Life in India ebbs and flows with monsoon
King Summer's reign is ended, the Monsoon sovereign ranks. - English observer, 1938Skip to next paragraph
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A GRAY cloud mass, a sniff of damp, a barometric tingling - then suddenly a silvery, thick deluge that redefines the Western concept of a "soaking."
The monsoon, one of the world's most important weather events, and one of the most complex, has arrived.
This year's monsoon, depended on by half of India's 980 million people for food, broke one of the hottest summers in decades. In this cool interregnum, children dance in parks, Indians telephone one another in delight, visit, and share a heavily sugared, deep-fried cake that is popular only at this time of year.
The monsoon divides what are only two main seasons, wet and dry. The rains organize everything - from jobs, to travel, to weddings. When the government fell in April, the main question was whether new elections would be held before or after the monsoons. They are scheduled for September.
"In Indian culture, the singular arrival of the monsoon is roughly the equivalent of all four seasons for Europeans or North Americans. It has that impact," says one of India's foremost writers, Kushwant Singh. "For a lot of us it is survival. No monsoon, no rice. It is that simple."
As a popular metaphor the monsoon represents a natural affirmation of something good and comforting, pouring down without limit. A former Indian foreign secretary says that early in the monsoon each year, he doffs his business suit, puts on pajamas, and walks in his garden in a classic commune with nature. "It is a wonderful, soothing feeling that I can't describe," he says.
But monsoons don't always lead to the "still waters" of the 23rd Psalm. In waterlogged places such as Bangladesh, to the east of India, the monsoons can also bring destruction and misery.
This year 1 million Bangladeshis have already been displaced by floods. Last year, two-thirds of the country had flooded by the time the monsoon rains were over. Yet in India, the 1998 monsoons from the west were late, light, and water levels in north India went dangerously low.
Monsoon is derived from the Arabic word "mausim," meaning season. The monsoon is often preceded by smaller wind currents and dust storms. At upper altitudes, pre-monsoon winds give a ride to the pied crested cuckoo bird. Each spring it leaves east Africa to inhabit western India, sounding a wailing cry that is a familiar harbinger of the monsoon rains.
Actually, there are two monsoons in India each year. The largest comes from the southwest, from the Arabian Sea in June or July, and travels northward along the Western Ghats, the lengthy mountain range on India's west coast.
The other rises from the Bay of Bengal in the East about September, and crosses over Calcutta toward Delhi, adding to the precipitation in Assam, in the northeast jungles, where the town of Cherrapunji is located. Known as the wettest place on earth, the town's daily rainfall can top 34 inches during the monsoon's height.