Panchchuli range at Munsyari; the normal view on a clear evening. (Photo: Shyam G. Menon)

Panchchuli range at Munsyari; the normal view on a clear evening. This picture was taken in fall 2013 (Photo: Shyam G. Menon)

July 2nd; it finally rained in Mumbai.
One hopes it is the monsoon.
Hope is a good word.
The morning run was wonderful.
Drenched in steady rain, shoes soaked by water collected on the road.
The following is an account from earlier days.

At his house in upper Paton, next to the trail leading to eastern Kumaon’s Ralam Valley, Kharak Singh empathized with the weather beaten hikers relishing the roti and daal his family had made.

Over a long trek of 44 days, threading various trails from Garhwal to Kumaon, we had precipitation in some form – rain, hail or snow – for some duration, everyday, for more than 30 days. Only the balance was totally precipitation free days. Singh was a friend, known well to one of us. In Paton, we decided to say hello and seek a break from our daily routine of cooking food. During dinner, he listened to our story. “ The weather has become unpredictable,” Singh said shaking his head.

Late-May 2014: Families in Paton were gearing up for their annual migration to higher pastures and farm lands. In summer they move up; in winter, they move down. Even the local school – teacher, students, books et al – migrates to premises higher up in Ralam for 3-4 months. Kharak Singh’s family was preparing to shift. Provisions had been bought. Two days after we had dinner at Singh’s house, we found pack loads for horses, mules and goats being readied. A white ram bolted trying to shake off the gunny bag strapped to its back. It ran around the house, ran circles around trees. Kharak Singh laughed; his grandchildren even more. The mirth hid a reality. “ We are already ten days late,” he said attributing the delay in migration to the fickle weather and untimely showers.

Snow at Sundardunga, March 2014 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Snow at Sundardunga, March 2014 (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Similar to what we experienced in the early part of our hike, precipitation had apparently occurred here in the East Kumaon hills too. Then it gave way to welcome warmth, which grew to an unexpected heat. March to June is traditionally the Indian summer. In the Himalaya and while hiking there, it is never exactly so. The occasional shower characteristic of specific valleys, is a given. Further, it snowed well last winter. In early March, on a hike preceding the current hike, some of us had post-holed through thigh deep snow at places known to host snow at around 11,000 feet. With heavy pack on one’s back and leg stuck thigh-deep in gaps between boulders and tree roots concealed by snow, often, there was no way out except to slowly wriggle the leg free. It also rained in March making for a cold, wet environment.

By April-May and with the rains still around, villagers expressed concern at what the unseasonal showers meant for farming. In Namik, a villager quipped that life in Uttarakhand was beginning to resemble Chirapunji’s, once the wettest place on Earth. That was an exaggeration likely inspired by rain induced-calamity, a regular feature in recent years in the Himalaya. In 2013, hundreds of pilgrims had died in Uttarakhand following cloud burst and flood. It haunts. The worry colours comments about the weather. Not everyone inconvenienced by weather counted on pilgrimage and tourism for sustenance. Farmers were more matter of fact. One late evening at Bhainsia Kharak, a high altitude pasture between the Saryu and Ramganga valleys, we met a group of villagers with a goat in tow. Their agenda was literally down to earth. As the goat wandered around eating grass and licking our backpacks, the villagers informed that the animal was to be sacrificed to appease the local gods and usher in fair weather for agriculture. Unseasonal rain wasn’t good for crops in the field. “ Everything will be fine from tomorrow onward,” one of them assured.

The next day dawned clear. At the nearby mountain pass, we came across the villagers, idling after the early morning sacrifice. Then over the next couple of days, the rising heat grew so annoying that we found ourselves praying for a cold shower. It came, the sacrifice on Bhainsia Kharak notwithstanding.

“ I don’t know what’s going on but nowadays when it rains, it pours and when it is expected to be warm, it is hot,” Kharak Singh said. His observation seemed closer to fact; that’s the shift in weather pattern happening. As the heat increased, dust and smoke invaded the high ranges. It was the likely product of distant forest fires, perhaps smog from the plains too. After some days, the persistent heat culminated in rain. The cyclical process was classic high-mountain but the intensity of wet and warmth had changed. Post rain, the suspended dust settled. From a ridge overlooking the Goriganga River and the trail to Milam Glacier on the opposite side, we appreciated the visual relief. It was beautiful mountain world revealed.

Munsyari, second week of June 2014. Somewhere behind that haze is Panchchuli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Munsyari, second week of June 2014. Somewhere behind that haze is Panchchuli (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

We got back to a Delhi boiling in the 40s (centigrade). Two days later, a dry, summer storm slammed the capital city. The world darkened with approaching dust and foliage swayed as though a T-Rex from Jurassic Park was ripping through it. Precipitation was little but the high speed-wind felled trees. The next day’s paper said: nine dead. Outside my room with ceiling fan, the scorching Delhi summer continued. Some days later in Ranikhet, I got my first ringside view of a forest fire. I felt the hot wind from the fire, in my face. I saw dry vegetation burn with a crackling sound. I had long known that pine forests are homogenous. The acidic pine needles fall on the ground and make it inhospitable for other plants and trees. They discourage variety in vegetation. Now I learnt another dimension – dry pine needles burn easily. Add to it, pine cones (they burn well) and hillsides; you have a fire that reminds of medieval wars, when armies used to roll down barrels of burning oil and tar. “ Pine cones roll off and spread fire. That’s why, sometimes, a forest fire on a hillside spreads in discontinuous ways,’’ Thakur Singh explained. We had come to assist a neighbour whose house was in the path of fire. When we poured water on the spreading forest fire it merely paused and smoked before resuming its wind aided advance. An hour later, the wind stopped and with it, the fire subsided; then died. Apart from an abandoned house with roof covered in pine needles, everything else survived safe. The forest floor was black. A dozen human beings, neighbours turned fire fighters, wiped the sweat off their brows. They had seen such fire before; they will see it again.

Typically the monsoon reaches India in June. It is both a life giver and a complex weather phenomenon formed through developments straddling a vast span of the globe. Early June, news reports talked of a monsoon, likely below normal. To blame is El Nino in the far off Pacific near Chile. Impacted, is South Asia half a world away. Such is the networked architecture of the planet’s weather! Illogical and lacking science it may be – but on the trail, we had speculated during rainy days whether such untimely and enduring showers in summer could mean a weak monsoon later. We are not meteorologists; just hikers.

When the haze briefly cleared at Bona (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

When the haze briefly cleared at Bona (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Bona's view; lost to haze again (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Bona’s view; lost to haze again (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Munsyari is famous for its view of the Panchchuli range. June second week: There is no trademark Panchchuli in Munsyari’s scenery. Instead, there is a thick haze. The Panchchuli is a major mountain range in these parts with the highest peak rising to over 22,000ft. They are also a marvellous sight. The haze had spray-painted them out. In the journey to this corner of Kumaon, I had seen table fans in the rooms and shops of the lower hills. Bageshwar had been baking hot and with erratic electricity supply to boot. Feeling stuffy, I had got out of my oven of a tiny lodge-room and walked aimlessly on the street. Yet Munsyari’s loss captivated. A whole mountain range wiped out from view said something of our dry, dusty summer. It was the same at Bona village, closer to the high mountains, from where you normally glimpse, at the apex of Penagad (a local name for the adjacent stream and its valley), a small portion of the range. An evening shower (the typical local outcome of extended heat) bared the peaks upstream, till the haze swallowed it again by next afternoon. Mathura Devi, longstanding resident of the village said, “ It is hotter than before, the haze is more and when it rains, it is heavier than before.”

The observation sounded familiar.

It is old weather no more.

Yet in this country, we have people who doubt climate change.

Maybe they live in climate controlled-rooms. Nobody outside and moving escapes the weather.

End June: am back in Mumbai. Aside from weak drizzle, that too just once or twice, there has been no rain here. As if with great difficulty, the sky occasionally gathers grey and then all the clouds blow away. Marine Drive resembles a magnificent amphitheatre for the city’s famous bay and its sky above. During monsoon, that sky is brooding dark; the sea, it lashes against the sidewall and sprays those walking by in foam. This time, the sea was calm; the sky, a vast vacant expanse in which a few clouds casually sailed by. Over June 1st to 25th, the deficiency in rainfall in India was around 40 per cent. Latest forecasts cited potential monsoon recovery by July 6th. The past few years have been years of economic inflation with price rise for one reason or another. Anyone would tell you that a weak monsoon could mean a bad year for agriculture with potential impact on food prices, in a country where food prices anyway rise thanks to hoarding. Amidst this worry, the government gifts the country a stiff hike in rail fares and then partially rolls it back. Inflation is like climate change. You don’t feel it in controlled atmospheres afforded by money and power. I am sure that as with climate change, there are people around asking – inflation? What inflation?

Meanwhile, there was news from Assam in North East India: a relentless downpour and flash floods in Guwahati.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. An abridged version of this article was published in The Telegraph newspaper.)

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