May is the hottest month when the unrelenting heat is punctuated by the only pleasure to be had, bouts of mango eating. But one evening in the middle of the month, it rained. The mugginess that had steadily increased over the day meant that my usual jog in the evening was a sweaty affair giving the impression of having been more vigorous than usual. But all of the discomfort melted away as the rain lashed against me, almost painfully. It was obviously a brief affair and the next day the sun returned with its immense, fiery rage to torment us for some more time. But while it lasted, the air was cool and gave a sense of satiation.
A few hours after these showers, my room was suddenly filled with dozens of winged insects fatefully flinging themselves at the fluorescent lamp. Their ancient biological clocks triggered by the unseasonal rain, in a brief hour or so a whole frenzied cycle of life and death was enacted. The resident lizards were probably confused at this unexpected feast, but by the next morning it was all over. The only visible reminders were the hundreds of translucent wings that dappled the wet earth outside my window. Wings shaped to perfection for flight, like the airflows in textbooks that explained streamline flow and lift due to Bernoulli´s principle.
These rains had arrived due to a depression in the Bay of Bengal and one was acutely aware of the possible damage this cyclone could inflict on the coastal areas and its people. Over a week the cyclone had built up over the bay and made its way towards us on the eastern coast in Visakhapatnam. Thankfully it petered out without causing any damage and the heat came back with a vengeance. So while I had relished this brief munificence of the weather gods, I also looked forward to the real rains.
In early June, I travelled westwards to Goa on the other coast and the rains had just about arrived here. On the western coast of India, the monsoon is a particularly striking, often overwhelming experience. Watching the endless sheets of rain pour down is exhilarating and refreshing but experiencing it for a whole month is also a sobering reminder of the immense power of Nature. It is mid-July and the heavens have literally opened up here. The river Mandovi is swollen and roiled and even on a short bus-ride through Goa´s peculiar landscape where urban and rural areas intrude onto each other, one encounters in quick succession fully flooded emerald-green rice fields juxtaposed with damp, urban areas. The beauty of the natural landscape is unfortunately marred by clusters of ugly advertisement hoardings. And in a more mundane sense, the perennial wetness also means that clothes take forever to dry and it’s a hopeless task trying to keep your house free of insects and fungi.
In the landmass defined in ancient texts as Himavat-Setu-Paryantam – from the Himalaya to Rameshwaram – two natural factors have played an immensely significant role. The geographic girding of the sub-continent, in the north, by the high ranges of the Himalaya strung as a geographical barrier on the one hand and the immense waters surrounding peninsular India on the other has meant that its ecology, history, social and cultural life would acquire a distinct flavour. All of this is dealt with élan by scholar-diplomat K. M. Panikkar in his many essays on geographical history, primarily The Himalayas in Indian Life and India and the Indian Ocean. While the Himalayas acted as a historic barrier to people and the winds, thereby contributing to the region´s uniqueness, the oceans carried trading ships and colonisers to our shores. And both have worked in tandem every year to create the defining feature of India´s climate – the monsoons.
The monsoon builds up slowly over a period of months. The intense summer heat is absorbed to different extents by the land and the oceans resulting in an energy imbalance. Like any imbalance abhorred by nature, this energy differential results in a seasonal shift in wind direction and the moisture sucked up from the oceans is carried landwards by south-westerlies resulting in the monsoon, a term derived from the Arabic word mausim meaning season. The arrival of the monsoon has been a much awaited event. The very pulse of the region´s life depends on it. Breaking out after a long, harsh summer the monsoon is life giving. On its timeliness and generosity hinges the hopes and lives of millions of people. The subcontinent gets almost all its rain in a short spell of a few months and the flora, fauna and people have had to adapt to this invariant of our annual weather. Thus the entire agricultural cycle and consequently, the life of a farming community is synchronised to the arrival of the monsoon. The development of irrigation networks in modern times has mitigated this dependence to some extent but only by that much, for there are few rivers with perennial sources. And the acute stress on our water resources, due to rampant over-use, coupled with the absence of even minimal social security means that for the rural poor, untold misery is always a real threat as demonstrated by the failure of the monsoons last year. A good monsoon on the other hand implies a measure of prosperity to many and has, what economists like to call, a `multiplier effect´ on all our lives. Thus the imprint of the monsoon is visible everywhere, in every aspect of our life – from the vagaries of our predominantly rain-fed agricultural economy to our joyful music and arts. But it is also significant in ways that are not so obvious.
The grandeur and significance of the monsoons is recognised by C. V. Seshadri, a scientist whose sweep of pioneering work included a path-breaking “alternate way” of looking at energy, as opposed to alternative energy sources which do not address the political economy of energy. This finds expression in Development and Thermodynamics, a seminal essay whose social and intellectual implications are neither fully understood nor widely appreciated. Scientific definitions are assumed to be value-free, but Seshadri incisively points to their inherent anthropocentric bias. Originally, entropy was developed as a concept in thermodynamics to capture the notion that everyday transformations are unidirectional in nature, eg. the melting of ice or the wilting of a flower. However the accepted scientific definition of useful work (derived from the entropy idea) deems industrial processes (eg. combustion engines or industrial furnaces) to be more `efficient´ compared to natural processes based on a lower rate of energy transfer. Seshadri uses the monsoon as a perfect illustration of this for “the monsoon over Asia and Africa carries billions of tons of water across the continents, performing countless gigajoules of work but the [scientific] definition makes this work of low quality because it is done across small gradients at ambient tempratures”. The first squalls of the monsoon make landfall on the western coast in early June although its regularity and intensity is affected by a host of factors including the distant ocean current known as the El Nino. Over the next few weeks as an anxious nation watches, it advances over the entire region, soaking us in its riches.
Despite dramatic changes in our economic and social organisation in recent years, the fundamental importance of the monsoons remains unchanged. And for once even the chattering classes and the media take notice. While they might not care too much about starvation deaths (except when it embarasses them abroad), the Indian business class craving integration into the global market cannot ignore the fact that a good monsoon means disposable income in rural hands which would feed the giant engine of the Indian economy. Consequently, over the years predicting the monsoon´s arrival and estimating its volume has become a ritual laden with significance. Stuffy meteorologists make prime-time news when they announce the arrival date of the monsoon. And steeped in human hubris, the rains that arrive earlier than predicted are stubbornly put down in the category of `pre-monsoon showers´.
Given the complex nature of weather and the lack of historical data, developing accurate predictions is obviously hard, a problem made worse in a world where the impact of a couple of centuries of pell-mell industrialisation in the West is increasingly visible in the unpredictability of global climatic conditions. But since the monsoon is so critical, failing to predict it accurately generates its own share of controversy. The Indian Meteorological Department had for some years used a statistical model for predicting the total quantity of monsoon rainfall. This model was a power regression performed using 16 different observed meteorological quantities like temperature, pressure, wind speed etc. measured in different regions of the world. However the prediction for last year´s monsoon was way off the mark, consequently the statistical model was drastically pared down to ten variables, perhaps proving once again the importance of Occam´s Razor in science – a principle that holds that simpler explanations are preferable over more complex ones.
Important as it is, the monsoon is not just about agriculture and economics. It also plays a fundamental role in the sub-continents’ cultural and social imagination. Indian literature, music and almost every form of artistic expression is full of allusions to the rains, the most famous literary celebration of the monsoons being the poem Meghadutam by Kalidasa who is presumed to have lived around the fifth century. In this masterpiece, a Yaksha in exile in the Vindhyas, implores the Megha-dutam (cloud-messenger as essayists usefully point out) to carry his message of love and longing to his beloved in the Himalayas. In Meghadutam, considered by many to be unsurpassed in its lyrical beauty, Kalidasa uses this simple literary device as an excuse to describe the many captivating sights during the northward journey of the cloud. According to one writer the poem is said to be plentiful in “unvarying freshness of inspiration and charm” and marked by “delightful imagery”, “profound insight into our emotions” and demonstrating “oneness with the phenomena of nature”.
Our music is also replete with allusions to the rains as exemplified by the many Malhars in khayal. For me the most accessible of them is the traditional bandish ´Barkha Ritu Aayi´ in Rag Megh which immediately brings to mind Ustad Amir Khan´s soulful rendering in the difficult jhoomra taal that he made his own. Also fascinating is the cascade of onomatopoeic taans by Ustad Fateh Ali Khan who belongs to what is left of the Patiala Gharana in Pakistan.
The rains do dramatically transform a parched landscape and can be both exhilarating and life-giving. No wonder it has the rich subtext of the erotic as amply depicted in the finely crafted miniature paintings of the Punjab and Himachal foothills of India. Amongst the finest expressions of the Indian ideational aesthetic, these paintings often have a jewel-like finish and a frequent theme is that of the monsoons. Exquisitely crammed in an area the size of your palm, elegant cranes arch upwards, the sky is filled with billows of blue-black clouds and forks of lightning snake down towards the lush, fecund garden where peacocks delight in their dance and the dark-limbed Krishna seduces Radha.
There are myriad expressions of the sub-continents’ sense of the monsoons but you would not know that if you read Alexander Frater´s Chasing the Monsoon. Frater´s very original idea of following the trajectory of the monsoon, literally chasing it, is marred by a remarkable degree of philistinism (Not a single reference is made to the cultural dimensions of our rains). He approaches the monsoon with the eye and nostalgia of an Angrezi sahib and chases it by plane with intermittent pit stops in the swankiest of hotels. Thus, although useful, being marked by characteristic British peevishness makes Chasing an exercise in self-indulgence and fails to capture the real aroma of the monsoon and its effect on the minds of us Indians.
My childhood memories of rain are from Bengal. As anyone familiar with Bengal would tell you, Kal Boisakhi meant large, dark and ominous clouds bursting with moisture. It also meant lots of dust whipped up by the winds followed by a fierce and spectacular son et lumiere. Sometimes the scorching heat of the summers was dramatically quenched by sudden hailstorms. Occasionally the hail was big enough to tear through umbrellas and we children avidly collected them with whelps of joy. However the romance of natural ice died one year with the arrival of our fridge, till years later, as a student I moved to snowy Boston. It was only after spending a couple of years there that I began to appreciate the West´s perception of rain, in particular about how it differed so much from ours. Till then the image of the dark figure with a big hat and upturned raincoat-collar did not make much sense to me and some Americans were quite puzzled when their Indian friends waxed nostalgic about the rains. The rains in the temperate areas are slow, ubiquitous, dark and brooding inducing melancholy feelings. Seattle on the West Coast of the United States was of course the butt of our jokes as it received rain pretty much year round. This obviously also explained the stunningly crisp, fresh feel of its bright summers.
Given this ceaseless, gloomy rain it also makes sense that Seattle is the birthplace of the coffee boom in America which was a real blessing for it introduced a few ringing notes of taste to Americans otherwise used to downing a concoction that we foreigners labelled “office coffee” – tepid, tasteless dishwater made worse with a noxious non-dairy creamer extruded out of plentiful American corn. Of course the real dreariness is supposed to be in the English weather which led me into a pop-history hypothesis that it is this intolerable weather which explains the English going crazy enough to want to leave their island home and colonise the rest of us. This also segues, however imperfectly, into one of my pet gripes – our uncritical acceptance of the English language. It is downright silly for people in the sub-continent to be using proverbs like “Saving for a rainy day” or “Make hay while the sun shines” in their daily usage.
Of course the monsoons are a mixed blessing. Its failure wreaks havoc with people´s lives and an excess of it creates untold misery in the form of floods and landslides. This vulnerability of our rural society is often invisible to city-dwellers who quickly tire of the rains once the summer heat abates and the drains start spilling over. Personally, the monsoons have also taken on a bitter-sweet taste since I acquainted myself with the Narmada valley and its people a few years ago. With the notorious Sardar Sarovar dam rising even higher this year, while the rest of the country rejoices in the rains, the adivasis of Domkhedi, Jalsindhi and many other hamlets are again at the mercy of our collective, national indifference coupled with the quirkiness of the monsoon. Every September or so when the Narmada is swollen with months of rain, without warning engineers upstream release megatonnes of water to save their dams. It takes almost two anxious days for these massive sheets of water to make their way downstream and the activist bush-telegraph works round the clock with unverified and alarming measurements of the waterlevels at Rajghat and other locations. As the swirling waters leave destruction in their wake, there is much anxiety as to the safety of steadfast satyagrahis who in the face of tremendous injustice cling to their lands. Every year their brave enactment of moral protest is repeated and hardly noticed by a society preoccupied with other ideas of progress, development and nationhood. And slowly the news trickles in with the poignancy of the loss of an intimate world – that mahua tree, you know the one we had the meeting under last year, that´s gone; Luharia´s hut too…
With this knowledge, I can never listen to the exquisite Rag Megh without a touch of sadness. For me the monsoons have lost their innocence and I long to regain it.
~ Venu Madhav Govindu is a Vishakapatnam-based scientist and environmental activist.