This tale was written in January, forgotten in a dusty corner of my computer, recently discovered, dusted off, buffed a bit, and is hereby presented. Yes it’s already April, and severe winter weather is largely behind us in the Northern Hemisphere. You don’t want to be reminded of the cold and the snow.
So don’t read this blog until a really warm sunny day. Or read it if you’re curled up by a fire and toasty warm. Otherwise you may complain.
An Indian friend warned me not to pack socks.
“You won’t need socks in India. Southern India is an astoundingly hot place no matter what season.”
It was a fascinating idea. One fewer article of clothing to consider on a bleary morning. Less laundry. Less clutter in my bedroom.
However, I had heard otherwise from the school—that up in the mountains it could get cool. So I packed socks.
Thank God I did.
Kodaikanal doesn’t just get cold, it gets very cold. While the daytime temperatures rarely go below 55-65 in January and February, it falls below freezing at night. Morning frost is common. And due to the monsoon, it’s not just cold, it’s also damp. In fact I’ve never been as cold in my life as I’ve been living in January in Southern India. This never ceases to amuse me.
This isn’t entirely Kodai’s fault. It is surely a more mild climate than Connecticut. The lake never freezes over. It’s rarely even windy. It’s largely the fault of the house building techniques.
There are no real ceilings. We look up at the underside of our galvanized tin roof. Above that, they lay down loose clay tiles to soundproof the houses in monsoon (by the way, the racket produced by the rain in monsoon can be deafening). The tin sheets are simply lain one overlapping the other. There’s no seal between each, though they do push some mortar around along the ridge line.
The walls are two-foot thick stone-and-mud construction. The floors are 2 inches of concrete on bare earth, occasionally overlaid with tiles.
The doors and windows are not cut to fit their openings well. There are 1 in. and 2 in. gaps around most of ours.
Any housebuilders in the audience know where this is going. The house doesn’t retain heat. It is damp and it is cold. On a really hot day, our house is a lovely cool cave. But there are few really hot days.
To combat the cold and the damp, we have a tin-drum stove in the living room. But no matter how hot a fire you create (and that’s a job I’ll describe below), most of the heat goes up the chimney or right through the ceiling. You can sit ten feet away from a glowing stove and not feel any warmth.
In January, the outside temperatures range from 65 during the heat of a sunny day to 25 at night. My bedroom, which is at the opposite end of the house from our stove, ranges from 40 degrees at night to 50 during the day, if I remember to open the window and let the warm air in. I sleep in long underwear with a feather blanket and a sleeping bag over top. The absurdly expensive (400rs. about $10) Indian-made hot water bottle I acquired in town is worth every cent.
The worst source of cold, though, are the floors. They seem to have equalized around 40 degrees. Step on them in bare feet and you feel your soul sucked out of your body. Stand in one place for five minutes and your legs will ache up to your knees. Much longer and you’ll become The Living Dead. We’ve spread many cheap Kashmiri carpets around, but the cold still penetrates.
Wool socks and house shoes are the only solution. Without them, happiness is not possible in Kodaikanal.
The other source of happiness is a warm fire. We run one constantly, almost every day of the year. First, the house is always cold in winter. You need the heat to prevent death by frostbite. But during monsoon, when it is generally warmer, we run one to keep the house dry, or at least drier. In monsoon, the relative humidity sticks around 90% to 95% in the houses unless you run a fire. Laundry will not dry except suspended over a fire. We get condensation on the walls, floors and ceiling. I’ve been woken up at 6am by a steady dripping on my face, as our bedroom is far from the fire.
So every evening when I get back from school, I light a fire in our living room, where we always congregate. The evening fire has huge importance in our daily lives. But making one is no simple affair. Back in Connecticut, I could start a genuine wood fire in about 10 minutes, including the trek to the basement to fetch a logs. Here, in Kodai, the process can take upwards of an hour, and success is not always guaranteed. I have failed on more than one occasion, with cold, weeping children at my side giving me hurt looks: almost as difficult as the death of a family cat.
Making a fire here takes very careful preparation. During monsoon, the challenge becomes almost insurmountable as newspaper doesn’t even burn.
The process here starts with getting hold of firewood. We can buy it from the school, and have it delivered by the maintenance department. We can request up to 3 yards of wood per month without charge, the equivalent of about 1 cord.
The wood they deliver has generally been cut and split within a few days. It is as green as green can be. During the monsoon it is literally sopping wet, as it is cut outside, stored outside and delivered on a flatbed truck.
So, smarty pants, you’re thinking we should buy wood ahead of the game and store it for a while to let it dry. Were that it was so simple, but it’s not.
After delivery we transfer the wood into a “woodbox” as quickly as possible. This is because firewood is valuable and often stolen, sometimes by the watchmen that guard the gate to our compound. The lockable woodboxes that the school supplies are as close to airtight as they can make them. Nothing dries in the woodboxes. In fact, the tops generally leak, so they’re worse than storing the wood outside in the rain. And we can store a maximum of about 1 cord in the box.
This all makes it nearly impossible to stock up in advance and dry it out. Lately, though, we’ve been taking a huge risk and storing our wood out on our front porch, in the open air. In the dry winter, the wood does lose some moisture. But how much have we lost to theft? Hard to say.
To build a fire, I pick uout a few of the driest logs and split them further. I use an arawal to do this, a rather cool tool that’s halfway between a machete and a hatchet. The smaller the splits, the better chance of creating fire. Ten minutes of this will produce a big enough pile to get things going. In full-blown monsoon, I’ll split enough for several days and stack it next to the stove to dry out.
To build the fire, I start with some crumpled up paper, though not much. The paper soaks up the humidity, so it generally doesn’t burn well at all. I’ve never experienced a place where a single sheet of newspaper smolders even when you hold a loose sheet up in the air. Perhaps I still use it out of nostalgia.
On top of the paper I pile several fistfuls of eucalyptus bark and leaves and cypress pinecones. The eucy trees are abundant and their leaves have a lot of sap in them. They generally burn well, even when damp. The pile needs to be about a 6 inches high. You would think this is overkill, but it’s generally just enough.
Next I take the stack of the small splits (none thicker than my finger), and make a tepee over the leaves and bark. The teepee is necessary, as the leaves will dry out the sticks. Generally about 50 splits is enough.
Then I find the matches. Now, you’d assume there’s nothing much to say about matches, but in India there is. They simply don’t work very well. There are two types, “wax matches” and “wood matches.” The wax matches are cheap paper matches (not even made of cardboard) coated in wax. You strike them and generally end up smearing wax on the abrasive box side, rendering it useless. When they catch, they sputter and go out.
The wood matches are a little better in that you can strike them and they will burn. But if you don’t tip the match upside down, they’ll go out instantly. Each match you need to manage, rotating it upside down to heat and dry the shaft and help it start to burn. I watch carefully as the water is boiled out of the match shaft, and wait until the match fully catches on fire before using it.
The match isn’t to light the kindling. That’s futile, I’ve discovered, through hundreds of attempts. I light a candle stub with it, which in turn, I use to light the kindling. In the dry season, I’ll put the candle to several spots, dripping wax everywhere to help it along. In monsoon, I poke a hole in the kindling and place the whole candle underneath the pile. It burns for several minutes, melting itself away. Thankfully candles aren’t too expensive here.
Now the nursing begins. Once I have a few flames going, I use a tube to fan them inwards and get the whole stack of leave burning under the thin splits. As the fire burns holes in the pile, I stuff more leaves and pinecones in. Eventually the kindling sticks catch. I push them together to concentrate their heat. They usually crumple to the bottom of the stove when they’re burning, so I add another stack of kindling on top, then some slightly larger pieces of wood, no larger than wrist diameter.
If things look good, I’ll tentatively close the stove door to help the draft. I check it every few minutes to see if it’s going. Rarely have I made a fire that doesn’t hiss loudly with escaping steam. So yes, I’ve rarely made a really hot fire.
Other faculty here have their own methods. Some are convinced pine cones are the way to go, that Eucy leaves are inferior. They spend hours hunting for buckets of them. I’ve tried all-pine-cone recipes with little success. Others swear by a cupful of kerosene. I’ve tried it, but the stink is penetrating and lasting. Still, on a really wet night, with a sputtering fire, I’d reach for the jerry can in a flash.
And I am so glad I have good pairs of wool socks.