The heat is on
One of the most baffling lines of English poetry I ever came across in school was this from Shakespeare: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
How? Why? I mean, you really don't love her, do you? Who compares the object of their affection to power cuts and the sticky sufferings of Mumbai or Chennai, or the loo-carrying heat waves of northern India? Surely Shakespeare did not experience a summer when metallic clothes hangers expanded in the heat and broke free of their plastic casings. Or know of a sun which in its free time stoked the fires of hell. Prithee, kind sir, surely thou jest.
It took a prolonged education to understand that Shakespeare's summers were slightly different from those experienced by Indian schoolchildren. The arrival of our summers is marked in alluring ways. For starters, by the appearance of flowering trees in some of the hottest parts of the country. There's the blood-red silk cotton (semal), and the crimson of palash, found everywhere on the subcontinent and uncharitably called the Bastard Teak elsewhere. The superstars are gulmohar - sometimes copper-pod yellow or flame-of-the-forest red - and the Amaltas, which comes into its own in May. The rain tree, forever considerate and comforting, brushes roads with its white or pink flowers. Wherever flowering trees are seen, their splendour shimmers.
It is a combined, sustained defiance, the earth ready to pick a fight with the sun and keep us distracted from the heat. In the cosmic contest that is an Indian summer, mankind can only hide in corners and shadows. Our responses are turbans, scarves, umbrellas and shades. City softies even try sunscreen. Nature, on the other hand, puts on a show.
Our cricket too, like nature, somehow resists the brutality of the seasons. Even if India's formal season is played out in what is vaguely considered winter in Asia, cricket is a year-round sport in many parts of the country. We are, in fact, ingenious inventors of daylight-saving-cricket. Matches held in the summer begin early, just after dawn. Lucknow's Sheesh Mahal Summer Cricket tournament, which began in the early '50s, had a 6am start at one point. Chandigarh's Goswami Ganesh Dutt Memorial, inaugurated in 1973, would begin at 7.30am, and so too games in Delhi's major "hot-weather" events, like the Lala Raghubir Singh tournament, which began in 1976, and the Delhi and Districts CA's own hot-weather event.
In 1997, it was time to toughen up the internationals. India held eight ODIs at home between April and May for the quadrangular Pepsi Independence Cup, running through the dead heart of its May summer. In 1998, there were 14 ODIs held in April and May as part of two triangular tournaments, one sponsored by Pepsi, the other by Coca Cola. They quickly ran out of fizz after public outrage over the greed of the boards, their obsession with ODIs, and the brutality being heaped on the poor players. Clubs and kids continued playing in the summer regardless.
Over the last ten years, the IPL with its entertainments, oodles of the green stuff, and a wild game or two every night has become India's annual summer cricket festival. It is an extra holiday treat for students, its forever-rousing soundtrack a constant midsummer night's music. The players sweat buckets in their Tru-Dry kits, consume energy drinks on the boundary line and try not to wimp out with cramps. No one is complaining.
With IPL flag and popcorn in hand, maybe there is no better time to appreciate the more subtle flavours of the Indian summer. Like the best poetry, Shakespeare or otherwise, India's summers are best savoured in reflection, mostly indoors.
Reflection on the time when you belonged to the demographic of the under-18s. When, well into a two-month summer vacation, you couldn't fathom what the big deal about the weather was anyway. It was an endless outdoors time. When time was spent binge-playing cricket or badminton, with mothers hollering in the background - about staying away from the sun or at least keeping yourself hydrated, or at least coming in for meals, or at least not appealing so loudly when people were taking afternoon naps.
Even when summer holidays became a thing of forlorn memories, there were summers every few years when cricket offered its soothing balm. As dusk arrived and temperatures fell to a respectable 32 degrees, the working populace tuned in, from the relative coolness of home, to cricket from England. At least a session and a half to be followed with full concentration. It was often a Test played somewhere cold. We first heard about it on radio and later saw our lads wearing sweaters, rubbing their hands in the slips to stay warm. Summer in England was sometimes like this, we learnt.
Indian summers come with their special foods, every region's specific riches appreciated, remembered and sought after. Like the palm fruit of Bangalore, or the lychees that turn up in Delhi markets, or pineapples from Tripura once cut open and shared with me by an army man on a train journey, never forgotten. The summer's tribulations made us graciously concede that nobody can make lassis like the Amritsaris and that puchkas from Kolkata smash other low-brow versions from the rest of the land. But beware: try settling on one variety of fruit that should rightly be crowned the Suzerain of the Summer and you set free the dogs of the great Mango War.
It happens every summer without fail. Fans of the western varieties boast of the large export numbers behind their heroes, only to be scoffed at as unsophisticated by devotees of the northern and southern Indian kinds of mango. And factional rivalries simmer even within the regions. India produces more than half the world's mangoes, and safe to say, eats a good number of them. The fruit generates fables, poetic titles and bitter rivalries. The government says we grow 1500 varieties of mango, of which 1000 are commercially available. No matter how many there truly are, be assured we fight over all of them.
The best way to deal with the Great Mango War is to traipse between the various camps and try out as many as are made available. In as many forms as possible. Under as many names as you can find. In maximums. Maybe Shakespeare meant mangoes when he was comparing thee to a summer's day. That makes sense. Most definitely in India.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo