That summer the heat had enveloped the whole of Shahkot in a murky yellow haze. The clutter of rooftops and washing lines that usually stretched all the way to the foothills at the horizon grew blurred and merged with the dust-filled sky.
'Problems have been located in the cumulus that have become overly heated,' read Mr. Chawla from the newspaper. 'It is all a result of volcanic ash thrown up in the latest spurt of activity in Tierra del Fuego.'
And a little later he reported to whomever might be listening: 'The problem lies in the currents off the West African coastline and the unexplained molecular movement observed in the polar ice-caps.'
And: 'Irag attempts to steal monsoon by deliberately creating low pressure over desert provinces and deflecting winds from India.'
And even: 'Hungarian musician offers to draw rain clouds from Europe to India via the music of his flute.'
'Why can't they think of serious solutions?' asked Mr. Chawla. 'It is too hot to fool about with Hungarian musicians.'
Shahkot boasted some of the highest temperatures in the country and here there were dozens of monsoon-inducing proposals. Mr. Chawla himself submitted a proposal to the forestry department for the cutting and growing of vegetation in elaborate patterns; the army proposed the scattering and driving of clouds by jet planes flying in a special geometric formation; the police a frog wedding to be performed by temple priests.
Vermaji of the university invented a giant fan which he hoped would attract the southern monsoon clouds by creating a wind tunnel moving north toward the Himalayas, and he petitioned the Electricity Supply Board for enough power to test it. Amateur scientists from Mr. Barnala of Tailor Gully to Miss Raina from Sainik Farms area attended trade fairs where they displayed instruments that emitted magnetic rays and loud buzzing sounds. Everyone in the town was worried. The mercury in the police station thermometer exceeded the gradations Kapoor & Sons Happy Weather Company had seen fit to establish, leaping beyond memory and imagination, and outdoing the predictions of even Mr Chawla's mother, Ammaji, who liked to think she knew exactly what the future would bring.
It was a summer that sent the dizzy pulse of fever into the sky, in which even rules and laws that usually stood straight and purposeful grew limp, like plants exposed to the afternoon sun, and weak. The heat softened and spread the roads into sticky pools of pitch and melted the grease in the Brigadier's mustache so that it drooped and uncurled, casting shadows on his fine, crisp presence. It burned the Malhotra's daughter far too dark for a decent marriage and caused the water, if it came at all, to spurt, scalding, from the taps The bees flew drunk on nectar that had turned alcoholic; the policemen slept all day in the banana grove; the local judge bribed an immigration official and left to join his brother in Copenhagen. Foreigners in their tour busses turned and went home, while Shahkotians argued for spots directly below their ceiling fans, leaving only for minutes if absolutely necessary and then hurrying back. In the marketplace, they raided the shops for palm leaf fans and bought gray blocks of ice that smoked like small fires. They rested their heads against the coolness of melons before cutting into them, held glasses against cheeks and foreheads between sips, fanned themselves at the stove with bunches of spinach before letting go reluctantly, for the sake of the evening meal.
The weeks passed, but the monsoon did not arrive. And by the time it was September, they had given up hope.
It was this year that Sampath Chawla was born to his mother, Kulfi. She was twenty-one years old, newly married to Mr. Chawla, and pregnant. By late September the heat and lack of rain had combined to produce terrible conditions of drought. She grew bigger as it got worse. It got to be so bad that famine-relief camps were set up by the Red Cross to the west of Shahkot. The supply planes flew right over the bazaar and Shahkotians, watching with their heads tilted back, wondered why they didn't stop for them as well, for surely they were suffering quite enough to warrant the same attention and care being so assiduously delivered elsewhere. The ration shop was distributing rice and lentils in smaller and smaller portions all the time. There was no fruit to be found anywhere and hardly any vegetables. Prices had risen so high, nobody would buy the scraggy chickens sitting in cages outside the meat shop. Finally the poor butcher had to eat them himself, and after the last one, he was forced to turn vegetarian like the rest of the town.
Copyright Kiran Desai 1998. All rights reserved. Published by the permission of the publisher - Grove Atlantic.
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