Each year, in the first fifteen days of May, the city of Chennai goes through what’s known locally as ‘Kathiri’ or ‘Agni Nakshatram’ – the Fire star. During this time, Chennai becomes one of the hottest, most sweltering cities in the world. Temperatures routinely hit 42 degrees (Celsius), and, because of all the air conditioners running, there are frequent power cuts – both the planned variety (which last up to 2 hours in Chennai and up to 8 hours in the suburbs) and the unplanned variety. The sun beats down with relentless fury until the first of the summer drizzles begin in June. Kathiri is like sitting inside an oven for 15 days in Chennai.
And I love it.
The same phenomenon, occurring year after year, has made Chennai dwellers adapt their lifestyles to the heat. Everyone complains about it, but they do so almost fondly; they know it happens every year, and it only means that the worst of summer will soon come to an end. Schools are shut, and life on the whole takes a more relaxed turn. It’s not unlike the Ramadan in Muslim countries; offices close early, people come in late, and almost everyone takes a few days off for a vacation.
Those who stay have plenty to do. May is when the mango season peaks, and there’s nothing that beats cooling the heat with a mango juice, or a mango milkshake, or just plain raw mango, sucked dry to the bone with messy hands. The watermelons start piling up a little earlier, and it’s easy (and fun!) to beat the heat on the roadside biting into a slice of the Big Red Juicy. On every road, you can find well-sheltered peddlers selling the palmyra nut, called nongu, and tender coconut. Everywhere that there are mango trees, there are also little boys, urchins with their stones and their street-talk, trying to clamber up the tree or fell a mango with a well-placed stone.
This is also the last of the kite season. Fueled by the school vacations and the hot, dry winds that create the soaring thermals, kids take their colorful square kites out for a flight. There is hardly a Sunday morning or afternoon when you cannot see a gaggle of boys (and a few girls) trying to get their kites up, and engaging in playful banter as they play the string.
Peak summer brings a certain cleanliness to the city. The roads look bleached, and all the slush and puddles that bedevil the city in the monsoons disappear, dry to the last drop. The air is clear, and you can see mirages on the large roads as cars ahead are reflected by the warm air.
Summer days are a time to wake up early – it is hard to stay in bed when 7 in the morning feels like the noon of any other time of the year. Two showers are de rigueur – sometimes three. The water almost evaporates off your body, and its coolness is delightful any time of the day.
It is almost a crime to stay indoors during Kathiri after 7, when the sun sets. Near the beach (where I live), a warm sea breeze starts up, brushing past everything in the vicinity, bringing the scent of the ocean into every house in the neighborhood. The breeze stays until late at night. Sweet are the nights when, occasioned by power cuts, the mattresses are pulled outside, and beds are made in the open. In the sweltering heat and the dryness of this season, the mosquitoes are gone; the night is secure, and the outdoors finally inhabitable.
And there’s nothing I like better than sitting out on my patio late into those summer nights, gazing at the beautiful woods of Kalakshetra that my balcony overlooks, enjoying the breeze, the warmth, and the pleasure of being in this crazy hot city during this crazy hot season.