Opinion | A make-believe monsoon magic
- Even as PR machinery continues to sell rainy-day romance, we can only ponder the case of Kolkata’s missing monsoon
- There is a 50% rainfall deficit in 12 districts in south Bengal, while north Bengal is dealing with floods
A five-star hotel in Kolkata is unrolling its monsoon favourites platter. Peyaji or onion pakoras. Tiger prawns covered in breadcrumbs and fried to a crisp. Hing kachoris crumbled into a chaat, glazed with tamarind. It’s basically nostalgia, just deep-fried. It all sounds perfect for adda alongside cups of hot cutting chai while the rain pours down outside.
Except there is no rain.
This has been one of the driest monsoons the city has seen in ages. It darkens, thunders, and then peters out in a drizzle. The umbrellas are out all over the city but as a shade against the relentless sun, not the rain. The Met office has said this was the hottest July in a decade in Kolkata. After baking all summer, the city is sweltering in a muggy sulk without its usual monsoon respite. There has hardly been any rain all of July. By the third week of the month, the monsoon deficit had hit 65%.
Some days the blue sky with cotton-wool white clouds looks like a post-monsoon sky. The plants are wilting. Hilsa, a monsoon staple and object of Bengali fantasies, is hardly to be seen in the markets. The farmers are in despair. At my local market, the vegetable seller tries to entice me to buy some greens. “No saag till after the monsoons, my mother would say," I reply. “What monsoon?" the vegetable seller says drily.
While north Bengal deals with flooding, south Bengal, the rice belt, is facing a possible drought. While some rain at the end of July has helped, there is still over 50% rainfall deficit in 12 districts in south Bengal. Farming was not possible on nearly half the land that was cultivated last year.
But for the city’s luxury hotels, trendy boutiques and glossy tabloids, it’s monsoon as usual. Film actresses are modelling monsoon collections so we all know how to “ace the monsoon" in pop colours—fuchsia, greens and yellow, for those who are interested. Swanky bars are offering monsoon cocktails and hosting monsoon bashes. The alliterations are raining down. Monsoon madness. Monsoon magic. Monsoon moods.
In reality, it is all monsoon make-believe. And, to be honest, it feels slightly obscene. It feels like life in a consumer bubble that blithely ignores the uncomfortable truth all around.
Once we took monsoons for granted. There would be good monsoons and bad monsoons. We read about monsoon rains and kharif crops and oilseed prices but our urban concerns were more pedestrian. These were the months when wet clothes were draped all over the house. We would sprint to the terrace in the middle of lunch to yank clothes off the line as the skies suddenly darkened and fat drops of rain splattered on the windowpanes. Street dogs would huddle under awnings and shopfronts, scrounging for scraps of shelter amidst people caught without umbrellas. The streets would flood and shirtless boys in raggedy shorts would make a quick buck pushing stalled cars.
As children, we tore pages out of old exercise books and turned them into paper boats, the Royal Blue ink of arithmetic lessons past dissolving in the murky water as the boats bobbed along dodging floating leaves and marigold garlands. At night, as the rain drummed on tin roofs, schoolchildren went to sleep hoping against hope that the next day would be a rainy-day off with steaming hot khichdi for lunch.
All of that had once felt as timeless as the smell of saundhi mitti (fragrant earth) itself. Of course, it was not. The paper boats have long vanished, replaced by plastic bags clogging drains. Rainy-day holidays are more scarce in Kolkata because, thankfully, the drainage is better.
But, the monsoons still wreak havoc. While Rabindranath Tagore’s songs rhapsodized about the romance of the rains, in the city itself rains felt like a hindrance, a tangled mess of traffic snarls, fallen trees, open manholes and waterborne diseases. As commuters wade home with plastic bags held over their heads, being splashed by passing cars, no one is humming hriday aaamar nache re aajike.
In fact, rain songs themselves, once such a staple of Bollywood films, have been drying up. Composer Shantanu Moitra once said that more than romanticism, rains bring forth thoughts of waterlogging and dirty streets. In 2012, lyricist Swanand Kirkire, who has won national awards for songs in Lage Raho Munnabhai and 3 Idiots,said he had never been asked to write a rain song.
Now even the rains are not there and the monsoon-sale signs and monsoon- platter ads stick out like sore thumbs.
We live in an age of freaky weather shifts, not merely one errant monsoon. It’s not just faraway ice caps that are melting. In Iceland, there’s a memorial for the first glacier to be lost to global warming. As we prepared to go to Vietnam this summer, a friend in Germany remarked that it was hotter in Berlin than either Kolkata or Hanoi. Another friend travelling by train posted on Facebook: “It’s 40 degrees out, there are twice as many passengers as seats on this train, and the AC has broken. The stench of human sweat in here is fruity. (I have cheese that’s spoiled in my bag but dare not confess it’s mine!)" She’s not travelling through the Indian heartland in some three-tier general compartment. She’s on a train from Bruges to Berlin. We will soon have to offer Europe expertise on how to survive scorching summers, someone jokes sardonically.
Kolkata’s missing monsoon and the floods in Assam where rhinoceroses drown, Chennai submerged in floods and a Chennai without water all seem part of a world that is increasingly out of whack. Some of it is about climate change, some of it is not, but one thing is for sure—freakish weather is the new normal. The local Met office faithfully promises a chance of a thunderstorm but that boat never seems to come in.
And yet the PR machinery that sells the romance of monsoons beats on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into some ab ke saawan past.
What’s next? A rain machine to create the illusion of a proper Kolkata monsoon while we sit in the glass-paned dining room of a fancy hotel, oblivious to the irony of eating masala muri from the Monsoon Munchies platter while the paddy dies in the fields?
Is it monsoon o’clock, asks a writer friend half-jokingly every other day, anxious to experience a Kolkata monsoon in its full splendour. Not yet, I reply, not yet.
Now it’s August and I fear the clock is running out.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.