It took me a while to start writing this because I was just sitting there, inert, by my air-cooler.
These last two days have been the hottest in my life by far, and according to the Varanasi weather forecast this heat wave will last another three days. I don’t really know if it went up to fifty degrees yesterday, I only have a medical thermometer that says “low” below thirty-five and “high” above fourty-one. In the flat itself though it is usually about thirty-seven to thirty-nine. I put the thermometer outside on the balcony in the sun once and obviously it just said “high”.Up until three days ago it was kind of bearable, but for the last two days it has just been crazy. The heat outside is like a hammer on your head, but that’s not even the worst. Inside, underneath the hanging fan and even by the air-cooler which nowadays really just spins a whirlpool of hot air just like an airplane propeller, the heat is so sticky that it makes it hard to breathe and it almost makes me feel nauseous. And it is worse at night because while trying to sleep, all you can focus on is that stickiness, that itchy rashes from being constantly wet from sweat, and your mouth drying too fast before you can fall asleep.
I guess it’s not as difficult for most Indians (?). I don’t know, but I seem to sweat a lot more than they do. In the day my legs sweat inside my loose cotton trousers whilst many Indians still wear jeans. I cannot stand more than five centimetres of sleeves on my arms while my girlfriends still wear full long-sleeve tunics. And I can’t stand one hair sticking on my sweaty neck, so I have to tie all my hair up on my head, while many girls bear thick long plaits down their neck and back.
And since the last two days I’ve experienced the worst two nights of my life, ever.
Worst night no.1
Two days ago there was a power cut in the afternoon. By evening time the light was still not back, but being used to the long Varanasi powercuts I didn’t think much of it. I lit a candle to save some power in the inverter battery and switched off the light. I even managed to play some violin. By 10:30pm the light had still not returned and I started getting concerned about how I was going to sleep, because I wouldn’t be able to use the fan let alone the air-cooler all night. I went downstairs to knock at the guard’s door – there was light! All that time it had just been a problem in my flat! I asked the guard to look at it but he didn’t understand what was wrong. I felt stupid for not having checked before, because now it was obviously too late to call an electrician.
I phoned Kishan, started shouting and whining and crying. Once the resisting stage had passed I went back downstairs and asked the guard if I could sleep in the landlord’s house (who were away in Australia for two months). The guest room where he slept was nice and cool, as the AC was on! I had a hint of hope that I would spend a good night. He let me sleep on the sofa-bed while he would sleep on the floor. I went back up to get my pillow and stuff and came back to lie down, but soon realised that Suliman had switched the AC off. He was lying on the floor just underneath the fan and I was feeling hotter and stickier because I was too far away from the fan. I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t want to be a bother and to wake him up, but after one hour it was no longer bearable. He coughed so I realised he was awake and I begged him to switch the AC back on. I finally fell asleep at about 1:30am. Three hours later I woke up for a drink and a pee… When I came back from the loo Suliman was sitting up and the AC was off again. “What?!” I asked. “It’s morning now; time to wake up!” he said. I thought I was going to faint. I didn’t want to argue about the AC again so when he left the room with his mat I spread my bed sheet onto the cement floor right below the fan where he had slept, and I collapsed into slumber. When I woke up it was almost 8am! Thank God the night was behind me!
The electrician only came at 11am. Until then I just tried to lead my life as normal; I did some cleaning, resting between tasks below the fan (because to broom you have to switch the fan off so the dust won’t fly around!) Oh and thank God there was still enough power in the battery for the fan to work! I ate some mangoes and watermelon and porridge; mostly though I sat in the (kind of) relieving air looking at the sweat running down my legs, splashing my body with talc powder to relieve the rashes of my back, my chest, my neck and my forehead. And I read – I read my amazing book to forget.
When the electrician finally came we found out that two cables had burnt and were preventing the home supply to my floor. It took him five minutes to join the two cables back together and secure them with some tape. A fifty-rupee job and the power returned – horrah! I ran for a relieving shower, although the water just gets warm or lukewarm at best. The water is stored in a reservoir on the rooftop so the tap water gets boiling hot during the day, and when morning comes it’s not much better. I have to keep my two buckets full so that the water stays as “cool” as possible.
The rest of the day was sticky and slow. I had no energy to cook because the kitchen is a real oven and after two minutes in it I’m all sweaty again and I have to run back to dry myself by the cooler. So I wrapped my upper body in a wet cotton shawl (dupatta) and walked out two minutes to the only restaurant open at that time of year – thank God it’s a ground floor room somewhat hidden from the sun in a narrow lane so it was reasonably nice and cool. (My flat is so hot because it’s on the first floor and the highest flat of the building, and it’s open all round the building with too many windows – really not well adapted for the hot season compared to the downstairs rooms of windowless houses packed in narrow lanes by the Ganges, where the sun doesn’t reach.)
Worst night no.2
After a slow and sleepy day at 7am I went to my girlfriend’s – one of those protected, first-floored flat and I was curious to see how “cool” it would be. It was a lovely evening, because living alone at this time is not the most reassuring thing sometimes, and I enjoyed her company. She lives with her dad and a friend, and her married sister was visiting with her small baby. We talked and cooked and ate and played with the baby. I decided to sleep there because it was indeed cooler. Somehow though it was still very sticky – the sweat, the itch – I splashed more baby talc powder. I showered. I was not sure in which room it was best to sleep. My friend spread out the mats – actually it is nicer to sleep on a hard floor than on a mattress in such conditions because the more your body sinks into a mattress, the more you sweat. I tested both rooms to check out which was the coolest. Not sure. My body is kind of confused in such heat, like it doesn’t know how to react. I’m slow at starting things, I walk around not knowing what to do, I sit not doing anything, because my body doesn’t understand this crazy new environment. And I am more clumsy too. But the more you resist, the more you refuse to accept it, the more difficult it is to handle. You have no choice but to embrace, to surrender, to accept to carry on with your life – albeit slowly, despite the discomfort of sweat and stickiness, because there is just no way out. You have to accept to wear your clothes even if you’re all wet inside and out, you have to accept to go out a bit and do your shopping and things because if you don’t you are just distraught and depressed. If you surrender, if you focus on your life, there are moments where you forget about the discomfort, because you’re busy or engrossed in your book, or your writing, or whatever it is you are doing.
But that night at my girlfriend’s was impossible. Every thirty minute I had to drink water and get up and take the key to unlock the back door and go to the loo to pee. Every thirty minute I had to go on what felt like an expedition because the toilet was outside. And despite being on the ground floor and the room being slightly cooler than my flat, there was no air-cooler and the fan was too high above my head to dry my constant run of sweat. If I lied on my back, after a while the itch became unbearable. If I tilted my head on a side, the side of my face that was not receiving any air got wet with sweat. If I rested one limb on another they stuck together and sweat even more. And I didn’t have my handkerchief with me, the one I tie my hair into so that small hairs won’t fly into my face (because of the fan) and tickle me. I was so tired that I did almost fall asleep, but before reaching victory I’d be bothered by another ailment and wake up again. At 2:30am I started crying with frustration because I knew I wouldn’t sleep. I hesitated but eventually I decided to go home, because although the air from my air-cooler was hot, it was stronger than the fan and it dried my sweat better.
I tapped my friend’s sweatless face with envy to wake her up. I phoned my building’s guard to ask him to open the door in ten minutes. My friend opened the door of the garage, I took my bicycle and cycled through the empty city, enjoying the cooling wind caressing my body – because I soon as I got home and stood still it felt like the air disappeared and yes, even when you just stood doing nothing outside at 3am… you sweat!
I am back in Khajuraho since yesterday. I had just three more days in Varanasi to wait for the PIO card to arrive in the post; three more days in the heat. Only three more days but I couldn’t stand it anymore. The evening after I wrote this text, I was out in the street because despite the heat, you can’t just stay in by your cooler the entire day, and after the sun has set you have to go out and go for a while because that’s the only time of day that you can. But I was out, and I was still soaked in my sweat and itching. I was roaming desperate in the street, when my legs decided to take me to the travel agency and book a train back to Khajuraho for the following day… (The heat is less humid here, still blistering, but the house is a lot more pleasant to live in than my flat and so life is a lot easier!)