Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The closing of the Indian window

In recent years, Indian cities have more electric power (even if shortages are still frequent in the hot months). And in an era of rising expectations, air-conditioning is now reasonably common in such places as guest houses in government organisations and seminar rooms in IIT's and universities, where formerly it was reserved for the elite among the elite (i.e. the Director's office was air-conditioned but no one else's was).

A problem I'm beginning to see is that, true to the Indian perception of things, once air-conditioning is supplied it is expected to be used no matter if it's needed or not ("sir, you must not breathe ordinary air, that is only for us natives"). So in places that are extremely pleasant at night, such as Bombay in winter or many Indian cities in the spring, one is still obliged to switch on the AC (that's sometimes noisy as hell) and dive under blankets, deprived of pleasant breezes and birdsong from outside.

Why obliged? For two essential reasons. One is that an open window in India can let in all kinds of beasts from mosquitos and cockroaches to rats and snakes. A simple and cheap solution is to place netting on windows. And I tend to judge the comfort level of a guest house precisely by this. Here at IIT Guwahati, where I'm presently visiting, I have a completely netted window and can sleep in comfort even as mosquitos rage outside. But all too often the choices are to suffocate inside a sealed room, or turn on the AC and freeze, or let in a zoo of living creatures to set up residence on the surface of your skin.

The other essential reason is that, once AC's have been installed in a room, a message goes out to the room cleaners' association saying: Don't clean the window area! This room is air-conditioned so no one is going to ever look behind the curtains! Result: opening the window raises the dust and filth of a decade.

Unless they are seriously enlightened, your hosts anywhere will feel content that they have provided you an AC and you will be hard put to suggest to them that fresh air would have been a better (and more eco-friendly) choice. Recently in two different research Institutes (that I dare not name for fear of offending people), I was given the largest guest room/flat, evidently kept for senior visitors, and sometimes this place would have as many as five air-conditioners - but for reasons outlined above, I could not partake of the pleasant evening breezes and had to sleep with both blankets and earplugs. Let's please be more sensible and save money (and the earth) in the bargain.

Please do not write to me to point out that I'm in charge of the TIFR Guest House and haven't been able to install netting in every room as yet! It's being worked on.


Shanth said...

That's pretty bad. I've hardly been away from India for a year and already one of the things I curse in the US is happening in India. Hope people think sensibly before installing unnecessary A/C's

Sunil Mukhi said...

Well there are certainly cities and seasons that warrant an AC - Delhi, Madras, Hyderabad and even Bombay can be rather grim in summer without one. So I'm not against the installation of AC's, they simply shouldn't be compulsory to use.

More generally, Shanth, if I may put it thus: every single thing you curse in the US is happening in India! We're well positioned to be the next greedy, resource-guzzling, self-obsessed superpower in just about every way.

Though, if in the process the minimum quality of life (and hygiene) can be elevated to that in the US, and the quality of health care rises to that in Europe, it would be a much better country for the vast majority of its inhabitants.

Rahul Basu said...

Since I am particularly allergic to cold air from an A/C , resulting in blocked nose, sniffling in the morning and general malaise, I tend to not use A/C's in guest houses in India unless the ambient temperature really requires it. In particular, if I am in the upper floors of guest houses like in TIFR, I can even open windows and put on the fan without attracting the zoo that Sunil talks of. Even in our own flat in Chennai we use the A/C for about two months in a year, if that, for the same reason. I understand that the usual (amongst my colleagues who have A/C's installed) it is more like six to eight months.

I suppose I am contributing just that little bit towards slowing down climate change.

Sunil Mukhi said...


As you'd have noticed, in many academic guest houses in India the air conditioner points straight at the bed. Result: not just you but almost anyone would develop the sneezes. Wonder why this strategic placement of the AC?

I feel we simply don't have administrators of the required quality or competence who can focus on these "fine" points, while the faculty members who hold overall charge are either too busy or are also incompetent with designs. At the end of the day, the contractor decides things based on his own convenience.

Whenever a problem like this becomes acute, more money is thrown at it. The sad thing is that a guest can be made more comfortable, more cheaply, if only things are done with some thought.

Point for self-study: how many academic guest rooms in India don't have a desk to work at, or if they have one then there's no reading lamp on it! Without exception though, all rooms have TV sets and cable connections. The moral is clear.

aspiring annapoorna said...

Well, you've pointed a HUGE problem with most buildings built anywhere in the world using universal modern technology - a complete disregard for, and therefore, lack of thermal comfort. In India, I think that the problem is compounded by the lack of user sensitivity or perhaps user demand for thermally comfortable spaces. We assume that since since we cannot control the weather, we must simply keep 'adjusting'. That this 'adjustment' can be a studied response impacting how we form our built environment doesn't seem to strike too many....(it would be so much cooler if everything wasn't goddamned concrete!)

Shanth said...

> More generally, Shanth, if I may put
> it thus: every single thing you curse
> in the US is happening in India!
> ...
> Though, if in the process the minimum
> quality of life (and hygiene) can be
> elevated [...] it would be a much
> better country for the vast majority
> of its inhabitants.
Amen to that!

At the crux of this problem is what I think is what you pointed out as the lack of competent administrators. This is mainly because most of these clerical/administrative jobs are placed at a much lower level (both in terms of status and financial remuneration) vis-a-vis the academic jobs. The simple fact that it is not so in the west makes all the difference, I think.

Rahul Basu said...


As a member of our institute's GH committee I have a couple of interesting anecdotes to relate. Some years ago it was decided to install fridges and TVs in the guest rooms (no, no gas range, dining tables and counter tops). Unfortunately nobody thought of placement issues, with the result that they were both placed on the desk using up whatever little space there was in the first place.

Interestingly it was our registrar and not the faculty who insisted that the desk should be kept clear for work, and these other items were secondary. Subsequently we got extra tables and wall brackets for these two items. (but no table lamp). However, I must admit to some success, since we managed to get RJ45 sockets for internet connections and even more important, large numbers of plug points (laptops, cell phones, ipods, cameras all need charging nowadays). Regrettably the A/C points directly at the bed still, but someday we hope to replace these by split ones.

Our parent organisation DAE has a 'fancy' GH in West Kidwai Nagar. It has a TV and a large fridge (mostly empty) but there is absolutely no internet access either in the rooms or in any common area. One would have expected that a (hopefully) technologically advanced institution like the DAE would have thought of this, but I guess they are worried about an Indian A. Q. Khan selling off all nuclear secrets through an internet connection.

Sunil Mukhi said...


What you say about status and financial remuneration of administrative jobs is true, but there's one more crucial element - we don't impart training.

We simply hire some poor soul, put her or him out there and say "perform" without meticulously setting out what constitutes performance. In particular the underling does not know whether it means (i) getting a certain job done or (ii) pleasing the immediate boss. Often the boss also does not know which one of these he really wants.

When no performance is forthcoming, the boss interprets this as a sign that the person is inadequate and thereafter treats him accordingly. So a whole class of people learns to absorb and live up to these low expectations.

Cheeta said...

An oddity about air-conditioners in India, at least when I was growing up and first observed these wondrous contrivances in action, is that they seemed to lack an otherwise essential control, a thermostat. The result was that air-conditioners were always running at full power - and therefore when working properly, delivering freezing cold air.

Of course, all too often the air-conditioner did not work properly, or was under-powered for the task it had to perform (too small for the room it was installed in, or using an old or inefficient compressor, or with some of its essential gas having been lost... or all of these and more) which in turn meant that it had to be sited so that at least some cooling effect was felt where it was most needed; in a bedroom, this meant it was aimed at the occupant's most likely location, the bed (this explains Sunil's observation).

It wasn't until central air-conditioning in luxury hotels became ubiquitous did one realise that the gadget could, and should, be used to provide an environment at a 'comfortable' temperature, rather than to simulate the Arctic...

On blocked noses and sniffling: Rahul, I just wonder perchance whether the symptoms you describe are due more to dust or some other air-borne contaminant, rather than to the temperature of the air. It's not the cold, it's that with the air-conditioning on and the windows shut, you're breathing re-circulated air and therefore a higher concentration of such particles than you would otherwise.

Sleep fresh! Except, of course, in summer, when without some cooling one would hardly sleep at all...

Ramanan said...

I completely agree with Shanth and Sunil's comment on Shanth's view about the training. However, I have one more point to add .. in India some people want to do super-paisa-vasool and insist on the AC levels being high. I have seen this in trains and flights - most passengers seem to be shivering and this guy somewhere is adamant about the AC.

Also its good to see so many people discussing this here - one thing I have noticed in most places is that people do not accept that they are feeling cold. Hurts their masculinity I think.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Well different people have different thresholds of what feels comfortable to them.

However, in general, I find (hope I don't get in trouble for being "fatist"!) that most passengers who want it to be freezing cold are (i) overweight and (ii) drunk. There is of course the angle that since they are paying for AC, they expect to be given AC at max settings.

This discussion has been good fun (for example no one has trashed me as yet ;-) ). I hope that we (in India) can reach some equilibrium situation wherein, as suggested by Cheeta in his comment, we use AC's as needed but don't feel the urge to keep them on, and the windows perpetually sealed, for no good reason.

B. SUNDER said...

Well, this was a wonderful collage of learned people talking about modern marvels like Air Conditioning and the missing 'Indian Window'! But I could hardly find a solution in terms of first step to be taken. All chat seems to be I-agree-with-you-and-would-like-to-add-one-more-thing kind.

I would neither blame the Administrators nor the user & not even the Civil Engineers or Architects or the Builders who design these buildings with Air Condition in the mind. The key would obviously be in maintaining the technology than cursing for bringing America's lifestyle here or demeaning Indian way of life. Face it, blogging is also not very Indian, but we are doing it so happily to exercise freedom of speech in the form of writing though most of the bloggers hated or was in capable of writing even a piece of essay or precise in their School English Grammar days. I guess I would like to propose solutions in the following manner, perhaps it helps those underpaid administrators via any one of use through this gyaan-session of blog:

1)Keep the windows clean & open, but before that clean the surrounding around Windows to ensure no bugs enter, even it has to be plants or small garden outside, lizards and bees are bound to end up to see you out of curiosity.

2)Regular maintenance & discard of older ACs will ensure lesser noise & heat generation of pollution.
A poorly maintained AC could also cause Legionnaires' disease, or thermophilic actinomycetes, along with asthma & allergies for many.

What could be done with the older ones is just like Medical School accepts dead bodies of people, we can donate them to Schools or Institutes where students can study. One can establish such schools too. I saw Junkyard Wars on Discovery Channel some time back, & saw that an Old behemoth Air Condition was used to propel a motor boat. Do you think our Engineering Talent has got the gumption to do something like this or they are good only in writing Software Codes for American Bank Applications :P?

3)The parts could also be recycled in the buy back so that less pollution with cheap maintenance. It is the responsibility of the owner or the user of the AC to maintain his log of usage versus maintenance.

4)If it is hot, one can always use Fan or a hand-fan which can do marvel to our wrist exercise if we are just sitting in the room and not doing anything but yapping about affairs that we would neither make difference nor it could make to us.

5)Using a macchar-daani is ideal to keep them away & keep the window open, of course if the place outside the windows does not host other Entomology participant.

6)Eating & consuming liquid related diet during Hot Climate can reduce the internal heat in the body which will not create the urge to power on the AC with its knob to the fullest :P!

Perhaps there are more solutions only if a Doctor & a Mech Engineer who understand what we are concerned with can tell us, but mean time summer is around the corner in Mumbai where I am from & I would follow the above regime that I maintained for the past 5 years ever since I got an AC in my Bedroom :)

Sunil Mukhi said...


Thanks for all your observations. Somehow all of us learned people failed to provide solutions to the problem and it's great that you took the first step.

However I think I have a better solutions for one of the problems you identify:

"4)If it is hot, one can always use Fan or a hand-fan which can do marvel to our wrist exercise if we are just sitting in the room and not doing anything but yapping about affairs that we would neither make difference nor it could make to us."

My suggestion is this: if we were "yapping about affairs that we would neither make difference nor it could make to us", wouldn't it be more practical, as well as eco-friendly, to hold in our hand not a Fan but a Heavy Stone with which we could hit ourself on the head and become unconscious? Just a thought.

Ramanan said...

Sunder :

Amused to read your comment - learned terms like Legionnaires' disease, or thermophilic actinomycetes and Entomology participants.

Also amused by your suggestion of the use of macchar-daani. Do they sell it in stores these days ?

Plus I didnt know that if I eat and consume liquid diets I may not need an AC - I am going to try it out.

Rahul Basu said...

"yapping about affairs that we would neither make difference nor it could make to us"

What does this mean?

Ramanan said...

One place I clearly remember having heard Yap/Yapping is from a Hindi song from the movie Bombay Boys .. the song name is Mumbhai.

B. SUNDER said...

For the meaning of Yap, here is the linkClick

And Dr. Mukhi, I guess the solution provided by you for point number 4 will be too harsh, but it is well suggested for our Indian Politicians :P