Monsoon season — a time to celebrate or to curse?

Government's incompetence and failed disaster management strategies deprive people from celebrating the season which is supposed to be joyous

Asian monsoon is a term which was first coined in British India to refer to the rain season, influenced by strong winds coming from the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. Setting aside the geographical and environmental aspects, there’s a cultural and literary legacy associated with this weather. After a harsh spell of heat wave in a typical summer of South Eastern parts of Indian sub-continent, rain is welcomed as a sigh of relief. The dried and burnt plants are rejuvenated. The excruciating thirst of all living beings is quenched with the first drops of rain water. In all local religions, rain is given a sacred importance as it symbolises production and fertility. It was considered a blessing from the skies as a sign of the Creator’s gift, ‘Abr-e-Baran’ or ‘Abr-e-Rehmat’. For primarily agricultural communities, rain is a blessing as it prepares the land for the next season’s cultivation. The level of underground water is raised and a prosperous future with filled granaries can be predicted.

Instead of sawan pakwans (dishes) and raags, the sinkholes created by a heavy rain in historic Mall and other roads of Lahore remained the topic of discussion. Our governments and civil society need to join hands and through better planning and conducting environmental awareness campaigns devise an effective response to challenges of rain season

Popular literature depicts the local customs, beliefs, value system and weather related traditions of a certain region. Rain season is named ‘sawan’ in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi languages. There’s a rich literature in these languages associated with this weather. Right from the children’s or light poetry by Ismail Merathi and Altaf Hussain Hali, the narration of joyous turn of whole atmosphere is presented beautifully. It is a weather that symbolises romanticism. There is an urge to meet your beloved and the ones who are away are missed. The melancholy is presented through poetic expression that relates to the vacuum felt due to the absence of a loved one. The girls married long distance away from their parents’ village would miss their childhood sawan spent with family and friends and would desire to be with them again. “Ama more bhaia ko bhaijo ri ke sawan aaya” (O mother! Send my brother to take me home or bring news of all of you, for rain season has set in).

There are special dishes associated with sawan. It’s almost mandatory to prepare pakoras, samosas, chutnies , pickles and different sweets during rains. As life became commercialised, modernised restaurants and road sides dhabas took over the task of preparing these sawan-oriented dishes. We can still see crowded jalaibi and samosa shops whenever it rains. Khawja Hasan Nizami , a legendary Urdu writer has narrated the accounts of sawan celebrated in elite families of Delhi and surrounding areas. The Mughal royals in Lahore are reported to plan their sawan festivals and their convoys were transported from their residential area in Lahore Fort to Shalamar Gardens when it rained. Sawan was not merely a weather, it was more of a festival. Special dresses were prepared in bright colours and garden parties were arranged. Besides different fried snacks, mango and jamun, fruits traditionally associated with this weather were eaten with friends and family. Swings were a special part of these sawan festivities. The strongest branch of a tall tree was selected to fix the swing and a pleasant weather’s soothing breeze was enjoyed. Romantic Urdu poetry has many references of a swing being a symbol of love between two lovers and swinging your beloved’s swing is a soft expression of love. One of the most popular lyrics by Anand Bakhshi for Bollywood movie , ‘Jurmana’ are considered a masterpiece depicting the aura of rain season, “sawan ke jhooley parey, tum chale aaao, dil ne pukara tumhain yadon ke pardes se”(My beloved ! My heart calls out for you from an unvisited land of memories. You must come back, the swings of sawan await you along with me). There are special raags associated with sawan like desh malhar and mian ki malhar. There were legendary singers and musicians with whom a myth was associated that when they played a specific raag, it would start raining. Their art had such a mystic quality that it would reach the skies and stimulate the clouds. The local music and poetry depicted both the festivity and nostalgic moods of a rainy season.

The festivities associated with any religious, local or seasonal events are closely related to the quality of governance. Lahore is traditionally considered a city of festivals and fairs. The famous idiom says that there are seven days in a week while Lahore has eight weekly fairs and one just doesn’t know when to go home and when life normalises in an ever- festive city. Lahoris have already suffered the loss of Basant as a spring festival due to incompetence of governing authorities to regulate its activities and ban harmful wires. This year we had a record breaking rain and many parts of the city were almost drowned. Many citizens were practically home-bound, and vehicles were stuck. A heart-wrenching video showed a funeral being taken through water filled streets with a lot of difficulty. Rain season made it difficult to live and even more difficult to die. There are many excuses been presented to give margin of an unusual rainfall to the city management. We must remember that modern meteorological and environmental sciences help us forecast weather well in time. Any efficient government would plan strategies well in advance to cope with the challenges no matter how unusual they are. A resident of Niazbaig village adjacent to Lahore shared how a premodern era but competent architecture plan had helped the village streets stay dry during heaviest of the rains. We understand that Niazbaig architecture dates back to Sikh era and there’s a whole set of new challenges for governance in contemporary times including a rapid increase in population, hazardous factors like plastic and other disposable accessories, an increased level of pollution and worst of all, illiteracy of masses and a lack of awareness about environmental concerns. All these challenges still don’t justify bad governance. There are multiple mechanised equipment and technology at the disposal of modern day governments. It’s a matter of priorities. Instead of building huge bridges and underpasses (which turn into ponds after a heavy rain) we need to spend on strengthening our mechanism to manage a monsoon season, that is a reality of our region and is going to confront us every year. How could the ones living in comparatively better maintained areas of the city celebrate a sawan party when they knew that many of their city fellows were facing tough challenges? Instead of sawan pakwans (dishes) and raags, the sinkholes created by a heavy rain in historic Mall and other roads of Lahore remained the topic of discussion. Our governments and civil society need to join hands and through better planning and conducting environmental awareness campaigns devise an effective response to challenges of rain season. Basant and sawan have been festivities of Lahore beyond class differences. We have already lost charm of Basant from our lives. We won’t like to lose the romance of sawan.

The writer is an assistant professor of Political Science at Kinnaird College. Her email isahawan99@gmail.com

Published in Daily Times, July 8th 2018.