Sumer is icumen in
Posted on 1-May-2009
With those words, the anonymous poet writing about seven centuries ago in Middle English heralded the arrival of summer in temperate England, with the song of the cuckoo, the bleating of the lambs, the blossoming of the meadows and with myriad other signs of new life. I do not know why I remembered this poem two days ago in the middle of a very hot north Indian day in my house situated between the rocky outcrops of the Aravali mountains astride which sits the city of Delhi and the beginning of the flat, parched, dusty and topologically uninteresting Gangetic plains stretching a little less than two thousand kilometres eastwards. There is no place in this absolutely desiccating heat for the joys of the summer of the temperate zones.
At some point in April every year the hot season arrives all over north India with surprising suddenness. Between March and May most trees shed their leaves at different points of time and turn fresh green with new ones. But the senses numbed by the heat and gusts of dusty hot winds can take no pleasure in that greenery. The picture in the three hottest months of the year is not that of renewal of life but that of every living thing become dull and sleepy. And in these days of constant talk of global warming, a person facing day after day for three months, early afternoon temperatures of between forty-three and forty-five degrees centigrade can be forgiven for wondering how much warmer the globe can get and then letting his anxieties about the problems of the environment drown in a sweaty afternoon siesta.
In fact some forms of life so commonly seen in the hot season or in others in the past are now seen less and less. It is for the specialist to document the many changes in life wrought by climate change, industrialisation or urbanisation. But it is difficult even for the casual observer not to notice some of the changes. A common sound heard in the hot season in India was the call of the koel , the inspirer of many an Indian romantic verse. Even though I live on the edge of what is still partially bucolic land I hear the call of that bird more and more rarely. I cannot recall when I last saw a house sparrow, a mynah, a kite or the common Indian crow all of which used to be almost part of human habitations. Five years ago, during the cold months of December or January there used to be a species of brown birds and woodpeckers which would fearlessly come very close to where we sat on our small lawn, pecking at the grass for insects. They have all gone, as have the numerous doves that used to sit in late afternoons on the electric cables. The only birds we now see are some peacocks living in a clump of acacia trees opposite our house and they too hide from the heat of the day. Between midday and five in the afternoon in the three hottest months all seems to come to a standstill.
Those people of the north Indian plains who are not fortunate enough to be able to escape from the heat to the cooler climes of Europe or North America or to the foothills of the Himalayas, take shelter in air-conditioning if they can afford it, burning diesel fuel in personal electricity generators to beat power outages and in the process polluting the atmosphere. Others find their escape in long siestas and yet others engage in ill-tempered quarrels. In this style of life there is very little room for gentle pleasures such as enjoying the beauty of nature or marvel at the cycles of renewal in life and nature.
This particular hot season in India is also when between the middle of April and the middle of May the people will vote to elect members of the federal parliament which in its turn will decide who will run the Government of India for the next five years. The pundits say the results are especially unpredictable this time. No one seems to know if the voters will want to throw one lot out because they are dissatisfied with them for one reason or another. If they are angry with those who are in power, then there is nothing in the season or the climate to soothe their anger, for the hot season breeds peevishness and irritability and addles people's brains. And there is no doubt at all that at this moment in India, the hot season "is icumen in".