It was always the happiest day of my school year. As I stood in the assembly hall, singing a hymn, a familiar painting of Christ would smile down at me from the wall and whisper, “Happy summer holidays!” Summer would be murderously hot in Delhi but it also meant freedom, mangoes and cousins to play with! What could be more perfect? The exams were over and to my amazement, I had passed, even crawling past the pass mark in Hindi and maths. My school bag was full of crisp new books and two months stretched before me like a benediction from above. I agree summer can be hard but imagine living in a village in the Arctic Circle, with six months of snow and gloomy darkness, and I bet you would appreciate a mellow summer dawn and, perhaps, even miss a sandstorm or two.
Nowadays, a lovelorn koel in the park announces the arrival of grishma, the summer of the six Indian seasons. Unlike varsha (monsoon); sheet (winter) and basanto (spring), I have never been able to differentiate between sharat and hemanta, which are just variations of autumn. But hot, dusty, harsh grishma makes its presence felt with a vengeance. I’m sure that is why that koel’s cry has a frantic desperation to it. Today’s children should protest at the way their obsessive parents ruin their summer holidays. Suddenly, the morning newspapers drip out leaflets for dance classes, pottery lessons, theatre workshops. I do wish children were left alone, preferably in the company of cousins. When our gang woke up every morning, the day stretched before us in glorious nothingness. It was up to us how we filled it.
Join Rati Ram, our ancient and irritable gardener, as he pottered around and drive him crazy by stealing his peas? We would scoop out the peas and leave the outer shell still hanging from the plant and that drove him positively batty. Play cricket in the back veranda with a tennis ball and you were out if the ball went over the garden wall? Wheedle some cash from an adult and buy sticky churan from the vendor in the corner?
My cousins are my oldest BFFs and we gathered at Hanuman Road, where my maternal grandparents presided over a happy, chaotic household. Here, everyone was a storyteller. Didima (granny) told stories while she chopped vegetables on a giant bonti; one uncle specialised in frantic adventures that he claimed were all true and another only liked vampires. Dadu, my grandfather, was a scholar, writer, morning walk-maniac and nature lover, who lectured us about trees and flowers, taught me to read Bangla and could make paper kettles in which you could actually heat water over a candle.
My favourite spot was the front veranda, where I would lean against a thick, cool pillar, read and dream and watch the magenta bougainvillea curve over the creaky wooden gate. Then I would spot the fruitseller calling out and Didima would bustle out to buy mangoes, watermelons, pears, litchis, dumping them into the basket that I held as her shopping assistant. You have to agree no winter fruit can match the pleasures of eating mangoes and litchis, mouths all smeared and the juice running down your arm.
There was one summer fruit we all loathed but we had to eat it on the orders of my paternal grandmother, Thakuma. Even my Baba could not find a way to defy her diktat. The bel tree, all thorny branches and triple leaves, grew in our home in Daryaganj and the fruits were like footballs that fell with a thud, announcing another evening of slugging down the awful bel sherbet. I later discovered it was recommended for diabetes and no one in the family had that malady. We would stand under the tree, looking up gloomily at the fruits. Bel is called woodapple, then why didn’t it stay in the woods instead of invading our courtyard?
As the scarlet simul flowers bloomed around India Gate, summer afternoons smelled of khus, the vetiver grass curtains strung across the doors, which had to be watered so that the breeze came through cool and fragrant. May and June were dry, dusty and hot unlike the sweaty months they are today. If you walked down Faiz Bazaar in the afternoon, the sun would scorch the skin, and the gritty loo would get into your nose and mouth.
The loo was an enemy I knew. You fought it with cool drinks — watermelon juice, mango panna and nimbu paani with chaat masala. We would keep an ear cocked for the song of the jeera paniwalla. The old man would come pushing a wobbly wooden cart, on which sat a giant, earthen water pot covered in wet, red cloth and garlanded with a string of golden lemons. “O dekho yeh aagai bahaar! Hamare yahaan chale ana yeh jeera paani walla!!” I adored him because if he came, even Thakuma would postpone the bel prescription for the afternoon.
At night, charpoys were laid out in a ghostly row in the courtyard, with a single table fan rattling away as we slept under the stars. I would dip into sleep to the sound of the adults chatting, feeling safe and secure. The breeze would cool us. By dawn, most of us would be wrapped in light sheets as the birds began to call and we heard the clatter of the milkman’s aluminium cans. In Daryaganj, we always woke up to a layer of gritty coal dust on the sheets as it flew in from the smoke stacks of the power station next to Rajghat. Recently, I discovered the power station was still standing, rusting in the sun like a derelict memory of simpler days.
For me, summer is watching the bare branches of the laburnum tree suddenly bloom into droopy golden blossoms, spotting the exquisite purple jacaranda and fronds of emerald leaves among the scarlet gulmohur flowers. The jamun trees fill with fruit and get squashed under the wheels of cars turning the roads of Rajpath all purple.
When we complain about the heat, we forget that it does rain. The showers are like nature’s legerdemain, sudden lightning, the uproar of rain and that fragrance we call saundhi. The unforgettable smell of rain falling on dry earth that says the monsoons are not far away.
If you go looking for the ittar shop at the end of Dariba Kalan in Chandni Chowk, they will dab a little bit of monsoon on your wrist. It is an ittar that perfectly captures that saundhi-saundhi aroma of surahi water, tea served in kulhars, biryani made in terracotta pots and curd made in earthen cups.
It is called mitti, my earth.