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Bushra Alvi Headshot

Summers of Content

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As the heat in Delhi shows no signs of relenting, I take a peek down memory lane and happy summers of my childhood.

We didn't have television and internet to vie with. Social interaction was our entertainment. And hordes of indoor games. Hot summer afternoons would be spent lazing about the house, playing cards and ludo. Monopoly was a favorite and had takers anytime. After Enid Blyton, it was the closest we got to England, and we all vowed that one day we would actually walk those streets and buy those properties and build houses there. How innocent is childhood!

When I see my children constantly lamenting about the heat, I wonder at our resilience. We drank water cooled in surahis and matkas (earthen pots). These would be kept in the backyard at night and during the day a moist cloth was wrapped around them. The water was sufficiently cooled to quench our thirst. To my tastebuds, this water tasted better than that cooled in refrigerators. These also served as effective water purifiers. Our kitchen was stocked with all sorts of sherbets: khus, rose, sandal. But by far the favorite drink was Hamdard's Roohafzah, the bright pink finding its way into milk shakes and lassis too.

Melons with their soft pastel pulp and water melons with their luscious red freshness were devoured with relish and the seeds washed and dried to be nibbled at leisure when the fruit was past season. Other summer essentials included falsa and jamun which were sprinkled with rock salt that beautifully rounded off the tartness. I remember seeing women spread huge white cloths under the jamun trees lined around the India Gate area. Little boys would slither up the trees and shake them hard to let the fruit fall below.

As I shudder at huge electricity bills every summer due to air conditioning, I recall how we very effectively cooled our houses in the heat of May and June. Has climate change and global warming had such a huge impact or are we pampering ourselves more now than ever before. I can close my eyes and inhale the smell of khus (vetiver grass) with which blinds were made and attached to doors and windows. They were regularly watered and the cool wind that blew through them brought with it a pleasant smell and lowered the temperature effectively by a few degrees.

Sleeping outdoors was a luxury one cannot even consider in this time of crime and insecurity. Nights were cool and pleasant. Preparations would start before dusk when the terrace was liberally sprinkled with water to allow the heat to escape. As the floor was entirely of bricks, it cooled easily and remained so till the morning. Each one of us had a charpoy, a bamboo bed woven with jute string and covered with a thin mattress and sheet. Dealing with insomnia was no issue as we could literally count stars till we slept! Sometimes we would hobnob with the neighbors across low terrace walls. Mosquitoes were a problem though because of the greenery around and nets draped across bamboo poles attached to the charpoys served as an effective screen. On humid nights, the pedestal fan would come in handy. Sometimes we were rudely awakened by an unexpected shower that would send us scuttling down the stairs within the dryness of four walls.

My father always slept downstairs on a cot in the garden as someone had to guard the house too. It continued like this till coolers, air conditioners and the need for safety drove us and the entire neighborhood indoors to sleep.

No talk about summers of days gone by is complete without a mention of flowers, white flowers that ruled the night, flowers that grew in abundance in our small garden.

The chameli (jasmine) creeper that grew in the backyard climbed steadily each year until it spilled over in one corner of the terrace. A whiff of the delicate fragrance would transport us to another realm. It enveloped our senses and lulled us to sleep. The juhi bush grew high and strong and covered most of the back wall of the house. When the wind blew, the delicate, satiny flowers would drift down in a carpet of white in the backyard. I remember how I cried the day it was cut down to make space for a little shed.

The smell of raat ki rani (queen of the night) that grew in the front garden was recognizable from a few houses down the road. It was lighter, sweeter and deadlier. But of all these, my favorite was mogra, thick white flowers whose captivating scent reigned supreme. They grew in profusion in summers and we would pluck the swollen buds in the evening. Mom would string some into a gajra every evening and wear them entwined in her hair. My sisters and I looked enviously at her as little girls were not allowed to wear flowers. As compensation we kept a handful of mogra on our pillows so that we could inhale the exotic smell as we slept... and dreamed of a beautiful life ahead!