They wrap their faces in wet cloth when venturing into the smothering heat. They hang wet bed sheets on their windows, praying it might somehow keep the inferno out.
Home remedies do the rounds as the heat takes a toll on their bodies. Those who complain of symptoms such as dizziness, difficulty breathing, and poor vision, are told to rub sliced onions on their arms and legs, and to drink concoctions of chickpea flour in water, with salt and pepper to taste.
India’s department of meteorology includes some helpful tips as it reports temperatures of 40-46 degrees across vast swathes of the country: stay hydrated with homemade lassi, torani (rice water), lemon water and buttermilk. In Kolkata, glucose water is handed out to wilting commuters at risk of heatstroke.
In a country where fewer than one in 10 households have access to air conditioning – an unfathomable luxury, particularly in the poorest rural areas – these actions offer only temporary relief, if any.
But what else is left to hold onto?
Most of India experiences its hottest months from mid-May to the end of June, just before the monsoon arrives, bringing refreshing rains until September.
Yet, for weeks now an unforgiving heatwave has seen temperatures reaching harmful and dangerous heights. India had its hottest March since its department of meteorology started keeping records more than 120 years ago. Records are toppled daily, and lives and livelihoods are collapsing with them.
It is too soon to know how many people have succumbed to this terrible event, but the past heatwaves have been deadly, causing more than 6000 deaths between 2010 and 2017, according to official government data. More than 2000 lives were lost in 2015 alone.
Wheat crops have been scorched, leaving farmers devastated. Many had hoped to make more money this year, with the global shortages caused by the war in Ukraine pushing up prices.
Spiking electricity demand has led to blackouts around the country and power cuts to some factories in order to maintain supply to critical infrastructure. In the northern region of Uttarakhand, wildfires are raging. The mountain snow is melting at a concerning rate.
The streets of Old Delhi have played host to many volleyball games with girls whose names I can’t recall, but faces I cannot forget. The area is also home to Lal Qila, the Red Fort. I remember countless gardens, paintings and glass windows, enough to render anyone speechless, but still these don’t compare to the monkeys pacing metres above the ground on the scalloped walls. Carrying themselves so indifferently, so aloof, the realisation that we share the same world, breathe the same air, is electrifying.
But at this moment, and not too far away in New Delhi, daily temperatures have reached 40-45 degrees for weeks on end. As of Friday 29th April, a 60-metre-high rubbish dump had been on fire for three days. It’s no isolated incident, but the fourth of its kind in less than a month. Poisonous, thick, black smoke envelops nearby areas, such as the one where, once upon a time, in what seems like a different lifetime, I admired those monkeys.
The streets of Lucknow have borne witness to countless family badminton tournaments, and can tell tales of us as young children inviting ourselves into the gardens of neighbours searching for a rogue shuttlecock before being promptly chased out. In this city, days seem to be counted in sleepovers with cousins under the stars. Hours were spent talking and talking at each other, at the hundreds of bats, at the night sky, until we grew silent tracing planes across the horizon. How vast and endless the world seems from a rooftop in Lucknow.
A few days ago, one of these cousins who had slept beside me night after night on that roof told me that she felt lucky that Lucknow hasn’t been badly affected, compared to other places in India. Only the day before, Lucknow had recorded its hottest day in three years.
Health alerts urge the citizens of Lucknow to increase their fluid intake. But the water is not always safe to drink.
I have followed the wheelbarrows of street traders down sandy alleyways in Jaipur and Agra. I have travelled Chandni Chowk by rickshaw, and fought with cousins for the back seat, really just a wooden plank. Painful to sit on, but with unquestionably the best view.
I’ve had dinners of pani puri, vada pav and halva bought from favourite street food vendors, the ones who knew my cousins and me by name, and who always threw in a little extra food, just because. The street food always made me sick, but what was a day in India without street food?
For these street traders, rickshaw drivers, street food vendors, their livelihoods and incomes centre largely around outdoor work. It is these people who are exposed first hand to hazardous temperatures and suffocating heat. Every day, they are forced to make the choice between desperately needed income or the slightest sense of relief that would come from staying indoors. For many, it’s a choice between protecting their health, or risking being unable to put food on the table for their families.
On the other side of the world, this heatwave has conveniently weaved itself into the backdrop of an international climate disaster that is all too easily put out of sight and out of mind in the middle of an election campaign. It fades to black, while the limelight is squarely on our politicians, who boast about how Australia contributes but a mere fragment of global emissions.
It is convenient to forget that we are one of the world’s leading exporters of both coal and gas. That fossil fuel corporations are some of their largest donors and political allies. That the emissions reduction targets of both major parties are critically out of line with what is required to ensure that heatwaves such as this don’t become part and parcel of human life.
Reconciling the euphoric image I have of my home country, carefully cultivated over these journeys home, with headlines that completely shatter it, is hard. Knowing that the country, the people and stories that have made and remade me are in the grip of yet another catastrophe that receives minimal attention, is simply distressing.
But it doesn’t begin with pointing fingers. It doesn’t begin with key messages and rehearsed lines. These are very deliberate mechanisms of delay, while millions globally lose their lives, while cultures and stories are being eradicated.
I’ve always been an optimist and I believe the world will survive. It will unquestionably be a little less whole. But I know it’s only if we act now that stories such as the ones I share can be lived, for generations to come.
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