Sindh’s unrelenting heat

hen the intensity of the heat climbed, I’d sit with my feet in a tub of water and a soaked towel upon my head

Naween A Mangi June 19, 2015
The writer is a journalist and founder of Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust

When I began travelling in rural Sindh in 2008, I had all the bravado of someone who didn’t know the first thing about coping in a most unforgiving type of heat. Seven years on, I’ve shed the no-big-deal thought; I still have no idea how to handle the long summer months. All the weeks I spend living in Khairo Dero village where I run the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust, a disproportional amount of time goes to thinking about the intensity of the heat, how I can save myself from it and what I can do to get even a sliver of relief.

The heat here has a particularly insane intensity; it begins beating down early on people sleeping outdoors reminding them of its cruel presence. With the heat come hoards of sticky flies, making any post-dawn sleep impossible. As the day rises, the heat gains in viciousness, rising up from the road and enveloping the atmosphere. Farm workers and other labourers are sapped even before they’ve begun their day. They make their way to their fields and worksites seeking a patch of shade where they can find one and stopping for glasses full of water wherever available. In the late afternoon, they’ll drench scarves in water and wrap them around their heads. If that doesn’t do the trick, they’ll stop at a hand-pump, sit down beneath it and soak themselves thoroughly — clothes and all — and then catch a breather. During the workday it isn’t uncommon to hear about workers who collapsed in the heat. After work, men seek open-air restaurants, or even better, those with rooftop seating to get some air.

The fact that electricity is available no more than six hours out of every 24 in brief, interrupted sessions, doesn’t help. Water can’t be cooled and villagers have to rely on ice supplied from nearby factories — as and when it is delivered. Deliveries are irregular because factories also rely on sporadic electricity. Obviously, generators and solar power are out of reach for most people; but even having a generator provides little relief. Gas pressure is low and constantly running a generator on petrol is expensive. Moreover, generators can only run so many hours and often conk out when most needed in the middle of the night; not to mention that their grating sound remains in your head hours after they’ve gone off.

Even livestock has a hard time coping with the heat. Buffaloes spend their days floating in ponds and it’s often a struggle for their minders to pull them out when it’s time to go home. It’s only when they spot a water trough that the buffalo break into an enthusiastic trot and head towards it. Children, likewise, spend their days in tube-wells or water courses — escaping the heat and also entertaining themselves with play.

Cooking the day’s meals becomes a challenge for women: small, closed and airless kitchens make it stifling to work. They usually cook up the day’s chapatis in the early morning to avoid the kitchen in the afternoon; the mid-day meal is normally had with pickle, removing the need for further cooking.

The airless nights are, perhaps, the most difficult. Women spend the nights fanning children with handmade straw fans, going from one charpai to the next. When the heat worsens, they soak sheets in water and spread them over the sleeping kids. The heat takes a toll on health. Local doctors spend their entire clinics in the summer treating children and adults for heatstroke or food poisoning caused by the proliferation of flies and insect bites.

As I observed all this, I tried to learn lessons and gain courage. I haven’t had much luck. In my early days here, I’d spend nights holding onto my aching upper arms; a strange affliction that would accost me in the heat. In time, I learned to curb my new-found enthusiasm as a community worker and avoid going out in the peak of the afternoon. I also figured out that trying to maintain any measure of proprietary was a waste. If there was a rare cloudy morning and a cool breeze, I’d set up a desk outdoors near the watercourse and try to make the most of a temporary relief. When the intensity of the heat climbed, I’d sit with my feet in a tub of water and a soaked towel upon my head and try to write up the project notes I’d been unable to concentrate on.

Whatever I did, it didn’t provide me sustained relief. In May, the infamous jhola — hot winds that blow to help ripen the standing wheat crop — would sear the skin off my face. Then in June, when rice plantation begins, I would begin to fear every nightfall hours before it happened. Small, clingy bugs of every shape and form would appear and proliferate leaving me with skin rashes and itchy bites. The air would totally stop at night leaving me feeling I may suffocate. In desperation I’d look towards a tiled floor and lie down on it — shocked to see that heat emanated even from that. I then took to bathing every two hours and would do little more than plan for my next bath. I learned to be utterly and completely grateful for a single operating fan — even if it just spat out hot air — and for the naturally cool subsoil water that is available in abundance all day and night.

The human struggle to survive this vicious heat is incredible to witness. Day after day people get up and go to their fields and find ways to make it through the heat. To my relief I noticed that I wasn’t the only one fully preoccupied with the heat. Farmers’ morning chit chat was usually about how the weather looked to be; and conversation when returning home was mostly based on what a difficult day it was. My bravery is now limited to starting my day with the mantra: don’t think about the heat. I try to make that thinking last as long as possible. Normally the phrase has escaped my mind by 10am.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th,  2015.

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MHY | 6 years ago | Reply Thanks for sharing your experience. It really helps put things into perspective for others who may be leading more fortunate, urban lives elsewhere.
Ambreen khalid | 6 years ago | Reply A very enlightening article. It serves as consolation as Karachi is having a particularly hot day today.
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