The Perils of Life and Work in a Hot City Only Getting Hotter
Jeff Goodell on Urban Heat in India, Climate Change, and Poverty
A hot city is different than a hot jungle or a hot desert. Urban heat feels crueler and more intimate than the heat you feel in nature. Despite the fact that cities are full of people, urban heat has the perverse effect of creating islands of isolation and hardship for anyone without the means or the social connections to access cool spaces. It makes the hardship of poverty harder and turns even the simplest tasks of daily life into risky adventures.
Consider Anjalai (she asked that her last name not be used), who is thirty-nine years old, with broad shoulders and a kind of eagerness in her eyes that suggests she’s always thinking of the next question to ask. She has a gold ring in her right nostril, and often wears gold earrings with a small pearl dangling at the end of a tiny gold chain.
She lives with her seventeen-year-old daughter and forty-nine-year-old husband in a hut with a palm-leaf roof in the Ramapuram neighborhood of Chennai, a city of eleven million in southern India. Chennai is home to some of the richest entrepreneurs and businesspeople in India; it is also home to more than a million people like Anjalai who live in slums that are wildernesses of discarded plastic and hungry dogs.
Anjalai’s hut is small, about three hundred square feet. It is neat and tidy, with a single circulating fan on the ceiling. Chennai, which is not far from the equator, is hot and humid most of the year. But May is a particularly brutal month. The temperature during the day is almost always ninety degrees or above, and it barely cools off at night. There’s none of the sharpness of the dry desert heat in Phoenix.
In Chennai, your sweat doesn’t evaporate, it just pools around you. It’s jungle heat, thick and heavy, although the jungle that once covered this landscape is just a memory, long paved over and concreted. The big tamarind trees, the coconut palms, the banana trees, the neem trees with their long, slender leaves— they’re mostly all gone. The percentage of tree cover in Chennai is now about the same as in Phoenix.
During May, when I met her, Anjalai’s daily routines were defined and driven by heat. In the morning, she ate cold rice porridge, which she believes helps cool her body. Every day, before she left for work, she wetted down the thatched roof of their hut, then spread water around the dirt at the base of the hut. The dampness, she said, helps absorb the heat. She moved slowly, preserving her strength for the day.A hot city is different than a hot jungle or a hot desert. Urban heat feels crueler and more intimate than the heat you feel in nature.
“How are you feeling, Anan?” she always asked her husband.
Anjalai worried about him every day. He has a heart condition, and the stress of the heat is hard on him. He works in construction, which means he is outdoors most of the day in the sun. He gets no respite in air-conditioning, no cool water to dunk himself in. She would like him to stay home, but they need the money, so he usually works a few days a week to help pay the bills.
They cannot afford a mobile phone, so Anjalai fears that if something happens to him, she won’t hear about it for many hours. “Today, he stayed home,” Anjalai told me one day, and I could hear the relief in her voice.
At around 11 a.m. every day except Sunday, she goes to work cleaning houses. She rides through the city on her rusted-out one-speed bike with tires whitened by the sun. She has five or six houses she cleans every week, in a random rotation. They are rich people’s houses, by which Anjalai means they are houses of people who have jobs and, therefore, houses with nice windows and big rooms and air-conditioning.
Working indoors gives her some relief. She often thinks of her husband, and feels guilty that she can cool off but he can’t. But that feeling doesn’t last too long. Inevitably, she must go up on the roof to clean up there too (many rooftops in Chennai double as living spaces). The sun burns in the sky and the air is thick and heavy.
“It almost hurts to be up there,” she told me. Sometimes when she is working on the roof, she thinks about the village where she grew up, in a rural area outside of Chennai, where there were trees that she could sit beneath for shade, watching the branches blow in the wind and eating pieces of cool coconut. By the time she was twenty, she and her husband were married and her family moved to the city to seek jobs and try to build a better life.
When they arrived in 2004, Chennai was booming, with thriving auto, health care, tech, and film industries. There were still a few signs of old Madras, as the city used to be known, like the Ice House, built in 1842 by American businessman Frederic Tudor. Tudor cut blocks of ice out of lakes and ponds in New England, packed them in sawdust, then shipped them around the world.
New England ice was wildly popular among the Brits living in Madras, who loved to sip gin and tonics under the banana trees. Tudor’s business collapsed with the coming of ice machines and other modern conveniences, but the Ice House still stands in Chennai, down near the beach.
Back in those days, Chennai was a gentler city. The roads were dirt, still shaded by patches of jungle. Homes and buildings had thick roofs made of brick and wood and plaster, known as Madras roofs, that helped to keep them cool. Streets were arranged to capture the breeze that comes in off the Bay of Bengal. Buildings were deliberately constructed with space between them, so air could flow freely.
There was plenty of water, most of it drawn from neighborhood wells. It was hot, but you drank buttermilk or, if you were lucky, gin and tonics. You moved slowly and you coped with it. It was life in the tropics.In Chennai, your sweat doesn’t evaporate, it just pools around you. It’s jungle heat, thick and heavy, although the jungle that once covered this landscape is just a memory, long paved over and concreted.
But then the great urbanization of India began in the 1970s. Unlike Delhi and other cities, which went vertical, Chennai spread horizontally. Wetlands and swamps were covered over. The arrival of air-conditioning meant that when they built things now, developers and city officials didn’t bother to think about sea breezes or airflow. Traditional wells were replaced with deep-bore wells, which were dependent on the region’s deep aquifer, which, among other things, was prone to saltwater intrusions that made it undrinkable.
Chennai is now India’s sixth-largest city, with a population five times larger than Paris. Nearly a hundred square miles of land has been paved over or developed. Eighty percent of the wetlands are gone.
The costs of this development have become apparent—not just with heat, but with water. In 2015, after days of violent rainfall, the concrete and asphalt channeled all the water into the city and nearly drowned it. Then in 2019, much of India baked under a heat wave with temperatures as high as 123 degrees. In Chennai, the heat was made all the more brutal by the fact that it was running out of water. The city gets an average of about fifty-five inches of rainfall a year, more than twice the amount that falls on London.
Yet in 2019, due to poor water storage, people in the city did not have enough to drink. Ten million liters of water were trucked in each day until the heat faded. As one journalist wrote, “The ancient south Indian port has become a case study in what can go wrong when industrialization, urbanization and extreme weather converge and a booming metropolis paves over its flood plain to satisfy demand for new homes, factories and offices.”
After Anjalai finished cleaning the rooftop, she rode her bike a few miles through the crowded streets to the Pudiyador school, a private school started twenty years ago by a university professor to help slum kids prep for college. Anjalai had started working there years ago, helping to clean the buildings.
But the school administrators noticed she was good with kids and loved to learn, so they gave her a job as a part-time teacher. And that worked out so well that she became a full-time teacher, working from 4 to 8 p.m. every day with a group of seven- and eight-year-olds. For this, she earns a paycheck of $70 per month.
As she pedaled through the city one day in late May, her gold sari flowing out behind her, the afternoon heat parted like water in front of her. May brings Agni Nakshatram (scorching star), a celebration of early summer and of Lord Murugan, a Hindu god and god of war. The intense heat of May is sometimes called Kathiri Veyil (scissor veil), because the sun’s rays feel as sharp as scissors on your skin.In 2015, after days of violent rainfall, the concrete and asphalt channeled all the water into the city and nearly drowned it. Then in 2019, much of India baked under a heat wave with temperatures as high as 123 degrees. In Chennai, the heat was made all the more brutal by the fact that it was running out of water.
Traditionally, people in Chennai avoid housewarmings, marriages, and other gatherings during this time. They stop eating meat and drinking refrigerated water. Instead, they drink sweet warm water and lemon juice, or water suffused with cumin seeds. One physician I talked to recommended oil baths twice a week, and drinking fenugreek water (to make fenugreek water, fifteen fenugreek seeds, which smell like maple syrup and have long been used in India as a medicinal herb, are dropped into a glass of water at night, then consumed the next morning). (All of these remedies, while culturally important, have little or no scientific basis.)
When Anjalai arrived at Pudiyador on her bike, she was sweaty, her face flushed, but she did not complain. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the classroom was empty—as for many other teachers in the world, teaching had gone virtual. She grabbed a laptop out of a locked closet, then sat on a mat on the floor in the center of the pink room, her legs crossed. A fan spun above her. The school administrators refused to install air-conditioning because they fear it will spoil kids and make it more difficult for them to cope with the heat when they are at home.
Anjalai spent the next four hours sitting on the floor staring at her computer, talking with kids in Tamil about their math and geography assignments. The lights flickered. The connection on her laptop failed several times, and she had to reconnect.
A little after 8 p.m., she finished. She closed the laptop and stowed it again in the locked closet. Then she climbed back on her bike and pedaled home through the steamy night. Dogs barked. Men squatted in a circle in the street, talking quietly. The air smelled of rot, of drying laundry, of jasmine, of stagnant water. There would be no break from the heat in the darkness, just the heavy weight of it all night long, until the sun came up and the day began again.
Excerpted from the book The Heat Will Kill You First by Jeff Goodell. Copyright © 2023 by Little, Brown and Company. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.