motor for the well and one of the 
neighboring girls came by to ask for water. Her child was thirsty, she 
said. But when mother came out with a jug the girl denied having asked at all. 

This puzzled father no end and he had to get to the bottom of it. "What exactly did she say to you?" he asked mother, his eyebrows moving up and down independently of each other, which was their habit when he was suspicious. Mother repeated what she'd heard several times during the interrogation, but this did not satisfy him at all. Mother was notoriously lax in these matters. Why had the girl denied asking? That was very strange. What was she up to? She had asked him alright, clear as a bell, Uncle, can I have some water? 

After careful analysis, the girl was identified as one from the house which 
regularly asked for papayas from our tree. "There are four girls in that house," said father twisting his mustache. "The one who spoke to me was a plump-fat girl. Was yours like that too?" 

Mother was uncertain. What did "plump-fat" amount to? The girl she had spoken to was plump. Whether she could also be called fat was a different matter. Father fell silent with exasperation, but he was not going to be deterred so easily. He held up four stubby fingers. "Look, mother," he said reasoning patiently. "There is a thin girl and two plump girls and a fourth who is very thin." 

Mother thought this over, but she hadn't seen the whole quartet, at least 
not all at the same time, so determining the degree of fatness or thinness of the one she had spoken to in relation to the others was difficult. "Definitely, she wasn't the thin-emaciated one," she said diffidently. But possibly what she was calling "plump" was merely the second thin one. Anyway what did it matter, since after all in the end she hadnít wanted the water? 

Father was having none of this and wondered if he should go into the back- yard and yell over the wall for the girl. Maybe it was all a ploy, I suggested with zest. Maybe they were canvassing the place for some goondas. "Don't give anything to anyone," I said firmly.

But mother said she wouldn't want it on her conscience that she had refused 
water to a dying baby. And a new angle was now beginning to trouble father. What if we did give them water and then the girl came back every day and others followed suit? He waved his arms in agitation, conjuring up crowds of importuning strangers besieging the house for water, papayas, grass, curry leaves. It was all mother's fault for encouraging these riff-raff. 

Mother, you see, grew curry leaves and gave them away regularly. She had tried to sell them initially for a trifle, but the man who came to buy them ex- amined the leaves with disdain and pronounced them filled with black spots and not worth even the small sum mother was asking. Mother was so insulted she told him she would prefer that he take them for free if he wanted rather than gratuitously insult her plant which she knew had no more spots than any others. The man then came back with an auto-rickshaw and packed the entire backseat with leaves. After that he showed up every month or so, like the grass man and all the others. Only the paper wallah ever paid mother. 

If the heat went on like that, father pointed out, they could not afford to give away more than a few buckets for if the well fell dry he doubted any of the neighbors were going to  return the favor. Maybe they should impose a two-bucket limit. Mother thought two buckets were too little. One had to drink at least a dozen tumblers of water a day in this weather, and then there was bathing and clothes that needed to be washed and plates and cups. People needed at least three buckets to manage, and even that left nothing for the plants. 

So it was decided. But when we went next door with the two buckets, it turned out that the girl whom mother had spoken to was someone quite different, not even from the same family. As for the one with the thirsty baby, the woman two doors from us told us it was all a pure invention. There was no baby, thirsty or not. The girl was just too lazy to draw her own water. She never went anywhere if she could get some one else to go. That was why she was putting on so much weight.

ďI told you she was fat,Ē said father complacently and the next time she saw him, mother made the curry leaf man pay.

(Lila Rajiva is a free-lance writer born in India and the author of The 
Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media, (Monthly Review Press, 2005 ). She has written for India West, Himal South Asia, the Baltimore Chronicle, Alternet, and Counterpunch among others.)
 


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