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Cultural Mainstay : Monsoon: It’s More Than a Rain for India

Times Staff Writer

Khushwant Singh halted his tennis serve in mid-swing and cupped his ear. As his playing companions steamed in the already blazing morning sun and shuffled their feet impatiently on the red clay courts of the Gymkhana Club, Singh let out a jubilant shout: “The monsoon bird is here! Hail clamator jacobinus, the monsoon is coming!”

In the excruciating pre-monsoon temperatures of northern India, when 110-degree heat is just a starting point, there are no sweeter words. The only thing more satisfying is when the dusty sky actually fills with clouds and the pressure builds like the inside of an airplane cabin and the aching, parched land explodes under joyous, drenching rain.

‘Songbird of Rain’

What Khushwant Singh heard on that recent Sunday morning was the pea-pea pew-pew-pew call of the pied crested cuckoo, otherwise known by its Latin name, clamator jacobinus, and, colloquially to the rest of Asia, as the “songbird of rain.”

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Singh, 72, is a well-known historian and author, whose many works include a recent book on the annual Indian summer monsoon. He has a theory that the summer monsoon, which brings relief to the millions of parched souls of the Indian subcontinent as well as 70% of India’s entire annual rainfall, is heralded by the arrival of the pied crested cuckoo from Africa and the sprouting of a thorny green bush that grows near his New Delhi apartment.

Practically everyone in India has some personal signal that the monsoon is coming: The delicious summer mangoes from Lucknow, southeast of New Delhi, lose their tartness. The large, black Indian ants become frantic in their search for food, massing over the scorched earth with a collective desperation. A locust-type insect swarms over light fixtures. The late afternoon sky turns a dirty yellow and the midnight heavens thunder impotently, like a god with a hacking dry cough.

Signs of Relief

The signs are studied intently. For the one billion people of South Asia, the monsoon time is the most important time of year. Moreover, it is a cultural mainstay, the creative source for art and literature ranging from cosmic Hindu myths to simple tribal paintings, such as the pointillistic rain sketches of the Worli Tribe from Maharashtra.

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“No single event is more important to India than the coming of the monsoon,” said Singh. “It is depicted in all of our literature and song. It is the inspiration for half of our poetry and ragas (ancient melodies).”

The word monsoon comes from the Arabic word for season. There are actually two monsoons in India: the winter, or northeastern, monsoon; and the summer, or southwestern, monsoon.

By far the most important is the summer monsoon, the one generated, usually in late May or early June, when the cool, high-pressure, moisture-laden, front off the coast of Africa is drawn into India by hot, low-pressure, air trapped over the northern Indian plains by the great Himalayan range.

Many other tropical and sub-tropical lands have monsoons, but the one that comes here is made more dramatic by India’s geographical configuration, a huge inverted triangle of land, capped by a collar of the world’s highest mountains and jutting southward into the Indian Ocean.

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Extreme Temperatures

Temperatures are so extreme here, rising to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the nearby Rajasthan Desert, that the meeting of superheated air with air that is ocean-cooled is like a giant meteorological collision.

The summer monsoon is vital to the Indian economy. A poor monsoon or a delay of a few weeks in the arrival of monsoon rains can make the difference between bumper crops and famine.

For this reason, the Indian government has been negotiating for several years to buy a super computer from the United States to help collect and interpret data about the approaching monsoon so that advance decisions can be made about planting crops and distributing irrigation water.

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So far, India has been blocked from getting the computer it wants (the Cray XMP) by U.S. Defense Department officials who fear the technology would be leaked to the Soviet Union, India’s strongest ally.

Progress Charted Daily

The monsoon, when it finally arrives, advances across the Malabar Coast of India and makes its way slowly and capriciously northward. Its progress is charted daily in practically every Indian newspaper. No other rainstorm gets such billing. The monsoon eventually arrives here in the north, usually during the first week of July.

But when it is several weeks late, as it is this year, the delay produces a palpable, unstated fear that it might not arrive at all, or that it will be very weak like the one that produced a severe drought in 1964-65.

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“I’m keeping my fingers crossed on this monsoon,” said S. Gangadharan, a researcher for the Economic Times newspaper, which regularly documents the march of the monsoon and projects the possible consequences on cash crops. “So far it looks very uncertain.”

Many Indians remember the devastating monsoon of 1947, the year British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan.

‘Punished for Bloodshed’

“I remember we felt we were being punished for all the bloodshed that took place,” one elderly Sikh said recently. “The people said there was so much sin in the country that we were being punished.”

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Before every monsoon there is an immense surge of tension that erupts into petty arguments and occasional violence. Author H. R .F. Keating used “pre-monsoon anger” as the homicidal milieu for a recent book, “Under a Monsoon Cloud,” featuring his Indian detective hero, Inspector Ghote of Bombay.

For millions living here, Indians and foreigners alike, the agonizing advance of the monsoon is used as an explanation for irritability and sudden bouts of depression.

“Chalk it up to the PMTs--pre-monsoon tensions,” said an American woman after snapping at her two teen-age children.

Sky Laden With Dust

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By mid-afternoon these days, the sky is so laden with dust that it makes the sun seem a fuzzy blur, the muted beam of a flashlight in a fog of heat. The dust is borne into the city from the desert and nearby farmlands on what Indians call the loo, the hot winds that precede the monsoon.

The heat is like a physical boundary. It burns the skin but produces no sweat. It is like a sauna, not a steam bath--heat for which there is no release, producing tension. Men in coiled white turbans and dhotis tied between their legs like diapers and women in cotton saris drift along the streets, gazing straight ahead with little animation.

A traffic cop scowls and gestures listlessly. “Go this way if you must,” he seems to say.

Sometimes the pre-monsoon tension is manifested in the kind of communal animosities between religious and caste groups that plague this country in sporadic bloody fits. In the pre-monsoon days of July alone, more than 150 Indians have been killed in religious-based terrorism and rioting, including massacres of Hindu bus passengers by Sikh separatist terrorists and Hindu-Muslim conflicts in Meerut.

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Tension in the Air

Times of India columnist Juhi Sinha captured this tension in a recent essay: “It was one of those evenings when the world is not the best of places to be in, especially here in New Delhi on a scorching July . . . . Outside hangs a seemingly permanent curtain of dust and haze. The relief of the rains and the healing touch, the magical downpour that heralds the monsoons seems eons away. The atmosphere in the drawing room is hardly cheering. Words like violence, hatred, communalism, terrorism fly hither and thither. . . .”

The atmosphere of tension is only exacerbated by the few, titillating, pre-monsoon rain showers that come in the days before the actual steady rains of monsoon.

In the late afternoon of July 9, the sky darkened in a promising way and a swell of rain hit the bone-dry city streets. Families hopefully moved furniture to the porches and drank afternoon tea outside for the first time in months. Boys stripped to their shorts and danced in the streets.

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After thirty minutes, however, the rain stopped and has not come back since. No one is certain when the real monsoon will come to the Indian capital this year. And what about the pied crested cuckoo--the harbinger of relief?

“This monsoon became very eccentric,” explained Khushwant Singh.


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