Neelum Saran Gour is the author of Grey Pigeon and Other Stories, Speaking of ’62, Winter Companions and Other Stories, Virtual Realities, Sikandar Chowk Park and Song without End and Other Stories. She is a professor of English at the University of Allahabad.
In this special piece by her, she talks about the summers in Allahabad.
There used to be such a neat outdoor-indoor balance about our Allahabad summers. Evenings and nights were spent in the open, in gardens, terraces and courtyards. Days were spent indoors with the sun blazing away like a furnace in the sky and hot winds tearing about like maniacs on the loose, hissing against walls and roof tiles, heaving their weight against rattling doors. ‘The loo, the red-hot wind from the westward, was booming among the tinder-dry trees…’ – this is how Kipling describes Allahabad’s summer winds. People who had to be outdoors wrapped their heads securely against that skin-charring wind and carried small onions tied with handkerchiefs round their wrists, beneath their sleeves, or in their pockets, for onions are believed to prevent dehydration. The rogue-‘loo’, as we called these stormy summer winds, never did anybody any good. They dragged and hauled at the crackling dry leaves on the whipped branches, tossed and lashed at the trees till they quivered all over. The loo clamored around noisily all afternoon, pitching into shrubs, leaving them wilting, papery and parched. Tall ‘ khas-tatties’ lined our verandas, screens made of densely packed dry grass that a servant called a ‘faraash’ kept permanently damp, with water splashed out of buckets filled constantly. The crazed wind found itself trapped in that dense wad of packed, wet grass and blew into our corridors and rooms sweetened to a tender monsoon breath. Like a rampaging shrew-woman transformed into a well-spoken maiden. Most memorable of all there was that strange filtered-afternoon indoor light, deliciously shaded to near-darkness. The deep sleep of summer afternoons had its own quality. One sank to the clayey bed of a cool river of sleep and rose slowly to the surface after an hour, washed awake. At sundown, as the furnace faded, the drenching plash of water in hot gardens or courtyards let loose another palette of fragrances. The porous earth, spongy with moisture, exhaled its soggy breath. When the steamy vapour had settled and the gardens fully soaked, when the grass was wet against the soles of our feet and the bathed leaves dazzling green again and the queen-of-the-night ready to release its own soft incense, then it was time for our cane chairs and charpais and table fans to be taken out. And time for the mango pana glasses to appear. And with them the water melons, the bel-sharbat, the falsa juice, the cut mangoes. The white sheets on our daris and charpais felt breeze-lapped against the skin and the water from our surahis, sweet-chill, earth-scented, quenched not just the thirst of the throat but soaked into the pit of one’s stomach and sat there in a quiet pool of satiation. Some of that coolth can still be experienced in the early mornings of this changed city, before the breeze turns into the hot loo. And the koel call is still here and the bulbuls flitting about in my malati-lata.
Neelum Saran Gour’s book, Requiem in Raga Janki, is the beautifully rendered tale of one of India’s unknown gems.