Illustration by Pia Alizé Hazarika
Illustration by Pia Alizé Hazarika

Soozerland

Suppose it is the early 2000s. A friend has invited you to the hills, and you are now sitting on their lawn on a crisp, bright morning. Everyone is dressed in light, almost summery clothing, enjoying the feel of the cool grass under their bare feet. You, however, are wearing a sweatshirt, a hoodie, a large, puffy jacket, a knitted cap, jeans, socks and large, black boots. You also have a pair of twenty-rupee Pondy Bazaar sunglasses perched on your head, because they make you nauseous whenever you try to wear them. No one else is dressed like this. Not even the most touristy of touristy tourists. But you are that Chennai person who likes to wear their ‘warm’ clothes when they go to the hills. And since you are only here for a few days, you are wearing them all at once.

          Suppose that on this particular morning, the sun is warm and gentle, and the sky is achingly blue, broken only by a line of deep green trees that are trying to touch that impossible sky. This doesn’t look like India at all, you think to yourself. That’s probably racist, but you didn’t say it out loud, so you decide that it’s fine. Then it strikes you that this is what people mean when they talk about Switzerland. You have never been to Switzerland, of course, but now you don’t need to, because there is no doubt in your mind that Switzerland is exactly like this.

          Friends walk past you and remark that the sun is very sharp. You decide that this is some quaint thing that hill people say that does not apply to you. After all, you are from Chennai. You have felt that relentless Chennai sun slowly cook your brain on a still, hot May afternoon. Getting heatstroke continues to be your most popular summertime activity. Nobody can talk to you about the sun.

          Come sit, my friends, you say. Come enjoy this beauty that is just like a Switzerland. You say, ‘a Switzerland’ because you meant to say, ‘a Switzerland-like esoteric feeling’, but for some reason, you didn’t. You also say Soozerland instead of Switzerland because sometimes that happens to you. Anyway, these friends say no. They will not sit with you, not when the sun is this sharp.

          You are flabbergasted that no one else wants to drink in all this Swiss beauty. In fact, you seem to be the only one sitting in the sun. Your friends are now either inside, hanging out near the window, or lounging in the shade. My dearest dudes, you say kindly. Come. Sit with me. Experience this breathtaking beauty that is a Switzerland. Again, they talk about sharp suns and again, you say, ‘a Soozerland’, probably because you already said it once.

          You lie on your back. You will lie on your front. People try to lure you inside with promises of King Star chocolates, food, homemade wine, naps and more food. You ignore these temptations. They are nothing compared to this beauty right in front of you. You have finally understood why everyone likes Switzerland so much. You softly sing ‘Kashmir Beautiful Kashmir’ but with ‘Switzerland’ instead. Obviously, you say Soozerland again, but whatever, it’s the thought that counts.

By now, you have begrudgingly removed the puffy jacket because you are feeling slightly warm. You are also feeling some discomfort in your eyes because the sun is actually really, really bright. You wish you could wear your sunglasses, but there is a good chance you will vomit all over the lawn if you do. You also decide to acknowledge the fact that there is an uncomfortable, tingling sensation steadily spreading across your face. A voice inside you is saying, ‘Bro, our face is not supposed to feel like this.’ You do not listen to this voice.

          By now, the people in the shade have fallen asleep. The people hanging out by the windows are now sitting in cool, comfortable rooms and laughing. Someone passes by you, smiles, and says,

          ‘Oh! You’re enjoying the sun!’

          You sit up and smile. Finally! Someone who understands your Soozerland feelings! Your Switzerland feelings!

          ‘You’re wearing sunscreen, right?’ they say.

          ‘What?’

          ‘Because the sun is so sharp, you know.’

          ‘Why does everyone keep saying that?’

          ‘You are wearing sunscreen. Right?’

          ‘What?’

          You start feeling uneasy. The people in the shade begin to wake up and say things like, ‘Dude! Are you insane?’ The people inside come to the windows and say, ‘Oh my God! Bro!’ You start feeling more uneasy. You decide that maybe you do want to go inside. Besides, the tingling in your face is starting to hurt.

          A number of things happen when you enter the house. First, you go completely blind. Your brain starts hurling itself against your skull. Your ears start pounding in an alarming manner, and it strikes you that this is a strange thing for ears to do when one enters a quiet house. Cool air envelopes you and you realise that you are actually very, very hot. It is not soaked-in-sweat Chennai hot; it is something else, something dry and unfamiliar. This is when you also realise that your face is burning. Burning like fire burning. So much fire burning. You have never felt anything like this in your life. Which is why, before anyone can stop you, you run into your room and pour moisturiser all over your face.      

          Things are a little hazy after that. You are aware of more intense burning, which seems incredibly unfair. People are saying things like why were you sitting in the sun like that? Why did you dump moisturiser all over your face? Why didn’t you come inside like everyone else? You have your own set of questions, like why did you all just sit there and watch me do this to myself? But you don’t say anything. Not only is your face so much fire burning, your posh bottle of moisturiser, which you bought purely for glamour-purpose, is now partially on your face but mostly in your mouth.

          Nobody forgets this incident. Years later, when these same people cannot remember where they have put their children, they still remember this. They remember how after your face finished burning, you turned a rather jolly shade of bright red. You didn’t think this could happen to those with a dusky complexion. But apparently it can. Your face also becomes incredibly shiny, because of course it does. At regular intervals, people who are supposed to be your friends look at your sweatshirt, hoodie, puffy jacket, knitted cap, black boots and hazardous sunglasses, all topped off with your shiny, red face, and try not to laugh. And they fail. Repeatedly.

You later learn that once your face has ceased being painful, red and shiny, your skin will start to peel off. Your friend advises you not to peel the skin off yourself, no matter how tempting it may be, and you consider two things. One, that this person you thought was your friend apparently enjoys peeling the skin off of their face. Two, that the sun, despite being a jerk, never does this to you in Chennai. You also consider that no one told you that a simple trip to the hills could do this to your face. I mean, they did but whatever.

          In spite of all this, you will also remember. Whenever you inadvertently eat a dollop of moisturizer, or feel that faint wave of nausea from wearing cheap sunglasses. You will find yourself again on that beautiful, terrible day. You will recall the achingly blue sky, the rich green trees, and that soft, soft kiss of a warm and seemingly gentle sun. Soozerland, you will sing softly under your breath. Beautiful Soozerland.

Kuzhali Manickavel

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings (2008), Things We Found During the Autopsy (2014) and three chapbooks from Blaft Publications, Chennai. For more information see www.kuzhalimanickavel.com

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