Chilling in Churu

Half a millennia of extreme weather conditions — India's hottest place sees temperatures often falling below freezing in its harsh winters — has made people of Churu exceptionally resilient

Firstpost print Edition

"The AC is not working,” I say, moving my hands, gently first and then with a hint of panic across the vents. “Yes it is,” says my driver Suneel Kumar, as he takes a right on national highway 52. There’s a five-second staredown before a truce is struck. It is agreed – the AC is working, but might as well not be. A few minutes later, our car trundles over a railway crossing with its two barriers standing sentinel-like over the south-eastern entrance to Churu, Rajasthan.

We’ve arrived at the hottest place in India. Temperature: 48 degrees. Feels like: Dante’s inspiration.

Most shops are closed for the afternoon as we wind our way through the streets of the city’s old quarters in search of the century-old haveli where we’ll be staying. The owners of the few that are open are stretched out on the floor of their stores. Less siesta, more a nap for survival it seems. An auto-repair garage is bucking the trend – its young assistant splashing the sandy entrance with water. Some drops splatter on the naked metal exhaust of a bike parked nearby and rise up as tiny wisps of hissing steam. Or maybe the heat is making me imagine things.

People in Churu have been braving this heat since 1541 when it became a permanent settlement, according to Shyam Sundar Sharma, resident anorak and director of Nagar Shree – the tiny local museum which also functions as a research centre and performance space.

Nearly half a millennia of living in extreme weather conditions – Churu sees some of the harshest winters in the country as well with temperatures often falling below freezing – has made the town’s people exceptionally resilient. “In all my 73 years, I’ve never heard of anyone dying from heatstroke just because they stepped out for a while during the day,” he says. “The human body adapts to its environment. That’s a law of nature,” he explains.

Empirically, he is largely right. While its by-lanes are deserted and those doing heavy labour under the MNREGA scheme have their working hours changed to 6pm-1pm, according to additional district magistrate (ADM) Ramakant Saunkariya, most of Churu’s rhythms seem unchanged.

NH 52, which runs right through the heart of town, is abuzz with activity. Tea and cigarette sellers, grocers and other assorted vendors ubiquitous across small-town India are all in attendance. People on motorcycles, Churu’s favourite mode of transportation, whizz past – a cloth tied over their face to keep out the Thar sand blowing in from the southwest the sole concession to the elements. A few wear turbans.

Meanwhile, I have industrial-strength sunblock mixed with sweat pouring down my face, shoes worn over the thickest socks I could find, two scarfs borrowed from my wife wrapped around my neck and a cap which has “New Zealand” (No, I haven’t been there) emblazoned across the front. I reach behind to discreetly push the umbrella deeper into my backpack.

It’s a three-minute walk from Churu Junction (also on NH52), where I’d wandered in to get the day’s newspaper, to Om Prakash Sharma’s bookshop where one actually gets the day’s newspaper – along with worn copies of Nicholas Sparks novels, NEET preparatory material and school textbooks. It’s the summer holidays and business is slow, so Sharma is happy to chat. And chastise.

“All this fuss about extreme heat is humbug. Unnecessary exaggeration by the media,” he says, swaying from side to side. Maybe a few chilled beers have been had or maybe he needs the loo. Probably both. “Churu,” he slurs slightly, seated in front of a creaky cooler doing its best to combat the full might of the desert, “Is the best city in the world. I’ve travelled to many places, including Mount Abu – Churu is the best. So what if it’s hot? And what’s the difference between 45 degrees in Delhi and 50 here anyway? There are no communal riots here, no disturbances, no theft. It’s a safe, well-run city and people are content.”

Sharma’s sole concern is the one that plagues middle-aged men across India – the lack of respect from today’s youth towards their elders. “They think they know everything, but all they’re focused on is on getting ahead professionally. They don’t read for personal development and thus fail to realise the importance of elders. Our generation was not like that.”

Meanwhile, indifferent to his complaints, some of the offending generation is cooling itself a kilometre away at Kuku Fun Zone (open for families from 10am – 11am; single men allowed from 11am – 10pm), a “mini water park” situated off NH 69 that leads to Hanumangarh in the northwest.

It advertises “a very large swimming pool”. The claim is difficult to ascertain because most of the supposedly very large pool is occupied by young males screaming over the Rajasthani music blaring on the loudspeaker. Three slides deposit half-naked bodies into the water every few seconds and friends line up precariously at the edge for selfies, oblivious to the ball of fire unleashing fury from up above. Fun Zone is living up to its name.

However, its status as Churu’s ultimate party place, at least for a certain demographic, is being challenged by a rising upstart. Lucky Swimming Pool has recently set up operations next door and is already attracting a sizeable clientele despite having only two slides. A third, higher one, is due to be installed shortly.

Pay Rs 80 and you’re good to go for two hours. “Ours is bigger than Kuku’s,” says Mahesh who’s set up the pool with his brother to supplement their farming income. From 200 feet into the heart of the Thar, a borewell draws water which is then used for 3-4 days in the pool before being let out to irrigate the adjacent field, which the brothers own. It’s been a good day for them – sizzling temperatures along with a public holiday for Eid means the most of Churu’s male youth is either at Kuku’s or Lucky’s.

The ones who’re not are at the Churu Fair across town on Purani Sadak – either alone or with their paramours, eager to get lost in the crowd. This is where it is most obvious that not only do Churu folks go about their business irrespective of the weather, they also openly rebel against it, almost to the point of mockery.

“Is that all you got?” they seem to say, eating their ice creams and relishing both the rides the fair has to offer as the hot breeze and dust swirls around them. And the heat. For the outsider, the heat is almost existential – it certainly made me question all my life choices that led to this point in time. The locals merely thumb their noses at it. I’m beginning to suspect they actually like it.

“We almost feel sad when we hear that another place in India is hotter or colder than Churu,” laughs ADM Saunkariya in between sips of Saras, bottled rose milk which is the discerning Churu native’s summer drink of choice. We’re discussing Churu’s problems in his spacious office on the first floor of the district collectorate building. Coping with the heat is not one of them.

“There are only three main sources of income here,” he explains. “The army, remittances from those who’ve migrated to the Gulf and labourers – salaried and daily wage. There’s only one crop-growing season and that’s dependent on the notoriously unreliable rain.”

The desire, bordering on desperation, to join the armed forces permeates the city. Like the havelis of yore, “defence academies” now dot the landscape, each promising their candidates the stars – which in this case is admission into the military. The largest ad on the front page of the city supplement Churu Patrika (published as part of the Rajasthan Patrika newspaper) is “Mayur Defence Academy” exhorting youngsters to enrol and pursue their dreams. Photos of those who’ve cleared the armed forces exams, along with the name of the corresponding academy are plastered on the few large billboards that loom over the roads. An old banner commemorating those who lost their lives while serving flutters next to one such billboard as hopeful candidates from the Sports

Defence Academy jog past it in shorts and thin t-shirts. It’s 6pm and the temperature is a mild 44 degrees now.

“There is no industry here,” laments Shyam Sundar Sharma of Nagar Sheel. “That’s why there is no development and little employment. When there are no opportunities, obviously the youth will be drawn towards illicit activities – to occupy their time and earn some money.” A senior civic official told me on condition of anonymity that liquor smuggling is rampant in Churu.

The lack of development and employment is ironic because this tiny outpost of a town at the edge of the desert has given India some of its most well-known businessmen. The Birla brothers, Jugal Kishore and Ghanshyam Das – whose mother hailed from Churu – built the town’s two most well-known landmarks, the Dharm Stupa and the Safed Ghantaghar (White Bell Tower). Jayadayal Goyandka, founder of Gorakhpur’s Gita Press, grew up in a house a few paces from Nagar Shree.

“All the infrastructure you see – hospitals, schools, dharamshalas, wells – was built by Churu natives who made it big elsewhere but continued to feel connected to the town,” Shyam Sundar informs me. These modern amenities jostle for space with a hundred old havelis, also built by businessmen who struck out for greener pastures centuries ago, leaving their families behind.

Subsequent generations gradually moved out to the cities en masse with solitary caretakers to look after the grand havelis which, shorn of inhabitants, lost their grandeur and ultimately fell into disrepair. More than 50 have been sold to developers who’ve razed them to the ground and erected modern buildings or parcelled the land into smaller plots and sold them. The 50-odd that remain, untended and unloved, serve as crumbling reminders of a more glorious past. “So much heritage, so much culture – all lost.” Shyam Sundar shakes his head. Indian history buffs will be familiar with this– almost every town in the country has a similar story to tell.

Malji Ka Kamra, a haveli built as a “hangout” (he probably wouldn’t describe it thus) by a prominent seth in the area is one of the few well conserved heritage properties in Churu. It has been converted into a hotel, which is where I’ve been staying these past two days. As its sole guest. Sensible people steer clear of Churu in June. Over dinner in the cavernous hall which is currently doubling up as a sauna – Rakesh, the manager, is at a loss for words. I’ve just asked him what people here do to beat the heat and keep themselves entertained.

“Whatever they do in other cities – stay indoors during the day, drink plenty of water, head to the cinema. Kuku Fun Zone,” he says after a pause. “It’s a little hotter than usual here, yes. But Churu is a normal place, really.”

Music from a marriage procession wafts over the old walls. Life in India’s hottest place goes on, showing a middle finger to the elements. And to spoilt urban dwellers who can’t take a bit of heat.

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