In June the monsoon was fickle. It started with two days of good rains but then petered out. The days were hot and muggy for a while, but the last few nights of June we had thunder and lightning, and finally, some rain. On the last day of June I went out to receive a delivery and was astounded by the clear skies left by the night’s shower. I don’t remember seeing a sky so blue in the heart of the city.
There was a cool breeze which made the humidity bearable. I walked towards a hedge full of flowers. At this time of the year these hedges are full of mosquitoes. I was trying to get a couple of quick photos, but I got bitten. Anyway, I was happy to get a shot of these flowers hanging over leaves cupping rainwater which reflected the sky.
Since I’d got bitten already, I pushed through the hedge to take a look at the small field beyond. Usually this serves as a practice field for the younger children learning to play football. It has been deserted for more than three months now. On some days I can see a family come down, and the parents let the children run around for a while. It was deserted now, and the low goal post was already rusted with rain. I wonder how many years it will take for the banyan tree to claim this whole field.
I pushed back out through a different gap in the hedge. A different place, and a different flower. This is a typical monsoon scene: flowers holding drops of rain from the last shower. I hope July rains are better.
This week the monsoon arrived in Mumbai, with two days of gloomy skies and frequent rains. You can feel its arrival: the unsettled weather before it, the thunder showers at night, then the persistent westerlies and a choppy sea. I went for a walk in the garden in the early afternoon. That’s when most people are at home, and the overhead light is usually terrible for photos. But I had spots in mind, where the sun would filter down through trees, and throw a beautiful dappled light on the handiwork of the gardeners. I was not disappointed. These days full of warmth and light will decrease over the next couple of months, so I was happy to catch the photo that you see here.
Two days after the severe cyclonic cyclonic storm Nisarga missed us at the last minute, we are still trying to get back to normal. Damage was minimal, as you can see from the photos below. The wind stripped leaves off trees, and some branches snapped off. Trees in our neighbourhood remained intact otherwise, though across the city many trees were uprooted. The main damage done to us is disruption. We stashed things in places where they would be safe, and now can’t remember where we’d kept them; we had a long hunt for the soup bowls before dinner last night.
The weather has temporarily changed for the better. A cyclone reaches up above ten kilometers into the atmosphere, and churns the air thoroughly as it passes. So the air has been cool for two days now. It rained on and off yesterday, giving us dramatic views over the sea. Today the sun is out and the sky is clear, so I’m afraid that by tomorrow we will be back to the damp heat of the days before the monsoon sets in.
Every morning I take a look at the satellite photos on the website of the Indian Meteorology Department. Normally, at this time of the year, my intention is to track the progress of the monsoon. The first sign of this is that the band of clouds along the equator (called the intertropical convergence zone) starts moving into the continental landmass of Asia. I marvel at the tools that are now at our disposal. Fifty years ago, we were entranced by a few photos of the the blue marble: the earth seen from space. Now, there is a torrent of such images. In about the same number of years the internet has expanded to be able to bring these images into our homes the moment we want it.
But the news is not always welcome. This is the week of Cyclone Amphan. The enormous extent of these cyclones is amazing: they are as big as continents. Amphan has currently gained enough energy to be called an extremely severe cyclonic storm (typhoon, if you are in the Western Pacific, and Category 3 storm if you are in the Atlantic or Australia). With the seas warming up, extreme weather of this kind is now an annual affair. Fortunately, disaster preparedness and response has improved over the last twenty years, to the point that last year the casualties were in the single digits. The human misery and economic cost remains severe, though. And I wonder how any physical distancing can be maintained when people are crammed into cyclone shelters for a couple of days. Bengal and Bangladesh are in for a bad time.
By afternoon the cyclone has gained enough energy to become a super cyclonic storm (typhoon, if you are in the Western Pacific, and Category 4 storm if you are in the Atlantic or Australia).
We were taught in school that astronomy determines climate, and the four seasons. Let’s take the astronomy first. From our earthbound view the sun seems to move north and south across the sky over the year. The extreme points are reached on the days of the solstices: the longest day and the longest night. The climate for a featureless earth follows from this, alternate heating and cooling of the atmosphere above the earth would produce two extremes. Culture determines the seaons: how would you want to divide the parts between the extremes of hot and cold? Into two, or four, or twelve? That would determine how many seasons you have. The simple geography of mid-latitude Eurasia and a large part of Northern America gave rise to the cultural artifact of the four seasons.
But there’s more to the climate than this simple and ancient model. The heating by the sun causes convection in the atmosphere. The rotation of the earth then breaks these convection cells into several northern and southern pieces. Approximately around the equator, these convection zones come together and create the monsoon. So, any continent that lies just north or south of an open equatorial ocean has monsoons. In our present geological epoch that is mainly Asia and Australia.
Unlike the rest of these two continents, India is also cut off from the polar circulation by the high east-west barrier of the Himalayas. This means that its climate is again particularly simple: the seasonal heating and cooling by the sun, and its interaction with the monsoon can be summarized into the six seasons. Essentially, the seasons of the mid-latitudes get interrupted by a season of rainfall. Summer is duplicated into grishma and sharad, and interrupted by varsha.
The rest of the world can be more, or less, complicated. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations counted two seasons. At the other end of the scale, Korean tradition counts as many as 24 seasons, Japan counts 12 in its classic poetry. The counting of seasons is a wonderful convergence of physical conditions and culture.
Photos from top to bottom: (1) Winter in the Thar desert of India (2) High summer in Greenland (3) Late spring in Germany (4) Early winter in Korea, the season of Ipdong.
The season which I love, the season which I hate. The rainy season, varsha, the monsoon. This is when peninsular India, including Mumbai, is so different from the northern plains. Summer winds down slowly in the plains, the towns turning warmer and warmer, emptying slowly as schools let off, people traveling up to the cooler Himalayas. But on the west coast of the peninsula, monsoon strikes hard even before summer can bake the earth dry. In my first years with digital cameras, I tried very hard to capture a sense of this spectacular season: the lack of sunlight, the continuous rain. I look back at those photos now and I find that I could have taken my own style of photos in a different direction, more misty, atmosphere, less concrete. I might want to do down that route again.
The outside world disappears for days on end, and you are thrown into your own internal world. Classical poetry called this the season of love. Perhaps the greatest of Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa, wrote a whole travelogue about the monsoon clouds carrying a lonely person’s message to his love across the whole of India. I followed that route, and saw that the description of the country is still true, even after nearly one and a half thousand years. Then there is the music of varsha, raga Malhar in all its variety. Another form that fits this season is more modern, the claustrophobic film noir, so wonderfully used by a few talented directors in the last decades. This is the exasperating season, when nothing ever dries, everything gets moldy. This is the season for the phone camera, a much handier replacement for the compact I used once for monsoon photos.
Classical Sanskrit poetry observed nature so beautifully: frogs and insects, grass and trees, rain-streaked stone and wet crows; the weft and warp of our daily lives. Every time I think of the monsoon, those wonderful stanzas from Kalidasa’s Meghdoot pop into my head: so evocative, but so hard to translate into verse without clumsiness. How do you translate “snighdhachhayatarushu”? The calm shadow under a tree? But that is only one word, less than half of the last line of an early stanza. Most translations into English that I’ve seen published, gloss over this word in an attempt to catch the meaning of the whole sentence. But that seasonal reference is then lost, the sense of grishma ending and varsha about to come.
We flew in bright sunshine at the usual cruising altitude of around 10 kilometers above sea level. Below us the unbroken sea of clouds was interrupted by infrequent towers of cumulonimbus anvils. The towers form as clouds condense into rain. The heat released as water changes from steam to liquid creates a local convection which churns up clouds into these anvils. In mid-August more of India should have had rains, so the scene outside my window told me that rainfall is spotty this year.
Then, as we approached Mumbai, the plane began to lose height. At an altitude of around 6 kilometers above sea level we began a dive into the monsoon clouds. I’ve not paid much attention to it before, but this time around I decided to take a time-lapse video, the one you see above. This condenses a little less than half an hour’s descent into two and a half minutes. I was astounded by the changes in the nature of the clouds as we ploughed through the turbulent layer. Not having paid attention, I’d thought of it always as a mass of grey churn. But now I saw that there is much more structure to it. Interesting.
I have two favourite weeks of the year in Mumbai. One is the week called winter, when the temperature drops below 20 Celsius, and we start thinking of bringing out our sweaters. The other is the first week of the monsoon. This year I almost let the beginning of the monsoon pass by without saying anything about it. A taxi driver was kind enough to travel below the speed limit on the sea link, letting me take a photo of the skyline of the mill area and its stalled rebuilding, as the monsoon clouds finally blew in at the end of June.
Decades ago you could almost set the calendar by the arrival of the monsoon. It would arrive on 6th June, perhaps three days before or after. Over the years the gradual warming of the sea has delayed the monsoon. Warm seas also give rise to storms and hurricanes. This year a storm formed over the sea off the coast of Mumbai, brought a little rain, but blocked the monsoon winds for a substantial number of days. I took the photo above during the first monsoon shower. In the last four days or so of June we got all the rain that we usually expect over the month. Is this the shape of a warmer earth?
Four of us were dawdling in Mawlai. When I’m with nieces then every few steps seems to be an Instagrammable opportunity. Our progress down the lane towards our Clan Bus was very slow. While they Instasnapped their stream of consciousness, I began to push my camera through every closed gate I could see to take photos of the houses behind them.
These were really picturesque houses. many built in the old style with slanted corrugated metal roofs. Meghalaya builds against the monsoon. After all, Shillong is only 61 kilometers from Mawsynram, which is the wettest place on earth. Mawsynram gets 11.8 meters of rain a year. Shillong gets 3.3 meters of rain a year, which is substantially larger than what Mumbai gets. So I wasn’t surprised to see the pitched roofs.
I was also not surprised to see the verandahs. These were placed where you could drip off excess water if you got drenched in rain before reaching your house. Also, it would be great to sit on one of these verandahs with a steaming cup of chai watching the rain. The houses were very similar to the style that I’d seen in Kerala, which is another place which gets heavy monsoon rains.
As we were busy photographing the houses and exclaiming over the well-maintained garden each had, a lady who’d been tending the garden came out to talk to us (you can see her in the featured photo). After asking us the usual questions (where were we from, what were we doing there, was this our first trip to Shillong) she started telling us about the houses. It turned out that she and her sisters owned three of them. The others were owned by other grand-daughters of her grandmother. Halfway through this description it dawned on me that among the Khasis property is held by women, and passes from mother to daughter. When I threw a question about her brothers into the conversation, it sank without a ripple. She wished the best of luck to the nieces as we left.
This has been a year of canceled trips for me. The latest cancellation is a long-planned trip to Kerala. Once every 12 years there is a mass blooming of the Neelakurinji flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana) in the region of Munnar. We had planned to go to see these flowers. Unfortunately this year there was a freak monsoon storm which destroyed roads and parts of Munnar town, flooded large parts of Kerala downriver, and killed many people. I understand that this is possibly the worst monsoon flood in a century.
In this bad time we did not want to cancel our trip in a hurry. Often recovery is helped by providing business. Unfortunately now, with about a week to go for our trip, we are forced to cancel. The flood damage is so heavy that the state government has requested tourists to stay away. Kerala will take time to rebuild and rehabilitate. The state needs help. Here is a link to the main portal where you can offer to help if you wish. I believe that this government portal possibly entails the minimum of administrative overheads, so almost all the donated money will reach those who need help.
Kerala’s new year just passed: Onam. We joined the community in a traditional meal, the Onam Sadhya (featured photo).