Delhi Diary: Dry Fields, Dashed Hopes

Delhi - For the past four months, we Indians have waited in vain for the monsoon rains that are our lifeblood. This June was the driest in 83 years; July, the driest in over 60. Now, as the so-called rainy season comes to an end in August, the earth is parched, dust storms rage, and farmers can barely feed themselves—let alone the rest of the country.

Waiting for the rains has become a national obsession. Newspaper headlines fret that the monsoons seem to have failed India again. The TV weatherman points to a satellite map of the subcontinent, where not a single cloud promises relief. With no rain in sight, the stock market has started to slide, especially shares in companies selling to the rural masses.

Rain is woven into the fabric of Indian life. In countless Bollywood films, lovers frolic in downpours, thunder marking their passion, raindrops signaling joy, rebirth, and blossoming romance. As long as there has been language on the subcontinent, there has been a word for what Hindi-speakers call sondhi—the scent the earth gives off when first kissed by the rain. Indian names are often variations of Sanskrit words for raindrops, clouds, and thunder. My parents, first-generation city-dwellers, named me Mehul, the god of rain-bearing clouds. When I recently told a farmer my name, he gave me a wry smile. "You tricked us again," he said, standing in his dry fields as his children struggled with a rusty hand pump, waterless in the blazing afternoon sun.

The specter of a failed monsoon is a shared humiliation. The barren fields, an entire nation looking skyward, the possibility of widespread hunger: It all seems to pull back the veneer of India's achievements. Every day without rain punctuates the painful realization that while India can weather a global economic crisis, this most ancient of afflictions still threatens it year after year.

RAIN TEASERSIsn't this the India that's a rising global power, a hotbed of innovation? The sad truth is that behind India's brainy outsourcers stand 700 million people who depend on the earth—and the rain—to eke out a living. Most farmers wait for the monsoons before planting, and this year a fifth of India's fields remain unsown. Fretting about a food shortage, New Delhi has banned wheat exports and started stockpiling sugar, rice, and other essentials. With no rain, rural incomes plummet and consumer spending falls, so economists are shaving their growth estimates by a full percentage point.

Decades ago, my grandfather fled rural India. The rains then were just as unreliable, and the family's mango trees yielded less each year. My grandfather landed a job with Indian Railways and left for good—a familiar Indian trajectory. With so little rain, the government thinks 42 million people will repeat my grandfather's journey this summer.

Nothing, perhaps, is more painful than the monsoons' coy flirtations. A few weeks ago, a thunderstorm stalled New Delhi, flooding the streets and knocking out electricity. Children from my building flocked out into the rain to dance to Bollywood show tunes from a booming car stereo. My neighbor stopped me to give me a jubilant hug as I ran to my door, then teased me for carrying an umbrella. "You've become a foreigner," he said. But it didn't last. Two days later, the sky was cloudless again. At night, standing on my balcony, I counted the lightning flashes, but woke up the next morning to dry, dusty streets and unbearable heat.

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