By the end of March, it was already hot--98 degrees Fahrenheit. And April was worse, cruelly worse.
On the last day of April, the mercury hit 105, yet that was only a hint of what was to come. In April, the brain-fever bird and the coppersmith, which herald the approach of really hot weather, began their overture to the hell of May and June.
The call of the brain-fever bird mounts the scale with accelerating urgency, "like a man describing a race," in the words of a man long familiar with the weather of North India.
The coppersmith, or tin-pot bird, has a call like the steady pounding of a ball-peen hammer on sheet metal.
And now it is May, the first of two months of "summer" in the Indian capital, when the daytime temperature almost never falls below 105 and gets as high as 117.
The oven-hot westerly winds that sweep in from the Great Indian Desert will keep things sizzling until the end of June or early July, when the rain-bearing monsoons finally bring relief.
New Delhi may not be the hottest of the world's capital cities. Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, and Khartoum, in Sudan, are competitive. But what's a few degrees?
Here they consider it hot when the water temperature gets beyond 100 in the swimming pool at the West German Embassy. And a bureaucrat's status is calculated on the basis of the size of his air conditioner or, if he is a truly high official, his air conditioners.
"The only way to cool off," according to the labor officer at the West Germany Embassy, "is to jump quickly in and out of the pool three times and let the evaporation cool you down."
Indians, of course, have had to put up with the heat for centuries. Thirteen different cities have been built on the hard-rock Delhi Ridge above the sacred Jumna River. And they have come up with a remarkable variety of techniques for beating the heat, most of which involve special food and drink.
The most bizarre of these may be the one suggested by A.S. Abraham, a Times of India man who insists he has seen it used on particularly hot days.
First, Abraham says, you eat the sweet red pulp of half a watermelon. In Indian heat lore, the watermelon, like many other fruits, is considered "cooling of the blood" and therefore suitable for the summer diet.
Then you strip down to a towel or a dhoti, and you "take half the watermelon and place it on your head, the other half on your belly."
Cooling the Blood
Now that the scorching heat is back again, about the only activity you see in the streets, particularly in the narrow lanes of the Old City, is aimed at cooling the blood. Several hundred water wallahs patrol the streets selling a glass of cold water at half a cent a glass. For a bit more, the wallah will add a sprig of mint or a squeeze of nimbu-- lime.
Nimbu water or nimbu soda, usually taken with salt in the summertime, is the most popular of hot weather beverages.
Tejinder Lamba, a salesman in a room-cooler shop in Old Delhi, observed the other day: "Mostly, I drink lime. There is nothing like fresh lime juice. You can have all your colas and other drinks. There is nothing as good as lime water with salt. After that, you don't get thirsty for two or three hours."
Poor Man's Air Conditioner
The room cooler that Lamba sells is the poor man's air conditioner, a kind of glorified fan. It is a rectangular box filled with straw, with a fan on one side. A spout is attached to the top for pouring water onto the straw. As the water evaporates, it cools the air that is drawn through the straw and into the room by the fan. For all its simplicity, this thing costs almost $100, far beyond the reach of most Indians. An air-conditioner is much more expensive; a wall unit costs at least $1,000.
A notch above the room cooler is the "desert cooler." Essentially, this is a larger version of the room cooler, except that the water is pumped automatically through the straw.
Indian newspapers and magazines carry lavish advertisements for the desert cooler, one of which shows a woman in a bikini standing in a snow drift, and it promises, "We bring you chilly to your hot homes." Another says it will make your bungalow a "glacier home in the Sahara." Another: "Feel the icicles of Simla (a resort in the Himalayan hills)."
In his office in a dark old building at Safdarjang Airport here, H.N. Gupta has placed a large desert cooler about three feet from his desk. It is aimed directly at his face and turned up full blast. Gupta is chief meteorologist for northwestern India.
"They call us weather pundits here," he said, pushing a button under the ledge of his desk. This summoned an assistant with a glass of cold water. "The weather affects people in different ways," Gupta went on, "but unless it is very far from the normal range, there is not much problem."
Nevertheless, he is a little worried about the prospects for a very hot summer this year. Temperatures were eight and nine degrees above normal in March, and again at the end of April. Last May was very hot, even by New Delhi standards.
Gupta shuffled through a stack of papers on his desk, which had to be anchored with paperweights because of the wind generated by his desert cooler.
"Yes," he said, "last year on the 26th of May it was 45.2 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit)."
Actually, this is not a recent phenomenon. The early Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, whose work is believed to date from the 5th Century, said of the weather in North India:
"The dust raised by the intolerable winds makes it impossible to see anything. The deer is so maddened by thirst he takes the blue horizon for water and rushes toward it. The snake, unable to bear the heat, crawls to the shadow cast by the peacock's tail, though it is the bird's natural prey. Even the frog seeks cool under the spread hood of the cobra."
Like the cooler salesman Lamba, Gupta thinks lime water is best for slaking one's thirst in the heat of New Delhi. But there are hundreds of other remedies, all hawked in the streets, among them slices of cucumber sprinkled with spices, wedges of coconut, sugar cane juice served with shaved ice and mint, a mixture of yogurt and water buffalo milk with salt.
Eggs, coffee and meat are said to warm the blood and are to be avoided.
The residents of New Delhi who do not have the luxury of air-conditioning shut out the brutal sun and keep their houses almost completely dark. Heavy bamboo curtains with cotton linings that are regularly doused with water are hung over all outside windows and doors, causing mildew that gives off a musty odor.
Jute mats are strapped on to the roofs of autos, and these too are wet down.
"The glare was one of the things I found most trying," a longtime British resident told author Charles Allen. "It used to strike right through your eyes into the back of your head. The first rays of sun that came through the windows struck the floor almost like a searchlight. One would wander round outside with eyes half shut."
Sportsmen intent on playing tennis or golf start out at an absurdly early hour to make peace with the heat. The first foursome leaves the Delhi Golf Club tees at 4:30 a.m., when there is just a hint of daylight. At the Gymkhana Club, tennis begins at 5 a.m.
Despite all the brave efforts to thwart it or deny it, by late afternoon the heat finally wins. Bureaucrats below air-conditioner rank are almost impossible to find in their offices. Rickshaw drivers are asleep under their vehicles. Railroad commuters buy cakes of ice to put under their bare feet.
Knots of people stand around outside the Prag ice house in Old Delhi, a leaky, 75-year-old facility where ice is made by passing ammonia gas through coils in briny water. When the wind is right, standing next to the ice house is the closest thing there is in North India to feeling a cool breeze.