A surprising thing I have noticed for years in newspaper and TV weather reports is that very often Phoenix, Arizona seems to be the hottest place on earth. I am reminded of this by the news in recent days that hundreds of flights of smaller jet planes scheduled to leave the Phoenix airport have had to be cancelled because the temperatures have exceeded the maximum operating temperature of the particular brand of plane ---- Bombardier planes are among those affected, apparently --- because in these circumstances, the air is lighter, causing the plane engines to have to do more work just to get the plane off the ground, which could have dangerous consequences.
I suppose everybody must have his or her own story of some extreme heat event: I have three that spring to mind: one is driving in our tiny Austin A30 into Ponca City, a small city in Oklahoma in such heat that I could scarcely keep my hands on the steering wheel, it was so hot. On another occasion I remember coming up from Mexico in that same little car and stopping overnight in a small village called Gila Bend, halfway between Tucson and the Californian border, checking into a motel, then driving a mile or two out into the surrounding desert, where we took our respite from the heat just by sitting there as the day faded into night.
These were both extremely hot places, but they did not rival what has remained for me the quintessential heat experience of my life, that of existing on the great plains of India for the three months during which the heat built up as we awaited the arrival of the cooling monsoon rains. This was the heat that drove the British administration of India into the hills, where they built some 50 of India’s 80 hill-stations to which they could escape when needed, taking their administrations with them (rather a bold thing to do, I have always thought, for an occupying power). Such places as Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Darjeeling, above Calcutta, Poona, south of and higher than Bombay, and so on, became summer capitals. Of these I visited from time to time Simla, Pune (or as we splled it in those days, Poona) and Srinigar in the Vale of Kashmir.
My wife and I had somehow found our way to a newly-constructed model village 85 miles north of Delhi, to which, like many people from around India, we were attracted by the extravagant enthusiasm of a man known as the HTA --- the honorary township adviser --- a businessman for whom the partition of his country had produced an epiphany that caused him to throw up his well-paid job and declare his free availability to the government of India for whatever use they might make of his capacities.
Of course, he was slightly mad, his man, S.K. Dey, but he had the enthusiasm that moves mountains. Ignored at first by the leaders of the new nation, eventually he forced himself to the notice of Pandit Nehru, who made available to him the resources enabling him to take a band of refugees from among the 400,000 languishing on the field of Kurukshetra (site of a famous dialogue recorded in the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s sacred books), to carve out from a neglected piece of scrub land, a new village dedicated to this man’s philosophy of Mazdoor Manzil, or the Music of the Muscles, to play his part in uplifting Indian life.
We were given a small adobe house, and left to find our own way to make ourselves useful. My wife, supported by a group of youngish women, started a nursery school; I worked as editor of the English version of a weekly news-sheet called Kurukshetra, and doubled as the secretary for a remamrkable man from Calcutta, P.K. Gupta, who was dedicated to ensuring that the co-operative nature of the whole enterprise should be achieved (against the wishes of the government of India bureaucrats who comprised the village administration. They won, unfortunately.)
We arrived there in January and managed to stick it out until June or July, by which time the intense heat (combined with our somewhat minimal supply of suitable food) had caused both of us to fall ill. The heat increased day by day, relentlessly, with hardly a second of relief. I have no idea what the temperatures reached, but I know that after a day of such intense heat that it caused all work to stop at midday, when everyone retired into houses and offices, whose windows were painted deep blue in a futile effort to reject the sun’s rays. By 6 pm, the sun usually fell, but this did not bring any respite: one could put one’s hand on the inside house wall and it felt like the wall of an oven. In other words, the heat continued relentless throughout the night until about 5.30 am, when just the smidgen of a relief could be felt before the sun rose at 6 am, immediately plunging us back into what felt like the full heat of a normal day again. It is almost impossible to describe the clutch that the heat had around one’s essential being. Not only I felt it: everyone felt it. In the colonial days, only the British were able to escape to the hills, callously leaving the local population to struggle through the heat.
I remember one day when a few drops of rain occurred, and we all went running outside like madmen to feel the cooling rain on our skins, but it was a false alarm. It was not part of the monsoon, not yet.
We decided, my wife and I, that if we wanted to survive at all, we had better make for the hills. So, to the accompaniment of a chorus of goodwill cries from the locals, we climbed on to a train, headed for Kashmir. We happened to arrive there in the middle of a political crisis --- one that has been going on ever since --- and were almost the only tourists. So we had our pick of houseboats on Dal Lake, complete with servants, food and supplies, and in these ideal conditions our diarrhoea cleared up, and we began to regain our health. We had managed to book a berth on a ship leaving Bombay in September, and by the time we emerged back on to the plain, the monsoon was in full swing. The very minute we hit the heat, our diarrhoea returned. Mine disappeared during the voyage to England, but my wife was diagnosed with some sort of tropical ailments that lasted for a few weeks longer. Before getting on to the ship in Bombay, we had to undergo the remarkable experience of walking that city’s streets in full monsoon mode, and I can tell you that to search for lavatories in which to relieve one’s diarrhoea in 1951 in Bombay was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I have always thought, since then, that to await the arrival of the monsoon in the great plains of India must be, absolutely must be, the most intense heat experience one could ever undergo. And I never hear a weather report detailing the monsoon rains without thinking of the people of India, millions and millions of them, struggling every year to make it through. Better them than me, is all I can say on that.