Goodbye blue skies

Goodbye blue skies

Delhi Winters

Goodbye blue skies

People huddle around the fire to escape the Delhi chill.

Behind the counter of J & J Trading Company, an appliance wholesaler in a warren of electrical shops in Old Delhi, Rajinder Singh has no patience for customer service. A man eyeing the Turbo Hot Air asks for a test. Could the small metal heater be plugged in? Buy it first, Singh demands. Another customer wheedles for a discount. “Don’t ask for a better price,” Singh retorts. “You are getting a heater, and we are running out. That is enough.”

He is right. Within a half-hour, the last Turbo Hot Air is gone. One man bought four, having driven over from a suburb because stores there were empty. The clamour in Singh’s store is testament to a phenomenon not usually associated with New Delhi: winter. Once again, it has arrived.

There are colder places, this cannot be denied. If other cities are besieged by snow and measure the cold by how far the mercury plunges below zero, Delhi has never in recorded history actually experienced freezing temperatures. It is usually inflamed by varying stages of summer. The all-time recorded low, in 1935, was 33.08 degrees Fahrenheit.

But if winter is both mild and short in Delhi, it is assuredly felt, and, as evidenced by the rush for heaters, it finds many people ill prepared. In India’s northernmost reaches, the cold can be fatal; about 300 deaths have been reported this season. When temperatures in New Delhi dipped into the 40s F recently, a bureaucratic alarm bell sounded. Local officials ordered elementary and middle school students to remain home as a safeguard against the chill.

At P&T Senior Secondary School near the heart of the city, Parveen Sharma sat behind her desk, wrapped in a woolen shawl, and offered a stiff upper lip when asked if coming to work this week was a hardship. “Duty is duty, sir,” said Sharma, the principal. More than 700 younger children were excused, but teachers, administrators and high school students reported. “No one is complaining.”

The school, like others in the city, is not heated, nor is it equipped with air-conditioning for when the temperatures push near 120 degrees F on the hottest days of summer. “We Indians are very strong,” Sharma said as the midday temperature outside warmed suspiciously close to the low 60s F. “Nobody complains that it is too hot or too cold.”
That Wednesday was Lohri, the festival that belatedly marks the winter solstice in India. Traditionally, farmers in the state of Punjab celebrate by tossing sweets into a bonfire in hopes of a good harvest, and since Delhi is filled with Punjabis, the tradition is repeated, as elsewhere in north India. But beyond the festival, bonfires have become a symbol, good and ill, of the Delhi winter, a reminder of how many people live exposed to the elements.

At nighttime, after the stultifying evening traffic has eased and the streets begin to empty, the orange light of small contained fires flickers from street corners. If some cities ban such fires, Delhi both celebrates them — a local columnist wrote an ode to the bonfire recently — and regards them as an essential source of warmth for the many people living or working outside. The city also lives with the consequences, as the fires blend with seasonal fog and car exhaust to create a nasty wintertime soup. One weather forecast for Wednesday diagnosed the condition succinctly: “Smoke. Cool.”

The author Gurcharan recalled a Delhi childhood of blue winter skies and afternoons watching his mother in their tiny garden, shifting her chair away from the chill of the afternoon shadows. In the heat of summer, people hide from the sun; in those winter days, she chased it. But these days the blue skies have become more rare. During the past week, the soup has been so thick that flights have been delayed or cancelled. Passengers on one international flight had their takeoff delayed by 21 hours.
“The sky used to be blue,” Das said. “It was cold, so we could enjoy the sun. It was the most wonderful thing. But now the sun is lost.”

On one recent night, as the nighttime traffic lingered past 9 pm, tiny fires blazed across the city. Workers on a new subway line in south Delhi huddled around one fire, taking a break from directing cars through the construction zone. In the Chandni Chowk shopping district of Old Delhi, rickshaw drivers squatted next to a fire while homeless migrants kept warm nearby by burning trash before moving for the night into a large tent set up by the city. And at nearly every taxi stand in south Delhi, drivers sat beside fires, waiting and hoping for a fare. “You feel cold when you don’t have work,” said Sohan Singh, a driver, his yellow turban reflected in the fire’s dim light. “We eat here. We sleep here. This is our home and our office.”

That Thursday was the Hindu holiday of Makar Sankranti, during which, among other things, people perform good deeds, often for the less fortunate. In Chandni Chowk, Sanjay Anand sat cross-legged in his shawl-and-blanket shop. “Just now, someone came and wanted to donate 100 blankets to the poor,” Anand said, gesturing toward a large stack of blankets wrapped in canvas. “So that package is his.” In the last week, Anand said, about 15 people a day had come in for blankets. “Some people drive around at night and give them to people they find sleeping on the road,” he said.

Opinion is divided on whether winter is getting colder in Delhi or slightly warmer, or whether the cold is lasting longer or ending sooner. But everyone agrees that it persists in showing up. B P Yadav, a weather forecaster, said average temperatures in January ranged from lows of 44 degrees F to highs of 68 degrees F, or sunbathing weather in Finland. He predicted that temperatures would begin to rise during the back half of the month, meaning that the heater business would cool off at J & J Trading. Then Rajinder Singh, the proprietor, would need to shift his inventory to a product in demand for the other 10 months of the year: Fans.

New York Times News Service

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