The Monsoon

When the monsoon rains hit Kerala on the western shore of the country with a rambunctious outburst, the whole country - rulers and the ruled - heaves a sigh of collective relief. With over a billion mouths to feed, the monsoons are no joking matter. During my years in Kolkata, I have witnessed, first-hand, the immeasurable force of these rains. Hours and hours of relentless downpour, interspersed with periods of quiet in which the Earth itself seems to come alive in new life. I have loved the monsoon for its visual beauty and hated it for exposing India's crumbling infrastructures. A decade later, I sit now amidst swirling polar winds, as far away, geographically and culturally possible from the monsoons and yet I find myself anticipating them with a glassy taste at the pit of my throat.

Cursory Googling doesn't reveal a definitive definition for the phenomenon. Different sources consider it to be different things - a season, a seasonal direction for winds, a seasonal wind and so on. Having lived through many of them, I feel that none of them capture the essence of the monsoons to Indians - is there a word that captures utter and subjugated love and hate at the same time? None come to me off the top of my mind.

The following passage from Dominique Lapierre's classic, The City of Joy, comes quite close to capturing this essence.

"It was the month of May, the very heart of the Bengal summer. The air seemed to shimmer over the overheated countryside. Every day I gazed long and confidently at the sky. It was gradually assuming the tints and shades of peacock feathers ... "
Every morning Hasari went with his father and brothers to squat at the edge of the field. For hours on end, he stayed there, contemplating the growth of the soft, young green shoots. The beginning of the monsoon was predicted for Friday. Friday is not a very auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. It did not matter really: the monsoon was the monsoon and its arrival each year was the gift of the gods to the people of India.

In a quintessentially Indian manner, the monsoons are as much a religious and spiritual event as it is meteorological. From the foothills of the Himalayas to the semi-arid plains of Tamil Nadu, the arrival of the monsoons is greeted with festivals of varied hues and sounds. When the rains are merciful, the country gushes with fervent outpourings of gratitude. When the rains are vengeful or petty, we try to bribe them through donkey weddings and frog sacrifices. When the rains are really cruel, we see farmers hanging themselves amidst their ruined fields.

India recently sent an orbiter to Mars. India has sent over 20 satellites under the INSAT programme, with weather forecasting as a primary goal. Billions of rupees have been spent on building super-computers powerful enough to simulate wind patterns. And yet, we can't seem to figure out the monsoons. I recently read a report published by a leading Indian daily which claimed that statistically the monsoons have been poor for two consecutive years only on three occasions in the last 100 years, affirming the belief that the monsoons will be good this year after the drought in 2014. Is this the best we can do in 2015? Agreed, India has built her resilience to droughts and floods. We have enormous stockpiles of grains (millions of tons of which rot during storage). We have improved irrigation facilities to many regions. Monsoon clauses are baked into all farming insurance products. And yet, as a computer scientist, it bothers me that we have not yet solved the problem of accurate predictions of the monsoons.

The El Nino - the seasonal warming of water currents off the coast of South America - is universally recognized to be a portent for bad monsoons in India. And yet, the exact mechanics of this interaction and methods to offset it remain research questions in obscure conferences. Isn't the vagary of the monsoons as much an existential threat for India as its unstable neighborhood? Weather modifications are no longer part of fantasies involving Yajnas to unstable demigods. Countries routinely engage in cloud-seeding to boost rainfall. Wouldn't affecting the monsoons be a most potent method to destabilize our country? Long before weather modifications, climate change threatens to disrupt the monsoons as we know it. Even the most rudimentary models seem to suggest up to 10% rise in annual monsoonal rainfall due to climate change. 10% of the monsoons is A LOT OF WATER. Whether India is equipped to deal with this evolving reality is a question we should divine through astrologers.

As with any complicated relationship, we need to invest time and energy into understanding the monsoons. The best minds of our country must be thrown at the problem, and if there is one thing that ISRO has taught us - Indians are amazing problem solvers for Indian problems. As a country, we must collectively pose the question - can we do better than donkey weddings and correlation when talking about 1.25 billion lives?


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