At noon, Naya Bass, one of the busiest localities in Rajasthan’s Churu district, is deserted. Amidst the hot loo that blows in carrying grains of sand are occasional silhouettes of men and women, mostly daily-wage labourers. Bent, they walk slowly, wet towels wrapped around their heads as the sun breathes fire on Churu. A day earlier, on June 3, this was the hottest place in the world — according to at least one weather mapping website, the mercury had risen up to 50.3 degrees Celsius. In one corner of Naya Bass, under a neem tree, stands an ice-cream cart with Mahaveer Ice-Cream Centre written in white paint.
Sitting on a plastic chair behind the ice-cream cart, a white cloth partially covering his head and face, Shankarlal Choudhary, 30, looks upwards at the sky wryly and says, “I thought this spot under the tree would be slightly cooler, but at this time in Churu, no matter where you go, you just can’t avoid the sun.”
Choudhary says he has been here since 9.30 am and has had only six customers so far. “Majboori hai, rozi roti ke liye karna padta hai. Warna is garmi mein koi bahar nikalta hai kya (It’s a compulsion… I have to do it to earn my living. Otherwise, why would someone venture out in this heat),” says Choudhary, meticulously removing wood sticking out of ice-cream sticks while keeping a lookout for the rare pedestrian.
“Badaam shake, strawberry ice-cream, faluda,” Choudhary calls out every time he sees a potential customer approaching the stall, mostly daily-wage labourers or students. The latter, he says, especially like to buy the ice-cream cones, priced at Rs 10 each. It’s the strawberry-flavoured ice-cream and badaam shake that are the most popular among customers.
Choudhary’s cart is owned by Rameshwar Choudhary, a resident of Churu, who has three other such outlets in the town. Rameshwar prepares the ice-cream at his house and sends it to the carts. The ingredients for the faluda and shakes are also made by the owner, and Choudhary gives them the finishing touches when a customer places an order.
Rameshwar gets to keep all the money from the sales and Choudhary is given a monthly salary of Rs 9,000.
“I have been doing this job for nearly seven years. Every year, between March and September, I sell ice-cream from this cart,” says Choudhary.
Situated in the heart of Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region, with a mixed population of Rajputs, Jats and Muslims, Churu makes headlines not just in the summer months but also winter, for registering the coldest temperatures in the state. Unlike other parts of Rajasthan, Churu does not get many tourists, and the arid climate and large stretches of desert land that border the district offer little scope for agriculture.
Choudhary says maximum ice-cream sales happen in the months of June, July and August, when at times his earnings go up to Rs 1,800 in a day. “Most of my customers are locals who are forced to step out in the heat to run daily errands,” says Choudhary, adding he can’t really complain about the weather — after all, it’s the heat that brings more customers to his cart.
But on hot days like these when the hours stretch endlessly, he misses his family — his wife and two sons — in Sharda village in Bhilwara district. “The younger one is just five years old. But I am glad that he isn’t here in this heat. It would have been unbearable,” says Choudhary.
Just then, he stands up, pushing back his plastic chair, spotting a customer walking up to his cart. Nadeem Khan, 24, orders a glass of badaam shake and moves to the farthest corner under the tree to avoid the heat. An Armyman posted in Pune, Khan is a resident of Churu and is home on leave.
“My friends in Pune often complain that the heat is unbearable there during summer. It makes me laugh. I tell them they should come to Churu if they want to see what real summers are like,” says Khan, taking a sip of his drink.
By 2.30 pm, the road looks even more deserted. A lone horse cart ferrying watermelons drives by, the animal panting every few steps.
Choudhary counts the day’s earnings so far — a little over Rs 400. The owner of the cart will be happy, he says, if he makes around Rs 1,500 by 9 pm.
A little after 3.30 pm, mini tankers from the local civic body splash water, but the road hisses and the water evaporates in a few minutes. Choudhary puts his head down on the edge of the cart and dozes off.
The only sounds are of the trucks rumbling down the Churu-Jaipur road and the whirr of the sugarcane juice machine on the opposite footpath.
Choudhary is woken up by Bhagoti Devi, who has taken a break from work for a kulfi — she is a labourer and is paid Rs 300 for a day’s work.
“I don’t really understand what’s the big deal about the heat. Do we have the choice of sitting and not working when it’s too hot? Who will feed us then?” she says, paying Choudhary and wrapping her sari even more tightly around her face before walking away.
Suddenly, Choudhary notices a problem — the ice inside his cart has started melting. “I had filled the cart with ice at 9.30 am and half of it has already melted. I have to pay Rs 160 every day for the ice. There will be customers in the evening. I hope the ice lasts the day,” says Choudhary, sprinkling some salt over the ice to keep it from melting. But this doesn’t seem to be working and there are big droplets of water on the box.
Shortly after his damage control measure, Choudhary faces another problem. A man has occupied the spare chair beside him meant for customers, clutching an open can of beer.
Choudhary asks the man to leave, worrying his presence will keep away customers. The middle-aged man slurs and stutters, before finally standing up. But his effort doesn’t last long and he goes down once again, this time spreadeagled under the neem tree, the empty beer can lying beside him.
“Everybody wants to be here, under the tree shade,” says Choudhary before slumping back on his chair. “At times, the heat becomes so unbearable I try one of my own ice-creams to keep cool,” says Choudhary. Like his customers, his favourite too is the strawberry-flavoured ice-cream.
In the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan that has the districts of Sikar, Churu and Jhunjhunu, the sunlight lingers well beyond 7.30 pm. That’s when Choudhary and fellow vendors do the most business, catering to people who have finally come out of their homes, some still with their faces covered against the hot wind that continues to blow.
Almost everyone who turns up at the stall discusses the weather. “During winter, it’s the opposite in Churu. Temperatures often go below zero degree Celsius and the nights are freezing,” says Krishna Kumar, one of Choudhary’s customers.
The talk of winter months stirs memories of home for Choudhary. “I will be home by then, with my family, and busy sowing mustard in our field,” he says. Until he heads to Churu next summer.
Around 9 pm, Choudhary gets ready to call it a day. As he pushes his cart to his one-room accommodation near a local temple in the town, another sweltering day in Churu awaits him.