The non-arrival of the monsoon sets off a ritual lamentation: stylized, vehement, always the same, a modern Indian marsiya. The fault lies not in the defaulting monsoon, but in us, for nationalizing rain clouds and then affecting shock when they behave like public sector undertakings. Meteorologists believe in a travelling cloud called the monsoon which waters the whole country. This is not an adult or plausible belief, but like the IAS probationer’s Bharat Darshan, it is a valuable fiction which helps us believe in the idea of India.
Wet wind: A child plays football on a rainy day in Marine Drive, Mumbai. Hemant Padalkar / Hindustan Times
The story of this travelling rain cloud was first written in the 1800s which is appropriate because that century produced the world’s most durable realist fictions, such as War and Peace and the Census of India. The monsoon is a colonial story—we Indians simply inherited it during the transfer of power and harnessed it to the republican cause.
The British needed a pan-Indian rain cloud for their own purposes. Since it was necessary for them to believe that India was socially and politically divided, they looked to nature for ideas which would make their dominions cohere. Now there isn’t much about the map of India (physical) that suggests unity in diversity—stuck for ideas, the English fell back upon the weather. Mausam became monsoon and India became the Land of Monsoon Rain, a wonderful imaginative flight that gave Jaisalmer and Cherrapunji a climate in common.
Here it’s important to acknowledge the influence of the Romantics, especially P.B. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. If you stop to think about it, it’s a bizarre title—only a culture submerged by the weather would attempt that sort of poem. The thing to remember is that when the English invented the monsoon they had a lot of experience in invoking winds for metaphorical purposes. But they also knew that to get people to believe in this state-sponsored monsoon they needed paperwork. So they set up meteorological offices and began to measure rainfall, to calculate average precipitation, to produce documentary proof of the monsoon’s reality, to compose their statistical Ode to the Wet Wind.
Ironically, their success in selling the idea destroyed the raj. Early Congress sessions, as revisionist historians have established, were peopled by bhadralok discussing the weather. In the beginning, this amounted to no more than babus imitating their betters, but once they internalized the idea of the monsoon and realized that rain in India was national not parochial, they moved from local self-government to swaraj in a single bound. The bhadralok’s attachment to umbrellas is to be understood as a patriotic reflex, the umbrella here signifying the imminence of the nation, symbolized by that itinerant, India-spanning rain cloud, the monsoon.
Over the years, meteorologists developed and refined the monsoon’s Indian itinerary. Thus, we in Delhi know that the monsoon stops over at the end of June. Of course it doesn’t. Anyone who has lived three years in Delhi knows that. In 1987 it didn’t come at all. And this year the clouds have barely gathered over Delhi. But since there’s a date to go by we accept that “it” is “late”. The monsoon’s schedule works in exactly the same way as the Indian Railways’ timetable—if the Avadh-Assam Mail hasn’t turned up four days after it was meant to, we don’t question its existence: We simply look at the scheduled time of arrival in our Bradshaws and conclude that it’s 96 hours late.
Similarly, just as it is unheard of for a train to arrive before its time, when it rains in Delhi before the end of June, no matter how hard and how long, it can only be a “pre-monsoon shower”. And sometimes the weatherman announces the monsoon has broken before it rains. Like all entrenched monopolies, the Met Office has succumbed to dogma, to a monsoonist orthodoxy.
It’s time to repudiate the monsoon, to grow up. As a colonial, pre-industrial ploy to integrate the subcontinent it has served its turn; we now have Akashvani, Doordarshan, the railways, the Indian Constitution, the postal system and the Unique Identification Authority of India. We can still celebrate the rains; people celebrate Christmas without believing in Santa. It’s time to take a confederal view of Indian rainfall, to accept the regional autonomy of precipitation. We must stop tracking this mythical beast via satellite pictures; it’s like looking for ghosts with infrared binoculars. It’s undignified; posterity will laugh at our weathermen, the history of science will lump them with UFO-spotters and Erich von Daniken.
Cricket offers better ways of describing Indian rainfall than our meteorologists do. Rain clouds in Mumbai are professionals: Once they take guard, they’re orthodox, consistent and prolific. They stay in and go on and on. Delhi’s clouds will gather a dozen times without scoring. When they do rain, it’s for all of 15 minutes. Amateurs, every one of them: showy part-timers, deservedly extinct.
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at email@example.com