Summer Season Sizzles in Calcutta

As parts of the U.S. bake in above-average temperatures, commentator Sandip Roy remembers the sweltering summer heat of his childhood in Calcutta.

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DON GONYEA, host:

Where commentator Sandip Roy grew up, India, the houses are a bit smaller but the summers are a lot hotter.

Mr. SANDIP ROY (An Editor with New American Media): When I first came to America and heard people say, I can't wait for summer, I'd never know how to respond. Back in Calcutta, summer wasn't a time to head to the beach with SPF 40 and the latest Jackie Collins potboiler, it was a time to hide.

Indians name their kids Vasant, after spring, or Hemant, after autumn. No ones' kids are named after summer. Summer in Calcutta means hundred-degree heat with 95 percent humidity. At my grandmother's house, after lunch, she'd pull down the green window blinds made of cuscus grass and spray them with water. In the blazing sun, the water evaporated and the room glowed a soft green gold, as if we were at the bottom of the sea.

Outside the city dozed in the sweltering heat. The shops all shuttered, the street dogs napping in scraps of shade. But the freshly mopped red cement floor was as cold as a drink of water. I'd sneak off the bed to lie on the floor while my grandmother fell asleep, the old fan whirring sluggishly overhead.

We learned to live with summer, because that was the only thing we could do. There were rules. Don't drink water straight from the refrigerator, my mother would say, you'll get a sore throat. Douse yourself with nisol(ph), prickly heat powder. The temperature kept rising until not a leaf stirred. The tar melted on the streets, trapping the shoes of unwary passersby. And there were rolling blackouts, or as we called them, load-shedding.

Suddenly, the bustling neighborhood was blotted out by an inky finger. Televisions were choked off in mid-sentence. My friends and I would lie on the roof staring at the patch of sky framed by the dark rectangles of buildings all around. Neighbors who lived in cramped, stuff rooms, with their aging parents, wives, sister and kids, came out onto the street, lighting cigarettes. Grandmothers stood wiping their hands on white cotton saris as they chatted.

A man bicycling down the street would be singing the latest Hindi film song, the notes warbling in his wake. It was hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable. I dreaded summer, but was never scared of it. Now I read about elderly men and women in America, discovered dead in their apartments, alone. And I wonder which we should fear more - the heat or the loneliness.

GONYEA: Commentator Sandip Roy is an editor with New American Media, and host of Up Front, on member station KALW, in San Francisco.

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