Talking about the weather isn't a safe subject of conversation anymore. Earlier, even with total strangers – at the bus stop or on a train or in a doctor’s waiting room – one could strike up a conversation by saying “It is very hot today, isn’t it?” or “I wonder when it will rain”. Nobody took umbrage; in fact the other person usually responded immediately and soon there would be a pleasant exchange of views and information.
But right now in India, talking about the weather with strangers or even friends and colleagues is not advisable. It can lead to arguments which could quickly turn political and even strain relationships. One has to be careful not to cross the invisible saffron line.
For instance, it is okay to say: “Did you hear about the deluge in Mumbai today?”. The reply will probably be: “Yes, the whole city has come to a standstill after just a few hours of rain”. To which one can nod in agreement and say: “There are traffic jams, houses collapsed, people died. It is the same story year after year”.
Up to that point it is okay. But to say anything more is as risky as wading through a flooded street and tripping on a pothole or, worse, falling into a manhole whose cover is missing. The atmosphere in the country today is fraught with hidden tripwires.
Hence it is not safe to say: “The municipal corporation is full of corruption. They siphon off all the funds meant for repairs. They know their political bosses will protect them”.
“Political bosses? Are you blaming the ruling party? Are you accusing the Chief Minister of corruption and negligence? It is your party which did nothing for 70 years”. Tempers are lost. Hot words are exchanged. Sometimes it even leads to physical fights and worse.
So it is much safer not to talk about the weather with strangers. If the heat is unbearable, it is better to sweat in silence. If you are stranded on a water-logged street, it is better to wait till the water-level recedes and vehicles start moving and you are finally able to reach home and get into dry clothes.
The truth is that it is dangerous to speak the truth. It is no longer permitted for people to criticise the authorities for anything. It can, and probably will, be construed as an unpatriotic act. In an instant, you will be labelled a member of the tukde-tukde gang. And rudely told to relocate to Pakistan.
In Delhi’s Chawri Bazar this week a simple dispute over parking of a two-wheeler scooter in front of a shop led to a flare-up of emotions and ended up in violence, desecration of a place of worship and communal tension in the whole area for two days running.
It may seem that the weather had nothing to do with it. But it has been so hot and humid in the national capital that all citizens are on edge, itching for a fight at the slightest provocation.
Reports of beatings, incidents of mob lynching and street violence are pouring in from all over the country on a daily basis. The videos of a uniformed woman forest officer being mercilessly thrashed in Telangana merely for doing her job of planting trees is just one example.
The attack by a powerful politician’s son on a municipal official in Indore, Madhya Pradesh is another instance. The incident was all the more bizarre because the young man, who is an elected MLA himself, used a cricket bat to hit the official. After he was released on bail he was feted as if he was a World Cup hero.
There are numerous other incidents taking place across the country, most of which do not even get reported in the news.
There could be several reasons why street gangs are taking the law into their own hands. One is obviously that they have become emboldened by political patronage. A new class has captured power in the country and after the recent elections they feel vindicated and self-righteous and want everybody else to fall in line.
But another reason, arguably, is the weather. This summer has been too hot to bear. The monsoon rains are taking too long to arrive – wherever the rains have arrived, it is either too little or too much.
This summer has been too hot to bear. The monsoon rains are taking too long to arrive – wherever the rains have arrived, it is either too little or too much.
It is not as if the people of India are not used to suffering because of the vagaries of the weather. But this time the overall climatic conditions have been soul-killing, not merely energy-sapping. Its the sense of disappointment and betrayal which is what is almost too much to bear.
This ought to have been a season of hope. The long seven-phase elections are over and the government has been re-elected with a massive majority – yet there is a strange absence of joyful celebrations.
Instead, anxiety, anger and impatience are more evident than a feeling of confidence and self-assurance. Rather than faith in the future soaring to new heights, there are palpable signs of a lurking foreboding that things are going to get a lot worse. This is what is causing an undercurrent of unease and erupting in frequent outbursts of mindless violence.
Adding to the frustration is the fact that even though it is already the first week of July, the sun is still mercilessly hot in many parts of the country, especially in the North. In States where the rain gods are finally beginning to smile, the smiles are rapidly turning into snarls - newly sowed saplings are being washed away and city streets are getting submerged.
But no, this is not the time to talk of the weather – it is no longer a safe and non-controversial topic of conversation.