Sumer is icumen in, as the Medieval chart topper goes, and cuccus are no doubt singing lhude all over the temperate north. Elsewhere though, summer is mostly a prolonged and epic pain, the memories of which you unsuccessfully try to erase through the rest of the year.
India’s summers are nocturnal: That’s how you survive them. In my somnolent suburb of retirees and foliage, 11 AM tolls the hour of the dead. Granddads shuffle in with the last of the day’s produce, the morning’s market shuts shop with a rattle of shutters and swiftly drawn tarps, a cook seasons her household’s lunch somewhere. The world bakes, air conditioners purr, dogs gather panting in the shade of SUVs, a lonely ice cream cart pierces the haze calling AISKEM! AISKEEM! The sound of spices tempering mingles with a koel’s cry out on the debdaru, a last remnant of life as Kolkata settles in for the long afternoon behind blackout curtains. Finally, at sundown, you emerge, vampiric and sweat-damp into a blaze of lights as the night flowers—belphul, jui, and night jasmine—bloom fragrant in the air.* So exotic, so India.
I’m not gonna lie, when it starts hitting the hundreds for weeks on end, the aircon is my best friend and savior. I’d make a shrine to it if it wasn’t mounted just out of my reach below the ceiling. But it’s not always possible to have cool air at the touch of a button. Maybe you’re out and about, or traveling in a hot climate, or maybe indoor temperature control isn’t available. Fear not, because we of the tropical blaze have an entire arsenal of defenses, not just to survive the heat but to make it fun. Some of these are being lost as my culture changes irrevocably, so I’m sharing this mishmash of knowledge, wisdom, and common sense as my small way of preserving some of it. Plus, you can’t just give up on your life three to four months out of every year, can you?
1. Sun protection
Sunscreen is essential in summer, even when you are melanin blessed as I am and tend not to burn. SPF 30 is enough to protect most complexions, and according to the Environmental Working Group, anything above SPF 50 will probably not give you better protection while containing higher amounts of chemicals like oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate that are rubbish for long-term health. You know what else works as excellent sun defense though, in addition to sunscreen? An UMBRELLA. A large, shady, black umbrella that’ll stop some rays from hitting your skin. It might sound like the ultimate dork of accessories but I’ve always found dorkiness to be spectacularly cool. Go ahead and make a fashion statement that’s sure to confuse everyone! Summer goth or (skin-)health goth? If anyone asks, just cryptically say “aesthetic” and walk away twirling your fuck-off big brolly as lesser mortals wilt and crumple all around you.
If you’re like me and tend to lose umbrellas with reckless abandon, consider a boater or one of those floppy straw hats. It won’t give you as much protection from sunburn as an umbrella might, but keeping your head covered is a great comfort, and a good way to limit the risk of sunstroke when the heat is drumming down. Any wide-brimmed hat works, so go ahead and let your inner Edwardian or ’70s cruise queen shine! If you do end up with sunburn, calamine lotion is an age-old remedy that cools skin. I’m currently nursing a bottle to treat a vicious heat rash—it’s cheap, soothing, and smells like nostalgia.
2. Portable cooling packs
If I could, I’d spend all summer, every summer floating in an empty pool and emerge only in fall. But sometimes you just have to drag yourself onto dry ground. Portable cooling packs are terribly handy but they’re never around when you need them because seriously, who has the time and foresight to stock up on that stuff? So let me present for your convenience: what else? The humble cucumber. Or any kind of summer squash, melon, or gourd, really. In India, we mostly use the calabash gourd, but cucumbers, zucchini, or any watery squash will work just as well, (I’d just advise against using watermelons or anything on the sweeter end because you want to cool down and not turn into a sticky attraction for insects). You don’t even need to chill them in advance because squash are just naturally chill that way. Slice off a large chunk, rub it all over your face, and feel the magic of Cucumber Cool. You can use this pretty much anywhere on your body—go on and give the soles of your feet a squash rub, even though you might look a bit weird doing it. Feet tend to heat up really quickly—not just from friction and pressure but as the sole point of conductivity and heat transfer on our lower ends—which means they naturally cool down a lot faster, too.
Water is my favorite summer refresher but it is, to put it plainly, boring. Lemon or limeade is the simplest way to spruce up water, and it’s excellent hydration if you make it from scratch. When I was tiny, my grandmother made limeade in huge batches using giant sugar crystals called misri. I don’t see much of it in shops anymore, but plain sugar does just fine. Make limeade with sugar, sparking or plain water, a lime squeezed in, and the tiniest bit of salt (if you want). The proportions are as flexible: I like mine with hella sugar, but use as much or as little as you like. Mint is a delicious addition to this too: Place a couple of leaves per cube in an ice tray, top up with water, freeze and enjoy some cool, minty ice with your drink.
Lassi or ghol is another staple summer drink. Both use a yogurt base, so summery and soothing. Mango lassi is my favorite kind of lassi, and all you need to make it is some probiotic or greek yogurt, chopped mangoes, a bit of sugar or honey, and cold water to thin it out. Blitz it all in a blender, and you’re good to go.
4. Fighting the dreaded chub rub
As a licensed fatty, I could hardly write a piece about summer without tackling the beast known all too well as chub rub. Chub rub isn’t strictly a summer thing but it’s worse in warm weather because sweat adds moisture to chafing skin and just like that, you have the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungi—ouch. There are any number of anti–chub rub products on the market, all of which have their devotees. Body Glide and Monistat’s Chafing Relief Gel both have a dedicated following, Lush makes a cornstarch based dusting powder while Skindura is highly rated AND vegan friendly. Bandelettes are rather pretty and a good barrier solution for femme-identified folks.
What works best in my experience is keeping up a good airflow in my nether regions: I wear a floaty skirt and go commando. Maybe it’s because my thighs are on the lesser end of prodigious, but I can avoid the worst of the chub rub as long as my pubic region and inner thighs are dry. This is just one solution among many, and I daresay it’d work even better with a bit of dusting powder or gel, but ventilation is my personal key to unchafed thighs.
5. The greatest table fan hack
Table fans are excellent when there’s a cool breeze wafting around in the neighborhood, but when it’s a hundred degrees in shade, all they do is blow more hot air at you. This is fixable! You’ll need a length of cloth, like a small towel or a pillowcase, and some binder clips. Get the cloth nice and wet and fix it to the grille of the fan using the clips so that it drapes over the grille. Then switch on your fan and enjoy the instant blast of cold air. It’s a lifesaver. You’ll need to keep dampening the cloth every half an hour or so, depending on how humid or dry it is where you are, but as a quick fix, there’s nothing like it.
Finally, if all else fails, make a home for yourself in the shower (or even better, the bath!) and hermit there for a while. Light some smelly candles, play Rainymood on your phone, and imagine the rain dripping down on you in your cozy, splashy hermit nook.
Monsoon is all around me as I write this, summer’s done and dusted for the year, packed its bags and left for wherever it is that summers go. To the mild north, or is it inching its way towards the antipodes? We can only guess, and wait until our terrible queen comes home again. ♦
*Bel and jui are the Bangla names of two common nocturnal flowers known for their fragrance.