I read a New York Times news story about 120 degrees temperatures in India. And I see my mother, Aai, her face gaunt, her body emaciated. Take me away, she is begging. Take me somewhere cool. Take me to a hill station.
I am only a kid, I tell her. I can’t take her away. Besides, my father, Dada, doesn’t have money for luxuries like hill stations.
As I talk to her, I lie on the floor of the middle room, my face inches away from the table fan, which roars like an airplane engine. In the mid-day sun, our flat-roofed, brick-and-concrete house has heated up like an oven. We have no air conditioning. All we can do is shut the doors and windows of this one room and sit in front of the fan all day long with absolutely nothing to do.
I Don’t See A Cloud
We are not the only people in India who can’t afford hill stations or air conditioners. It is the 1960s and most people share our plight. But that doesn’t make it any easier for Aai to tolerate her situation. Ever since she had a nervous breakdown, she has become incredibly sensitive to heat. In summertime, her heart palpitates, her body shakes, she has trouble eating. She frets about my younger brother who has sunstrokes every year. All day long, she waits for the evening so she can go into the yard and inspect the sky. “I don’t see a cloud,” she complains every day.
Temperatures will peak at 118 degrees around the twenty-seventh of May, I tell her. I try to console her with the reminder that, on the seventh of June, monsoons will arrive like clockwork.
My mother is no longer in this world. Still, I feel guilty for having lived in the perfect Mediterranean climate of the Bay Area for over forty years. I feel remorse for never taking Aai to a hill station. I feel guilty for never purchasing her an air conditioner. I feel remiss in not moving her to a cooler place. I feel sorry that I did not invite her to live in the Bay Area.
After I got married and left home, my brother, the only son, became the patriarch. The family dynamic did not allow me, the daughter of the family, to take control of anything, not even the welfare of my mother, even though, at times, I tried.
Reading the Times report, I try to recall brighter moments with Aai. I remember persuading my father Dada to purchase a cooler, a metal contraption consisting of a table fan surrounded by grass screens. When you poured water into the tray on top, it trickled through the fragrant screens of khas grass on three sides of the fan, cooling the air. It was a low-tech device but it brought a lot of relief.
Decades later, when I became responsible for giving away slightly improved versions of similar “swamp” coolers to low-income customers as a part of California’s energy efficiency programs, I experienced a semblance of atonement for Aai’s suffering. I was making people’s lives better, I thought. But the feeling was also accompanied by a bitter awareness, not only of my own failures, but also of my generation.
When I arrived in Berkeley for my graduate studies in energy and environment in the late seventies, I was excited. As I did homework to figure out the reduction in atmospheric CO2 corresponding to a reduction in the number of automobiles in the US by x percentage points, or drew the solar charts to power homes, I felt I was saving the world.
Reversing Climate Change
Alas, political winds soon shifted. The US government, along with the rest of the world, abandoned its commitment to reversing climate change.
As I scan the weather report today, reading of gusty winds, persistent droughts, and dead trees waiting to ignite in the West, as I watch television stories of Europe on fire, as I hear of entire continents like Australia being rendered uninhabitable, I wonder if my life’s work has been in vain. I want to believe that I’ve made a difference, only if incrementally.
On the radio recently, I heard a news story about the children of Paradise, California, who are currently attending a high school inside a hardware store, because their town, along with their homes, perished in the wildfires of 2018. Many of the children said that their parents did not believe in man-made climate change. Neither did they trust the scientists who observed that unusually high temperatures, along with the dry conditions, have made their town a tinderbox.
What sort of a world did the children of paradise fantasize about escaping into, I wondered. Surely, they did not dream of a “hill station,” because they were already living in one? Did they realize that there was no place for them to escape, that the oceans were expected to rise, that the deserts were forecast to grow more arid, that there were forecasts of mass migrations of people out of Asia and Africa?
Listening to the children, I thought of my granddaughter, Belle, who just turned four. Like Aai, she doesn’t like the sun. It’s too hot, she says. She is right. The Bay Area’s climate has changed a lot since I first arrived on these shores. The cities of San Leandro and Castro Valley, where Belle lives, used to have perfect weather. Relatives from England used to visit us and luxuriate in our backyard, soaking in the California sunshine. But now, San Leandro is too hot. Even my town of Albany, which used to be shrouded in fog, gets hot in the summer, so much so that a couple of years ago, I bought my first fan.
What sort of a sanctuary will Belle dream of as she grows up, I wonder? Will there be any sanctuary left anywhere in the world? Will Belle gaze at the sky as Aai used to, praying for rain? The image haunts me. I have come full circle, I think. Having failed my mother, I am now failing my granddaughter. I was the lucky one. I belonged to the sandwich generation in which opportunities were limitless on an undamaged planet.