The salt in his sweat was burning now, spearing his right eye with a intensity. The rivulets ran down the side of his face, viscous and globular, settling into his eyes. Still he held his gaze skywards, drawn to the burning sun, trying to match the intensity of its heat with his gaze.
The sun had moved beyond its apex, but if anything it seemed stronger, more sure and certain of its power. The refrain continued noisily inside his head “Don’t stare at the sun, you’ll go blind; Don’t stare at the sun, you’ll go blind…” He was drawn to it, a dare he felt egging him on. His limbs were burnt brown-black, endless days of chasing the pariah dogs through the streets, climbing mango, papaya, and chickoo trees, riding in the back of the battered old Ambassador. He squinted his eyes, used the serrated leaves of the coconut tree to block the strongest rays, and continued to stare.
The crows has stopped cawing, the cows had vanquished to shade, even the lizards had gone back to their hiding places in the nooks and crannies of the rock-strewn fields. Silence enveloped the place, and he could smell foreboding and death. In this place death comes at midday, from heat, from light. The animals knew this, and showed their deference. The plants, the trees, the air, all remained still, and everything hung heavy with the smell of dust and cow-dung. He had to gasp to get a breath, to pull the hot air into his lungs, and he felt that he was drowning in it.
On the verandah of the house, the old HMV 78 crackled the refrain “When mad dogs and Englishmen…” “Oh-I-say, jolly gooda, Mada dogs and Eenglishmen, pipip-cheerio-whatHo!” his accent satirized the song, but the words reflected flair, panache, coolness in this land of irrepressible heat. Mad dogs and Englishmen could go out in the sun, their very foreignness affording them an aura against the piercing fire of the summer day. He wondered how an Englishman would look in this heat, and he recalled the image in his history book of a tall pale-skinned man with an orange handlebar mustache, white helmet, and red tunic. His face had been stern and unforgiving, his weapon and military demeanor inspired deference, and he wondered how his English soldier would cope with this heat.
The tannic smell of chai filled his nostrils, the spices taking on the odor of burning hair, adding an unexpected dimension to the heat. He turned up his nose. “Hot drink on a hot day. Drink tea to cool you down. Sweat more to refresh more.” The admonitions from his mother reminded him of the radio jingles when they congregated in the evening for their after-dinner communion. In this hot place, the sound of the radio was a reminder that coolness existed beyond, a cool, hip civilization that lay a radio-wave away.
He spotted a mongrel dog, low-slung, emaciated, eyes glowing with defiance, prowling listlessly in the heat. He felt an irrepressible urge to throw a rock at it, to reinforce his authority and emphasize his role in the pecking-order. He wanted to crush it, fry it in the sun. He was not at all perturbed by his savagery, for by ten he had learned that, behind the veneer of civility of this place lay a bloody hierarchy. Life was available for the taking, he watched it happen daily. His mother was constantly stamping, squashing, crushing, spraying, destroying insects, spiders, lizards, mice, rats, sometimes bandicoots. He had once watched a dead puppy decompose, its organs burned by the heat, leaving it charred and swollen, distended, with no smell or blood or anything. Seared to the street, it had laid there for a week for the village children to poke and prod, before the flies got to it. That’s why they called it a dry heat, he supposed.
He stared at the open issue of Life magazine that lay on the verandah. Cool Menthol Virginia Flakes, the advertisement said, and the couple in the photograph, white skin, white hands holding white cigarettes, impossibly white smiles, against a snowy white backdrop, extremely Cool Menthol. As the heat of the day continued to envelop him, the dog, the smell of chai, the afternoon stillness, all dissolved slowly away. As he absorbed the imagery of the advertisement, white gods,in their red-and-blue ski-suits and white turtlenecks, appeared to be infallible. He felt the coolness of the picture against the palm of his hand.
The sun was lower now, not quite as destructive as it once seemed, suddenly more manageable, and movements began once again, crows, cows, the rustle of the coconut leaves. He got off the verandah floor and went inside, heat burning in his belly, pounding in his temples, the magazine cast listlessly asunder. Soon, it would be time for afternoon tea and sandwiches, bread, butter and jam, a minor revolt, an attempt by his mother to fight back against the relentless, all-consuming heat.