Living in Canada, we are fortunate to enjoy our four distinct seasons. But irrespective of personal preferences most people exclaim, “Oh, I love the Fall/Spring/Winter but can’t wait for summer, the hotter the better!”
Indian summers are different. As children, we were prohibited from playing outdoors until the sun went down and the “loo” (hot and dry westerly wind in the summer in North India) subsided. Most of us would suffer from “pitt” (prickly heat) and were admonished this was the result of eating too many mangoes! I have fond memories of summer afternoons in Delhi when my favourite uncle would gather all the kids around him on a “durrie” (a heavy coarse cotton rug). The semi-dark room would be cooled by a large exhaust fan placed in front of a window covered by the fragrant “khas tatti” (vetiver grass fibre screen) and dampened by periodically splashing water on it. Huge watermelon and muskmelon slices on ice, “chikus” (sapodilla) and mangoes would be brought out on large trays. The venerated elder would amaze us by removing the skin of a chiku in one long, unbroken peel. Or, slice a mango all round its circumference and with a flourish, twist and separate the two halves leaving us to clamor over who would have the one with the seed embedded to get that extra helping of fruit. There would be “dussehri”, “langra”, “chausa”, “alphonso” and so many other regional and seasonal varieties that we were spoilt for choice.
We also looked forward to visits from family and friends, for when they arrived a wide range of summer drinks were offered. The popular “Rooh Afza” (literally “soul nourishing”) was an all-time favourite. It is concentrated syrup made of rose, raisins and other fruits, vegetables and herbs that are considered to be cooling agents. It would be mixed with water or chilled milk or drizzled over “falooda” and served with “kulfi”. Another favourite drink was “Nimbu pani” (literally “lemon water” or lemonade) served cold with a dash of “kaalaa namak” (rock salt) or sweetened with sugar syrup. High-end restaurants and private clubs started to use fizzy club soda instead of water to add pizzazz and topped the concoction with a sprig of fresh mint. In a traditionally rustic setting, or lately in yuppie gatherings boasting “ethnic” roots, guests would be offered “aam panna” (a heat resisting drink made from green mangoes). Finally, there is the celebrated “lassi” (buttermilk) served salty, sweet or now popularized as mango-flavored lassi in an international milieu. This was all before the advent of Coca and other colas. A status symbol in the early days, Coca Cola would be offered only to very special guests and the standard ruse was to use the “do ka teen” formula where two bottles would be poured into three or more glasses, topped by ice to fill the glass! Children or servants would be sent out to the “bazaar” (market) through the back door to bring ice as most homes could not afford the luxury of owning a refrigerator.
A most memorable event involved the entire household collaborating to produce ice cream. A special cast iron bucket type contraption with gears around its lid linked to a churner was placed in a wooden casket filled with ice and salt mixture. Milk, boiled for several hours and thickened by adding condensed milk, baby milk powder or cream and a little bread to give it a richer texture and consistency would be poured into the cast iron cylinder. A handle on the side of the wooden casket would be fitted to the gears on the lid and everyone would take turns cranking the handle to turn the cast iron bucket and churn its contents. For small hands, it was tiring and painful work and made the ice cream even more delectable!
At dusk, we would go up to the rooftop and splash water to cool down the parapets and the flooring. After dinner, the “niwar charpais” (jute coir strung wooden frame beds) would be brought out from the “barsati” (literally rain protection room) at the corner of the roof and laid out in rows. There was always a fight over the sleeping pecking order so as to be closest to the favorite person or the storyteller selected for the night. Each of us also tried nonchalantly of course, to avoid being placed on the periphery and falling easy prey to a wandering ghost, robber or other vile creatures of the night. And, God help the one who had to walk alone to the washroom in the middle of the night! We would listen to Indian mythological stories, invariably ending up with a scary “churail” (female ghost or witch) or “bhoot” (ghost) story. Occasionally everyone would join in for a session of “antakshri” (literally “end-word”) medley of songs. It was not uncommon on such starry nights for the more romantically inclined folks to take surreptitious liberties when complimenting a “cousin” or “bhabhiji” (literally, brother’s wife) for their mellifluous performance.
Oh, those innocent pleasures and the lazy, hazy days of summer.