Life in India ebbs and flows with monsoon

King Summer's reign is ended, the Monsoon sovereign ranks. - English observer, 1938

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.

In geophysical terms, the monsoon results from the difference between air temperatures on land and sea. As the subcontinent bakes in April and May, the land air gets hot and rises. Cooler sea air rushes in, pushing the hot air north and creates a series of massive convection currents that often twist in unforeseen patterns as the earth turns. The ocean air currents pick up condensation that becomes rain.

What makes the Indian monsoon exceptional is the depth of subtropical moist air rising from the equator - a moving cushion of wetness that is some 3,700 feet deep. A more typical layer of moist rain making air, such as the one circulating over Japan, is 1,200 feet.

More subjectively, South Asian artists have captured the special feeling of the rains for 5,000 years. The tops of palaces during the era of the maharajahs had special viewing decks from which the royal families sat and watched the interplay of dark cumulus clouds, thunder, lightning, and rain on the landscape.

Most Hindu sacred paintings contain monsoon clouds, lightning, and the white cranes and peacocks that flourish here during the rains. The Sanskrit word for "water" means "life," and many Hindu prayers ask for an abundance of water.

Today, the living tradition continues in films and in innumerable Indian-style music videos. At any given time, on two or three of India's multiplying music channels, lovers are running through green fields in pouring rain, singing their lungs out, comparing how they, like the rain and the earth, are meant for each other. A rain-soaked, sari-wearing heroine in a Hindi film is almost a prerequisite for a box-office hit. The rage on the radio in Delhi right now is a song called "Ab Ke Sawan," ("This Monsoon"), a blend of classical Indian and pop music, sung by Hindustani artist Shubha Mudgal.

OF COURSE, soon enough the enterprise of delight and romance comes to an end. The dry ground becomes a mud swamp. The interminable wetness causes phones to go out and power supplies to flicker because of corrosive chemical reactions on the lines. Water seeps down interior walls, causing paint to bubble and streak in brown-and-orange effects that look like a bad imitation of modern art.

Streets turn into rivers. Businesses and schools close. Poorly built roofs collapse. Bugs and reptiles proliferate.

In his lyrical "Chasing the Monsoon," British writer Alexander Frater tells of a tour guide in Kerala who tires of the monsoon, which covers his library with mildew: "About the time your 'Complete Works of Shakespeare' turns pea green, a certain melancholy sets in."

Monsoon rains do seem to have a unique silky weight, resembling pelting mercury. But the idea that monsoons mean that all Asia is under a perpetual gray curtain of liquid is not entirely accurate. "The monsoons come and go," says S.R. Kalsi, deputy director for cyclone watches at the Indian Meteorological Society in New Delhi.

The treat comes when the skies lift at the end of the day, and the landscape is flooded with an intense yellow and coral light that turns to purple and seems to come from all directions. It is the monsoon light.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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