Pray for Rain

In India, waiting for monsoon season is an exercise in hope and fear

By / June 2017

At the end of March, the Hindustan Times published an article entitled “March is the New May.” The piece reflected what everyone in India already knows, that it’s getting hotter here. In March, highs across the North and West of the country had already topped 100 degrees. Last year, the India Meteorological Department tweeted that the highest-ever temperature in India, 123.8 degrees, had been recorded in Rajasthan. Earlier this month, the highs were nearing 110 in much of the country.

More than the heat, it is the interminability of summer that weighs on people here. Indian summer (not to be mistaken for the American phrase) begins in mid-March and continues through monsoon season–beginning in May in the South, in June or July in the North–and into the heat and high humidity of August and September.

Relief is hard to find. On a typical dry hot day in the early summer, wind gusts do not bring cooling relief. They force the heat upon you, whip you with it, blow it up your nose and into your bones. You would think that the shade of night would bring respite. It does a little, not much–temperatures at night dip into the high 80s.

How do Indians endure? Most don’t have the convenience of air-conditioning. Some live without electricity, and even for those who live with it, power outages routinely interrupt the rotations of electric fans. For all their strength, even the most resilient Indians get sick of the heat. In fact, weariness with the weather works its way into almost every interaction in the form of the phrase, “Pray for rain.”

I don’t know where the phrase originated but it isn’t hard to guess why “Pray for rain” is so ubiquitous in the summer here. Take religious devotion (of which India has no shortage), subject it to 100-degree heat, and “Pray for rain” is what you get.

Born of exasperation, the request is understandable, for monsoon changes everything in India. As enormous clouds form, the cooling breeze begins to lift the hot iron of summer. Doors and curtains, once shut to block out the sun’s blistering rays, open as if in anticipation of  a returning friend. People stand at open windows and look up at the sky, wondering, “Will it rain?”

 “The clouds broke. A few drops fell. The breeze freshened. Then the downpour came.”

And yet the hope is accompanied by angst. “What,” I recently asked a businessman, “do people in Delhi think about the monsoon?” He smirked at me. “Challenging,” he said. Monsoon doesn’t only mean temporary reprieve from heat. It also brings more insects, humidity, flooding, diseases, and deaths.

In Chennai in 2015, monsoon caused the worst flooding in nearly a century. The rains shut down the city completely, closing businesses, stranding thousands, and killing hundreds. Even the airport had to close when the landing strip flooded. A friend of mine missed his child’s birth because of the closure.

Last year, in the northeast state of Assam, nearly two million people were affected by flooding. A quarter million were displaced in camps. Across India, dengue fever and other tropical diseases spread. And yet, despite the tremendous risks posed by the rain, the people continue to pray.

To be clear, comfort is not the only motivation. Indians also pray for rain because the crops depend on monsoon. The country’s economy is still built, in large part, on agriculture. The heat portends ruinous harvests. In 2015, when the monsoon clouds came and went with little rainfall, nearly a third of India’s people experienced drought.

Still, there is a third reason why Indians pray for rain, a reason that I might crudely describe as the unifying thrill of the season. Last June, as clouds gathered overhead, I found myself looking through the window at my apartment, only to realize that I wasn’t the only looking. All around the building complex people had begun to take notice. There we all were, united in windows, united in suspense, united by our prayers. 

Sure enough, the clouds broke and a few raindrops fell. The breeze freshened. Then the downpour came.

I opened the window, opened the balcony door. It was already cooler outside than inside. Women walked out onto porches. Kids used the grass as a kind of slip-and-slide. Young men skipped and jumped in the street. Cars, buses, and rickshaws pulled to the side of the road. Pedestrians and animals huddled under bridges.

We looked out, looked up, not only in relief, but also with a rapt sense of wonder that monsoon, after so much waiting, had finally arrived.

Now in the middle of Indian summer again, as monsoon approaches from the south, I am heartened by those memories even as I am under no delusions about the storm’s power to address this country’s ills. Other prayers will follow, earnest prayers, desperate ones, but for now I am doing the same as everyone else. I am praying for rain.

Rob Smythe lives and writes in India.