Friday, 14 September 2007

Bombay Sweat

It’s said that the Eskimos of the Arctic regions live and work so much with snow that they have over fifty-two words with which to describe it.
If this is true, then visitors to Mumbai, especially now in the summer months, must have a similar amount of words to describe the various types of sweat that this city grants to us.

Coming from England, where even on the hottest days, you might want to carry a jacket with you, and sweating is something you do only in a sauna, I have been amazed by how many ways a man can perspire.


There is the little tickly drop that starts at your neck, and slowly passes down the back of your spine, before dripping tantalizingly off the very end of your backbone. When it disappears, a new one starts again…
The frizzy ends of hair on the back of one’s head are usually the starting point for this little journey, so you can attempt to beat it by toweling the back of your head. And then you realise your neck is sweating too.

There is the middle-of-the-day sweat when the sun thumps down on your head while you are out walking. As it does so, your hair seems to thicken, and then it seems suddenly as if a thousand small moist creatures are conspiring to oil each strand, separate them out, and make them stand on end.
Funnily enough, this is not an unpleasant feeling, as you feel like a cake bubbling in an oven. It’s a sort of prickling sensation. I am sure that to feel like a cake cannot be a bad thing.

Then there is the embarrassing line or series of small dots that appears on your tee-shirt front (even though you have only walked a few yards from your taxi). This often occurs when you are about to bump into a smart friend (who travels everywhere by a/c of course).
It is pretty tiresome for men because the line forms just below one’s breasts, and seems to insinuate (to someone who might not know) the beginning of a sex-change process. I guess though it must be worse for women.
You can try to fold your arms and hide it – but everyone seems to know it’s there.
A variation on this is to get into a taxi for a long ride, and then realise that the seat covers have that familiar smooth consistency of arctic-flock material, and are double packed with nylon foam (why such unsuitable material?... I really don't know). This would be fine in Norway; but in Mumbai, it is a trap. Lean back on this seat for long, and the back of your shirt will have to wrung out and hung out to dry after twenty minutes; but, even if you sit forward, away from the back-rest, (but sit in that one position for too long), well, take it from me, the backside of your trousers will be soggy. Ugghh.

Nights can be bad. We all can guess how sticky it can be at 3am in Bombay in May, but imagine being English too – the sensation of being glued to one’s sheets by one’s own sweat is a new experience.

But the worst is the slow burn. In a non-AC restaurant, or a room without a fan, one’s forehead takes on a second, clammy layer, one’s face begins to turn scarlet, one’s eyelids even get heavy with damp…. until, finally, when the sides of one’s ears have become tiny rivulets of moisture, one has to run outside and seek the breezes of the Arabian Sea.

Prevention and Cure

There are many more variations.
But it is axiomatic that if I walk this city now – day or night – sooner or later the little pricks of liquid heat will come.

I bet you’re wondering about underarm sweat patches.
It’s an interesting question, because, for some reason – perhaps it’s the quality of the anti-perspirant sold here (is it super-strong to match local requirements?) – I don’t know anyone affected too much by them, which is odd isn’t it? Maybe it is also the type of humidity in Mumbai? Perhaps. I should research it.

Some of my Northern friends are clever enough now to make sure they prepare themselves for the Possibility of Sweat. They do this by reducing effort almost to nothing.
If they are going somewhere, they get ready slowly and easily, and never rush. They travel by a/c car; they do not walk even 200 yards. They arrive early at the smart hotel, just in case they need to cool off in the (usually freezing) bar. They never walk up the stairs.

But I must admit that, generally, this is not a solution for me. I refuse to allow the heat to curtail my desire to wander. This city is wonderful to meander around, and so much would be lost if strolling were denied to its visitors.

So I wear thin tee-shirts, I wear cotton shorts, I wear chappals, and I wear a Vietnamese jungle hat. I ignore the stares when I cool off at smart coffee shops. I look like someone from Lost (except for the muscles): it’s not pretty. But it makes me free.

Anyway, isn’t there something ridiculous about being in a tropical city and yet retreating constantly into the kind of temperature-controlled rooms that take igloos as standard for imitation?
Excessive AC is normal in posh environments here- but it’s just plain unnatural, surely?

So, as I’m in Mumbai, I have determined not to run away from Sweat – but to learn to embrace it. (Er, metaphorically).
Yes – and crazy as it sounds, it works. In England, the way to defeat the Cold of Winter is to see it as a companion, a stern and distant one, yes, but a companion. If you fear Cold, it will get into your bones and eat you.
Same with Sweat. If you can interpret the invasive discomfort as a welcome gesture from the city (no, I am not crazy!), actually, you can get along fine.

And – one advantage.

This morning I played tennis with Deepak. After half an hour, my T-shirt was drenched and I could barely see through the cascade of sweat-drops descending from my brow.
(He, on the other hand, was still tucked up in his tracksuit, and almost looking as though he could do with an extra warm-up. Amazing.)

But I felt great. I wasn’t just pretending to have a sweaty workout, this WAS a sweaty work out. The more the sweat flooded my brow, the more I felt virtuous. I must be doing something right, I thought.
And I didn’t have to go on no treadmill to do it with some personal trainer yelling at me.

However, the downside to extreme running about in the Bombay summer is the shower afterwards. The combination of exercise and highly humid heat has driven up one’s body temperature by a few degrees, at least temporarily… and no matter if you have a cold shower, you’ll still be sweating ten minutes later. In fact the very stupidity of putting on (warming) clothes immediately after your shower will make you torridly sweaty and hot all over again, thus negating the shower completely.
You have no choice but to sit in the dressing room, and wait for the body’s own cooling controls gradually to sort out the issue.

The trouble is that Deepak just thinks it’s all pretty funny. He’s already in the bar with a cold beer (which he doesn’t need).
And, because he is always unflappable, and never overheated, I guess my situation does look pretty funny to him at that.


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anjali said...

if you stay there long enough you will start sweating less (like your friend, Deepak). i have the reverse problem with the cold here in north america. i feel a lot colder than the average american. i think our bodies get acclimitized to certain temperatures and it takes several years for that to change. also, it's because you are an englishman that you seek out the sun. indians have too much of it and we try not overdo it. not just by staying in A/C environments but also by starting the day early, not walking in the sun in the afternoon, letting your body cool down after a visit out etc. what also helps is wearing white cotton clothing, applying prickly heat powder on your back and under the arms, and keeping your head covered.

Vishal Pipraiya said...

Have you traveled in a mumbai local during rush hour yet? *Snicker*

Anonymous said...

Visit Khadi Bhawan, Fort, Mumbai and you will find Khadi Kurtas/Shirts that works the best during such conditions.
Enjoy !!!

Viraj said...

Its amazing the way you have depicted the life of Mumbai. I totally relate to it cuz i have been there and done that...

Keep it up...


Anonymous said...

Categorizing different types of sweat is a new one for me. Thanks for this.