Awaiting the Monsoon

The dahlias and roses in the garden have long since shriveled away. The markets have seen the last of the strawberries and the broccoli. Just looking at a sweater makes my skin crawl. Opening the door of the house is like opening the door of an oven.

Dust coats all objects, inanimate and animate. Stray dogs look dirtier. The street urchins’ hair looks browner. The leaves are a duller shade of green. And to top it all off, there is the sporadic Loo, the hot wind from the northwest that brings with it a brief but brisk sandstorm.

From the top of my bookshelf, Alexander Frater’s “Chasing the Monsoon” mocks me, but even its pages are dry and faded. The monsoon rains failed last year, resulting in a drought. There has been hardly any rain this past winter and spring. Underground water levels are falling. There’s an electricity shortage, with many areas facing several hours with no power each day.

Work on the Metro system carries on, as does the construction of sidewalks in many parts of town. The push is an effort to complete before the Commonwealth Games in October. It seems inhuman to make anyone do physical labor in this heat.

There have been periodic security alerts warning people to stay away from market places. If they mean the open-air ones, it’s too hot to go there anyway. If they mean the closed ones, then the refuge of the air-conditioned malls is gone.

Even the entertainment is dwindling. Top-name Indian artists have gone on foreign tours. Foreign artists are wisely postponing their visits here for a cooler time. Bollywood has not had a noticeable hit in three months, since “My Name Is Khan.” But as the ever optimistic Maria von Trapp, blissfully living in the cool of Austria, supposedly said, “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” Indeed, several small windows have opened.

Schools have closed for the summer holidays, so the chore of travelling back home in the mid-afternoon sun is gone. Children who had to be dragged out of bed for classes are now up by themselves by 6 a.m. to play a spot of cricket outside in the relative coolness: the temperature is only 30 degrees Celsius then.

Every road has a water seller. His cart has a large clay pot with miraculously cool water, lemons and scaly-looking glasses. The first thing to offer any visitor who comes to your home at this time of year is a glass of water.

There is also a plethora of more upscale pick-me-up summer drinks that taste good and have salts that rehydrate the body: Jal Jeera — water flavored with cumin powder and other spices; Pana — the pulp of roasted green mangos blended with water and mint leaves; Rooh Afza — an exotic and mysterious concentrate of herbs, fruits, and flowers; and Neer More — a South Indian concoction that’s gaining currency in the North, a thin buttermilk mixed with asafoetida and curry leaves.

In a burst of energy, the Gulmohar and the Laburnum trees are in riotous bloom of flaming orange and bright yellow. And of course, there are mangos. True, the fragrant Pairis from South India and the mythical Alphonsos from Maharashtra are nearly finished, but the Safedas — large, fleshy and sweet, with a tinge of tanginess — are everywhere. Cartfulls of them stand at roadsides. They are joined by bunches of lychees on long sticks.

On the street outside the Jawarharlal Nehru University, there is a mound of watermelons in the shade of one tree, and a heap of coconuts under another. If you stop by the coconut-wala, he’ll slice off the top for you with a machete and hand it to you with a straw.

But let’s face it, these windows are mere consolations to while away the time until the door reopens to let in the monsoon. The India Meteorological Department has predicted that this year’s southwest monsoon will be “normal” and “timely.” Beginning in Kerala, it will sweep up to Mumbai and arrive in Delhi by the end of June.

But right now, it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the heat is merciless. As fully enclosed and air-conditioned SUVs drive by, a homeless family has found shade under a newly constructed flyover on Delhi’s Outer Ring Road. Two children play with stones and an empty plastic water bottle. The father is lying on a ragged sheet while the mother looks on listlessly. They are too tired to chase the monsoon, but they hope it will come to them.

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty, a freelance writer based in New Delhi.