NEW DELHI — Khushwant Singh halted his tennis serve in mid-swing and cupped his ear. As his playing companions steamed in the already blazing morning sun and shuffled their feet impatiently on the red clay courts of the Gymkhana Club, Singh let out a jubilant shout: "The monsoon bird is here! Hail clamator jacobinus, the monsoon is coming!"
In the excruciating pre-monsoon temperatures of northern India, when 110-degree heat is just a starting point, there are no sweeter words. The only thing more satisfying is when the dusty sky actually fills with clouds and the pressure builds like the inside of an airplane cabin and the aching, parched land explodes under joyous, drenching rain.
'Songbird of Rain'
What Khushwant Singh heard on that recent Sunday morning was the pea-pea pew-pew-pew call of the pied crested cuckoo, otherwise known by its Latin name, clamator jacobinus, and, colloquially to the rest of Asia, as the "songbird of rain."
Singh, 72, is a well-known historian and author, whose many works include a recent book on the annual Indian summer monsoon. He has a theory that the summer monsoon, which brings relief to the millions of parched souls of the Indian subcontinent as well as 70% of India's entire annual rainfall, is heralded by the arrival of the pied crested cuckoo from Africa and the sprouting of a thorny green bush that grows near his New Delhi apartment.
Practically everyone in India has some personal signal that the monsoon is coming: The delicious summer mangoes from Lucknow, southeast of New Delhi, lose their tartness. The large, black Indian ants become frantic in their search for food, massing over the scorched earth with a collective desperation. A locust-type insect swarms over light fixtures. The late afternoon sky turns a dirty yellow and the midnight heavens thunder impotently, like a god with a hacking dry cough.
Signs of Relief
The signs are studied intently. For the one billion people of South Asia, the monsoon time is the most important time of year. Moreover, it is a cultural mainstay, the creative source for art and literature ranging from cosmic Hindu myths to simple tribal paintings, such as the pointillistic rain sketches of the Worli Tribe from Maharashtra.
"No single event is more important to India than the coming of the monsoon," said Singh. "It is depicted in all of our literature and song. It is the inspiration for half of our poetry and ragas (ancient melodies)."
The word monsoon comes from the Arabic word for season. There are actually two monsoons in India: the winter, or northeastern, monsoon; and the summer, or southwestern, monsoon.
By far the most important is the summer monsoon, the one generated, usually in late May or early June, when the cool, high-pressure, moisture-laden, front off the coast of Africa is drawn into India by hot, low-pressure, air trapped over the northern Indian plains by the great Himalayan range.
Many other tropical and sub-tropical lands have monsoons, but the one that comes here is made more dramatic by India's geographical configuration, a huge inverted triangle of land, capped by a collar of the world's highest mountains and jutting southward into the Indian Ocean.
Temperatures are so extreme here, rising to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the nearby Rajasthan Desert, that the meeting of superheated air with air that is ocean-cooled is like a giant meteorological collision.
The summer monsoon is vital to the Indian economy. A poor monsoon or a delay of a few weeks in the arrival of monsoon rains can make the difference between bumper crops and famine.
For this reason, the Indian government has been negotiating for several years to buy a super computer from the United States to help collect and interpret data about the approaching monsoon so that advance decisions can be made about planting crops and distributing irrigation water.
So far, India has been blocked from getting the computer it wants (the Cray XMP) by U.S. Defense Department officials who fear the technology would be leaked to the Soviet Union, India's strongest ally.
Progress Charted Daily
The monsoon, when it finally arrives, advances across the Malabar Coast of India and makes its way slowly and capriciously northward. Its progress is charted daily in practically every Indian newspaper. No other rainstorm gets such billing. The monsoon eventually arrives here in the north, usually during the first week of July.
But when it is several weeks late, as it is this year, the delay produces a palpable, unstated fear that it might not arrive at all, or that it will be very weak like the one that produced a severe drought in 1964-65.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this monsoon," said S. Gangadharan, a researcher for the Economic Times newspaper, which regularly documents the march of the monsoon and projects the possible consequences on cash crops. "So far it looks very uncertain."