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Meet India’s cloud chasers

Lounge goes hunting for flash and fury with an intrepid group of storm chasers

A nor’wester breaks over the Kolkata skyline. Photo: Debarshi Duttagupta
A nor’wester breaks over the Kolkata skyline. Photo: Debarshi Duttagupta

On 12 June, Thunderman was struck by lightning. It was the second day of the monsoon in Kolkata. The previous day, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) had declared that the monsoon had arrived in Bengal, when a storm system had moved north over the Sunderbans, from the Bay of Bengal low-pressure trough that had been hovering near Myanmar all week. People in Kolkata were celebrating this news when, on the 12th, a fast-moving pre-monsoon storm system made its way to the city from north-west of the state. Travelling from the Chhota Nagpur Plateau in Jharkhand, over the districts of Bankura, Birbhum and Hooghly, the storm picked up speed as it approached Kolkata, absorbing moisture from waterbodies along the way, growing in size and fury. A kalboishakhi storm, or a nor’wester, one of the last of the season, was about to burst upon the city.

Abhishek Saigal, aka Thunderman, 35, was warned of this approaching storm on the Kolkata Cloud Chasers (KCC) WhatsApp group. It was a Tuesday, and the eight members of the group were at their respective workplaces. WhatsApp messages flew as members from different parts of the city tracked the incoming storm system on the IMD radar. Refreshed every 5 minutes, these radar images are broadcast from the Kolkata station, part of a 25-city network across the country. Available on the IMD website, these images are the closest you can get to real-time tracking of storms in the country.

“As the nor’wester approached, it encountered the active monsoon flow (of air) over Kolkata and the low-pressure trough that had formed over Gangetic West Bengal," says Chirasree Chakraborty, aka Phoenix, 44. This resulted in the storm slowing down and growing greatly in cloud mass. By 3pm, a dark wall of threatening storm-front had engulfed the city, over 100km across.

That morning, Debarshi Duttagupta, aka Roadrunner, 41, was travelling north from Kolkata to Siliguri. At 10.45, he was driving through the paddy fields of Tilpara, near the town of Shiuri, 230km from Kolkata. He recorded a brief Facebook Live when one of the smaller storm systems that would contribute to the mega storm passed overhead. The footage shows that this system was much smaller—though spread out low across the wide sky—and a hard wind was driving it down towards the sea.

A game of football at the Maidan under mammatus clouds at sunset. Photo: Abhishek Saigal

At 3.05pm, when many such smaller storm cells had merged into one large mass, the lightning strikes started. “If there’s a sizeable gap between the lightning and the sound of thunder, that means you’re safe, it’s far away," Joyjeet Mukherjee, aka Boltanator, 45, had told me earlier, when I had met some members of the KCC one evening in Kolkata in late May. When should one fear for safety during a storm? “If the gap between the lightning strike and thunder is below 6 seconds," says Phoenix.

When the rolling lightning strikes began across Kolkata on 12 June, most observers reported hardly any gap between the bolts and the thunder.

Thunderman, a big man with an easy grin and a propensity for jokes, works out of his office in Liluah, a suburb across the Hooghly from Kolkata. When not out photographing storms, he runs a construction business that converts fly-ash into bricks.

From the terrace of his office building, you can see the tallest building in Kolkata, The 42, an under-construction residential skyscraper on the edge of the green expanse of the Maidan. Equally a source of awe and revilement among Kolkata’s citizenry, this 879ft-high building wouldn’t look out of place in Dubai.

Saigal was standing on his terrace photographing the lightning, perilously close to a shed with a metal roof. He has built up an impressive roster of photography over the years, including some fantastic shots of branch lightning over notable city landmarks like the Victoria Memorial Hall and the Eden Gardens cricket stadium. He’s inseparable from his tripod and camera when there’s a thunderstorm.

At 3:25pm that day, I received a photo over WhatsApp from Thunderman. In it, a single dramatic bolt of lightning descends from the dark clouds above and strikes the lightning conductor atop The 42 on the horizon. Accompanying this photo was his joyful exclamation, “Got one…hitting the 42!" And then, “Woohoo…got 2 hitting the 42!" Then Thunderman got hit.

He survived. “It was my mistake," says Saigal over the phone. “I was so engrossed in trying to get a shot of bolts hitting The 42 that I hadn’t noticed another storm cell that had crept up from the east, to my left." This one too was bristling with lightning. As a bolt crashed very close to the terrace, it took the charge away from the surrounding area, which included Saigal, the metal shed close by and the ground, creating an upward streamer of positively charged particles. Think of it as lightning hitting the ground and then bouncing back towards the sky. This is what led to Saigal’s electrocution. “I have never been more scared in my life," he says, “the lower half of my body went numb, I couldn’t feel my hands, my hair was standing on end." The KCC WhatsApp group was chattering furiously by then, everyone concerned about his well-being, and marvelling at the fury of the storm bombarding the city. Mukherjee urged Saigal to have a beer. “I’ve lived to drink another day," was the laconic reply.

A cumulus cloud towers over the Howrah Bridge. Photo: Chirasree Chakraborty

Addicted to clouds

My acquaintanceship with the KCC began in May. I had heard of them from a friend in Kolkata, a big fan of the group and a follower of their Facebook page. There are many famous storm-chasers in the US and Australia, but I had never heard of storm-chasers in India. I informed them of my interest in them, and about a week before I arrived in Kolkata, they formed a WhatsApp group to coordinate with me. As is the wont of Boltanator, Thunderman, Phoenix and company, I too was given a call sign—Elvis. The group, “Elvis Meets KCC", turned out to be a fun one, with regular updates (along with satellite imagery) of storm cells forming, sometimes disappearing (much to everyone’s dismay) and sometimes coalescing into gigantic storms. When the latter would happen on a weekday, with all the members of the team at work, massive discontent would set in among the group. Why did they need to work, they would grumble, why did they leave their cameras at home, how would they navigate the densely packed Shyambazaar if it was raining cats and dogs?

Later, in Kolkata, I meet Duttagupta, the managing director of a Kolkata-based pharmaceutical company, to learn more about storms and the group’s fascination with extreme weather. “Thunderstorms are very scary things to be stuck in the middle of," he says over several cups of tea in his large, plush office on Little Russel Street in central Kolkata, in the shadow of the same building Saigal was trying to photograph when he was hit. “Especially the kalboishakhi, which moves very fast, is very destructive and packs a lot of lightning." Then he breaks into a large grin. “But they’re so beautiful."

The KCC came into being in 2010, a few years after Duttagupta met Chakraborty, Mukherjee, Saigal, Diganta “Dizzie" Gogoi, aka Hellboi, 36, and a few others through their shared love of photography. Duttagupta was already an established photographer, and a winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious Nikon Grand Prix award. He had always been fascinated by clouds and storms. When he gave up his career as a corporate lawyer to join the family business in 2006, he began to actively pursue his twin passions: storms and clouds, and photography.

“Because of my company, I have to travel by myself a lot to visit our branches and outlets around the country. It can be very boring. I love talking to people, but on flights people would rather pretend to look busy than chat. So I started looking out of the windows, and, eventually, photographing clouds," says Duttagupta. His room is large but sparsely appointed, and large frames of his photographs line the walls. One striking image is from the Maidan, a wide-angle shot of lowering monsoon clouds over the Chowringhee skyline. “I’m fortunate that my office is near the Maidan," he says, looking at the photo. “If there’s a storm coming, I first go there to check if I can get any shots."

Members of the KCC take a tea-break after a storm chase. Photo: Amit Datta

He met the others at an online photography club. “We all were, and still are, a part of this large group of photography enthusiasts called Kolkata Photographers Club (KPC)," he says. This was in 2006, when the group functioned on Orkut. “Chirasree di I knew from before. She was my senior in Patha Bhavan," says Duttagupta, referring to a well-known school in south Kolkata. “We all saw and loved Rishi’s (Debarshi’s) cloud photographs on the KPC forums," says Chakraborty, who, like Gogoi, is a full-time photographer. “Some of us were also very interested in clouds and storms as photography subjects, so someone suggested that we should go out and photograph clouds and landscapes together," says Chakraborty, who has a particular fascination for storm clouds. “The others are more enamoured of sunsets and sunset colours. It’s storms for me," she says.

They started driving out of town to chase storms and take photographs around 2010, in a Thar and a Pajero owned by Duttagupta. “We didn’t have a name then," says Duttagupta, “we were just getting together as friends and enthusiasts, doing something we loved." Since they all had full-time professions to maintain, this meant going out on weekends, especially during the nor’wester season, which lasts from April to the onset of the monsoon over the Bay of Bengal in early June. “We’re mostly free on Saturdays, but storms aren’t going to come with our convenience in mind," says Duttagupta, laughing and adding, “though sometimes, they do." It was in 2014 that the group decided to formally call itself Kolkata Cloud Chasers.

“When we started, we didn’t really have a goal in mind," says Duttagupta, “At the most, we would alert people on our Facebook page, warning them that a big thunderstorm’s coming and that they should best be indoors then." After a friend urged Duttagupta to use the group to spread greater awareness about climate change and erratic weather patterns, both subjects very close to their hearts, the KCC started posting regular updates on Facebook, and, recently, Instagram. These take the form of photographs, chase reports and screenshots of radar images, especially when a large storm is approaching the city.

The anatomy of nor’westers

Among a handful of other clichés about a thunderstorm, one is that there’s nothing Bengalis like better than to talk about the weather, especially during the months of boishakh, jyeshtha, ashadh and shrabon, roughly April-August. The heat of boishakh and jyeshtha, and the rain of ashadh and shrabon, condition all activity, while also inspiring Bengalis to produce copious amount of literature and other forms of cultural expression, including music and dance. The thunderstorms of boishakh are possibly the most celebrated weather phenomena of the year, second only to the grandeur of the monsoon. The sudden bank of black clouds on the horizon, the strong cool winds that ride before the storm, and the sharp, dramatic fury of roiling clouds, driving rain and flashing lightning thrills the senses to expression. Two of Bengal’s most iconic poets, Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, have written about the storms in their own different ways. To Tagore, as expressed in a song from Gitobitan (1932), the kalboishakhi, with its speed and fury, symbolized all that is joyous and unconstrained in the human imagination:

Hridoy amar, oi bujhi tor boishakhi jhor ashey,

Bera-bhangar maton namey uddam ullashey.

(Your approach breaks over my heart suddenly like a boishakhi storm, the urge to demolish all barriers fills my soul with wild joy.)

To Islam, these storms typify the revolutionary spirit of the oppressed human soul, yearning to break its shackles. In the 1921 song Pralayullas, he likened the nor’wester’s thunder and lightning to cries of victorious revolution, and its winds to the raising of defiant banners of revolt, ushering in the future, sweeping away the past:

Tora shob joyddhoni kor, tora shob joyddhoni kor,

Ei notuner keton orey kalboshekhir jhor,

Tora shob joyddhoni kor

(All of you shout out your victory, shout out your victory

The banners of the new fly like the boishakh thunderstorm,

Shout out your victory, all of you.)

When I ask Duttagupta about the nature of nor’westers, he gives me a detailed depiction of their genesis and wildness. “The storms form over the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, but there are a few recipes of that storm. The No.1 recipe is that it has to be very warm in that area, almost 40-45 degrees Celsius. Something like a frying pan. And then you have to have two flows. One is the warm air from the bay, the other is cold air from the Himalayas. If these two flows meet over the frying pan, then small cells of storm clouds start forming. They look quite funny on the radar, tiny little storms. What we normally try and look for are little dots on the radar." He then points to the screen, “See, this chhotto, puchki dot."

“Then it starts building up," he continues. “It’s great fun to observe. This is what it looks like, a blue dot. And then it starts growing…and it grows really fast. As it grows, it starts gathering speed, and comes towards Kolkata." The KCC has an archive of radar images of storms, which it uses for presentations on storms, monsoon and changing weather patterns, at schools and clubs around the city.

KCC members waiting for a storm by the Matla river in Canning. Photo: Amit Datta

It’s quite unbelievable to be able to track a storm’s progress from a tiny blue dot somewhere near Ranchi to a raging front approaching Kolkata merely 2 hours later (see “A Storm’s Progress" for a typical nor’wester’s journey). “It’s difficult to describe just how fast these storms move," Duttagupta says. “Suddenly, the storm’s on you, complete chaos, squalls of over 100 kmph, and, in 5 minutes, it’s gone." That sounds quite scary, I say. “Yes," he says, laughing, “most of the time, out in the paddy fields, we’ll see farmers running home when the storm approaches, while we’re running towards it! But when a bolt lands somewhere near, and the sound comes in less than 4 seconds, we run back to the cars, get in and pray while the storm passes."

“What kinds of things do you see in the eye of the storm?" I ask him.

“Oh, there’s a lot of debris flying about, small metal pieces, streams of straw flying like arrows. Once, we were in our car on a highway looking at the thunderstorm. A huge gust of wind comes, tears off a metal hoarding and it goes flying in front of our eyes, like the movie Twister. It went flying and fell far away in the field," he says, his face serious.

“We used to take quite a lot of risks earlier," says Gogoi, “but now we know better and are much more careful." Duttagupta puts this down to friendly advice from professional storm-chasers that the group stays in touch with. The KCC doesn’t have any peers in India, so they turn to storm-chasers like the American Jim Reed, and Brad Hannon and Mike O’Neill from Australia, for advice.

It was Hannon, a famed extreme weather photographer, who first taught the team how to use the time lapse between a strike and its resulting thunder to calculate a safe distance. Hannon told them to run back to their vehicle when faced with threatening lightning activity, and once inside not touch the periphery of the car. He also told them to insulate the car with plenty of rubber. “We used to run around in sneakers," says Duttagupta. “Hannon told us to wear gumboots, or at least shoes with a proper rubber sole."

A lightning strike and branch lightning over the Victoria Memorial. Photo: Abhishek Saigal

The Chase

Tracking a storm can be tricky, be it a relatively slow monsoon cell, or a fast-moving nor’wester. The latter is particularly risky. India has launched two advanced weather satellites in recent years, which have greatly increased the timing and accuracy of predictions. In 2013, India put into orbit the Insat-3D, which monitors weather through an atmospheric sounding system, and provides a vertical profile of the atmosphere for temperature and humidity, among other things, from the surface of the earth to the top of the atmosphere. Speaking to PTI, the then chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), K. Radhakrishnan, had said, “We are looking forward to an excellent operational performance of Insat-3D for the next seven years, making a difference for the weather forecasting and disaster warning systems for the country."

In 2016, India launched the Insat-3DR to supplement earlier satellites (including the Insat-3A, which was launched in 2003) with extra payloads of an imager, a sounder, a data-relay transponder and a satellite-aided search and rescue transponder. These payloads provide sharper images of the earth, sea surface temperatures, snow cover data, and monitor cloud motion and winds, as well as temperature, humidity, meteorological, hydrological and oceanography data.

As a result, the doppler radar images that the KCC accesses from the IMD website are now refreshed every 5 minutes. Earlier, they used to be updated every few hours. “At least now we know the path of the storm," says Duttagupta. It’s still laggardly compared to the US, he says, where radar updates are real-time, every 2-3 seconds. “Still, it’s better than before. Then we would take one look at the radar, head to Burdwan (105km from Kolkata) and wait there. We would have a maybe 20% chance of catching the storm. Most of the time our guesswork would be wrong, and the storm wouldn’t come. So, we’d drive to Shaktigarh and eat lyangchas," says Duttagupta, referring to the sweet that the town is renowned for. Mukherjee, too, tells me this story, and exclaims, “That’s why we’re also called Kolkata Food Chasers!"

Checking the IMD radar for storm updates. Photo: Amit Datta

Given the unpredictability of anticipating weather, my first trip to Kolkata to go on a chase with the KCC in end-May was a total washout. Where it had been storming till the day before I arrived, the sky remained resolutely storm-free, and the depression over the Bay of Bengal remained over the Bay of Bengal. To assuage my unhappiness, KCC members took me to their favourite riverside hangout, the Kumartuli Ghat north of the Howrah Bridge; they like to go there for sunsets and cloud vistas on non-chase days. “On weekdays, we’re scattered all over the city," says Gogoi. “If a storm comes, then we try to take photos from wherever we are and share the images with each other."

“This also helps us track the storm, which way it’s moving, what form it takes," says Chakraborty.

“Don’t worry," says Saigal, “we will give you a better forecast for next time." Next time turns out to be two weekends later. The monsoon trough over the bay has grown stronger, and the city as well as the Gangetic delta is getting plenty of rain. On 10 June, KCC members are glued to their phones, looking out for developing storms. That afternoon, the WhatsApp group starts buzzing. “Elvis, stand by!" writes Duttagupta at noon, “the Bankurawala mini cell has just showed orange and yellow patches." This means that the storm cell is now developing a front of intense lightning activity. He follows this announcement with screenshots of the radar. Sizeable storm cells are moving fast over the Bengal landscape, heading for Kolkata.

Saigal, Gogoi, Chakraborty and I meet at 1pm at Golpark, outside Duttagupta’s home, even as a big storm crashes into south Kolkata, raining lightning bolts over the Dhakuria lake. Later, we hear that a young trainee at the old cricket academy in Vivekananda Park on Southern Avenue has been killed by a bolt.

Everyone’s dressed in jeans and specially made KCC T-shirts with their call signs on their backs, like a football jersey. Chakraborty, Gogoi and I scramble into the Pajero, while Saigal and Duttagupta climb into the Thar. Duttagupta has had them fitted out with walkie-talkies. The vehicles have names too. The Thar is called the Storm and Cloud Intercept FourbyFour 1 (Scifo1), and the Pajero is Scifo2. Gogoi quickly explains that if the storm affects the connectivity on our phones, then the two cars will be able to communicate over these.

The walkie crackles into life. “Roadrunner calling Scifo2, come in, over." “How do I work this again?" asks Chakraborty, looking slightly puzzled. Gogoi shows her.

“Hello, hello, Roadrunner, this is Phoenix. Hear you loud and clear. Over."

“Hello Phoenix, we are headed to Salt Lake to pick up Elvis’ photographer. You carry on behind the storm. Over and out."

As we’re pulling out, a man in jeans and T-shirt comes running, waving at us. This is Krishnendu Chakraborty, aka Zeus. He works as a marketing manager at a tractor company and has just left work to make the chase.

Scifo1, one of KCC’s two storm-chasing vehicles. Photo: Amit Datta

It’s decided that Scifo1 will join up wherever the storm might take us eventually. We start our chase to the sound of loud bangs as bolts land nearby, punctuated by a decidedly incongruous conversation from the rear seat, where Zeus is discussing sales strategy with someone from his office. By the time we follow the storm cell to the Kolkata bypass, a distance of 17km, the violent, thundering storm-front has veered to the south-west and is racing out of the city.

This is where the group’s tracking skills and experience kicks in. Everyone has the radar out, and the storm is clearly headed south-west to join a large system that’s forming near Diamond Harbour at the Bay, about 55km away. However, the radar is now full of thunderstorm cells large and small, all coming in from the north, and seemingly moving in a south-easterly direction towards Canning, the gateway to the Sunderbans, 59km away. While the group debates which way to head, the wide rain tail of the storm system we’re chasing precipitates a cloudburst. Sheets of rain drown out all sound, while we head south on the bypass, past large clusters of people running for shelter towards bus stands, tea shops, an incomplete flyover and anything else that might shield them.

Once we reach the outskirts of the city and head towards the suburban town of Baruipur, it is decided that Scifo2 will carry on towards Canning, as most of the storm cells are moving that way. “It would be great if we can get there and wait for the storms to come towards us," says Gogoi. Chirasree agrees. As we follow a long canal south, leaving the city behind, rural Bengal appears. The rain has weakened, the storm system and we part ways. Dense groves of banana trees and banyans rush by, and the further we travel away from Kolkata, the more lush and verdant the undergrowth becomes. The sky is overcast, there’s a cool breeze blowing, and it seems like the world has been washed clean of all dust and pollution. Soon wide paddy fields begin, punctuated by small towns and even smaller villages.

After Baruipur, we turn on to a pretty state highway for Canning. Free of the final suburban clusters, wide vistas open out in all directions. Behind us, towards the south-west in the far distance, is a bluish-black wall of thick clouds, flickering with lightning—the system over Diamond Harbour. From our left, to the north, fly in large but extremely fast-moving storm cells, high winds stretching them out like serpentine banners in the sky.

We stop beside a paddy field to get a better look at a thunderstorm system passing overhead. Gogoi warns me to stay close and start running back to the car when they do. The wind has fallen, and the cloud above seems to hover. Everyone starts taking photographs. I ask Chirasree what kind of cloud this is.

“CLB (cumulonimbus), certainly, but look there, see how it’s rotating?"

The part of the cloud directly above us, probably a few thousand feet above our heads, is slowly turning round and round, resembling a funnel. It reminds me of videos of tornadoes forming. I suddenly feel very exposed, but it’s also an awe-inspiring sight.

Then the wind picks up again, and the cloud starts moving rapidly towards Canning. I hear that Scifo1 is hard on our heels and should reach in half an hour.

We bypass Canning town and reach the Matla, a wide river that forms the first of the many khals, or channels, that thread through the Sunderbans. The ghat is silted over, with ferries and boats lying tethered on the treacherously muddy bank. A couple of small tea shops with some boatmen lounging and some dogs are all we have for company. They look at us with the same detached expression of boredom that they reserve for all urban interlopers. We get off the car and slip and slide over the mud down to the river.

The radars are out again. The southwardly-moving individual storm cells have coalesced into a huge storm just north of our position. Gogoi laughs, “We don’t need radars to tell us that!" Indeed, a dark bank of towering clouds, about 20,000ft high, according to the radar, fills up the northern horizon. Occasionally, far away, we can see lightning bolts crashing downwards. Periodically, the surface of the storm-front ripples with crawling branch lightning. Right next to the river, we will be at the mercy of the storm when it hits us, but it’s such a fascinating sight that nobody wants to move.

We hear a cheer go up nearby. The other car has arrived, and Saigal and Duttagupta walk towards us, the former waving his tripod, and the latter his GoPro, recording a vlog to be uploaded on his YouTube channel. Mukherjee is with them. Saigal sets up his tripod in the mud and is barely able to control his glee at the prospect of some proper lightning action.

Cumulonimbus clouds with intra-cloud lightning hover over south Kolkata’s Jadavpur. Photo: Diganta Gogoi

But the storm shifts unexpectedly. All this while, it has been advancing steadily towards us, but now, we watch with dismay as it moves rapidly to the east, across the river, and away from us.

My heart sinks. All these months of planning, all that grand sense of anticipation, and the storm’s gone! “It’s moving towards Bangladesh," Chirasree announces matter-of-factly, looking intently at the radar. Saigal groans. Gogoi seems unperturbed, photographing a small boat crossing the wide Matla. Krishnendu has spotted an earthmover manufactured by his company lifting silt from the riverbank, and laments that the person using it is handling the machine all wrong. “I don’t understand why these storms love Bangladesh more," laments Saigal, shaking his head ruefully. “What, Thunderman, foiled again?" Mukherjee asks, laughing. “Arre, Boltu da, don’t," says Chirasree, “see how sad Thunderman looks."

Meanwhile, Duttagupta speaks to the GoPro. “Roadrunner here. Seems like the storm has given Elvis and us the slip and has gone to Bangladesh. It’s time to drink some tea and have some ghughni."

The passing veil of the storm having lifted, a lovely sunset comes into view, next to a gigantic thunderhead on the horizon, standing upright like an extraterrestrial mushroom, tens of thousands of kilometres high. The lapping waves of the Matla turn golden in the light of the setting sun. The earth smells of fresh rain and a hint of the sea. It’s not bad at all.

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