Until his son came along, writes Avtar Singh, the joys of summer were a concept celebrated in children’s books. Surely heat was oppression and not liberation?
I’ve lived too long in cities that are mostly warm. It wasn’t always so. I went to senior school in the Himalayan foothills, where lengthening days were cause for celebration and not misery. And I went to college in southern California, which is routinely (mis)represented as a summer idyll.
But after 10 years spent between Mumbai and Goa, I lived a further decade in Delhi. So it was only two years ago, when I moved to Beijing—which is mostly cold—that I discovered just how deeply I’d internalised the disquiet the return of the summer sun occasions in the inhabitants of the North Indian plains. That disquiet, which spans the spectrum from distrust to outright loathing, informed every part of my life for almost seven months of every year.
Seven months of blown transformers, short nights and tempers, and then, inevitably, mosquito-borne disease. So even the annual relief of the rain was something to be dreaded and not looked forward to.
That’s a long time spent hankering for the seasonal wheel to invert itself.
My relationship with summer isn’t marked purely by antipathy, though. It is much more conflicted than that. Growing up, I felt summer was a time of freedom, because that was when the long holidays were. This was a state I’d learnt to savour from Enid Blyton’s adventures and Archie comics and the like because, well, the reality itself was so very different.
What I remember of my summer holidays when I was still a child in Delhi, almost 40 years ago: mornings spent in swimming pools before they closed at 11am, because it would then be too hot to stay outside; afternoons spent reading in rooms darkened against the sun by chiks. No TV save Krishi Darshan, certainly no internet. As the evening came, a solitary running around on our roof since I wasn’t allowed outside, using the hose to spritz water on the ground in a mostly futile attempt to cool the home below.
Outside, during the day—my mother in tears at the Moti Bagh crossing as her old car gave out for the last time, steam rising from its knackered radiator, swearing she’d never drive again, with me next to her, my shorts sizzling from the seat, a hand against her sopping wet back, trying to find the words to console her.
Finally, when I was 11 or so, being allowed to play in the parks and gardens with other young boys let off the leash for a short hour or so before night fell.
Looking back, I must have been bored out of my skull every holiday. There was absolutely nothing to do. The trips we took every summer—abroad, a few times, which I know was a rare privilege in that era, or to Bombay (as it was then) and the like—were looked forward to and then hoarded after in our minds and hearts, as armour against the hours and days of hunkering down to come.
Yet the appeal of what I’d glimpsed in those books and comics about all those distant places—boys in shorts, girls in skirts, or perhaps both on the beach in their swimsuits making sand castles—never faded. The idea of long summer days, when all you had to do was run around outside being free, being a child, was just too good to let go. Even if it wasn’t true.
Partly, this is because I only really came to an appreciation of our own seasons as an adult. “It’s because you weren’t rooted in the moment, like a farmer is,” a friend told me many years later. He was wrong, of course. Nobody is more rooted in the moment than a child. Whereas a farmer knows the particulars of where he is in the sun’s cycle precisely because he has to pay attention to the whole.
Once I started noting the trees, the flowers, the birds at work wherever I happened to be, I began to see that the notion of seasonality I’d grown up with was fundamentally skewed. As Irwin Allan Sealy points out in his intriguingly odd The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, things are different in India: “… fall comes after winter here, alongside and during spring… I knew this at the back of my head, but was overruled by a Western rhetoric: spring, summer, autumn, winter.”
It takes a while to unlearn the lessons of your childhood. Even if they’re read, and not lived.
You could argue this is a glaring issue with school calendars in the North Indian plains. Why should the long holiday come at the least hospitable time of year? My conjecture—with little evidence—is that it’s mostly a leftover from British times, to accommodate their ideal of spending “summer in the hills”.
It seems glaringly obvious that the time to let the kids out is when the land they’re going to be released onto is ready for them, which is to say, between November and February. But this idea, that one seasonal size fits all, isn’t just true of India.
It is true of where I spent my college years as well.
In the US, which was settled from east to west, the academic year still follows a mostly Northeastern timetable. Winter is horrific where American academia began, so the long break is again in summer. But the warm season in the South or the Southwestern US is of an Indian intensity and duration.
And it’s never just about the heat, is it?
The idea of summer filling children with glee finds its mirror in the idea of adult languor as warmth returns. But how easily languor slides into torpor.
I stayed behind in the US after my sophomore year, to spend the summer ostensibly working. As it happened, I was only intermittently employed, and I spent much of that period lying in bed; reading, dreaming, drinking.
I could have been outside, being athletic. I could have been at the beach. But how much of that can you really do if it is all you do? Looking back, I was probably skirting the edge of depression.You think only cold grey winter days can make you sad?
Thankfully the school year resumed, and the crushing tedium of all those light-filled hours with nothing to do receded. But I can’t remember that time without feeling that particular weight of boredom and fatigue as the sun comes slanting in through a net curtain while I think of all the things I won’t be doing that day.
Watching, as a fly does the lizard, the sun creeping across the wall.
It still terrifies me.
My son will be 11 soon. Though he doesn’t watch it any more, the animated series Phineas and Ferb is something I shared with him. The entire series is set in golden summer, in one of those American suburbs where the houses have huge backyards and night never falls. The theme song starts thus:
“There’s 104 days of summer vacation
And school comes along just to end it
So the annual problem for our generation
Is finding a good way to spend it…”
Ignore the monstrous length of the break. “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date”? Ha! It is a track of inspired lunacy, with references to bathing simians and Einstein’s brain. My son and I would sing along, and once he asked me what my favourite cartoon was, growing up. I explained that I didn’t see a cartoon till the first VCRs arrived in India. But I did tell him about the books and comics I would read to pass the time, when I was roughly his age. I told him how those, too, were always set in summer, so the action could be outside, the long warm hours broken by picnic lunches and sunlit adventures. Unless it’s The Cat in the Hat, who wants to read a book about children stuck inside a house?
“But summer’s too hot to play outside,” he said.
Yes. It really is. But there are so many more things to do inside, now.
I wished then for an Indian text we could read together, more rooted in our rhythms. I wanted to share, as I do now with my own father, the beating heart of the Barah Maha, the celebration of the seasons that Sikhs read at the start of every new month in the lunar year. It is a vision meant to be recited, of men and women joining themselves to God anew as the land changes with the sun’s passage across the firmament in the cycle of renewal it fuels.
My son will come to it in time, as I did. He will see Basant and Holi, Baisakhi, Diwali and Lohri for what they also are: markers by which people know and celebrate where they are in the year.
I trust he won’t be oblivious to them. But I don’t know. He’s never known an age where airconditioning was still something to be marvelled at. Power cuts can be dismissed with invertors and generators and anyway the plentiful cool of malls and cinemas is readily available. Even going abroad or to the hills is a far more democratic exercise than it was just 15 years ago.
What will he make of a movie like The Shining when he’s old enough to see it? I’d barely seen snow when I first encountered that movie. But I recognised what it was about, because I’d known cabin fever too. But how to explain a seasonal confinement to a child who has never known it?
His mother and I are complicit in this, of course. We have invested money we don’t really have in making sure our son gets to spend his holidays exactly the way he wants. With his family, in places where he can run and run. He is enjoying the summers I had known in my mind, but only occasionally with my body. My ambivalence towards summer has abated somewhat as a result. Even if I, as a worker-from-home, am effectively rendered unemployed—because I can’t get any work done!—as soon as his summer break begins.
The ‘nothing’ I look forward to doing with him when he’s on his long holiday is qualitatively different, though, from the ‘nothing’ I endured that summer in college. The ennui I felt then; the feeling of being on the edge of a precipice—so far, at least, the presence of my son is an antidote.
I get him the most at summer. So I treasure that time of year precisely because it is finite. He goes back to school at the end of the break. And when he’s finished with school, he will go away.
How will I feel about summer then?
One of the unforeseen, yet welcome, consequences of age is that you just learn to put up with more, especially the things you have no control over. I would laugh at my father in the long-before, when he’d drag me off to play golf through the June afternoon in Delhi, when more prudent souls were hiding at home. I thought he was completely mad, as were the other gentlemen and ladies puttering around the course under their umbrellas. Why is this fun, I would ask. Why not wait till the good weather returns?
The answer is obvious to me now. I’ve paid for the salt in my beard in years, after all.
Summer isn’t going anywhere till it’s good and ready, and it’s going to be back at more or less the same time again next year.
Welcome it at the door. Because you can’t turn it away.
And enjoy it while you can.
The number of summers you’ve seen mark your cycle too.
This essay was published in the April-June 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Heat’.