Four successive days of subnormal winter temperatures have turned the catchphrase thanda lege jabe from a joke into a health warning that the Calcuttan is being forced to take very seriously.
Doctors reported long queues of people complaining about everything from congestion to indigestion as the city experienced its coldest day this year on Wednesday with the minimum temperature reading 11.5 degrees Celsius, three notches below normal.
A daytime temperature of 18.9 degrees, eight gradations below normal, combined with the season’s lowest night temperature to make Boxing Day feel even colder than Christmas Day.
Weather scientists partly attributed this to the cloudy morning, which prevented the usual temperature rise aided by solar radiation post-9am. The sun did peek out in the afternoon but the steady north wind ensured it made little difference to the “feel-like temperature”, which is the winter equivalent of the discomfort index in summer.
“The north-westerly wind flow is very active and colder than usual after passing over pockets of Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar, which are in the grip of a cold wave,” an official of the India Meteorological Department said.
Calcutta is unlikely to hear a chill alert just yet but at least five south Bengal districts could see temperatures drop to cold-wave levels over the next couple of days. “That, in turn, will have a bearing on the city’s weather in terms of daytime temperature,” the official said.
In the next 48 hours, the minimum is likely to dip a little but the maximum might rise by a notch or two. “It all depends on the consistency of the north-westerly wind flow. Even if the Celsius doesn’t drop further, the city will be quite cold till at least Friday,” the Met office said.
While the city’s short-lived winter is something most people look forward to, the sudden chill after a long period of mild weather seems to be taking a toll on health.
“People generally stay healthy during winter but the sudden dip in temperature from mild weather has affected a lot of people in the city,” critical care expert Subrata Maitra said.
Patients with pneumonia, fever with cough and cold and even indigestion are flooding clinics and hospitals across town. Doctors aren’t surprised that many Calcuttans are suddenly finding it difficult to, er, digest the chill that they crave so much.
“Respiratory syncytial and influenza viruses are active because of the low temperature and lack of enough sunshine,” a virologist said. “Bright sunshine through the day kills a lot of viruses and bacteria in the air.”
Pulmonologist Asok Sengupta said upper and lower respiratory tract infections along with flu and acute tracheo-bronchitis were on the rise. “Seemingly healthy people are being brought with the most severe form of pneumonia.”
People with pre-existing ailments, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, asthma, renal failure and cancer, are particularly vulnerable to viruses at this time of the year. Doctors advise such patients to take influenza vaccines as a precaution.
Gargling with lukewarm water helps too. “A good gargle is one way of preventing upper respiratory tract infection. While getting out of bed, one must wear adequate warm clothes because morning is when you are most likely to catch a bad cold,” said Arunabha Sengupta, who heads the ENT department at SSKM Hospital.
For parents, the one advice that doctors have is not to cover their children in excessively warm clothing. They will sweat and become even more vulnerable to a cold.
“Respiratory tract infection is common among children at this time of the year but the last couple of days seem to have affected a child in every other home,” said Apurba Ghosh, the director of the Institute of Child Health.
Those who like their winter milder can look forward to normal temperatures next week. “If a western disturbance that now lies over north Pakistan moves to north India to restrict the flow of the northerlies and north-westerlies, temperatures could rise by a few degrees and return to normal levels,” a scientist with the Noida-based National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting said.
So will that mark the beginning of the end of winter for Calcutta?
“Don’t forget that the coldest month for Calcutta still lies ahead. Given the season’s performance so far in terms of the intensity of cold, a sub 10-degree chill cannot be ruled out in January,” the weather scientist said.
There’s time yet to invest in that heavy jacket.