No Man's Land
Monsoon 2019 - Will it ever end?
I write this, holed up indoors, in a beautiful homestay on a pristine, undisturbed beach south of Honnavar. We had come here to escape the incessant rains that have been a feature of the monsoon in Sirsi this year. The kids had been hankering for a long overdue beach holiday. So we decided to come down to the coast and visit this homestay run by a friend. We had a beautiful sunny morning – perfect beach weather – yesterday. The kids had a great time with their body-boards on the beach, riding the waves and splashing around in the water. The sky grew a dark shade of grey early in the afternoon and there was a shower. The rest of the evening was gloomy, with a persistent light drizzle. This morning, the sky was clear and there was a glorious rainbow, which I took to be a promise of another lovely day. Even before the rainbow could fade with the rising sun, the rains started. It's close to lunch time and the aroma of delicious food is wafting up to the room we're staying in. But outside, the rain is still heavy and the rest of the day too seems like a washout. The sea is rough and the tide is in, occupying almost all of the wide beach we played on yesterday. Thankfully, the kids have found some indoor games to play and some willing playmates in some of the other guests staying here. So I'm able to brood in solitude over the miserable monsoon this year that doesn't seem like it's going away anytime soon.
We're in the last week of October, though the weather seems like it is the middle of July when the monsoon is at it's peak. Deepavali is less than a week away and that's usually the official end of the last few rains from the withdrawing monsoon. The heavy rains should've ended around the end of September, by the Ganesh Chaturti festival. It is a month later now and the monsoon is still going strong. The paddy crop in our field is starting to put out panicles and is flowering. What it needs now is bright sunny days and no rain. With the heavy rains, the flowers fall off before they get a chance to get pollinated. As a result, much of the paddy becomes chaff – just husk without the rice grain inside. Rains later in the ripening period of paddy will also cause the plants to fall into standing water. This will spoil the grain and also make it very tedious to harvest. Once it has fallen, most of the grain gets eaten by rats and birds.
This year, the pattern of the monsoon has been unlike anything we've experienced in the 13 years we've lived here. We had an extremely dry summer with just one rain in April. There were no pre-monsoon showers in May, which is when we plant our ginger and turmeric. This gives the crop time to establish itself before the heavy rains that fall in June with the arrival of the monsoon. We spent most of June looking up at the skies to see when the rains would begin. It was late June when the monsoon made a reluctant start. I even wrote this (FB post) in June, when we were looking with uncertainty at the monsoon season ahead of us. By then, we had also decided not to plant our entire field with paddy, since we were unsure of how the monsoon would unfold and we didn't want the stress of trying to irrigate the entire field if the monsoon was poor and there wasn't enough surface water flowing through the fields. We decided to plant only 60% of our field this year and save the remaining space for crops we had been growing in summer in the past but had completely failed last summer due to a combination of lack of water and peacock and monkey raids. So we hoped to plant our usual small quantities of summer crops that we grow for our own consumption like Urad, Green Gram, Horse Gram, Cow Pea and Ragi once the heavy rains had ended by the end of September.
When the monsoon finally arrived at the end of June, it was about 2-3 weeks late. So the June rainfall was way below average. July brought us a reasonable amount of rainfall, though it was still below average. But it was enough for us to start our field preparations and sow the paddy nursery. We trimmed our live fence around the field, used the trimmings as green manure in the field, redid the bunds and pathways, prepared the raised beds for the paddy nursery and manured it and then tilled the field when the seedlings in the nursery were ready for transplanting. This year, we planted our usual variety of Kaveri which is the red rice we eat. We also got a small quantity of seed of a variety of Black aromatic rice from some friends in West Bengal. We planted that in a small area as a trial. The transplanting happened on Sunday, August 4th and our usual team of women helped us out. The morning was warm and the weather was lovely. Rains picked up post lunch but we managed to finish our transplanting by evening. And then the heavens opened up and for the next week, we had the heaviest rains we've seen in our area. More than 1000mm of rain fell in the next 5 days. The water channels were overflowing and the fields were flooded. A lot of debris was dumped into the field from the orchards upstream. The freshly transplanted tender seedlings took a beating and were washed away in many parts of the field. We weren't too worried about that since we had plenty of extra seedlings that we could use to replace the lost ones, once the rains eased up. A week later, when the rains eased up and we went to the field to replace the seedlings that were washed away, we found out that the extra seedlings we were counting on had all rotted away because they were bundled up and lying in water. We were able to salvage a few but that wasn't enough to replace all the lost ones.
By the end of August, we had recorded 2425mm of rainfall, which was 14% above average. We told ourselves that the monsoon had arrived late and weak but August made up for the shortfall. However, September rains were still heavier than usual and the rains in October are way above average. We've already recorded 3245mm of rain this year, 30% above our annual average rainfall and the rains still haven't ended.
The late withdrawal of the monsoon means that we still have heavy rains at the end of October. This is the most delayed withdrawal in recorded history beating the Oct 1 withdrawal in 1965. The distribution of rains over the duration of the monsoon has also been erratic. Monsoons here are characterised by 3 months of steady, incessent rains. There is a persistent cloud cover and the sun is not visible for almost all of July and August. The water soaks into the ground during these months and recharges the water table and fills the recharge pits we have dug all over our land, taking moisture deep into the soil. The spongy forest floor also soaks up a lot of the water during the rains and releases it slowly into streams after the rains have ended. This year, much of the rainfall was dumped in short bursts which resulted in the recharge pits overflowing and lots of water running off our land and in the forests. The heavy runoff meant that there was less of an opportunity for the water to soak in and there was erosion in one spot where the walls of the gully had collapsed. The paddy fields got dumped with a lot of soil and other debris during the heavy downpours, which flattened the paddy plants in several patches. This has happened several times this year. The scale of crop and property destruction and loss of life from flooding and house collapses all over the country this year is also unprecedented. There wasn't too much damage in our area but we were without power for long stretches when trees fell and brought down power lines. As bad luck would have it, our solar power unit also broke down in the middle of the monsoon. So we got used to having early dinners and going to bed soon after it got dark. We got so used to this routine that when power was restored 8 days later, it seemed like a novelty to flip a switch and have light flood a dark room. This took some getting used to.
One of the bonuses this monsoon was the bumper harvest of mushrooms we were able to forage from our land. Some days, we'd get bucketfuls of mushrooms which would then be cooked in a variety of ways. The mushrooms had to be gathered in the morning itself, before they fully opened out and got eaten by insects or trampled by grazing cattle. I also managed to be fairly disciplined with my running through the monsoon. That helped me retain my sanity and make the monsoon somewhat tolerable. I got used to running in pouring rain and through slush. I also switched to running in light sandals last year during the monsoon, since the shoes would never dry during the rainy months. I've not run in shoes since then. My sandals have lasted really long and I can buy a dozen of them for the price of a pair of decent running shoes.
October to January is usually my favourite time of year here. The rains are over by then, the place wears a washed look, the forests are green, the skies are clear and the days are pleasant. This year, the weather has left me grouchy and looking for warm and dry places to escape to. I came to the coast in search of the elusive sun and some warmth. Except for the half day of sunshine, the weather has alternated between 'miserable' and 'more miserable'. So let me crawl back into my dark hole and continue to brood until the weather clears up and the sun is out.
Ps: Seems like the late October thunderstorms were due to a cyclone in the Arabian Sea. It's not part of the monsoon cycle but that doesn't change the fact that we've had an overdose of rains and could do with some sunny days to lift the spirits.