It was through a footnote in a scientific journal that Varun Dev learned about the Pakistani experiment to steal India's monsoon. The Indian meteorologist at the weather station in Amritsar squinted at the annotation: "See M. Ali's monograph about successful cloud-seeding experiments in Pakistan."
The Ghosts of Kashmir
By Shankar Vedantam
Tara Press Price 295; Pages: 200
Mushtaq Ali was a meteorologist across the border in Lahore. He was about the same age as Varun Dev. Accordingly, the Indian scientist's first reaction had nothing to do with patriotism, pride or national security. He felt a twinge of jealousy that the Pakistani had been cited in the prestigious Journal of Meteorology. He noted with satisfaction that the footnote did not offer many details. Only a handful of meteorologists in the world would know who M. Ali was, and all worked near Amritsar and Lahore. No one who mattered would notice, certainly no one in America or England, which was where the journal was published.
To further console himself, Varun Dev read aloud from an invitation he had received to an important conference in London later that month. He injected a British accent in the interest of verisimilitude. He conjured up the plush conference centre, the give and take of repartee, the rapier thrusts of scientific conversation. The paper he planned to deliver about climate change in the Deccan Plateau was ready. In the small, shabby office that was his domain, he stood at an imaginary podium and delivered his speech, complete with gestures, knitted brows and interruptions for applause. As he left his office that evening, he convinced himself that Mushtaq Ali's citation was insignificant compared to his own impending triumph in London.
Varun Dev's triumph in London was diminished by the fact that Mushtaq Ali's monograph was on display at the conference. Even worse, the Pakistani scientist was at the conference too and the centre of attention of a large crowd of meteorologists who peppered him with questions. Varun Dev noted bitterly that many of the questioners had British and American accents. The Indian smarted. His own presentation, an actual speech listed in the conference brochure, had been attended by only five people, two of whom stood near the door throughout the talk.
Varun Dev wiped the beads of perspiration that had gathered at his hairline. As he strolled past Mushtaq Ali's poster, he absent-mindedly glanced at the scientific equations to indicate they held only passing interest. But the moment he saw the headline of the newspaper article stuck alongside, he was transfixed. The article from The Lahore Sentinel was titled: Drought in India versus Bumper Harvest in Pakistan: Local scientist draws rain clouds across the border.
"Varun, hello!" cried Mushtaq Ali through his crowd of admirers. "Mushtaq, how are you?" Varun Dev could not suppress the iciness in his voice. The Pakistani was unabashed: "I'm sorry I missed your presentation." Varun Dev shrugged. "It's alright. Half the audience was standing." Mushtaq Ali gestured helplessly at the throng around him. "I know what you mean."
The Pakistani scientist returned to the barrage of questions from his listeners. "It combines the old with the new," he told one questioner. "Everything we needed to know to seed clouds and draw rain was known already. The only confusion was the order of the procedure. That's why all previous attempts failed where we succeeded."
"What exactly is the procedure," asked a scientist with an American accent. "I cannot divulge," said Mushtaq Ali. "You see, that goes beyond scientific interest. That is now a matter of national security in Pakistan." "But this is a conference of scientists," the American exclaimed. "There are no secrets between us." "On the contrary, there are several secrets between us.The only difference is a scientist from the Third World now holds the most important secret of all".
Varun Dev marvelled that someone with skin as brown as his own could speak with such brashness.
"How do we know this really works?" asked another meteorologist. "You'll have to take my word for it. You could also visit the Makran desert in Baluchistan where we have produced torrential rainfall." Mushtaq Ali glanced slyly at Varun Dev. "You could also ask my colleague here about the drought in northwestern India last year. It is traditionally the most fertile area. But without rain, India will have to import grain next year. Maybe even from Pakistan. I have tasted rice from our paddy fields in the Makran desert. The flavour is unmatched."
Mushtaq Ali's grin was very wide. One of the western scientists turned to Varun Dev and asked, "Is this true?" The Indian meteorologist laughed dismissively. "What a question," he exclaimed. "You're a group of scientists. You know that one year's rainfall means nothing. Yes, some areas of Punjab received less than usual rain, but what does that prove? We have no evidence yet of a pattern, and certainly no evidence that they," Varun Dev bobbed his head at Mushtaq Ali, "were taking it away from us. If you ask me, the idea's absurd. Whoever heard of scientists presenting newspaper articles at a conference?"
And with that, Varun Dev swivelled and walked away. He raced to his hotel and barricaded himself in his suite. But there was no escape from the Pakistani scientist. He was the lead story on the television news that night and the focus of a talk show that followed. As Mushtaq Ali's claims grew progressively more expansive, Varun Dev ordered a bottle of scotch and methodically got drunk. At midnight, Mushtaq Ali was still talking for the umpteenth time about the stupid rain in his stupid desert, and when the television station aired a photograph of Pakistani bedouins tramping knee-deep through waterlogged rice fields, Varun Dev was no longer sure whether the apparition was a figment of Mushtaq Ali's junk science or the effect of the scotch on his brain.
(Excerpted from The Ghosts of Kashmir, Tara Press, 2005.)