Rain dance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2006, 12:00am

It's that time of the year when everyone keeps looking up anxiously at the overcast skies, yearning for the monsoon to deliver them from the agony of a long, harsh summer.

For foreigners, the word 'monsoon' has a profoundly exotic ring about it. But even for Indians, it evokes romance and euphoria, an emotion that has been captured in music, folk songs and poetry.

What other meterological phenomenon is tracked lovingly by millions as it glides from one part of the country to another? Its appearance, speed and conduct are the talk of the nation, not just because Indian agriculture is still dependent on the monsoon rains but also because it is a strangely whimsical and unpredictable beast.

Sometimes it seems on track, but then vanishes. Or its pace, as it travels across the subcontinent, slows down. Panic sets in. Farmers gnash their teeth at concern for their crops. City dwellers groan at the prospect of yet more suffocating heat. Or the monsoon decides to be a delinquent, and just heads off in the wrong direction altogether, bypassing whole regions.

Poor Delhi is often a victim of this wanton behaviour, sometimes getting only a pathetic smidgen of rain. June is the month when Delhi residents hang on every word of the weather office. Everyone talks of upper-air cyclonic circulation, low-pressure systems and western disturbances hovering over Indian latitudes.

Some Indians claim to be able to distinguish between pre-monsoon clouds and monsoon clouds. Most don't care; they simply want to see the skies darken dramatically to almost black, then watch the heavens open. When the torrential downpour begins, rich and poor smile at one another on the streets in a rare, shared celebration. Slum children come rushing out onto the streets, to get drenched and splash in roadside puddles. Mothers encourage it because they have heard anecdotal evidence of the medicinal properties of rainwater.

The leaves on parched trees and plants look preternaturally green and shiny as the rain washes off the encrusted dust of summer. Suddenly, people perk up after months of lethargy. A festive tone appears. In Delhi homes, families cook pakoras, or deep-fried nuggets of onions and potatoes, served with sweet tea.

After the first rains, there is another pleasure. Delicious mangoes ripened by the monsoon appear in the capital's vegetable markets, unlike the artificially ripened ones available earlier.

It's not all bliss, of course. The infrastructure collapses in the rain. Roads get waterlogged. Traffic snarl-ups drive commuters insane. And the power cuts out. Oh yes, and evil mosquitoes return bearing their special gifts - dengue fever, malaria and Japanese encephalitis.