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Monsoon Dread

Climate change transforms a South Asian symbol

In the late eighteenth century, in the Indian town of Deeg, in the desert state of Rajasthan, there was a palace garden where it rained all year round. Even on still, shimmeringly hot summer days, you could get caught in a downpour: the Jat rulers had installed copper pipes in the roof of the garden pavilion, which sprayed jets of water to mimic the monsoons. Copper balls clattered through those pipes, emulating the growl of distant thunder. If you were a young woman of the court, you could sit on a swing made of flowers and scented fibers, and as you swung toward the sky, the spray from the garden fountains would cool your face. On especially hot days, rainbows would glint in the distance. In Vedic philosophy, the rainbow is the bow of Indra, the god of rain, rivers, and war.

Lovely as it must have been, the setup feels a little bit like cheating. As centuries of poetry and painting will attest, you have to earn—yearn for—the Indian monsoon. In Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain, scholars Margrit Pernau, Imke Rajamani, and Katherine Butler Schofield collect essays on this sweeping genre. One of the earliest instances of monsoon literature is a poem called “The Cloud Messenger” by the fifth-century Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. In it, a young exiled yakhsa, nature-spirit, appeals to a great, big elephant-shaped rain cloud, asking it to bring relief to his lonely wife. If that sounds like a euphemism, it probably is. In Sanskrit literature, the two rasas, essences, often associated with the monsoon are vipralambha shringara and sambhoga shringara: the erotic thwarted and the erotic fulfilled. Rain, the union of earth and sky, symbolized the latter; the yearning for rain the former. In eighteenth-century bhakti poetry, for instance, devotees sought to drench themselves, vicariously, in viraha, Radha’s longing for Krishna. (How does one translate viraha? It is, I suppose, the realization of love through separation.)

In a way, the euphemism makes scientific sense too. The monsoon, in its simplest definition, is a weather system of regularly reversing winds. But the earth needs to get really hot for these rain-carrying winds to sweep inland and let loose. There is an old story about the Mughal emperor Akbar, who asked his court musician Tansen to sing raga dipak, a melody associated with light. All the lamps in the courtyard lit up and Tansen’s body became so hot that he sat in a river to cool himself, but it didn’t help. Instead, the river began to boil. Someone had to sing raga megh, the monsoon melody, to summon the rains that would cool him.

For most of my life, I have lived in Karachi, a city by the sea where it typically rains only a few days each year. Perhaps it is only natural, then, that wherever I go, I carry this feeling—this monsoon feeling—of rain as culmination, as catharsis: even in London, where it is a quotidian, powdery affair, and Mexico City, where it is just as thunderous but far less fickle. I have never swung on a swing in a downpour—or yearned for a lost lover, for that matter—but the idea feels deeply familiar, preserved in some sort of communal imagination. The odd thing is that these associations persist even though, increasingly, when clouds break over dry, thirsty Karachi—home to twenty million people; where neighborhood women protest water shortages by organizing ijtimai badduas, collective cursing sessions; where 91 percent of all water is unfit to drink; where all water might run out by 2025—relief is rarely the overriding emotion. Now, almost always, what you feel is dread.

Blame it on the Rain

In the early twentieth century, the Japanese philosopher and ethicist Watsuji Tetsurō wrote Fūdo, loosely translated as Climate and Culture—a book that wasn’t widely known in India, although India was central to its argument. “I wish to treat the monsoon as a way of life,” Watsuji wrote. People who lived in thrall of the Indian monsoon, he argued, were passive, submissive, and resigned. It wasn’t their fault, though. The rains were so powerful that man was “obliged to abandon all hope of resistance,” and so inconstant that they engendered a “lack of historical awareness, a fullness of feeling and a relaxation of willpower.”

British colonizers had tried very hard to understand the monsoon: to measure it, predict it, and mitigate its effects. Modern South Asia was shaped, irrevocably, by these efforts.

In South Asia, we are used to essentialist nonsense by Europeans: colonial accounts are full of such swashbuckling proclamations—this race is lazy, this one is sly, that one is violent because it consumes too much meat—but a non-Western account of this nature is less common. The historian Sunil Amrith writes in Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History that Watsuji’s work was part of a larger intellectual and political project of regional supremacy. According to Amrith, Watsuji was implying that Japan, with its own experience of tropical climate on the southern fringes of the archipelago, was better placed to rule India than the British, who could never truly understand the monsoon and, consequently, the people who lived with it.

Over the course of the prior century, though, as they forced their way south and west into the heart of India, British colonizers had tried very hard to understand the monsoon: to measure it, predict it, and mitigate its effects. Modern South Asia was shaped, irrevocably, by these efforts. This part of the colonial project was made possible in part by technological advances; while the English astronomer Edmund Halley had identified the basic driving force of the monsoon as the differential heating of sea and land as early as 1686, meteorology became a truly international science in the 1870s with the advent of the telegraph. As records of the monsoon accumulated, meteorologists looked to capture its “normal” characteristics. The first, tentative monsoon forecasts, pegged to snowfall in the Himalayas, were produced in 1882, and for the first few years, they proved more or less accurate, at least as an indication of whether rain would be normal, excessive, or deficient.

Not all of India experienced the monsoon: in general, the pattern of rainfall drew a rough vertical line down the subcontinent, dividing the drier west from the marshy east. Even where it did rain, it didn’t necessarily rain every year. In 1876 and 1877, for instance, the rains failed completely in India, and no one knew why. The resulting famines—the impact of which was intensified by a callous colonial response—led to the consensus that India needed to wean herself off her dependence on the monsoon. Perennial irrigation was trumpeted as the answer: it would turn all of India into the garden at Deeg.

To be clear, the quest for irrigation wasn’t exactly altruistic. For British revenue administrators tasked with amassing wealth to fuel colonial exploits elsewhere in the world, having a firmer grip on water created possibilities for fiscal and political expansion. It was also a pretext for creating agriculture where it had not existed before: between 1885 and 1940, for instance, the colonial government built nine canal colonies in Western Punjab, a land at the limits of the monsoon. These colonies, among the first of their kind, were populated by specific “cultivator castes” ostensibly selected for their vigor and ability. This represented an attempt to create a new landscape and a new society—to develop two kinds of raw material for agrarian capitalism. The project established a pattern that would become common in the twentieth century: state-financed, state-directed resettlement of people in the service of agricultural development.

My maternal great-grandfather was a foot soldier in this early wave of agrarian capitalism. A designated “cultivator,” he was shipped off to Mesopotamia thousands of miles away to introduce cotton along the banks of the Euphrates as part of the British Cotton Growing Association. The abolition of slavery meant that the Lancashire cotton industry, a key driver of the Industrial Revolution, could no longer source cheap raw cotton from the United States. In response, the BCGA, a cross between an NGO and a development agency, expended its energies promoting cotton cultivation across the British Empire. In Mesopotamia, my great-grandfather became friends with a Welsh farmer who’d been sent there for the same reason—a few years later, they moved back together to South Asia, to the arid west. Largely forsaken by the monsoons, it had since been made arable by the construction of a barrage on the Indus.

In the 1870s, British administrators had seemed resigned to the idea that famine was inevitable in India. A century later, India (and some time after that, Pakistan) became a food-surplus country. In addition to canal irrigation, the introduction of tube wells—now ubiquitous across South Asia—further fueled agrarian growth. The monsoon-fed areas of India’s northeast, historically the centers of food production, fell behind the drier northwest and southeast, which were motored by canal and groundwater irrigation. As Sunil Amrith points out, India has experienced more droughts since the 1940s than in the fifty years prior, but the effects have been far less deadly.

Many of the modern measures intended to secure us against the vagaries of the monsoon have, through a cascade of unintended consequences, destabilized the monsoon itself.

In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the novelist Amitav Ghosh notes that as human activity began transforming the earth’s landscape and its atmosphere, literary imagination became radically centered on the human. This doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. In the Ramayana, one of the two great Sanskrit epics, the Ganges tumbles from heaven and flows through the Shiva’s hair before spilling onto the plains of India. But it is difficult to sustain such mythologies, such wonder and awe for rivers and rain, given how humans sought to control water in the twentieth century. We’ve dammed, diverted, and divided rivers, channeled them into giant tubes and buried them beneath our cities, made water fall from towering heights to power our increasingly urban lives. In 1987, two years before I was born, the novelist Khushwant Singh lamented that the monsoon had vanished from Indian literature, that it “no longer stirs the imagination of the poet or the novelist with the same intensity.”

As a child, I spent summers on my grandfather’s farms, one of which sits at the very edge of the desert, where the great latticework of irrigation canals ends. Every afternoon, he would bundle the cousins into his old jeep and roll slowly through his fields, testing us. What’s the name of that crop? And that one over there? Is this one ready for harvest? Much to his chagrin, I could usually only identify wheat and mustard—the latter thanks to an iconic Bollywood scene. When we’d return home, my mother would invariably receive a snide remark—your city children know nothing—but I rarely felt chastened. Why did I need to know any of it anyway? Looking back, I wonder whether this was just the nonchalance of a child or the hubris of someone—a certain type of urban, middle-class someone—living in the late twentieth century.

Uncharted Waters

These days, when—if—rain is forecast in the city, my mother squints at the ceiling, not the sky. For the next few days, as clouds frown over the house and the trees become eerily still, everyone will trip over the buckets and bowls she’s laid out like a trail of crumbs on the floor, mapping the constellation of spreading water stains overhead. But on August 27 of this year, as more rain pummeled Karachi than ever has in a single day, water seeped in from a different source: my parents awoke to sewage swirling around their bed. The power was out; in many neighborhoods it would remain out for days. Close to two dozen people died by drowning or electrocution. The city’s poshest streets turned to rivers.

In The Great Derangement, Ghosh recounts the flood that displaced his ancestors in the mid-1850s, propelling them westward to Bihar, on a series of journeys that ultimately made his life possible. “When I look into my past the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back,” he writes, “as if to ask, Do you recognize me, wherever you are?” In the WhatsApp videos my mother sends me, during and after the rains, and the images that flood social media, I recognize the river that made me. These days, in a way that feels like guilt-ridden compensation for my earlier obliviousness, I think obsessively about Karachi’s water—where it comes from, where it goes. I don’t think about it in the way that my mother does: she’ll sometimes shut the phone on me because her “water-tanker guy” is calling (he’s the priority, naturally); she won’t go out on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday evenings because that’s when the municipality releases water; and she doesn’t trust anyone else to remember to switch on the pump that draws water into the storage tank. Instead, I think about the shaky edifice upon which the city thrums.

Karachi is a coastal city, but it isn’t protected from the open ocean by bays, estuaries, or deltaic river systems like the older ports of Asia and Europe: London, Lisbon, Cochin, and Guangzhou, to name a few. In that sense, it belongs to a later generation of port cities—like Mumbai, Chennai, New York, and Charleston—that embody, in Ghosh’s words, “a colonial vision of the world in which proximity to the water represents power and security, mastery and conquest.” Today, these are among the cities most directly threatened by climate change. But Karachi, for its part, continues to swell; it reclaims land from the sea—the same sea into which it vomits its untreated waste—and sources its water from a river that now dries up before reaching the coast. When it rains, the city’s seasonal rivers come alive, but that water has nowhere to go: informal settlements and upscale gated communities alike have clogged the city’s drains and natural outfalls, causing water and waste to bubble out of sinks and sewers.

In the aftermath of the August floods, Karachi’s richest citizens took to the streets. They’d been stranded in the upper stories of their homes for days, without electricity or internet, and someone had to pay. (My mother, who on occasion displays alarmingly jingoistic tendencies, called me to ask: Do you think India sent the rain?) Watching elite indignation spool across social media, I thought of Watsuji Tetsurō—the recent rains certainly didn’t engender passivity, but perhaps he was right about a lack of historical awareness. A few days later, in an entirely different part of the city, authorities “took action” against urban flooding by bulldozing poor people’s homes built along a major nullah.

The recent rains, it is worth noting, were unprecedented. Perturbed meteorologists in Karachi have warned that the sea and winds behaved very differently this summer. The monsoon was always fickle, but recent research and the anecdotes of locals are both sounding the alarm on its increasing unpredictability. The timing of rainfall is shifting, disrupting agricultural cycles. The direction of the winds appears to be in flux too. Changes in land use—the dramatic decline in forest cover to grow food—and widespread aerosol emissions—particulate matter from vehicle emissions, crop burning, and domestic cooking fires—are affecting monsoon rainfall over South Asia. Because it is unclear exactly how these factors interact with the effect of greenhouse gases, it has become difficult to predict future patterns of rain. “The monsoon,” Amrith writes, “is truly the wild card in many climate models.”

I once spoke to a geologist who studies the historical trajectory of the monsoon. By drilling into the Indian ocean and examining the fossils of millennia-old plankton, he and his colleagues have been able to reconstruct the subcontinent’s ancient ecosystem. They deduced that the shifting of rains thousands of years ago weakened, and ultimately vanquished, earlier civilizations. Cities were abandoned, writing systems lost, and crafts disappeared—it was a reversion to a more impoverished way of life, the geologist said. In some ways, it is the memory of this profound dependence on rain that has shaped the development of South Asia. And yet, as Amrith writes, many of the modern measures intended to secure us against the vagaries of the monsoon—intensive irrigation, the planting of new crops, the ubiquitous use of tube wells—have, through a cascade of unintended consequences, destabilized the monsoon itself.

The monsoon was always capricious, but its capriciousness these days is partly our doing, the result of cumulative human action. I imagine this changes its function as a metaphor. When the sky over Karachi becomes fluffy and grey, the song that strums in my head is an old 1957 tune. Here comes the season of color and joy, a shepherdess croons to her absent beloved in black-and-white, take leave from work, and come home. There is no actual reference to rain, onscreen or in the lyrics, but you can’t convince me she isn’t singing of the monsoon. Even if the centrality of rain has receded from contemporary literature, many Bollywood movies still end with a good downpour—that old idea again, of catharsis and culmination. I wonder whether this dissonance between our narrative imagination and our lived experience will linger on as we struggle to cope with the monsoon, as our television screens and social media feeds fill each summer with images of floating cars and fallen billboards. The irony, of course, is that as it mutates under anthropogenic climate change, the modern monsoon has become more intimately connected to us, a clearer reflection of human desires and human choices than it ever was in the past.