Much has been written about this year’s non-winter in Delhi: December of 2008 was the second warmest ever; the lowest temperature has been an oh-so-ordinary 4 degrees Celsius (it was 1.9 degrees last year) and most days in January have recorded above-normal temperatures.
“Not bad,” all the Beautiful People, who like to show skin round the year, would chorus. But they would have had second thoughts if the calendar could be turned back 150 years.
Ice? Ice? Maybe…
Back then, a bitterly cold winter was the best defence against Delhi’s hellish summers (the city’s highest recorded temperature is 47.2 degrees Celsius).
Ice — historian Percival Spear called it the “last solace of the English in the hot weather...” — was made in the fields, on winter nights, and stored in pits for the summer ahead.
A high rate of evaporation was the key to freezing the water poured into tiny rukabees (cloth-bottomed pans) that were set out in the fields.
Three conditions determined ice formation. Spear notes the ambient temperature had to be less than 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6.1 degrees Celsius), the air had to be dry (moist air retards evaporation) and the night had to be windless (or the water would stir).
How did the abdar or chief ice maker know whether the temperature and humidity were just right? Experience was the old man’s thermometer and hygrometer combined.
Fanny Parkes, whose husband headed the ice works in Allahabad, in 1828, wrote this picturesque account of an abdar at work:
“He looks in the wind’s eye, and if the breeze be fresh, and likely to increase, the old man draws his warm garment around him, and returning to his own habitation... resigns himself to fate and his hubble bubble (hookah).” On the other hand, if the night was frosty, the abdar would beat his tom-tom to summon the barfsazes or ice makers from their huts nearby.
After all their toil, there was no guarantee of an ice yield. On a very good night, the ice sheets formed could be up to 1.5 inches thick. And if the ‘season’ spilled over into February, a station like Delhi could collect a few hundred tonnes of ice.
The pits were usually opened on May 1, and the ice lasted till mid-August. To distribute it, wrote Spear, “Companies were formed whose members received ice regularly... in proportion to the number of shares they held.”
Bet on it: those shares were esteemed more than any blue chip scrips you own in this downturn season.