Delhi in June

Citizen Mukherjee, Rafael Nadal and a muggy summer

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 10.06.18

Bound by sweat

Delhi in June is an unventilated armpit. Every couple of hours I scroll through the cities I have listed on my weather app to torment myself with the good fortune of others. As I write, Bengaluru is 12 degrees cooler. Panaji, famous for being unbearably muggy at this time of the year, is a balmy 26. In Mumbai, advertising creatives who never leave centrally air-conditioned buildings are going on about the smell of earth in monsoon rain. Even Calcutta, that subtropical swamp-metropolis, is four degrees cooler than the capital of Ind.

Also, Calcutta has land-and-sea breezes. For reasons that escape me now (but are listed in middle-school texts on physical geography), cities by the sea are cooled by relieving currents of air in the evening. In Delhi, though, involuntary electrocution is the only relieving current on offer. This is not the super-heated dryness of late-May that gooses the mercury up to 45 degree centigrade, singes the hair off your arms and leaves them slick and depilated. No, this is five degrees 'cooler', a modest 40 or even 39 that combines with a brazen, humid, airlessness and leaves you seeping sweat; where a fortnight ago you stepped out and smoked, you now step out and melt.

I use 'you' loosely to mean me. Because the real 'you', that is all the people I know on social media who aren't me, are clearly not in Delhi. My Facebook page is closely correlated with Delhi's temperature: the hotter it gets here, the more photos it features of people I know in summery cafés in the great temperate Elsewhere that is not-India. Not only do NRI friends begin to post more frequently about their trivial and worthless lives — lectures attended, flowers grown, nearly-famous academics bagged with clever selfies — but my neighbours in Delhi who, till a week ago were Uber-pooling to Sonepat, seared by the same sun and shrivelled in the same sere city, begin appearing besides gabled houses set in greenswards. There is a special place in hell for people who tantalize friends stuck in Delhi in June with their frivolous, footloose lives.

I looked up Nagpur on the app; even this city in Vidarbha that once registered 47.7 centigrade in June was a full five degrees less hot than Delhi. Perhaps that was why Citizen Mukherjee went to Nagpur to speak to the RSS. The men in uniform were wearing trousers instead of shorts, a certain sign that the weather had changed for the better. It must have done because he made the speech in the open while wearing waistcoat over his kurta. If he had done that in Delhi, he would have broken out in hives.

Some journalists thought he was trying to make the political weather by addressing the Self-Helpers and by declaring that the Founding Self Helper was a great son of India. And there were those who thought that as a former president who had spent his political life in the Congress, he was legitimizing the RSS. Nonsense, said others robustly, what need did the RSS have of second-hand legitimacy, given that it ran the government with an absolute majority and counted the republic's president, its vice-president and its prime minister amongst its life members? They had a point; with Veer Savarkar hanging in Parliament House, Citizen Mukherjee's tribute to Hegdewar in a visitor's book was unlikely to prove a turning point in the history of the republic. Still, it did seem like something of a coup for the Self-Helpers to have Citizen Mukherjee put down in writing that Citizen Hegdewar belonged in the republic's pantheon.

Perhaps while signing the register Citizen Mukherjee had a more Hindu Mother India in mind, the sort who appears on posters superimposed on a map of the subcontinent, swathed in a sari, looking remarkably like Durga; the Bharat Mata that Hegdewar's Self-Helpers invoke when they try to coerce others to chant 'Bharat Mata ki Jai!' And then, as he stood at the lectern, delivering what seemed like a commencement address for very mature students rigged out in a curious uniform, he might have defaulted to a more republican idea of India. It is, after all, this eclecticism, this ability to accommodate wholly contradictory ideas in a single head, that defines the suppleness of the desi mind. Perhaps his tribute to Hegdewar sprang from the same ecumenical pluralism that caused L.K. Advani, late in life, to hail Jinnah as a great Indian. On the other hand, the only historian Citizen Mukherjee cited to underline the civilizational unity of India was the arch-imperialist, Vincent Smith, so perhaps it was just the heat.

It was a relief to turn from Nagpur to Nadal with one press of the remote control. There was something about Nadal's effortful, muscular, sweaty passage to the finals of the French Open that seemed appropriate for Delhi in June. Watching Federer would have been insupportable because he seems to carry spring around with him: the balletic movement, the Swan Lake backhand, the total absence of perspiration (even while winning the Australian open at the height of an Australian summer), are not something you appreciate when the control is clammy in your hands. When Nadal changed his sodden tee shirt in between games it felt right; he was earning his keep. The orange of Roland Garros's clay courts felt right too; the vast concrete stands, the big hats, the pastel shirts the ball boys and girls wore, created the right ambience for a summer contest.

It's a good thing Wimbledon begins in July. I don't think I could bear to watch players in immaculate whites swan about emerald green courts in the monstrous heat of June. The purple-and-green colour scheme, the strawberries and cream, the officials in blazers would have made it a surreal spectacle and not in a good way. July is better; the monsoon is meant to clock in in the last week of June. It never does, of course, but at least there is the meteorological possibility of rain. So each time they cover the courts when a drizzle sets in, I can sit in front of my television in officially monsoonal Delhi and imagine that Federer and I, we belong to the same planet.