Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Indian Monsoon story

An edited version of this story appeared in HooplaClub, a  Bangalore-based children's magazine.

Advaita was just back in Bangalore. May was about to end, so Kolkata’s summer was at its peak with Bay of Bengal filling every day there with high levels of humidity. He was glad that he had left behind the heat and humidity of Kolkata, though he missed its sweets.
A week later, when he was chatting with Grandpa over the phone, Advaita informed him “Monsoon is already here, Grandpa.”
“Impossible! When the monsoon comes, whole India will know about it. It’ll come up in the newspaper, TV and everywhere people will talk about it. And Meteorology department will heave a sigh of relief.”
“Meteorology?! Why will it be relieved?” Advaita was curious. It was an unfamiliar word.
“Meteorology is the science of weather conditions. The people in this department predict when it’s going to get cloudy and when it’s going to get sunny by studying the weather. They are the ones who will declare the arrival of monsoons. What you see there now is the pre-monsoon shower. And you’ll get to experience the monsoon before we can.”
“That’s strange! We are all in the same country, Grandpa. Why will it visit you first?”
“Monsoons don’t go by state or country or continent. It just follows a route. You are in the far south while I am in the east of India, and because the monsoons come from the far southwest of the Indian Ocean, it visits the south of our country first and then follows a path, coming to the east later.” After a second’s pause he added, “Till then, we have to fret in the hot air and….and…and…..wait for the monsoon shower.” Grandpa was always good at poetry. Advaita got quiet on the other end. Grandpa sensed his grandson hadn’t studied about monsoons in the books, else he would be quite chatty.
A few days later, a letter came from Kolkata to Advaita’s postbox. It read as follows:
“My dear grandson, to understand the contents of this letter, you need to get your globe or atlas at your side to begin with. Ready? Let’s get going then.
On a hot day, when a sudden storm brews up and your doors and windows are open, what happens? The cool winds rush in from outside and fill up your rooms to give you respite from the heat. Something like this happens on our earth and we experience the monsoons owing to that.
During summer, the northern part of the earth is closer to the sun, so it heats up more, specially the areas around Tropic of Cancer. Look for this line on your globe and you’ll see that it passes through India, in fact near Kolkata. Land heats up faster than water bodies, and so our country gets hotter than the neighbouring gigantic water body – the Indian Ocean. A low pressure forms over our country whereas high pressure forms over the Indian Ocean. Cooler moisture-laden southwest winds blow in from the high-pressure area towards the low-pressure area on land, breaking into two branches.
Look at the map of India. On the left is Arabian Sea and on the right is Bay of Bengal. One branch of monsoon winds, the Arabian Sea branch, travels over the Arabian Sea targeting the low pressure area over the Thar desert, and along its path it hits the Western Ghats of the coastal state of Kerala. It then moves northwards along the Western Ghats, shedding rain over the west of the Western Ghats. This branch is three times stronger than the Bay of Bengal branch. The Bay of Bengal branch moves northward in Bay of Bengal, heading towards north-east India, spreading over most of Assam by early June and then covering West Bengal and arriving at the Eastern Himalayas and then getting deflected towards the West, traveling over the Indo-Gangetic plain towards New Delhi. Thereafter the two branches merge to bring rain to the remaining parts of North India in July. The most of the rainfall is from June to August, with some in September and October.
Are you having a good look at the map of India? Then you’ll know where these states are which the monsoon winds are traveling over.
The southwest monsoons withdraw more gradually than it comes. By the beginning of October, the monsoons retreat, leaving north-west India and by end of November, the remaining parts of India. These north-east winds bring the north-east monsoon and it rains over Tamil Nadu, Karnataka (your state) and Kerala in November and December.
We’ll talk about the monsoons later again. Love – Grandpa. P.S. I guess you’ll become a monsoon specialist soon.”
The following Saturday afternoon, they were talking again.
“Did you get some idea of the Indian monsoon?” Grandpa asked.
“Yes Dadu, a bit, but why are you so concerned about it?” Advaita was curious.
“That’s because it’s the monsoons that decide how our country will fare. India largely depends on agriculture and as per the onset of monsoons, crops are planted. If you want to know, they are rice, millets and sugarcane. The farmers wait for the Meteorology Dept to declare that the monsoons have arrived. Once it’s known that the southwest monsoons have actually come, the farmers swing into action and get going with planting these crops. So if the monsoons come late or are not as strong as expected, this major event gets affected. Not only that, if the monsoons withdraw early, these crops do not get enough moisture and so their growth won’t be good. Again a delayed withdrawal will affect cotton that matures around the time. A too strong monsoon will cause floods and damage crops. Can you now see how monsoons control the prosperity of India? If crops grow well, we get food to eat and can also export certain things. But, if the monsoons are weak, or delayed, or withdraw early or late, it’s us who will suffer, though mostly the farmers suffer the most. They don’t go to offices and so they don’t get a monthly pay like your father and his friends. They pray for a good harvest which they can sell to get money.”
After a pause, he asked “Did you know monsoons help us in another way, besides getting us food?”
Advaita was clueless.
“Well, do you know how monsoons help us get electricity to power our homes?”
Advaita was surprised. How can monsoon rains help to power homes?
Grandpa explained slowly. “The rain that flows off land into rivers collects in lakes, streams and rivers and flows to dams downstream. The water flows through a dam, just like water flows through funnel, and reaches a powerhouse where it turns a large wheel called a turbine. The turbine movement creates electricity which is carried by special wires to different places.” Grandpa paused, probably trying to find out if he had been able to get Advaita interested in what the monsoons did.
“This is called hydel power. It gets the name from hydro and electricity. Hydro means relating to water.”
The next few days, Advaita went about with a small Indian map and every time the weather report came up on TV in the evenings when the family sat down for dinner, he checked the progress of monsoons on it and a huge map he had hung on the wall of the dining area. It was thrilling to find what Grandpa had written and spoken over the phone matched more or less with what was happening.
Mom was very happy for her son had become familiar with the Indian map. One week-end morning she even gave him a paper with only the border of India outlined and asked him to draw two dots for Bangalore and Kolkata. To her delight, Advaita came quite close to where the two cities lay.
And when Dad read out articles from the newspapers on farmers’ woes in the past, it made some sense.
Till the other day, a farmer was a thoughtful, sweat-clad face in the book. Now Advaita knew why it was so. And now he thought twice before wasting food. Somebody had looked at the summer skies, waited for the rains and then sown seeds. The hard labour had paid off and the rice had reached Advaita, all the way from the fields. He couldn’t be that insensitive to throw away rice just because it was not hot or the curry did not taste great. And when it rained in the evenings, he did not get glum for not being able to go out to play, because he knew it made the farmers happy. It also meant India would be happy that year.
A fortnight later, another surprise waited for Advaita in his postbox. This time it was a thicker envelope. He opened it and was soon lost in another world.
Ron was a little boy who grew up in Madagascar without knowing that there were many other bigger countries in the world. His best friend, Shine, too had never gone beyond the borders of Madagascar. On his eighth birthday, Ron received a lovely, picture-filled encyclopaedia from his third cousin Cherry.
“Cherry stays in India, dear,” Ron’s mother said. “Some day, when we have enough money, we’ll visit her. She is getting a good education there and her father can help you get into a good school there.”
The last two years at school had opened up the world of geography to them and they were always full of curiosity. That night, Ron went to bed with a prayer on his lips.
******** Ron & Shine world begins here*******
The wind was traveling northwards. They carried moisture with it and Ron felt a little wet, but he didn’t mind for it was summer. He didn’t think about home at all, for riding on the wind and traveling with it was something he had never done and was immensely delighted. During moments when fear gripped him when the wind traveled very fast, he just had to reach out to Shine and touch his arm. Shine sat a little away from him and seemed to be braver, maybe because he was a year older.
“I wonder where this wind that’s carrying us came from,” Ron said aloud.
The wind seemed to hear for the reply came soon.
“I am the southwest monsoon and I took birth in the high-pressure area around your home country and am traveling towards Somalia.”
“Where is Somalia and why are we going there?” Shine asked enthusiastically. He glowed with thrill and joy as he kept looking around and then down at the ocean.
“Somalia is in Africa.” The southwest wind replied and added after a pause, “Wait to see what happens.”
On reaching Somalia, stronger winds helped the southwest monsoon gain force. They covered thousands and thousands of kilometers, moving at a distance above the sea-level.
“What can you see, Ron and Shine?” the southwest monsoon wind asked.
“What are those birds? Those slender, black birds with white bands on them and long tails? Shine, did you see that crest on the head looking like a beak?”
“They are the clan of pied crested cuckoos. They wintered in east Africa and now they are migrating towards India. There they will breed.”
“What’s breeding?” Shine asked.
“They will get their young chicks there.” Southwest monsoon wind was experienced, and it showed in its confident answers.
The two boys had become very light with the special powers Ron’s prayer had brought on. They were now supernatural human beings, doing impossible feats like lying down and standing up and even winging their way through the length of the winds without the risk of falling into the depths of the huge Indian Ocean. It was obvious that they enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
The journey over the ocean lasted a few weeks culminating in the southwest monsoon winds touching the southernmost tip of India. So Kerala was to become the first state in India to receive its first rainfall of the season. The two boys had fallen asleep when Kerala was receiving its first rainfall of the season.
When Ron woke up, he found himself alone. “Where is Shine?!” he almost sobbed.
“Don’t worry, Shine is on the B of B branch,” the wind answered cheerfully. “B of B means Bay of Bengal.”
“What does that mean? Where am I?” Ron was distressed. It was quite a shock to find oneself alone so suddenly over unfamiliar region.
“We are in India!” southwest monsoon wind almost shouted. “Didn’t you want to be here, the country of your dreams?”
“India!” Ron was now fully awake.” Yes, I wanted to be over the Indian Ocean and India and…and….” The sheer excitement of being in India did not allow him to finish though Arabian Sea monsoon understood and said slowly, “Yes, I knew how much you yearned to see India and so I picked you up from Madagascar. I took birth just next to your home country; how could I not answer your prayer?”
“Since we hit India, we decided to split into two major monsoons like every other year. I am traveling over Arabian Sea and so I’m the Arabian Sea branch while Shine is on the branch that’s traveling over the Bay of Bengal. Do not worry, we’ll meet Shine sitting on B of B branch later again.”
Rest assured, Ron began enjoying his ride once again. The Arabian Sea branch kept gathering moisture from the Arabian Sea and lashing the mountain ranges along the west coast of India with heavy rains. Sitting on it, Ron kept looking at the mountains and wondering if India was covered with mountains alone. Arabian Sea branch seemed to read his mind and said “India is an amazing country with mountains and plains and forests and water bodies. You’ll see the plains later. And then there are the Himalayas in the north which are much taller than these.”
As the monsoon winds passed over Mumbai, it said softly, “Ron, look, this is Mumbai – one of the busiest cities of India. This the place where people come from other parts of the country to earn and survive.”
Ron looked down. A place milling with crowds stared back at him. But there was something that seemed funny. In different pockets, countless people just stood and waited, looking up towards him.
“Why are they gazing at me?”
“They are gazing at us for they are waiting for the rains to stop for they are all stranded and cannot go where they want to.”
“But why should rains stop their movement? They can move in buses and trains and cars.” Right then he noticed the cars, trains, buses and auto-rickshaws – all standing static.
“They cannot because everything has come to a standstill with all modes of transport having stopped….all because the streets and roads and rail tracks are all water-logged. It’s a pity that this happens every year and children and the adults get marooned in places far away from their homes for very long hours. It hurts to see little children starving in their school buses surrounded by humidity and equally hapless faces outside their windows. I just hope they do something about it soon.”
“Then why do you shower so much of rains?”
“Well, well, without reasonable amount of rains, there won’t be growth of crops and everybody, right from the farmers to everybody, will suffer.” Arabian Sea branch sounded apologetic, but was obviously logical in his reply.
They were passing over Andhra Pradesh when Ron cried out “Look there! Can you see a gull? The large bird with a black head?”
“Yes, of course! I know her. She is Mrs. Gull.” And then he called out “Hello, Mrs. Gull. I can see you came out in a hurry, for you’ve again worn the wrong pair of shoes. Ha ha ha….” Mrs. Gull didn’t seem to mind and smiled, then got busy in getting some fish for herself. She was hungry!

Shine was relaxing on the Bay of Bengal branch. He had already been explained why he had got separated from Ron, and was not disappointed for he knew he had to see India from his safe perch as much as possible and later narrate it to his friend (Ron was the curious kind). He knew how much Ron wanted to know about India and his prayer and the swift turn of events after Ron’s prayer.
B of B southwest monsoon branch had picked up moisture from Bay of Bengal and was busy hitting North-East India with its heavy showers. June had just begun and Bengal was still reeling under intense summer. Before long, B of B branch was traveling over West Bengal and Bihar and pouring out all its water. If the people there celebrated and smiled for the first few days, they began complaining and then cursing their fate after sometime because of the floods that came after incessant rain. Shine was saddened to see villagers fleeing their homes to run to safety and the floods washing away their homes and sometimes entire villages.
There were two things that struck Shine, one of which was a big, strong tiger swiftly climbing up a tree. “What’s the tiger doing with a camera?!” Shine cried, pointing at the tree.
“Oh! He is Tigris! He is a great he says,” B of B said and then added, “Right now he’s busy clicking a ruddy kingfisher sitting close to him on the branch of the neighbouring tree. He’s not only a good tree-climber, he’s very clever too. He uses his camouflage and stealth to keep shooting birds and animals in these forests during daytime, and hunt deer and birds during the night.”
“You didn’t say hello to him.”
“No, it will scare the ruddy kingfisher away and Tigris will get upset with us.”
“Tigris loves birds, is it?” Shine was curious.
“He is the nature buddy, and matters pertaining to nature are close to his heart all the while.” B of B had made friends with many during its annual journeys over the years!
The other thing was one scene that would remain etched in his mind for long, maybe forever. A scantily clad little boy drinking from a bowl, a faraway vacant look in his big eyes.
“What’s he having from that big bowl?”
B of B branch kept silent for a while and said “It’s starch….the excess water that remains after rice is cooked. He has lost his parents in the floods. This is all that the people who rescued him could manage for him.”
To Shine, B of B monsoon winds seemed like a demon avenging something wrong done on it. It read Shine’s mind and said softly “I cannot help it….I have picked up moisture during my journey over the Bay of Bengal and now it is all going down as rain. And without rains, there won’t be paddy and other crops. What will the people eat?”
“But you are raining so much that you are causing floods and so even the crops, immersed in the rainwater for so long, will begin to rot. You’re not helping there at all!” Shine said angrily.
“I know, but I don’t have any control there. I wish something could be done to rein in all this flowing water and put to good use before it rushed down as floods and rendered thousands of people homeless and starving.”
The majestic mountain range looked on as the sunshine fell on them and they all sparkled.
“These are the world famous Himalayas which is the pride of India.” B of B branch said.
Shine was speechless, the beauty and magnificence of the ranges was something that he had never experienced. And the grief of the people he had left behind was forgotten for a while. B of B branch could not move ahead as the mountains blocked it and so it turned westwards.
The surprise came when the Arabian Sea branch carrying Ron met B of B branch holding Shine and merged.
“We are together again!” the two friends hugged and cried.
“Yes, you’ll be together for the rest of the journey!” cried the southwest monsoon.
It went over Central India and then towards Delhi, though not shedding much rain for it had lost much of its moisture by now. “North India is drier than the rest of India because of the low-moisture monsoon winds they get,” Ron thought silently. The two friends had exchanged a few stories of their journeys and each had got an idea of the path the other had followed.
When they reached Rajasthan, it was mid-July. There was one thing that surprised them. In many places along their journey, the people had seemed to know the monsoons were about to arrive soon.
Southwest monsoon shared the secret behind it.
“It’s the pied crested cuckoo. It has come with its clan a little ahead of us from East Africa, flying over the Indian Ocean to reach the west coast of India. They have rested there and then resumed its journey to scatter over Central and Northern India. With its loud ‘piu-piu’ calls, this cuckoo announces the arrival of the monsoons. But it is not as good as it seems to be because it lays eggs in the babbler’s nest secretly and flies away, leaving the babbler parents to raise the fledglings with their own, who are totally clueless.
“Why do they come so far?”
“Maybe because of the rains, there are more insects everywhere which could mean more food for them. I have seen the pelicans and herons breed at this time for the same reason because more water means more invertebrates and so more food for the young water birds.”
It was September now. The heat had long since left and the temperatures were dropping. North India was cooling down and so a high pressure was building up over it, while Indian Ocean and its surroundings still had the heat. Cold winds swept down from the Himalayas and Indo-Gangetic plain towards the Indian Ocean
Ron and Shine sat snugly on these northeast dry and cold winds. The two were having their last look at India. Everywhere people were getting ready for winter. In its path, the wind picked up some moisture from Bay of Bengal, pouring rain over Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. And they noticed that the pied crested cuckoos too were going back homewards to spend the winter in Africa. The return journey of the monsoon winds with the two boys over Indian Ocean towards Madagascar was as thrilling as the previous journey.
Next year, there could be another bed-time prayer and who knows which wind would take them to which place?
*********** Ron & Shine world ends here***********
Did you know?
The origin of the word monsoon is from the Arabic word ‘mausem’ which means weather.

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