City City Bang Bang, Columns

Those in air-conditioned cabins

When one is criticized for being removed from ground realities, one is somehow always believed to be ‘sitting in an air-conditioned cabin’. Access to air-conditioning appears to make any opinion fluffy; a product of the ivory tower la-la-land that one clearly resides in.

Air-conditioning is often used as the primary descriptor of elite detachedness and of a form of ignorance that is in the main ignorant about itself.

At one level, air-conditioning is potentially a sign of civilization- of rising above the biological, of cultivating the ability to not react immediately to one’s physical surroundings. It brings alive the idea of being cool, detached from one’s life- not getting caught up in the heat of the moment. But equally, the express purpose of air conditioning is to render a person oblivious to a primary experience of reality.

In a country like India, it is in many ways, the most articulate symbol of the class divide that exists in the country. Social divisions take many, often complex forms but class and the mindset that it engenders is quite accurately captured by the access to the ability to regulate the temperature for one’s comfort.

Historically, air-conditioning was truly an elitist idea. Growing up, it felt a little bit like magic, available only to the truly well-heeled, and visible largely in films where men in dressing gowns had heart attacks. I had an uncle who worked in a multi-national company at that time, and although not given to wearing dressing gowns, did live in a bungalow whose bedroom featured an air-conditioner. Sneaking up to that room and feeling the divine luxury of a cool white bed sheet was as close to the idea of heaven as was possible to imagine. Or for that matter, walking in to an air-conditioned movie theatre (not to be confused with the deceitfully titled air-cooled one, which featured fans that were mounted on side walls so high up that any effect was produced had more to do with sound than air). The 3 pm show in the middle of summer meant that one could transit from peak heat to an absolutely delicious chill in an instant.

The specialness of the air-conditioner in our cultural imagination is very much a part of our life today, albeit in other forms. Although, the a/c is now much more widely prevalent in households that think of themselves as middle class, and given that its cost is not that dissimilar to that of a reasonably expensive phone, the a/c is still regarded with a degree of reverence.

The older generation still uses air-conditioning with the utmost restraint, switching it on only for a few hours when truly required. There is still some talk of not giving the children an a/c in their room lest ‘they get used to it’. Quite clearly, cheating the heat in such a spectacular fashion counts as luxury, whereas the facility provided by other gadgets is valued, but not quite in the same way.

Heat is a sign of life and direct contact with too much life is intimidating. The sun saps the will, sweat melts the resolve, and shrivels up all good intentions. It underlines the experience of scarcity, sharpens the sense of deprivation, and makes poverty that much more graphic. In India, there is no larger truth than the sun. The idea of the presumptive desirability of the sun, an idea so prevalent in the West, is meaningless in India. The sun is what one escapes from; it is what shade is for. The ability to render the sun irrelevant is primal power invested in human hands. This is the work of the Gods, and is so much more than mere technology.

The greater access to air-conditioning has begun to change our landscape in different ways. Families have become a little more insular with the arrival of air-conditioning. The bedroom door is now shut, the television moves to where the a/c is, and as against an earlier time, when the notion of privacy within a home was virtually non-existent, today rooms have become more closed spaces. Every room becomes a mini-ecosystem of its own, with its own ambience and taste. Air-conditioning divides the home into zones with temperature boundaries, and family interactions have become more formally structured.

The idea that air-conditioning has a civilising effect is not easy to observe in the Indian context. If the driving on the roads is anything to go by, then greater personal comfort has not translated into calmer behavior. If anything, personal comfort seems to deepen the divide between the self and the other, by instilling a sense of entitlement and privilege. The car a/c is the father of road rage. The actions of the other seem incomprehensible as one zips about in cool comfort, the outside seeming even more intolerable. The impatience with the slightest inconvenience seems to be growing; the anger that entitlement unleashes seems paradoxically to be greater than the one that is the product of deprivation.

Lee Kuan Yew once called the air-conditioner the greatest invention of the twentieth century. To the surprise of many, he had identified it as one of the key variables that would help Singapore become a developed nation. One could argue that in Singapore’s case, an early emphasis on air-conditioning helped shape its work ethic as well as its ‘temperature-controlled’ political culture. Technologies can bring about profound

changes in the way society and human life are organized. The light bulb erased the difference between night and day and changed the world in more ways than we can imagine. The watch redefined the idea of time and made it a collective imperative. Air-conditioning potentially changes the world in equally fundamental ways. We can see some of these changes begin to unfold in India, but it is early days yet. For now, the criticism that sitting in air-conditioned cabins confers on one an insularity still holds some merit.

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