Recently, people have been introducing me like this. ‘Oh, Shuili, this is Rebecca. She doesn’t have AC’. To which Shuili will reply, ‘Really? How do you manage?’ Then she’ll look at me with slightly narrowed eyes, like I’m some rare breed of mongoose.
Last year, I swore to myself I would never spend another Summer in New Delhi, and certainly not another without air conditioning. But although it’s still only May, 43 degrees is Summer enough. And here I am, still sweating it out. I’ve got use to my odd little life, so when someone asked me lately to describe my place and lifestyle, I found myself becoming aware of how…well, strange it must seem to most denizens west of the Suez.
I live on the fourth floor of a five story apartment building in a sort of urban village, roughly the size of five New York City blocks. The area is inhabited and run by Haryana Jaats, the descendents of farmers, who’ve done well in the real estate business and, in the city, make their living mostly as landlords. They’re known throughout Indian history for their courage in the battlefield, though unfortunately, these days, Haryana is becoming increasingly associated with stories about rape. One thing I do know about them, they’re very protective of their property. I live in the building, so I get protected too. It’s taken over a year for the locals to get used to me. The staring can be intimidating. But I feel strangely safe here.
My kitchen is the size of a (not very large) closet. I have an office-sized fridge, so I’ve become skilled at packing things into small, irregular spaces. I have two burners (no oven). I don’t have hot water, except in the Summer when the plastic water tower on the roof heats up so much that the ‘cold’ tap spews water that’s scalding hot. A cold shower is impossible. In the Winter, I use an electrical rod to heat water in a bucket. I don’t have a washing machine or access to a launderette, so I wash all my clothes by hand. I keep a flashlight by my bed and a large bucket filled with water in case of a shortage like I’m preparing for doomsday. I can’t drink the water, so I lug 5 gallon bottles up four flights of stairs every other day (elevators are rare in India). I’m plagued by interminable heat, humidity, mosquitoes, almost daily power cuts, and an endless invasion of black soot that blows in from the kilns erected around the city.
Today my internet went down 23 times. I don’t have television, a smartphone or anything that begins with an i. It’s an exciting event when I manage to procure a movie that’s less than five years old, but the noise from the street outside my building is so loud I can’t hear the dialogue without headphones. I don’t own a car. Only three pairs of shoes. In fact, I have few possessions, partly because I hate shopping, but mostly because I like to lead a portable life. When the wind blows from a certain direction, or a strange bird alights on my balcony, I know I have to be ready to move.
In fact, when I go to Europe or the States and see how ‘normal’ people live, with their reliable internet and coffee makers, I don’t get envious. Quite the opposite. Because my life is so simple, I’m not attached to stuff. I could lose it all tomorrow (except for my laptop!) and not look back. If the electricity goes out in the UK, it’s a notable event. Here, it’s just part of the routine. I’m used to things not working, and am mildly surprised (and always appreciative) when they do. I don’t take much for granted and am highly adaptable. After repeated days of plus 44 degrees, I have to add rehydrating solution (affectionately known as ORS) to my water bottle or I begin to start seeing things. I can’t use my bedside lamp because even the additional heat of a 60 watt bulb becomes unbearable. The heat wakes me up sometimes, and I lie awake in a pool of sweat under a single plucky fan, feeling hard core. Do I envy those snug inside their REM-TV, bathed in cooling zehyrs from ozone-eating machines? Nah. Dreams are for cissies.
When the electricity goes out and the fan creaks off, the darkness bakes the heat into flapjacks. I’m a prisoner in Guatonomo Bay, I muse, as I attempt to recall stirring passages from the Koran. Sometimes, I get up and run on the spot for half an hour like I’m training for some top-secret mission deep in the deserts of Rajastan. I’m sure someone will recruit me soon. Other times, I’m just an over-heated ex-pat on a budget and a comic book fantasy.
This morning I looked into renting an AC. Not because I need it, mind. Just that my carbon footprint is so small, I’m getting a complex. Yeah, right….