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A question of attitude

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 13:56 IST
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‘It’s so horribly hot!” I was gasping as I walked in and collapsed into the nearest chair. Consequently it took me a while to notice the quizzical look on Mummy’s face.

“What did you expect? It’s the middle of June.” And then, as I stared at her, not sure of what to say, she added “Silly boy!”

It was, of course, a gentle put down but, instead, it set off a train of thought. My mind first raced back to hot summer afternoons in the early ‘70s. I’d be itching to play squash although it was 3:00 and the sun was at its zenith. Despite the rising heat I’d cheerfully stand in the sun waiting my turn at bus stops, race to be first on the squash ledger and then join the queue a second time for another turn, even though it was still 4.00 and the sun was scorching.

Yet I don’t recall complaining about the heat. No doubt the temperature was in the 40s but that did not seem to matter. I can only conclude that teenagers don’t mind sweltering and sweating. At 50, the very thought is exhausting.

Oddly enough, the next memory that flashed back was of a European holiday. It was the long summer break at Cambridge and I and Satish, a chum from Pembroke, were backpacking in old Yugoslavia. We’d spent the weekend in Dubrovnik and were heading back to Belgrade by train. It was fiercely hot and the train felt on fire. We kept jumping from seat to seat unable to sit in any one place for very long — like cats on a hot tin train.

“Hey look!” Satish could hardly contain his excitement. At a small wayside station Montenegrin village women were selling sliced watermelons. They were deep red and seemed to be oozing with juice. Grabbing fistfuls of drachma, he thrust them out of the window. He was probably overpaying several times but that would not have deterred him.

Alas, the watermelons turned out to be duds. They were old and dry. The women had sprinkled water to make them look appetising. In the heat they seemed inviting but no sooner did Satish bite than he started to gag. Desiccated watermelon is enough to choke a parched throat.

Why this should have made me think of Nigeria next is hard to explain but, within seconds, my memory jumped back to Ife, a 100-odd miles north of Lagos, waiting, with a growing and excited multitude, for the Oni’s coronation. There were tall stately men in flowing agbadas, large buxom women with enormous headscarves starched into stiff folds and a lot of loud, unrestrained laughter. Someone had told me that Ibos laugh when they are happy. That seemed to be the only sound I could hear.

The temperature, of course, was well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity dripping. The local coke-sellers were doing a brisk and rapacious trade and all the kids had ice-cream smeared on their faces. The foreigners — of whom I was but one — were soaked in sweat. The British High Commissioner’s wife, in hat and gloves, looked miserable. Her clothes were clinging to her. Dressed in tails, her husband stood by red and panting.

I woke from such reveries to find Mummy sitting in front of me cool, composed and cheerful. And she didn’t even have the air conditioner on. In fact, she had a shawl across her legs and socks on her feet.

“Aren’t you hot?” I asked perplexed.

“Don’t think about it,” she replied with disconcerting sangfroid. “The more you do the worse it feels. It’s all in the mind.”

So, is that the answer? Is that the difference between a teenager and a 50-year-old, or a Nigerian and the British High Commissioner’s wife? Could it be that those who have no option don’t think about the heat whilst we, who do, fret and fume? In other words, do some of us have the wrong attitude?