Hot and happy
Waiting for the big match
The heatwave makes progress slowly, for a desi it seems almost timidly, yet inexorably tightening its grip from stage to stage, somewhat like the England team at the World Cup. Suddenly England are through to the semi-finals and the temperature in the sunny afternoon is hovering around an oven-like 30 degrees. Inside the buses and tubes it is much higher, and you feel foolish if you're ever caught without at least a half-litre bottle of water. On your regular bus route you figure out the coolest (as in least hot) seats - always on the lower deck (heat rises, the windows on the top deck turn it into a glasshouse) and in my case on the left side behind the central door because, going south, the sun toasts these buses on the right side. At the overground station there is no covering roof and the platform is a slab that bounces the heat back into you. If you ever get caught in the evening rush hour, or if there are multiple signal failures because of the heat, or both, then you're in for it. As it gets hotter on the trains, the denizens of London behave more and more like us desis, shouting, shoving, pushing, pasting themselves on to the next person, all luxurious Western notions of personal space evaporating in the swelter. On the roads, drivers also start to drive like we do, going too fast, overtaking badly, jerking out into the wrong side of the road to jump traffic queues, honking like they're trying to outdo the minibuses hurtling to BBD Bag.
The sun goes down late in the day, the evenings more like strutting models than etherized patients and the darkness finally brings some relief. However, this is London at the height of summer and the streets never quite sleep. All night youngsters walk by outside the bedroom window, shouting, laughing, loudly discussing intimate love details, throwing cans and sometimes bottles, falling over drunk. As England moves out of the group stages, there is a cautious celebration despite the loss to Belgium. On the streets and trains you see people wearing football kit from other competing countries - the bilious green and white Nigerian uniform is a particular fashion hit, for some reason - sometimes you do a double take when realizing it's actually people from other countries wearing their own colours. Brazilians pass by in yellow and green, French pass by in proud cockerel blue, someone has on a white German Mannschaft t-shirt but even the t-shirt looks rueful, there's a bunch of yellow shirts again, even after Brazil are knocked out, no, the badge is red, they're a brave family of Colombians, parents and little tots, un-assaulted after the semi-acrimonious round of 16 versus England. Oh yes, England are through to the quarter-finals. Gradually, gingerly balancing their optimism on a solid platform of pessimism, all sorts of people start admitting to supporting the national team.
For this team, reaching the quarters is huge. Well, no, reaching the quarters was a minimum requirement, wasn't it? But let's not get carried away. Yes, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Wipe the sweat, take a swig of water and carry on. Italy and Holland are already bystanders and now, one by one, the other usual suspects topple: Germany, Spain, Argentina, Portugal. Great pleasure is taken in watching Diego Maradona explode in his seat as Argentina go down - look who's complaining about fair play now! A quieter satisfaction around the departure of Germany, though, on BBC TV's coverage, three Englanders who've never come close are ribbing a German who's actually won the Cup.
As the sun turns up the dial, another exodus of big names from a certain south London suburb goes almost unnoticed; by the start of the second week Wimbledon is as denuded of top seeds as a tall tree in October is shorn of leaves. At the Grand Prix at Silverstone the track temperature hits 50 degrees - basically normal Gurgaon at 4 pm in May - tyres are blistering and the smell of melting rubber seems to reach all the way to London, but no one notices. England's women batter New Zealand in a T20 series but very few care. Some men's team from India has also landed to play this silly marginal cricket thing, the matches are quite competitive, but who cares?
Saturday arrives and you can sense it's a big England match day. Awful versions of England's truly awful football anthem "It's coming home" blare out from cars and open windows. More and more cars are flying the team flag, the cross of St George, two stripes of red, vertical and horizontal, bisecting each other on white - the spine of the British flag - and by 2 pm the streets are empty and not for any sensible reason to do with the heat - everyone is gathered in the houses, pubs and squares across the country to watch England take on Sweden. Everyone, that is, except about 35,000 people including a few thousand police in the centre of London. As the countdown to the first whistle begins, so does the annual carnival of the London Gay Pride parade.
The Sweden match isn't easy, exactly, but nor does it turn England fans' heads inside out like socks. The two goals are 'good, sensible, proper English goals', both headed in, while the three critical saves by Jordan 'Shorty' Pickford are worthy of the best goalkeepers. Each goal and save is met with a country-wide roar. At the end of the match the web sales of Gareth Southgate style waistcoats probably soar, so what if many will wear the garment over their bare bodies and with short shorts?
At the Pride parade short shorts and other minimalist couture is on full display and at some points in Central London the two celebrations, of sexual freedom and the football triumph, merge in a manthan of spilt beer. Given how jingoistic, xenophobic and homophobic English football culture has traditionally been, this mingling of a mass of LGBT people from all over the world with a genuinely warm sporting celebration can create only a good feeling. Yes, in contrast to the family of Colombians unashamedly wearing their team kit there was an attack on an IKEA store after the Sweden match, but over all this the World Cup seems to be showing up a very different, positive side of English society.
In any case, as thousands of cans of beer were flung into the air all over England (though perhaps not in Wales, Scotland or the two Irelands) the Pride revellers were getting down to music blasting from the bars in Soho. Across the hot evening, bodies glistening with sweat sardined across each other, dancing on a pile carpet of garbage, of cans, glasses, bottles, food boxes, cigarette packets and every other imaginable item of rubbish. On July 11 there will perhaps be another football celebration and after that who knows, perhaps the mother of all parties next Sunday to welcome the World Cup back (not home - the Cup's home is still between Rio and Munich) after 52 years.
Whatever happens, as the wheels come further off Theresa May's Brexit- gaari, people are preparing another mass gathering, this time one of protest. The Crying Baby Trump balloon is ready to welcome Donald T as he lands here, giving Friday the 13th a whole new level of meaning. The summer is not yet half-way through, it may still bring us the fall of the May government and an Indian victory in the Test series, it sadly won't bring us Indians any balloons to caricature our own Champions of Hot Air, but it is already turning out to be a classic.