The Western fasci-nation for the sun never ceases to fascinate me! There was I on a recent trip to Holland, drunk with beauty of Amsterdam—swaying, multihued carpets of tulips, farmhouses selling flattened, football-like cheeses, quaint wooden clogs whittled in a jiffy, picture-postcard windmills, jaunty wicker baskets on bicycles, riots of red and violet blooms in window-boxes, tree-lined avenues, ubiquitous ducks paddling smugly down every creek, the fragile beauty of porcelain, the dappled waters of countless canals—when, whoa!—I drew up short at Schevenigan beach. My sun-dazzled eyes could barely assimilate the sight that confronted them rows upon tightly packed rows of skimpily clad humanity ranged in varied spread-eagled postures on the glaring sands. Like single-hued chameleons, the sunbathers ran through the entire gamut of uncomfortable shades of red and pink. They looked to be broiled and basted and yet they obviously basked in blissful contentment! To forsake the shaded canal-walks for this—it was beyond comprehension to me, an Indian.
India is a land of sunshine—Oh yes! In a country dogged by shortages galore (of water, oil, power, and what have you!) one of the few commodities of which we have enough and to spare is sunshine. Except for those temperamental monsoon months, the Indian year appears to be one long summer with, for the most part, negligible variations in the degree of sunshine. Hot, hotter, hottest about sums up our climatic range. Sunshine is the unique selling point of the Indian tourism industry. Travel brochures abound with glossy photographs of sun-drenched white beaches, sun-drenched desert sands, sun-drenched lazy backwaters, sun-drenched sculpted temples, sun-drenched ad infinitum. The Western tourists’ itinerary may vary as to the weightage given to temples, palaces, ashrams and museums; it may exhibit individual preferences as to trekking or hiking or yogasanas—but the one must-do item on the agenda, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun, is the quest for sunshine.
On a weekend visit to Varkala—a sleepy village on India’s Malabar coast, my family shared the resort with a mixed bunch of Western tourists. Shortly after dawn, with the clear azure sky tinted in cool shades of pastel pink and the dew still lingering on the grass, Kannan and I lounged on deck-chairs and lazily watched our two boys working up voracious appetites frolicking about in the otherwise deserted swimming pool. The other residents could be seen at tables laden with the paraphernalia of breakfast.
As the sun began to make its presence felt, we beat a hasty retreat towards the breakfast buffet in the shaded verandah just as there was a general exodus of guests in the opposite direction-towards the pool! Deck-chairs, angled for maximum exposure to the sun, were spread with towels; lashings of sun-tan oil, dark glasses, a long cold drink or two—these were all the armor called for.
As the sun climbed relentlessly towards its zenith and hazy walls of heat shimmered around us, our fellow-guests remained comatose (this posture I could empathize with—the summer sun is definitely not conducive to brisk physical effort!) toasting themselves in contented warmth. This sight was as much a marvel to us as the beauty of swaying palm trees, the glittering waves of silver that lapped the shore or the serene tranquility of the centuries-old Janardhanaswami temple at Varkala. We, on the other hand, curled up with books in air-conditioned comfort and ventured out onto the cliffs only when Mr. Sol had vented his fury and was ready to plunge into the glowing waters of the Arabian Sea in a spectacular explosion of crimson and gold.
Of course, we Indians too love the sun—from worshipping its life-giving heat with the Suryanamaskar at dawn to celebrating its munificence with Pongal at harvest time. We are as prone as the next man to be suffused by the sublime beauty of the sunrise over the endless vistas of water at Cape Comorin, or to be afflicted with a catch in the throat on beholding a golden sunset scattered over the rippling waters of the Vembanad lake. But basking in the mid-day sun is definitely not our idea of an idyllic holiday, thank you!
The Indian summer sun dries you, wrings you, drains your very sap. Men and animals scuttle for cover. While the buffaloes sensibly make a beeline towards the nearest available slush in which to wallow in cool comfort, men resort to more refined forms of defense—from donning cotton garb to whitewashing the walls of houses. Even the poorest hut defiantly holds aloft a piece of palm-leaf thatch as a parasol. Tempers rise in tandem with the mercury. One can gauge the temperature from the rise in decibel level on the mid-afternoon streets—crotchety car drivers, honking with manic persistence, in eyeball to eyeball confrontation with adamant pullers of rickshaws and carts; angry two-wheelers disputing the right of way with belligerent pedestrians and stupefied cows all under the glazed glare of a traffic policeman who has his hands full with mopping his brow. Very aptly, this peak summer period of combustible tempers falls under the season “Agni Natchathiram” (star of fire) in Tamil.
In a country in which a “fair” complexion still commands a premium on the marriage market, a tan is to be avoided like the plague. Mothers admonish their young daughters to remain indoors. Any unavoidable exposure to darkening radiation is immediately counteracted with a plethora of home-made remedies—from face masks of ground almonds and gram-flour and cream to rose-water scented baths. Even grandmothers prefer shaded courtyards as they go about preparing the tongue-tingling, fiery, raw mango pickles which are as much a part of the time-tested summer ritual as is the sprinkling of roof terraces with water at dusk.
Summer’s only grudging aficionados are the hawkers whose profits rise with the sun. Crisp green cucumbers overflow onto dusty pavements; great crescent-shaped wedges of pink watermelon laugh from barrows; carts of tender coconuts vie with gaudy bottles of sherbet; hoity-toity Coke cans and Pepsi fountains share the market with the humble butter-milk in its earthenware pots.
Summer is parched throats, clinging clothes and rising dust. Little wonder then that sun-bathing has few takers in India. After all, one can have too much of a good thing! Oh, well – each to his own place in the sun!
“East is East and West is West
And ne’er the twain shall meet”—Particularly not on hot summer afternoons!