Thursday, August 5, 2010

Land Progress during the Monsoon

The rain dance has begun,
The cripple is dancing,
The old have thrown away their staffs,
The cattle have stood up,
The calves are running
In joy-filled circles.

S. D. Prasad

I’ve written before about the monsoon so please forgive me if you find this repetitive but I find it such an enjoyable time of year that I can't help but remark upon it again. Of course, not everyone likes cloudy days like I've come to appreciate here, so if wet weather turns you off, give India a miss in the rainy season. If you intend to go to the mountains or you are planning to visit one of those regions along the coast (Mumbai or Goa, for example) or go to the northeast (Assam) where the rainfall is incessant, this isn’t a good time to come. Yes, sometimes there is flooding, but otherwise, monsoon season is when India is in many ways at its best: mild, clean, green and mostly free of tourists.

Rain and clouds blown to India in early June through August by the winds from the Indian Ocean are known as “The Southwest Monsoon.” That’s about as much as I knew of the monsoon before living here. My mental image was one of incessant and unpleasant rain. As it has turned out, that’s not been the case at all with the exception of those places mentioned above. You’ve probably heard people say during a downpour, “It’s a real monsoon out there today!” Yes, it rains, but it’s not constant. In the hills, the runoff can be heavy but more often than not, the monsoon season is a time of intermittent showers with heavy thunderstorms sandwiched between beautiful sunshine and cloudy days.

Multiple geographical factors create the monsoon. To the north of India, the expanse of the Hindu Kush, Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau acts as a shield to block cold Siberian air from flowing south in the winter. As a consequence, north India is blessed with mild winter temperatures. As the sun moves north again after the solstice, the air begins to heat and is constrained by the mountains, resulting in very hot summers from April through June.

If you’re a tourist, don’t come to India in the hot months unless you enjoy that sort of thing in the absence of AC. That said, I think it’s good to experience the hot season in order to fully appreciate why the monsoon is greeted with such cheer. As the hot weather grinds on, day after day, a national longing builds for relief, and when it finally comes, there is rejoicing. “The cattle stand up and the calves run in circles,” as the poem says. It’s a good example of how opposites complement each other. Without darkness, would day seem only half as bright; without the dry months preceding, would rain feel so cool? And, literally, without the hot season there would be no seasonal rains because it is heat that powers the engine of the Southwest Monsoon.

With the approach of summer, the heated atmosphere above North India and Pakistan rises and begins to suck moist air from the Indian Ocean to replace it, thus causing the “trade” winds used by ancient mariners from East Africa to reach India and beyond. In the fall, when the air cools in the north and heats in the south, the winds reverse, sending sailors home on the winds of the “Receding Monsoon.”

When the approaching rain clouds reach the southern tip of India in late May, the monsoon splits into two branches. To the west, one branch flows up the coast of Kerala to Goa, Mumbai and into central India through Gujarat. It crosses the deserts of Rajasthan on its way to Delhi before continuing onward to the mountains. The second branch blows around the east side of India into the Bay of Bengal and then northward toward Bangladesh, eventually swerving back into the Gangetic Plain. By August and September, the clouds drop rain on the Deccan Plateau in central India as they retreat.

The monsoon brings life to India’s farmland, much of which is unirrigated otherwise. If the monsoon fails to flood the rice paddies for proper transplantation, yields fall dramatically. Even minor rainfall fluctuations cause alarm and dire warnings. A large decline can bring famine and catastrophe as was demonstrated by The Great Drought of the 1870’s when three consecutive years of monsoon failure claimed the lives of millions from starvation. That was at a time when the country’s population was far smaller than it is today. (Note: The great loss of life was as much a result of outrageous British policy in response to the drought as it was to a lack of rain, but that’s another story.)

This year, the monsoon arrived on schedule in Pune during the second week of June. For four or five weeks thereafter, we received only light, periodic showers until finally, in late July, the rain became steady for two or three weeks. In early August, we returned to intermittent showers and I expect this pattern to continue into September. From what I’m told, this is normal. Temperatures have been marvelously mild, 25C—28C (77F—83F) during the day and a little cooler at night.

Out on our land in Watunde Village, it rains more heavily due to our location in the foothills of the Western Ghats. On the Mumbai side of the Ghats, the rain can be intense, so the clouds tend to spill over the crest of the hills to our side. As you travel toward Pune from our land along the Mutha River, the rain abates the further east you go. Sometimes when driving to work in the opposite direction, I would see dark clouds gathering at the head of our valley and knew it was going to be one of those very muddy days.

Until the rainy season ends, little construction will happen on our land. Last year we worked every day, rain or shine, but this year sanity has returned. We’ll wait until conditions improve. All the vegetation has turned brilliant green and you can almost see it grow before your eyes. Molds and mildew love the warm, wet air and appear in all the places you’d rather they didn’t. The rain isn’t cold like in California or Oregon but pleasant, clean and filled with prana. Water cascades down the hillsides, forming beautiful waterfalls. Thick mud grabs at your feet and gets onto everything. Vehicles leave the roadway at their peril and, perhaps inevitably, some of our new houses leak.

This is the season when some Americans return to the States for holiday or, if Indian, visit family in other parts of the country. Only a skeleton crew remains here. Biraj, Shurjo, Hari and a couple of drivers are holding down the fort at our community while the rest of us are in Pune. Two of our Sangha members, Amol and Sundeep, have taken responsibility for constructing a simple guest house to provide accommodation for visitors next season but so far, we have only a big hole in the ground to show progress (see photo). If all goes well, the building should be ready by year’s end. We continue to work with our architects on a design for a cluster of flats for which “investors” have provided down payments. We feel some urgency to begin building in order to show them progress but there are so many other things to do first such as securing adequate water. Plus, we have yet to raise funds to complete the job should we start. We are juggling as we go.

The monks have been making good progress toward building their monastery and hope to soon add a solar electrical system and water storage tanks to their complex of little buildings. Jemal is leading a fundraising effort for solar panels (Panels for Peace) and has made good progress. Last month he hosted a group of young men from America who came to help set up the system and now two more young devotees from Uruguay have arrived to finish it. Maybe they can help with the clinic project too. Of the monks who still live in the city, I expect more to take the plunge and move permanently to the land when the weather improves. Katyayani, one of the young women who lives here in the Vanshaj apartments, plans to move out in September.

This is very encouraging because we need many more fulltime residents on the community land. I’d love to see us invest resources toward providing simple housing/huts to support a population of at least 20-30 residents before we go too far with other expensive projects. Amenities can come later. Because of the primitive conditions, pioneers will probably be young singles who embrace the ideals of "Plain living and high thinking." It's like the early days of Ananda Village We need idealistic youth (“must go north , south, east and west”) to build a spiritual foundation upon which an Ananda community can grow. That’s the theory. Now we’ll see what actually happens.

And what about Jaya and Sadhana Devi? We stay in Pune, building up our Sangha in the city. Weekends are dedicated to classes in downtown Pune and at our fledgling center across the hall from our apartment. After the monsoon, programs will begin at the retreat in Watunde. During the week, we take care of administrative tasks related to outreach, do special projects and write blogs such as this. Sadhana Devi supports a meditation group on the other side of town in Koregaon Park, and once each month, I travel to Gurgaon for four or five days to help Dhyana. Sadhana Devi does the same in Bangalore. I’m supposed to be going to Mumbai too. Anyone want to come and help? The weather is nice.

Lo behold!
The sky is lit up
With the lightning tree,
And against the backdrop
Of the dark and ominous clouds,
A silvery shining form:
Enchantment crystallized
Is descending,
Majestically – riding
A magnificent Lion!

--S. D. Prasad