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.