Watching the monsoon, witnessing disaster

Few events in India are as anticipated as the arrival of the monsoon. The yearly rhythm established by the monsoon seems ingrained in the Indian psyche: the increasingly stultification as summer temperatures soar; the mounting expectation as the first rains near; the euphoria when the first downpours come. This ecstatic release – it’s no coincidence monsoon deluges are tied to romance in scores of Bollywood films. Of course, within weeks, everyone is complaining about the flooding and the inconvenience.

An Indian friend once told me that I’d never completely understand the Indian experience because I didn’t grow up with the monsoon. I think back to my childhood experiences in New England – the visceral joy of waking up to fast-falling snow, dreaming of school cancellations and epic snowball fights; the rush of happiness when stepping outside on the first summery day after a chilly spring – and realize that my friend is right. I can never quite convey the emotional immediacy and the lasting impact of these childhood memories, just as my friend can’t fully explain how the monsoons are part of her.

But now, in the midst of my third Indian monsoon, I’m beginning to feel at home in the cleansing rains (no matter how polluted they actually may be). A couple days ago, I went with my landlord, my flatmates, and a whole gaggle of young’uns (all relatives of the landlord) to see the rain-swollen Yamuna River. The Yamuna runs along the eastern edge of New Delhi, and, like the Ganges, it has great religious importance. It was an annual ritual, said my landlord – a visit to the Yamuna at the height of the monsoon.

Being new to Delhi, I could hardly tell that the Yamuna had risen to unusually high levels (can you tell from the picture on the right?). More obvious were the crowds that had gathered to watch the river; these quickly became crowds that gathered around the three strange foreigners who appeared in their midst. We wandered, crowd in tow, to the small shrine to Shiva, complete with lingam and dreadlocked, saffron-robe-bedecked sadhu as caretaker. Near the shrine, a few men were huddled next to a boat that was tied up and bobbing near the shore; they were offering rides on the auspicious river. One of the men cast a line with a magnet at the end. His prey: coins that people had thrown into the river.

Only when I turned away from the river did I see the impact of the monsoon. A small hut was half-submerged in water, and a broken old boat – clearly not meant for the water anymore – was all but sunk on the flooded riverbank. But no one seemed too bothered; an attitude of serenity prevailed as people munched on snacks and watched the swiftly flowing river.

I realized that I witnessed this scene before, this calm enjoyment of nature’s vast, even destructive, power. It was during the last monsoon; I was in the Kutch region of Gujarat volunteering on an organic farm. The region is known for its heavy rains, and it did not disappoint during my visit. Deluge upon deluge came down. Eventually, a swollen pond rose above its manmade sidewall and poured onto the stretch of road below. A whole group of us from the farm – again led by eager children – went down to the flooded road and watched daredevil motorcyclists try to make it across despite knee-deep water. We made several trips to the road that day, the final one when the flooding had subsided and we could see the damage wrought on the now-torn-up road.

But, just like on the banks of the Yamuna, everyone took it in stride. No one seemed particularly angry or upset; if anything, people seemed to enjoy the diversion and the novelty of the experience. (Is it too much of a stretch to tie this enjoyment to the worship of destructive Hindu deities like Kali and Bhairava?)

At least in Gujarat it was only a busted-up road. In Delhi, after coming home from the river field trip, I stumbled upon this article, which reports that over 1,400 had to be evacuated from their homes near the banks of the Yamuna.

At the risk of overgeneralization and pop sociologizing (which I’ve warned against in the past), I must say that Indians handle disaster with much more equanimity than the average American. And not just meteorological disaster. I was in India during the horrific 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. I was based in Pune at the time, but was attending a conference in Ahmedabad when the attacks took place. When I returned to Pune, people in the yoga class I was attending joked with me: “Oh, Thomas! We’d just assumed you’d died in the attacks.” Of course, they could have just been joking to cover up their worry, but several similar comments in different contexts made me think their levity was genuine. The Indians I knew in Mumbai were, understandably, more shook and more sober after the attacks, but even they resumed their daily lives with a rapidity that surprised me.

The pop sociologist in me goes wild when trying to explain this trend (which in itself is a reflection of my relatively limited observations here). I’m hesitant to attribute it to the influence of a Hindu or Buddhist sense of equanimity bordering on fatalism; this seems far too Orientalist a proposition. I’ve also considered – and rejected – a caste- and class-based analysis of the trend; while the lower classes/castes certainly suffer more hardships, I’ve noticed that this sense of calm acceptance cuts across socio-economic divides.

Is it simply that Indians have been faced with more trauma than the typical American, from the pain of partition to the caprice of the monsoon to continuing caste and communal strife? Whereas 9/11 seemed like a world-changing – even world-shattering – event to Americans, many Indians saw 26/11 as simply one more in a string of tragedies, albeit on a greater scale than usual.

Maybe, then, there is something to the Buddhist hypothesis after all. The first of the Buddha’s four noble truths focuses on the all-pervasiveness of suffering. India is no longer a Buddhist nation, but many Indians still seem to understand this noble truth.


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