3 years


Heat and Dust (and the AC) in South Asian Novels

Sumana Roy, a poet, has just published her first novel Missing
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Authors with sweat-lined brows have invariably used air-conditioning as a literary device to get under their characters’ skin.

It was in April, or in the moody half-plugged days that can only be called a preparation for April, that I began reading two novels: Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals and Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke, the first about music and musicians set in a grimy and humid Bombay, Hamid’s about a banker losing his job, and trying heroin, all this in a ‘filthy’ hot Lahore. Often, during sultry throat-drying afternoons in office, when the exhausted limbs of the ancient government office fan behaved like a stubborn sibling, I would find myself thinking about summers before the invention of electricity, and in a way that is difficult to explain, how such time-travel has inexplicably become tied to the ‘idea’ of the Indian village. Such a journey is a travel to the past, and for those without the privilege of such a history, an imagined past. 

I thought of the summer I spent in a village called Nathwahat in Bengal. My father had been posted there as a rural development officer, less the name of a position as a prickly half-doomed mission. Then seven and nine, my brother and I were perhaps too self-engrossed in the encounter between the ‘village’ (‘graam’, in our minds, was always without a name) of our storybooks and Nathwahat (a shadow suddenly acquiring a name, like a ghost) to miss cityness. We lived like converts, pretending to forget the blessings of ‘running water’, the gas oven and doorbells. 

Only, every few hours, my mother would mistakenly ask someone to increase the speed of the ceiling fan, this in a village with almost no electricity. Her words, with many interpolations by her children, have since then been turned into a family joke. But she, a school teacher by profession, has had the final say. The second letter of the English alphabet has become redundant, she says. ABC no more; only AC!

Her words came back to me, like only moralistic half-jokes can, on the sticky afternoons I spent reading these books. ‘He had come back in April …’: that is the first line of A New World, Chaudhuri’s fourth novel, and though there is no immediate description of the heat, a few pages later, a repetition, as if part of a trail of sweat: ‘The heat had just begun to become intolerable— it was the middle of April.’ Then, four pages later, again: ‘In April, the tanks became so hot that warm water flowed out of the cold water taps.’ And though that can’t be a relief, we are grateful that the writer has observed this, for the temporary camaraderie of victimhood. For, before the advent of the inverter and generator in the Indian middle class household, during the time when the word ‘power cut’ still had the power to invoke an experience close to Milton’s Hell (‘liquid fire’), my brother and I would find great relief in looking at the candles and lanterns in our neighbours’ houses. To know that we were sweating together made the suffering half-bearable, just as the occasional sighting of the moving blades of the fan running on a foul-mouthed generator in a Marwari neighbour’s house made the summer nights even more excruciating. The sense of deprivation—the result of a child’s straightforward economics: Rahul’s father is richer than mine, so he gets more fan air than I do—intensified the force of the sweat shower in the armpits.

But to return to Chaudhuri’s novel: the first chapter itself, with its incantatory use of April, brings sweat bands on the brow. Jayojit asks for a glass of water, his son takes a shower, but there seems to be no relief. Not until we come to the chapter’s end does Chaudhuri have mercy: ‘But when Jayojit turned on the air-conditioner, nothing could be heard but its hum.’ Who cares for the noise as long as the shirt doesn’t stick to the skin and the sofa? But the narrator, like a Nehruvian grandfather whose afternoon dream has just been broken by the sound of this snoring air-giving machine, reminds us in a solemn whisper: ‘it had an air-conditioner in it: a luxury’.  

Luxury it certainly is, as Hamid reminds us in Moth Smoke. The eighth chapter is titled—in language and humour often labelled ‘South Asian’—‘What lovely weather we’re having (or the importance of air-conditioning)’. Hamid goes on to explain the characters in relation to air-conditioning. Murad Badshah, who deals in drugs and the rickshaw business, considers ACs ‘unnatural and dangerous. Your pores will get out of shape if you rely on ACs for your cooling… He loved load-shedding for this reason’. While I don’t know anyone who would prefer ‘load-shedding’, even as a metaphor, it is true, as Badshah believes, that ‘it’s fine as long as you stay in your little air-conditioned space, but one day you might need to rely on your body again and your body won’t be there for you’. The chapter is a microcosm of the novel; the story, its sigh and its sweat, is in it: ‘Aurangzeb loved ACs with a passion unrivaled by his love for any other species of inanimate object… Mumtaz hated ACs with the sort of hatred one normally reserves for members of other religions and ethnic groups… And so it was that the marriage between Aurangzeb and Mumtaz was doomed… If air-conditioning doomed her relationship with her husband, it doomed her relationship with his best friend as well. You see, Mumtaz was over-air-conditioned and longed to be uncooled, while Darashikoh was under-air-conditioned and longed to be cooled’. 

ACs, Hamid seems to be telling us, create a state of living in otherness, with an impending sense of doom about its impermanence, a fulfilled-fantasy stage where opposites come together to offer relief from life’s ‘realness’. For when we emerge out of air-conditioned cars and shopping malls, the artificial coolness sticking to our skins like stale perfume, emerge out of spaces immune to the temper tantrums of the meteorological department into the ‘real’ world, the hot air slaps a blister or a curse, our pores dilate with the expectation of an encounter with the same energy as dogs’ tails do before a fight, and the fingertips, trained by reflexes, search for the beginnings of sweat in the age-folds of the neck. There is much economics—temper losses and increase in laundry bills—but, in the end, sweating makes us feel normal and available for the world. 

In Tarun Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins, the AC acquires a name, and a figure, well almost. Bedroom spy, like a lizard on the wall, the ‘plastic-grille-air-conditioner’ is witness to an extramarital relationship. But Tejpal doesn’t give it the name of a spy or even a number like 007. Instead, the AC is a conqueror: ‘Napoleon’. ‘The brand name stuck on the cream coloured grille said ‘Napoleon’, which meant it had been knocked together in some backyard in the city… this country was in imaginative heat.’ Napoleon is not just a conqueror of heat, it is an inversion of the Prince in the Snow White story, who brought the warmth of life into the freezing life-numbing landscape. 

Amitava Kumar, in Home Products, reminds us that air-conditioned spaces are twice removed from life not only because of their immunity to the weather, but also because they are sealed from the noises of life. Significantly, the only time he mentions the AC, it is about a hospital, a trope that has its quarrels with ‘life’: ‘The new wing was quieter. It was also air-conditioned and this was a relief. But the glass in the windows had been painted white and you couldn’t look outside.’ Yes, the AC does that too—it produces the security of opacity and a release from the pains of visual excess! 

The state of awareness of living amidst the tussle of two ancient opposites—hot and cold—is given a brilliant turn in Moth Smoke. ‘If one had asked Manucci during his days as a street urchin… Manucci would probably have said that ACs were hot. The first time he saw one jutting out into the street from the wall of a shop in the old city, he walked up to the noisy box and was amazed at the blast of hot air it sent straight into his face. Why do people turn on hot air in the middle of summer?… Manucci realised what all this had to mean. It meant people thought what he called hot air was cold air. So whenever he walked down the street past the back of a protruding AC, he would smile and say, “What cold air it makes. Wonderful.”’ 

I was reminded of a different strand of dualism while reading Aravind Adiga’s darkly humorous collection of stories, Between the Assassinations. In one story, a ‘mosquito man’ (a man hired to spray mosquito repellant; also, a telling metaphor, especially in terms of size, and for Adiga, size is usually the key to the class cabinet) looks at the woman whose house he has come to clean and discovers her prosperity in the props of her existence: ‘the only air-conditioner in the lane, which jutted out of her bedroom and over the jasmine plants in her garden, rumbling and dripping water’. He pushes the trope further when he gets the outsider (the servant in the ‘out’-house) to sneak into the house. He is curious to see how ‘madam’ sleeps, to test the soapiness of his relationship with his employer. There is sexual tension in the air, the AC and its artificial moistness add to her allure, the machine a necessary toy in the erotica: ‘A cool air-conditioned breeze thrilled his entire body.’ What George, the ex-mosquito man, loses eventually is not just a job or sleep, but something more subtle and thus much less available: the taste of air-conditioned skin.

Quarrels melt, egos thaw, frown creases disappear when man—owner or benefactor—plays a kind of self-serving god and sets the temperature of his world at 22º C. In The Immortals, a couple is talking about the music teacher who has asked the husband to be the guarantor of a loan. ‘They were silent against the equanimous, life-giving sempiternal background of air-conditioning’, says the narrator, almost summing up the character of the conversation, their relationship and their world in a sentence. ‘They’d got used to air-conditioned transport, the sealed air, the busy, glinting, ragged world kept at bay by glass...’ The AC also turns their car into a ‘time-capsule, a seamless continuation of their old familiar life’. The AC, thus, is not only life-giving, but life itself, where climate is weather, and both are controllable and unchanging.  

My aunt—a great critic of writers, not of their work but their lives—loses her temper and all pretence to sophistication when she hears a Tagore song playing on a neighbour’s radio on a summer afternoon. Always the rain and the spring; but where is the song about summer? She asks. A sun-scorched name (‘Rabi’ meaning the sun), she notes, and after the curses have gained heat, she offers her thesis: Tagore, the zamindar, wasn’t a people’s poet because he couldn’t feel the suffering of those sweating outside his window; and then her climactic presumption—he must have written all those poems sitting in an air-conditioned room! My mother, a silent admirer of the poet, comes up with a weak argument: she turns ‘Jhawro jhawro jhorichhay bari dhara’ (the water droplets flow and fall), Tagore’s quiet composition about a late seasonal shower, into a statement about fierce and restless sweat drops falling off the brow, chin and tip of the nose!  

All this might seem, especially to great believers in the cult of meaning, to be part of an emerging literature of ecocide, but here is Euan Sutherland, the British editor of Imperial, a newspaper in pre-independent India, writing in Siddhartha Deb’s novel Surface: ‘The heat was terrible and I just had the company provide me with a cooling machine for the bedroom. Without that... I doubt I would have survived the abominable weather. I had the thought that the cooling machine might help calm Jim’s nerves down.’ The AC has, since, become just another season. Only, one that refuses to change, like that on Keats’ Grecian urn. It creates, to borrow from the young Romantic, the ultimate Cold Pastoral. 

Sumana Roy’s first novel, Love in the Chicken’s Neck, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. She is working on a collection of stories about clothes, tentatively titled SML