51°C: Anatomy Of A Heat Wave

51°C: Anatomy Of A Heat Wave

A man from Madhya Pradesh created a sensation when he filed a police complaint against the sun for being too hot. Swati Vashishtha, who travelled to Phalodi in neighbouring Rajasthan where the mercury had touched 51° Celsius on May 19, finds that his grouse is not totally unwarranted.

Anatomy of the Hottest Heatwave

FIR Against Sun, Phalodi Sizzles

Swati VashishthaSwati Vashishtha | CNN-NEWS18

Published: May 31, 2016

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ON THE face of it, the curious case of a police complaint against the sun filed by a man from Shajapur in Madhya Pradesh may come across as a bizarre, attention-seeking stunt. The allegations made by the complainant, Shivpal Singh, against the “chief of solar system, resident of space” are those of unleashing physical and mental cruelty by means of soaring temperatures.

However, having returned from Phalodi in neighbouring Rajasthan, where the day temperature broke records as it wildly climbed to 51° Celsius (123.8 degrees Fahrenheit) on May 19, Shivpal’s grouse is not entirely unwarranted.

If a 47-degree high rattled Shajapur so, one cannot begrudge the residents Phalodi to file a similar complaint. Not just against the sun, but their public representatives, administration and health department for literally leaving them out on their own to face the heat.

On May 20, the day after the mercury clocked 51°C in Phalodi, we hit the road to this small town in northwestern Rajasthan. Located 140 km from Jodhpur by road, Phalodi is also called the “Salt City” and is one of the biggest suppliers of salt in the country. It is known for extreme temperatures in summers, often touching 47 degrees and above.

Being based out of Rajasthan – one of the hottest states in the country besides being geographically the largest – I have reported on heat wave routinely from the state. But the current one clearly is the Big Daddy of them all. And we all set out well equipped with good supply of water and hydration salts.

Besides Khejri (Prospopis cineraria) trees and Aakra (Calotropis procera) shrubs dotting the barren landscape, every small town along the Jodhpur-Phalodi highway has shops with large stocks of camel-coloured earthen pots laid out on the roadside. The unusually large-sized pots are easily the most sought after household article of trade in these arid parts infamous for acute water shortage. Their size, I cannot help but think, has got to do with the psychology of deprivation.

  • Potters with their stock sprawled on the road. (Swati Vashishtha)

  • Huge earthen pots are one the biggest articles of trade in the desert districts. (Swati Vashishtha)

  • A woman walks past a potter’s shop in Phalodi. (Swati Vashishtha)

At Phalodi we head straight to the railway station for a live chat for 1:00 pm news bulletin. There are few people at the station. Those waiting to receive their family or friends on the train from Jaisalmer have duly turned out in clothing, which is nothing short of armour, to protect themselves from a looming heatstroke. I am reminded of a man on a tractor with his extended family we met on the highway earlier. He said turbans are an indispensable accessory since they work like a helmet for the heat wave.

Durga, a resident of Phalodi joins me for a live chat on TV with her husband and son, all with their faces covered with layers of cotton scarves. She’s there to receive her mother travelling from Jaisalmer. Durga tells us about her go-to preventive potion to beat the heat – a local concoction of soaked tamarind and jaggery. I have never heard of it, but then neither have I been out covering such an intense heat wave before.

Durga tells me my face has turned red and offers me some cool water and ghotwa, a sweet that has just arrived from Jaisalmer. I couldn’t have asked for more.

A local journalist lands at the station with two thermometers – the electronic one displays the temperature as 50°C, the analog shows 50.5°C. MET officials had told me the causes of this record rise in temperature was a combination of factors, including the same conditions that are responsible for depression over Bay of Bengal and hot north-westerly winds blowing over from Pakistan where the temperature is two to three degrees higher.

Locals Left to Face the Heat

AN ELDERLY woman, who has a train to catch in the evening, sits in the shade, under the only tree by the porch at Phalodi railway station. While splashing water on herself from two small earthen pots she is carrying, she keeps an eye out, almost displaying territorial aggression, for her spot in the shade. Along with her, she has three grandchildren taking turns to sleep under the tree.

Inside the railway station I see a restless elderly man. I want to ask him how he’s holding up in this weather for a Twitter video. My phone’s camera not only refuses to focus but also displays a melting, wave-like pattern on the screen almost like the mirages I have seen on the road. I record anyway. The video plays out at a weird speed. The intensity of the heat sinks in.

Meanwhile, people at the railway station complain about the district administration’s inaction, except for an advisory to stay indoors from noon to early evening. Basic health services at the government hospital across the road are in a shambles. I walk across to the hospital along with the crew and meet a bunch of people from far off villages waiting outside. Most of them, including children and elderly patients, report symptoms of heatstroke. Some have been referred to this hospital from Primary Health Centers in Jaisalmer.

  • A deserted Phalodi railway station. (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

  • Profusely wrapped Durga and her family joins us for a live chat on TV. (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

  • An elderly man from a nearby hamlet running a fever rests on the floor as he waits for hours to see a doctor. (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

It is 3:00 PM and there are no signs of doctors here. Villagers say when they got to the hospital around 10:00 AM or a little later, the doctors had already left. They will now return only after 5:00 PM. We see a three-year-old boy, visibly restless. He cannot seem to be able to sleep even after his medication. So is a 78-year-old man lying on the floor in the corridor, running a fever. He got to the hospital in the morning but will have to wait till 5:00 PM to see a doctor.

Opium for the People

WE WALK down the main market looking for the place where the MET department has installed apparatus to record temperature. Locals warn us it’s just a locked wooden box by a cowshed. I want to see it anyway. I am in for a shock, as it turns out what locals told us was an overstatement. Interestingly, in these parts where temperature shoots up this high, MET department hardly has any observatories. The Border Security Force stations at the Pakistan border often record temperatures over 50°C which MET has no way to confirm.

On our way back, in the porch of an old house I see a familiar contraption – a little metal tripod with a bowl at the bottom and a cloth on top. Opium production is underway. Amal, as it is locally called, is so deeply-woven in the socio-cultural system that the fact that it is illegal rarely seems to register in most parts of western Rajasthan. An elderly woman I have struck an equation with says, they know just the right dose to keep calm through worst spells of heatwave.

  • Western Rajasthan has the largest number of opium addicts especially among the elderly. (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

  • People manage to slip into a siesta at a bus stop on the outskirts. (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

It’s 4:00 PM, and we head towards the sand dunes on the outskirts of the town. It’s the hottest part of the day and the dunes are sizzling. We walk on the dunes for about 500 meters and I feel I can’t take a step further. I can’t feel my shoes, all I feel is the intense heat under the soles my feet.

But we have a piece-to-camera to shoot here. We do a quick take and I realise the crew is feeling the heat, to put it mildly. So we choose our final sequence wisely — we decide to shoot what the residents of Phalodi do to keep themselves cool. At the Thanvis’ home, I write my script on the phone for the story to be played out in the evening. Thankfully, the phone seems to have come back to life in the cooler setting. Simultaneously we shoot the making of the local magic potion.

The sun has set now, but the residual heat is in the air, especially since the hot winds are not quite in the mood to relent yet. The tamarind potion makes everyone feel better. We head to the place where we are staying for the night. Gradually, the winds start cooling. That’s the beauty of the desert’s weather. No matter how hot the days are the nights are always cool. Or so we wish!

We eat out dinner outdoors and I already have a rising sense of accomplishment for the crew and myself. We have smoothly put behind us a day at the hottest place in the country.

Riding Into the Dust Storm

WHAT I AM oblivious to is the ordeal that followed. The staff had turned on the air conditioners a couple of hours before we were expected back, however, my room feels as hot as the railway station we went to in the afternoon. I wait patiently — after taking what turns out of be a hot shower — for the room to cool down a bit. Just enough for me to get some sleep but it seems like an endless wait. I hope it would get better by midnight, but I am wrong.

I start reading Alexander Frater’s Chasing the Monsoon which I had brought along. It makes me feel better for a while. However, as I read vivid descriptions of lush vegetation, replete with its post-rain fragrance, it makes me feel miserable. It’s 2:30 AM, I can barely keep my eyes open but I can’t sleep either. The AC seems brain dead, just mechanically flipping its way to ineffective uselessness. Then I remember a trick we resorted to at my college hostel in Ajmer. I sprinkle water on a white cotton scarf and sleep under it. It helps marginally but I still can’t sleep. I give up and wait for dawn.

The morning is pleasant. After my ordeal, I ponder if locals get to sleep restfully through the summers. Outdoors at night seems pleasant, the mud houses in the villages are perhaps the best bet in this sweltering weather. But like all small towns, in Phalodi and its surrounding villages mud houses are becoming a thing of the past. In retrospect, a smaller room may have helped. But what about those who are exposed to the heat daily with nowhere to escape to?

Before we head out we go to an MNREGA site to meet workers. MNREGA or Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is government scheme to guarantee hundred days of wage employment in a year to a rural household.

De-silting work is underway at the pond in Khinchan, three kilometers from Phalodi, known to host thousands of Siberian cranes, locally called kurja, every winter. There are no trees near the work site. As workers brave the heat to carry trays of mud, an elderly man is resting in a little patch of shade under a camel cart. The workers, who report to work at 7:00 AM, tell us they find it unbearably difficult to work between 11:00 AM and 1:00 PM because of the heat. They want their timings changed so they can finish by 11:00 am. As we head back I think that's the least they deserve.

  • A sleepless night in Phalodi. (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

  • It's time to bid bye to Phalodi, which landed up on the map for an uneviable reason.

We leave Phalodi hoping the demand of the MNREGA workers is met, that the government hospital delivers the services it must. And this place, which found a place on the map for recording the highest temperature in the country, gets its share of cooling rains soon to fill those oversized earthen pots.

I also cannot help but salute the spirit of the people who inhabit the world’s most densely populated desert, the Thar, against all odds. As we head back, in a few hours we run into a dust storm on the highway. I call up my newfound friends in Phalodi and am told the temperature is down by more than a couple of degrees.

The summer of 2016 is a milestone. With Phalodi, I have checked one of the things on my bucket list, to be at the hottest place at its hottest time. Next up, the coldest place at its lowest temperature.