Out of India: Only a monsoon can quench the mind-frying heat

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NEW DELHI - Michael Fish and a few BBC weather people have been appearing on Asian satellite television lately. From my days in London, I remember them all as glum-faced miniaturists, affixing a velcro rain cloud on to a Welsh mountain ridge or sliding a cirrus over a barleyfield in Yorkshire. Often they were wrong, but they were always so gloriously precise.

Now that they are doing global weather, they've become masters of the grand sweep, the operatic gesture covering entire continents. Mr Fish moves as boldly as a symphony conductor, sweeping snow down on to Himalayan ranges, conjuring up cyclones in the Bay of Bengal.

After so many years of fussy, detail work, this must be liberating for these tele-predictors. They also get to play with weather symbols that are usually unknown in Britain, such as the round, yellow one that signifies sunshine.

On his planet map, Mr Fish has had a yolkish sun plopped on Delhi since April. In Britain, a heatwave is, what . . . 85, 87 degrees Fahrenheit? Here over the past month, it has seldom dropped below 103 degrees. On Tuesday, the mercury bubbled up to 114, and a heatwave which is assaulting Rajasthan with temperatures of 122 degrees is now heading towards Delhi.

It is a cruel, mind-frying, unrelenting heat, like being caught in a jet-engine blast. You wonder whether your eyeballs are going to melt. The scorching stillness is broken only by an occasional dust storm. An invisible fire seems to run along the earth, the trees, and in people's minds.

Ants are everywhere, devouring. Just when nature is parched and dying, there are two perverse kinds of tree, the gulmohar and the laburnum, which combust into red and yellow flowers. The heat is enough to drive an elephant mad, and the mahouts keep their beasts wallowing in the Yamuna river until evening.

In this season the brain-fever bird finally ceases its infernal knocking sound, and the house servants, usually gentle hillfolk from Nepal and Garwhal, rise up and slit the throats of their pushy employers.

During the British Raj, the perspiring empire-builders would flee the plains, first by long caravans of elephants, and later by train, and take refuge in the hill stations of Shimla, Darjeeling, Dehra Dun, Ooty, and Mussoorie.

The viceroy decamped up to Shimla with his top civil servants, and this rather gloomy recreation of Brighton-by-the-Himalayas would buzz with fancy-dress balls, amateur theatre and the odd sexual scandal. Sadly, this disruptive practice of moving the capital to the hills ended with the invention of the electric fan and air-conditioner. Since independence, Indian governments have stayed glued to Delhi, despite the withering heat.

This is a pity, because there are so many power shortages in Delhi that an air-conditioner is often useless against the heat, and little government work is accomplished during these months. Indian politicians are even too affected by the heat to intrigue. The worst thing about 'load-shedding', as the Indians call these black-outs, is that you never know how long it will last. The juice has gone off four times since I sat down to write this story, but luckily in short bursts.

It can last a lot longer, though. Last Sunday the power collapsed around midnight and only came back on at 11am. Denizens of Delhi spilled out of their homes, panting, and tried to sleep on pavements and rooftops. But it's hard to sleep when breathing Delhi air, a poisonous broth of burning cow-dung stirred together with the black spew from three power plants and the exhaust of millions of cars, tractors, and motor-rickshaws.

It was on the morning after the black-out, when temperatures were in the 100s, that one poor devil died of heat stroke - after attending a cremation.

But there is hope in sight. As Mr Fish and his colleagues inform me, the monsoon rains have touched India's southern tip and are now sweeping slowly northwards. Like millions of Indians, I watch the monsoon's progress on the forecasts with eagerness, waiting for the rain that will free this city from its fiery siege.