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Summer and the city: When capital sizzles

From modest hand fans to khus curtains to many other cooling concoctions, how Delhi, a city of extreme weather, beat the heat in the days of yore .

delhi Updated: Jun 16, 2019 01:52 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
New Delhi
Weather,Heat,Summers
A man quenches his thirst from a pitcher by the roadside. Such pitchers were a common sight across Delhi until the 1990s.(Subhendu Ghosh/ HT Archives)

Eighty-five-year-old DN Chaudhury’s eyes sparkle with excitement as he recalls the summer of 1957. It was 11 am on a blazing May day when he had arrived at Delhi’s Old Secretariat building on Alipur Road for an interview for a photographic assistant’s post with the School of Town and Country Planning. He was asked to take a few photographs of the building from outside. The young Chaudhury spent more than an hour in the harsh sun, photographing the spectacular building, whose long front curves gracefully in the centre like a half moon.

“I captured a Bishti (waterman) sprinkling water on a large khus screen on a window of the building; the photo was liked a lot and I got the job. It was a happy summer for me,” says Chaudhury, author of Delhi: Light, Shades, Shadows, and many other books on the city. “In fact, in the 1940s and 50s, most houses and government offices had only khus screens, which were their primary defence against the sun. Summer in Delhi was always harsh, but people coped well without desert coolers and ACs.”

Delhi has always been known to be a city of extreme weather—it turned into a veritable furnace a few days back with parts of the city touching 48 degrees Celsius, an all-time high for a June day. It was also the highest ever across all months since the city recorded 48.4 degrees Celsius in May 1998.

But the denizens of Delhi have proved to be great weather warriors, as it were, bravely dealing with nature’s annual summer sizzle in many different ways, over the decades. In fact, the social history of summers in Delhi is also a story of the city’s resilience, and ingenuity—and its social and economic mobility. From the modest hand fans, to khus curtains, to electric fans to desert coolers and air conditioners, the city has been quick to adopt new cooling methodologies. It has created many cooling concoctions, including Rooh Afja -- the much-celebrated rose-coloured drink -- to counter summer’s sizzling surprises.

In fact, the use of khus -- mainly cultivated in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan — as a coolant dates back to the times of the Mughal rule in Delhi. And old timers still vouch for its marvellous cooling qualities. “It worked simply: the dry air cooled as it passed through layers of wet khus. Its sweet woody fragrance had a great soothing effect on the mind and the body. We never hated the summers as the people seem to do now,” says Satish Sundra, 82, who runs Ram Chander and Sons, perhaps the country’s oldest toy shop in Connaught Place.

Chaudhury says that during the 1940s and 50s, not all Delhiites had electric fans and many of them depended on khus screens. “In fact, in the 1940s, our own house at Mori Gate did not have a fan but khus screens kept the house amazingly cool. Those days, the temperature was measured in Fahrenheit, and it never hit the headlines as it does now,” he says.

The city’s theatres, hotels and restaurants were the first to expose people to the pleasures of coolers and air conditioners. As early as the 1940s, theatres such as the Regal, Rivoli and Odeon in Connaught Place had got air-conditioning. Those in the walled city had air coolers -- and it was common for cinemas to promote themselves as ‘air-cooled.’

“A lot of people would head to these cinemas not just for a movie but also to spend a hot afternoon in their dark, air-cooled environs. People sought a seat in front of the coolers,” says Sundra. The city’s restaurants such as Embassy, Volga, Gaylord, Kwality, he recalls, were also among the city’s first air-conditioned spaces, attracting elite families during hot afternoons when the rest of the shops in the colonial-era market closed for lunch between 1.30 and 3.30 pm.

The room air-conditioners began to gain popularity in Delhi in the late 1950s, with Kelvinator and Tata Volkart, (a collaboration between Tata Sons and Volkart Brothers) being among the popular brands.

“An air-conditioner cost about Rs 3,000 in the early 1970s, while an Ambassador car cost about Rs 16,000. That would give you an idea of how costly the air-conditioners used to be. They were only for the very rich,” says Sundra. By the mid-1970s, a majority of families in posh colonies such as Sunder Nagar, Golf Links, Jor Bagh and Nizamuddin East had air-conditioners.

The 1970s was also the decade when air-coolers became popular, and Kamla Market had become a go-to place to buy them. During this period, while the offices of very high-ranking civil servants had ACs, most other government offices had coolers, installed by contractors, who also had the responsibility to maintain them. “There were many government contractors who bought as many as 10,000 coolers from our market. Those days even a cooler cost about Rs 300, and it was a luxury not everyone could afford,” says KL Sethi, 80, a manufacturer and trader of desert coolers in Kamla Market.

Sethi says that sales of coolers have come down by 50% in the past 15 years.

“What was once a luxury is a poor man’s appliance now. The rising incomes in the past two decades have brought ACs within the reach of the middle-class. Most of my customers are poor and lower-middle-class people from small towns in UP and Haryana, bordering Delhi. In smaller towns, there are many families even now who gift coolers as dowry,” says Sethi. “ By the 1980s, Kamla Market, which only sold trunks for over two decades , became a cooler market, attracting dealers from all over the country,” says Pradeep Bhatia, president, Kamla Market Welfare Association.

In fact, by the early 1980s, desert coolers had become a symbol of upward mobility among Delhiites. One could see coolers installed on iron stands or perched precariously on window ledges. “We washed coolers in early April and fixed new grass pads. And as summer intensified, there would be arguments in the family about who will fill the water,” said Nidhi Sharma, a software engineer, 45, who lives in Paschim Vihar. “Desert coolers indeed provided great comfort during summer months when we spent our school holidays at home playing board games. My father, a teacher, and most of our friends and relatives just could not afford holiday travel.”

Unlike today when a large population of the city heads to the hills, and the traffic thins on the city’s roads during summers, till the 1970s a trip to a hill station was a costly affair, what with the fact that there were a few hotels in places such as Shimla and Mussoorie and they were beyond the reach of ordinary people. “Most middle-class Delhites stayed home or visited relatives. Many flocked to Boat Club at India Gate in the evenings,” says Rahul Kapur, 73, a retired government employee in Janakpuri.

Suman Gupta, a resident of Chandni Chowk and a former councilor says that in the 1960s-1970s, a refrigerator was beyond the means of the vast population of the city who relied on matkas (pitchers) for cold water, which occupied a place of pride on a special stand inside homes. “Many community groups and organisations set up piyaus (drinking water points) all across the city, where a man or a woman would offer water throughout the day,” he says. Barafkhana (ice factory), a city landmark near old Sabji Mandi, he adds, played an important role in the lives of Delhiites during summer, supplying big ice blocks to hundreds of ice retailers that were once so ubiquitous in the city.

Appliances apart, the denizens of the walled city beat the summer with many cooling concoctions. It was known for a wealth of sharbats (traditional summer drinks such as khas, kevra and aam panna), kulfis and chuskis (traditional ice-creams and ice lollies). The streets of the walled city continue to attract those desperately looking for some special summer quenchers.

Pandit Ved Prakash Lemonwale in Chandni Chowk, a 150-year-old establishment, has been selling nimbu-soda Banta for over 100 years.

Prince Sharma, the seventh generation of the famous lemonade sellers say the popularity of their drink—Lemon Soda, popularly called Banta -- has been driven by the Codd-neck bottle, invented by Hiram Codd in 1872). His family, he points out, used to sell traditional sharbat before the British introduced the bottle to India in the early 1900s.

“We are among the few in the city still selling Lemon Soda in these marble-stoppered bottles, which are fast becoming a collector’s item,” says Sharma. “A lot of senior citizens come with their grandchildren to show them the Codd-neck bottle. Children are excited by the whoosh of carbon dioxide releasing when the marble is pushed to unseal it. We have ensured that Banta remains alive in Delhi. ”

Back in Connaught Place, Sundra gets nostalgic as he switches on his AC at his shop on a sizzling afternoon. “ Once this shop used to have only khus screens. Given the choice, I would still prefer khus mats to an AC. I miss that sweet smell of khus; the smell of my childhood.”

First Published: Jun 16, 2019 01:52 IST