| Between the elements
The last time I was trapped in Delhi in June was six years ago. At the time I lived in a barsaati, albeit a different one from the one I occupy now. For the few who aren't familiar with this peculiar northern Indian architectural idiosyncrasy, a barsaati is literally the room on the roof-terrace that catches the brunt of the rain ' when and if the rain falls, however much the rainfall is when it does fall ' therefore 'barsaati' from 'barsaat'. In reality, these box-rooms are the frontline of insulation against the bare-knuckled summer sun and the knifing cold of the Delhi winter. Surrounded by brutally exposed terraces, these rooms typically crowned most refugee houses post the Partition and, as each house grew new floors, the barsaati moved, almost unchanging, to the top of the house.
Initially reserved for the most unfortunate in the family ' the abandoned daughter-wife, the nephew who was not quite right in the head, the live-in servant ' sometime around the late Sixties, I believe, the barsaati began to acquire a certain artist's garret-like cachet as rentable space for young students, bohemians such as Delhi could attract in those days, and finally, from the Eighties onwards, for that ultimate low-life who would eventually take over the city and then the country by way of capturing the national media ' the young, escapee journalist from Calcutta.
As the tenants mutated, so did the architecture of these spaces and a barsaati can now mean anything, from a rudimentary, tin-roofed room to the two-room flat I rent to a complex, modern penthouse and rooftop garden with a view of Humayun's Tomb such as the one currently rented by a friend of mine. The point about the barsaati is, no matter how fancy or basic, it still forms the frontline ' between the elements and the rest of the building, between the sluggish water-supply and the crumbling plumbing, between the municipal building regulations and the landlord's avarice. Consequently, there has grown around Delhi what I call a Barsaati-shastra, the grasping and retaining of which becomes an acute necessity with the onset of the three Delhi summers.
For instance, the other day, a friend who had not so long ago been part of a Detroit automobile design development team came to lunch. After the meal he took a closer look at my air-cooler. Now, my cooler had till now done what I thought was sterling service in the First Delhi Summer. In the vast oven of petrol fumes and dry sub-Saharan heat it had provided for me an elegant and ecologically not outrageous solution, keeping me and my place at a decent temperature.
But my automobile-designing friend had a different opinion ' 'This machine is working at about 43 per cent of its potential,' he pronounced. When I challenged him, he brought to bear his formidable knowledge of wind-tunnels and other such-like things. For an hour we played, 'experimenting' as he put it, and opened and shut various doors, left sundry windows half-open while putting air-blocks under doors to divert and channel the stream being produced by the cooler. At the end of it I had to concede that my barsaati was indeed a far colder place than it had been so far. I enjoyed the fruits of my friend's practical scientific knowledge for a little more than 24 hours.
Had my friend come for lunch at the end of March, which is the beginning of the First Delhi Summer (FDS), and had he set up his ingenious system of air-dams and wind-dominoes then, I would have had a far more productive April, May and early June. Alas, his foreign technical input arrived about a day before the assault of the Second Delhi Summer, the SDS, which is the single most malevolent weather-period spawned by the tragic crossing of modern man and nature. This second mule-kick of heat usually arrives just as you convince yourself that this north Indian summer is not half as bad as people think. Just as I sat patting myself and my friend on the back, just as I began to see visions of a happily abrupt transition from dry heat to a cool and lustrous monsoon, my cooler stopped working.
It was not that it ceased to make the factory-worth of noise that it always makes, it was not that it stopped spewing air into my flat, it was just that, as far as coolness and dryness was concerned, it hit a wall. The air it produced was now unbearably loaded with moisture. It was as if someone had compiled large buckets of hot, glue-like sweat and was slowly pouring these buckets over my head. Escaping the barsaati-cooler nexus and venturing outside brought home an even nastier reality: all the stifling mugginess of a Calcutta in March-April, but coupled with a sort of wet, 43 degree loo, a bit like a heavyweight boxer punching you in the head, but with sodden gloves. At my advanced age, and despite my bank account showing a robustness comparable to Saurav Ganguly's current batting average, I was forced to throw in the extremely wet towel.
The discussion around compressors and motors lasted for two days and was conducted mostly from the homes of more fortunate friends, the ones who already Had One, or Had Many. A friend best known for being a brilliant historian spent an entire lunch proselytizing about how I had No Choice. 'Rukun and I both got our first one about eight years ago,' he informed me. 'They were much more expensive then and we both went around independently, conducting tests with thermometers. People laughed, but in the end it was a life-changing experience.' Pausing for a swig of his beer, the 'Transfer of Power' scholar continued. 'Trust me,' he said, 'sell a vital organ if you have to, but go and get one. You obviously need one now and when the Third Summer hits, what these non-Dilliwallas like to call 'monsoon', you'll still need one.'
The same friend called me a day after the installation. 'How's it going' he asked cheerily. I told him it was wonderful, nothing like having your own one, but. 'But what' he asked and, before I could answer, he added, 'Look, think of it not as a machine but as a living creature, a whole different person. It's like entering a new relationship. Things take a while to settle down and you've got to give it time.' I could hear him smiling indulgently at the other end of the line. 'But it's not like the cooler,' I said, 'my study is cold but the rest of the barsaati gets like a pressure cooker.'
'Barsaati' My friend cried in horror, 'Good god, you never told me you lived in a barsaati! That's quite different! Everyone knows you need a minimum of two ACs to dent a barsaati.'
And there, I thought, you have it. Academic, intellectual, arty, media-centric New Delhi in a nutshell. For, from this point, the following dominos of logic fall tippety-tap: what do you have to do, to afford two air-conditioners and their appendage of the electricity bill' And then, if you can afford two ACs, why would you stay stuck in a barsaati' And, once you are doing enough to be able to get out into a 'proper' apartment or house, (often involving the jettisoning of more central areas for the sprawl of trans-Jamuna, DLF et al), then the rest of it comes naturally. You strive and you hit marks you otherwise would not have hit. You grab the job that shifts you from print to TV, that visiting fellowship in Zagreb, that better offer from the PR company; you make sure you corner the visiting international art curator and get into that Biennale, you make sure your best photographs are up on the net where people can see them, you score the membership of various 'centres' and clubs. And, I imagine, as you glide smoothly from one air-conditioned bubble to the next, you fondly remember the hot booster-rocket of the barsaati that placed you where you are.