Tag Archives: weather

Can you spot the tiny lens flare?

The Drizzle and Daydreams of Pang Lhabsol

Rabong means “wet goat,” and few names would be more appropriate. The jeep ride from Gangtok took us through hill mists and showers, in and out of low hanging clouds. When we arrived the whole town was dripping, globbed by watery mud, run by rivulets flowing through the cracks in the streets, enshrouded by a thick white fog that gives everything within thirty meters a delicate and blurry glow — and obscures completely everything else. As we picked our way down the slick hill to the press seats, I was entranced by the ghostly spectacle of a radio tower, which faded into nothingness at its peak like some djinn-built babel ladder to heaven.

It was the first day of Pang Lhabsol, the annual Bhutia festival worshipping Mount Kanchenjunga and for little Rabong one of the biggest events of the year. The three days are packed with sports competitions, cultural programmes, religious ceremonies, development exhibitions and general merriment. The inaugural programme featured an address by the Chief Minister and a series of traditional tribal dances, to be performed on Rabong’s famous and now rain-slick volleyball court.

Coming from a society that has boiled away anything resembling traditional dances or tribal garb in the melting pot of history, and that probably wouldn’t be very interested in that kind of group identity even if we had any left, I must admit that I find these sorts of cultural demonstrations a little odd and not particularly exciting. With the overpowering dampness that had descended on Rabong that day, the whole endeavour seemed especially sad and banal. I didn’t realise the extent of it, however, until the first group of dancers shuffled out onto the court, shivering in their bare feet and colourful but sleeveless garments. You couldn’t see them. The fog was too thick. Barely thirty feet away, the dancers were pale will-o-wisps, bobbing in and out of the overtaking grey. Here dozens of residents and visitors had turned out in the rain to watch these dances, and all the detail of their clothes, all the precision of their hand movements and the coyness of their narrative smiles — all of it was lost in the dull depths of the cloud.

But as I looked around, expecting the audience to be filled with faces of disappointment, or at least resigned boredom, I saw none of that. Certainly the crowd was less than comfortable in the chill and the damp, but still they stared loyally into the fog, watching the dancers move and occasionally adding some sharp shout to the twangy, upbeat music. We went amongst the audience to ask how they were feeling, getting positive and carefree replies. And when we departed mid-programme to explore the other Pang Lhabsol festivities, we passed more coming to join the audience — young children and bent elders incredibly climbing up the many, many steeps steps from the bazaar to the Mane Choekerling Complex.

We found a similar enthusiasm in town. Though the moisture had turned into drizzle, and the drizzle into rain, residents and visitors still crowded the streets, eating or shopping or making their way to the programme above or just generally milling about. Festive little lights were strung overhead, and through they remained unlit the coloured wire still brightened the muddy scene considerably.

The Pang Lhabsol celebration in Rabong this year was marketed in part as a great event for monsoon tourism, so we were quite excited to spot what appeared to be two genuine monsoon tourists coming up the main road. Ruth and Yussef Habibi, a British couple, were visiting Rabong after spending several weeks volunteering at a school in East Sikkim. The two hadn’t known about the festival before arriving but considered the timing fortuitous and were keen to check it out. We asked how they were liking their “monsoon tourism experience,” and the couple replied that they were enjoying it, appreciating it for what it was — but weren’t likely to want to come back for a second go next year.

At the covered exhibition compound many stalls were still empty on the first day of the celebrations, but there were plenty of poorly lit displays of crafts both traditional and contemporary: seeds, shawls, handbags made from denim jeans and cheap good from Thailand. These last had been brought by a Bangkok resident named Yocshai, who, after previous visits to the the North Eastern hills, was contacted to bring his wares by a member of the celebration’s organising committee. Yocshai, more than anyone else we talked to, was dissatisfied with how things were going — not so much because of the rain but because of how slow business was going. Still, he hoped things would pick up over the next two days and said he wouldn’t rule out further trips to Sikkim in the future (if not to Rabong, then to Gangtok).

Wet and tired but somehow vaguely impressed with how the little festival was turning out, we took a taxi back to the Mane Choekerling Complex to catch the end of the cultural programme, not wishing to trudge up those endless stairs. And as we pulled into the muddy parking area, our driver, Anmol, told us how he felt about the whole event. According to Anmol, the celebration this year was actually better than it has been in past years — in fact because of the rain. More rain meant more people like us, willing to skip the stairs and spend Rs. 100 on a cab. The weather had to be working for someone, I suppose.

Mountains, perhaps more than any other entity or object worshipped by the myriad religions of the world, are things you can see. They are huge and imposing in their sheer size and physicality, and of course that’s what makes them worthy of reverence. I don’t know whether one could normally see Mount Kanchenjunga from Rabong, but that cloud-cloaked day of still and bulbous mists nothing was visible. The idea of worshipping a mountain that one cannot see seems to me both ironic and profound. It takes a certain perseverance, and maybe that’s what kept the residents of Rabong so chipper. Maybe that’s what made them willing to walk up a hundred stairs to watch a dance show they couldn’t even properly see. Maybe we’ll just call it faith.

Notes on a Monsoon

It is thick into the monsoon season here in Sikkim, a time of great beauty and great inconvenience. Today I mean to go down to Sikkim University to speak to some visiting academics, but I was already soaked by the time I got to the main road. I waited futilely for a taxi to 6th Mile, but the few that bothered to stop for me were unwilling to go that far. And the rain was picking up, so I pulled my coat tight and shuffled back into the office.

I don’t mind the rains, usually. Even the monsoon has its patterns, and most days you can count on it raining in the late afternoon, leaving my mornings clear to go to the bazaar and my evening walk home muddy but tolerable. Even walks in the rain don’t bother me much. I have a vintage 1970s trench coat that had once been my dad’s, and I fancy myself quite the journalist in it, striding through the storm. For no particular reason I refuse to buy an umbrella.

And the season has its perks: the clouds. They layer the valley in the morning in ways that a prairie boy like myself could scarcely imagine. They roll up through town a clean white mist, obscuring past too many meters like the fog of war. Last night I opened my window and was shocked to see my own silhouette projected by lamplight deep into the thick cloud outside my room.

This year we are getting a proper monsoon, which is often especially crazy in Sikkim. A couple days of wet can quickly penetrate the soft Himalayas, loose the soil and cause landslides all over the state. But proper monsoons are good, since the glacier-fed rain here slides down the hills to water a huge swath of northern India. The storms, though they wash out roads and tumble power lines and leave the whole city a muddy mess, are necessary to rice agriculture in Asia. Even in Bangladesh, a country half-destroyed by floods several times a year, rural people perform weird little rituals, like frog marriages, to encourage the monsoons to come.

But then, it is hard to know what “proper” weather is anymore. With Pakistan underwater and Russia on fire, the sky has a certain sinister sheen to it these days. Sikkim feels it keenly, as our precious glaciers get smaller every year. Water in the subcontinent is on a terrifying time limit, and Sikkim will be the first to know when it runs out.

Rain is the kind of thing that I can always write about. Rain is primordial and perennial, but still constantly contemporary. It is beyond our control and yet, these days, its excesses feel like our own fault. And, yes, it makes my nose run and ruins my white canvas shoes. But a wet world feels infinitely more alive than a dry one.

I expect I’ll keep writing about rain, occasionally, when I feel compelled to write but have no topic at hand. I have to. It’s in me, somehow: the sky and the clouds and everything they do and everything beyond them. I am an up sort of person, even when it is pouring down.

Monsoon Skies Are Here

Something Monstrous After The Rain

It finally rained last night, and when I left the office, it was a revelation. Everything smelled different, felt fuller in my mouth and lungs, as if I were getting more nutrition out of every breath, as if it had rained antioxidants and electrolytes. There was a little fog now, but still the air seemed clearer, the streetlights brighter, and I knew that the next day the view across the valley would be sharp, seen through fresh glasses.

It’s been an oppressively dry couple of weeks, and the flat sky was starting to wear on me, so unbecoming for a vertical city. Without moisture and clouds, everything starts to look like different shades of dirt: the black dirt of rice paddies, the brown dirt of dying moss, the gray dirt of dusty streets, the pastel dirt of colorful Indian houses slowly bleaching in the sun. I haven’t been uncomfortable or unhappy, but something felt missing, some aspect of this place that I remember loving. I listened to the same couple songs on repeat. I avoided my book, and I wrote less and more poorly. (Writing the bulk of the piece on my flat was a struggle against vague and looming mediocrity and apathy.) I didn’t want to take as many pictures. I had begun to wonder, in the most cramped and cynical crevices of my mind, why I had even come at all.

But after the rain the rice paddies glint with puddles, the wall moss uncrinkles and plumps up, the roads reveal their rocky texture, and the houses pop bold against the hill. There is muck in the streets now, but the city looks cleaner and more beautiful. I feel my shoulders loosen up and my eyes dart with eagerness again.

And then there was the cloud. Walking home last night I rounded a corner and saw it, slinking low through the valley like a sea serpent: a huge bank of fog, as thick as wool and close enough to touch. Surely the thing was a titan, or the ghost of some old dead god, older than Buddha or the dancing deities of Hinduism with their many arms. This thing didn’t have or need arms. It was primordial. The monster that first inched out of the ooze, unnucleated, unegoed, and blind. The cloud crept over the houses in impressionist undulations, and where it crossed civilization its organs floresced with windowlight — an aura of moods, generated, surely, by the human lives in each house. It sipped harmlessly of our presence and moved on to the next street, leaving us none the wiser.

I stood and stared at it for a while. This was not the first god I’d seen in the mountains, but it was the first one I had seen on this trip. I rolled that word — ‘god’ — around in my cheek a bit. A strange idea next to the reports and press releases of executive board meetings and development seminars and petty politics that had been my afternoon. ‘Spirit,’ ‘elemental,’ ‘demon,’ ‘old one,’ ‘ghost,’ ‘god.’ Not things I believed in, certainly, not the way I believe in global warming or black holes, anyways. But then, after that fresh, finally rain, revelation was in the air. So what else could it be?