The monsoon’s wind reached us on Tuesday, two days early. It had been raining on and off since the weekend. The trees outside my window had been thinned in the storms of the last two years. But through grishma, the summer, the remainder of the canopy had deepened in colour. Even the late-growing new leaves of the mango tree had begun to turn green. The weekend’s pre-monsoon showers had cleaned the dust of summer off the leaves and turned the picture to a vivid red and green. On Tuesday morning as I took this photo I saw the sea had turned grey and choppy. Varsha was imminent.
The monsoon rains started within an hour of my taking the featured photo. In one day we received 44% of the month’s rainfall. I might have thought of this as part of climate change, if I hadn’t lived here long enough to know that about 50% of the season’s rains always came in a few short episodes, may be a day or two long. That is why the monsoon is a boon for school children and hard for adults.
I tried to imagine the coastal ports bustling before the monsoon, as the trading ships from Malindi, Zanzibar, Alexandria, Berenice, arrived in Bharuch, Muziris, Karachi; cargo from the west being unloaded, other ships taking on cargo for the eastern ports of Vietnam, Malacca, and Java. The oceanic trade lent its name to the monsoon: trade winds, as we learnt in school, without understanding how it had once linked us with Rome and China, Venice and Japan. Reliance on fossil fuels has cut the cord between our lives and the weather. But as we transit to renewables, taking advantage again of the trade winds should be a logical consequence. Perhaps my nieces will live and grow old in a world of Meghdoot, cloud messengers crossing the globe on trade winds.
The golden hour becomes decidedly more golden just before the monsoon. The science behind this is simple; in such humidity, light is scattered by microscopic droplets of water in the air. When the suspended droplets are roughly of the size of the wavelength of visible light, we get this incredibly golden hour at sunset. Far from the coast of India, these golden hours will last through the monsoon. Unfortunately, here, at the coast, the months of monsoon will be mostly overcast and gloomy. If you are not living around the Indian Ocean and its monsoon, you might still get such incredibly golden light on extremely humid days. Let me know if you do, and also if you have a very humid day when you don’t have this golden light.
On a walk through a wet and sunny garden I remember the poem that made Dylan Thomas famous.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
More than half a year at home; thrown back by two generations, into a time when infectious diseases could kill you. Almost a year since I traveled out of India. But the seasons change as usual. Varsha has given way to sharad, exactly as the calendar dictates it will. The motion of our world around the sun drives the seasons. The nuclear fusion that powers the world’s most destructive bombs powers life. Walking under trees you see death and life.
I turned the leaf over, and under it a caterpillar had drawn a cocoon around itself. A butterfly will emerge in days.
The weather is clearing up slowly as the monsoon dies down. Brilliant sunshine and no haze is the order of the day right now. On Saturday afternoon The Family and I decided to go for a walk to Marine Drive; we’d not seen it for six months. It was different. Not very crowded. People were mostly masked. These two youngsters without masks looked so much a throwback to earlier times that they gave me a twinge of nostalgia. I know that they should not be doing this, but I can hardly blame them. At their age you think you are immortal. I don’t want to take that away from them, though I hope they have sense enough to mask themselves when there are more people around.
There are reminders chalked on to the promenade. People took photos. I took one. The Family, who has been reading newspapers more regularly than me, told me that it appeared in the papers some days back. I think it is heartening that so many people are obviously being sensible. Hospitals are no longer over-run. The result is that the fraction of deaths in hospitals is decreasing. I’m sure many people are not getting themselves tested, and the actual number of deaths will only be tallied by historians in future. But the epidemic is destroying the country in other ways: jobs and incomes are lost, other diseases are unchecked, school meals have been stopped, less well-to-do children are missing school because they can’t go online. It’s too depressing to think of during a lovely walk by the sea. Let’s go back to admiring the view.
When I went to sleep last night the oppressive humidity of the afternoon had given way to a cooler breeze which brought rain. I woke to a clear morning. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, but the orchestra of birds was in full swing. A coppersmith barbet supplied the metronimic rhythm as the competing trills of green bee-eaters and purple sunbirds rose over it. The parrakeets joined in, and I thought I could hear an Alexandrine call amongst the rose-ringed.
I made my tea and looked out. The break in the clouds was the promise of the approach of sharad ritu, that interval before autumn that the English named an Indian summer. The sky was a blue that was almost impossible to see in Mumbai since the 1990s. The anthropause has made a big difference to the quality of the air. The crows had just begun to get into the swing of things. I was always a night person, more familiar with the late rising constellations than sunrise. But I’ve begun to enjoy this interval between sunrise and the start of human activity.
Long after the microscopic soot from human pollution has been flushed out of the air, when only the greenhouse gases remain to heat up the seas, what would sunsets be like? We got a look at that during this nearly rain-free week in Mumbai. It was so spectacular that The Family changed the time of her daily walk to synchronize with the sunset. Cameras rarely see what the human eye does, but you may still get a sense of what we have been seeing in the slideshow below.
Soot and other particles in the air are relatively large, and serve only to dim the colours of the sunset. The colours are brighter when they have settled out of the air. Normally we see these monsoon sunsets at most for a day after heavy rains, before traffic pumps particles into the air and obscures them. Now we can see it for days on end. I understand now why people are calling this time the anthropause.
In cold and dry air, the colour of the sunset comes from sunlight scattered by molecules of air. The result is a gentle wash of light, changing colour from east to west, and intensity in the north-south angle from the sun. The sunset colours of tropical monsoons come from a more complex process: the sunlight scattering from aerosol droplets of moisture in the air. This explanation can be developed using a scheme invented by Gustav Mie. I wonder if he saw colours such as this during his youth in the German port of Rostock.
In any case, we are seeing the sunsets on a hot and wet earth, free of ongoing industrial pollution. These are the colours of the postanthropic world.
When I was a student, a professor coined a new name for the monsoon semester. He announced a course for the Rain Fall Semester. Everyone had a good laugh about it and the phrase stuck for the rest of my life as a student. He’d managed to gently point out that a phenomenon, Fall, may have multiple causes; that the world is full of diversity. The memory of student bodies at universities decays fast, and I think four years afterwards no one would have remembered his coinage. I was reminded of it during my walk today.
The rain has stopped for a couple of days, and the afternoons are becoming uncomfortable again. The paths I took were strewn with flowers battered down by the rain. The glow of the copper pods which I’d photographed through the hot season of grishma has been wiped clean by the rain. The tree is a gleaming green, and the flowers carpet the ground under the tree.
Every path I walked today was full of leaves, a little slippery, calling for care. In another two days they’ll be gone, swept into the surrounding hedges, where they’ll produce mulch for the rest of the year. What’s not swept away will be crushed under passing feet, and turn into mush. Fall is a good name for this season. How interesting that in different parts of the world the word “fall” fits different kinds of weather.
I walked out to the sea on Friday evening when I saw a patch of sky opening up. These are moments of dramatic light. I was not disappointed. I got a Turneresque framing of the skyline of Mumbai with the last of this week’s rain clouds, with the setting sun breaking through it. This rain will pass. This epidemic will pass. The seas are still getting warmer. This city, reclaimed from the sea, will also pass. That promontory which you see will be the last thing to remain above water by the end of this century.
I woke up once very early in the morning, listened to the sound of a hard rain and fell back into sleep. When I woke up finally, the rain had stopped, and it was bright outside, but without a break in the clouds. The Family had finished her morning chai and gone out for a walk. When my last meeting got over in the evening I changed quickly, put on my mask and raincoat, and went out for a walk. I’ve not had a long walk for several weeks, and I found I was itching to go although it was raining.
Problems arose immediately. My glasses began to fog up because of the mask. That usually signals a bad mask, because where your breath can get out, contaminated air can come in. I made a mental note to try a different mask the next time. But it was raining, so there was really no one on the streets. For now the mask would suffice. A wet mask is no good at filtering, but my raincoat has a long hood and protects the mask quite well. Unfortunately the hood falls over my face, so I can only see the ground in front of me. With fogged glasses and an overhanging hood, I was really glad that there was no traffic and no walkers either.
It was a difficult walk, but I enjoyed this season’s first long walk in the rain. Unfortunately, in this COVID-19 year I can’t do the usual thing of getting wet in the rain on a long walk, but at least I can go on a walk. What good is a monsoon if you don’t go out in it?
I’m afraid I didn’t quite keep track of when it started raining. Perhaps it was July 3 (if it wasn’t earlier). Since then it has stopped raining for an hour or two a few times. The lawns get flooded whenever the tide comes in, and the water drains out slowly through the ground when the tide recedes. We live on borrowed land, after all (a friend sent me a photo from the 1950s showing the open sea where we live now). The rain hasn’t stopped long enough for the gang of crows to crowd flooded parts of the lawn looking for little tidbits flushed out by the waters (this two years old photo was thrown up by the photos reminder). So they have been crowding the windowsill of our kitchen, trying to look in!