A Storm at the Bone: A Personal Exploration Into Deep Weather
Can you feel it coming? Heat, hail, snow, rain. Wind, drought, flood, pain. Are you tired of waiting? Then hurry to Bangladesh, where the skies have already broken.
Today’s forecast: Overcast, with gloomy skies and stark, disabling winds. Poor visibility. Unstable conditions bound to deteriorate further. Tropical depression — my own — on the horizon.
Correction: There is no weather here. Here, inside the sky inside the brittle skin of the airplane. We are making our initial descent. The weather-weary world lies below, splayed out, lapsed into a state of watery calm. Pressurized air circulates through the cabin, mouth to mouth, like a vaporous secret. Here, as nowhere else in the country, the climate is controlled. The real air, outside the window, is the mystery, its designs untranslatable. What does the wind want?
A Muslim ventures to Mecca to feel the presence of God on the footpath; a stockbroker tramps through the wilderness, trading paper bears for bears with keen incisors; a student of the meteorology of doom, canvassing the radiant wind currents for clues to the weather, follows a fierce breeze to Bangladesh, the unadorned common denominator of intemperate weather, the zero-at-the-bone destination of the punishing elements. It has it all, and it has it always: five months of drenching monsoon rains each year, annual flooding that has a habit of rinsing away people and their land, severe droughts that devastate the food supply, the most destructive tropical storms on earth. And the best is yet to come, say the prophets of the skies. When the weather outside is frightful — as it seems increasingly to be, in Bangor as in Bangkok as in Bangladesh — we find ourselves trapped in a Bangladesh state of mind, storm-tossed and weather-beaten.
We are making our final descent. The weather on the ground comes into focus. I’ve read the papers. I know that the ongoing Bangladeshi flood of ’98 has officially claimed about 900 lives so far — mostly from collapsing houses, drownings, snakebites, and diarrhea — and has reportedly displaced 25 million people, one-fifth of the population, from their homes. I know that the Padma and the Jamuna and the Meghna, the three huge rivers that churn through Bangladesh looking for the sea, are running perilously high, and that the heaviest monsoon rains are still thought to be weeks away. That’s information, though — not weather. Weather is on the other side of the window, lurking in the shattered landscape, in the unbounded puddle through which a refracted glare of green land shimmers. I can trace the orange clay lines of major roads, which are built on artificially raised ground and which from the air assume the incongruous appearance of geometric order; and then, again and again, I see these roads disappear under water. I see floating clusters of trees and houses, isolated from one another like islands. I see the tips of power lines poking through the surface of the floodwater, and small herds of cattle — four or five heads apiece — huddling on tiny dots of land. I see no people; perhaps, I think, the people have faded in the weather, have reversed the course of evolutionary migration and taken to the sea. But people are always invisible from above.
To know the weather is not to master it. We have installed instruments to track the air, to describe its physical features; we have mounted cameras in space to provide us with frozen portraits of the air as it streaks across our consciousness in infrared bands. Yet all we can do about the air is watch it stalk us, coming closer, unhampered by our shutters and eaves, bored by our pleas, unmoved by the white linen of our surrender.
The weather is present tense. It has no memory and no discernible purpose. The earth spins dumbly on its axis making weather. Weather that gets hoisted from one anonymous geographic blur to the next by dint of impersonal electrical attraction. Weather that collides in its sluggish course with other clumps of weather, producing decorative effects that go largely unseen by the preoccupied humans mired on land, sheltered, air-conditioned, blanketed, dammed, diked, and battened down, escaping the overpowering weather. Bangladesh, we tell ourselves, is on the other side of the planet, darkened beyond recognition by the rainshadow of deprivation and plain bad luck, no threat to our fair skies. The weather, we say, is not our home. Despite the mounting evidence — floods in Texas, frost in Georgia, forests of tinder, parched prairies — we cling to the conviction that ours is the Gore-Tex of nations, cozy and dry and impervious to wind-borne brutes. We want to ignore the weather, conquer the weather, harass the weather into postures of stillness and neutrality. But the weather is not cooperating.
As the ’90s trail off toward the zeros, the weather has come to assume the shape of our collective anxieties, our fantasies about technology, nature, retribution, inevitability. The Cold War is a memory of childhood winters, when winters were really cold. That was before heat swept across our brows like a fever, month after month of record-high temperatures worldwide, six billion of us staggering through the churned-up weather flushed and disoriented. We have overstepped, we whisper, we have changed the weather. Now the weather is going to change us.
Examine the unmistakable patterns of collapsing weather. Haven’t the signs begun to accumulate past the point of mere coincidence, to accelerate, hurtling toward one long, unvaried season of grim vegetation? Our vice-president informed us that the July just past was the hottest month since the birth of the thermometer, and then followed up by announcing that August had bested July. Texans, who soaked their hat brims with sweat for 29 consecutive 100-degree days, nodded. On the abridged 1997-1998 highlight reel, we find a tsunami sweeping over Papua New Guinea. The Chinese army is called out to combat the flooding Yangtze and finds itself outgunned. The monsoon neglects to show up in Indonesia, which consequently stays hungry and on fire a long time. North Korea — forget about it. Africa floods. South America floods. Europe gets chilled and floods. A thick glaze of ice separates Quebec from the rest of Canada. Alaska is weirdly warm; California, weirdly wet. Tornadoes glance across the plains like horseshoes, throttling more people than in any tornado season in 24 years. Florida girds itself for an unusually turbulent hurricane season, though not long ago the Sunshine State was dried out and ablaze. El Ni±o is credited with much of the mischief, though glum weather-watchers ponder why El Ni±o currents seem to be making the rounds more frequently, with a grander sweep, and sticking around longer. Other apologists for meteorological mayhem warn us, in soothing voices, to take the long-term view, and remind us that a few nasty years do not an apocalyptic pattern make. But who can argue with the weather?
And so, Dorothy, you may be wise to retreat to the cellar and start stockpiling the Star-Kist and the Campbell’s Soup, the batteries and iodine tablets, the crayon-streaked pamphlets of the Book of Revelation and the canisters of oxygen, the dog food and the burn kit and as much Prozac as you can steal. You’re not in Kansas anymore. You’re in Bangladesh.
It was not suntan weather when I arrived in Cox’s Bazar, a town in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh with a sodden strip of slum-lined beach pounded by the rust-colored surf of the Bay of Bengal. A driving rain fell hour after hour, day after day. The skin on the hands of the marketplace vendor who sold me his last coconut was shriveled from the moisture. Cox’s Bazar had a defeated, used-up air. The people milling through the streets didn’t bother with rain gear. There was no use. A few delicate sorts wore taut plastic bags on their heads.
The people of Cox’s Bazar and vicinity have known their moments of celebrity. The storm systems that hover each spring and fall over the heated-up bay gain fury as they approach Bangladesh, perhaps eager for the opportunity to inflict maximum suffering on the densely populated flatlands of the coastal region. The last time Bangladesh made the cover of an American news magazine was in 1991, when a cyclone twice as large as the entire country funneled up the geographically welcoming Bay of Bengal at 140 miles per hour and hit the area around Cox’s Bazar at high tide, pulling along a watery surge 20 feet high and killing 139,000 people in one night. These are impressive numbers, but they are not without precedent in Bangladesh. A 1970 cyclone killed 500,000. In 1876, when the country had a population of about 20 million, a cyclone reduced that number by a solid percentage point, taking some 200,000 people into the sea.
I hired a small boat with an outboard motor to carry me the three and a half miles through the rain to the island of Maiskhal, where, my intuition told me, the weather could be embraced at its most acute. I was not disappointed. When I stepped out of the boat a sudden gust of wind relieved me of my umbrella. You don’t wear sunscreen in Hades, and you don’t carry an umbrella in Maiskhal. Children wrapped in black garbage bags collected salt from windswept dunes; water buffalo shuddered beside collapsed mud huts. Somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 people died in Maiskhal during the 1991 cyclone, and as soon as I muttered the word “cyclone” in the marketplace, several dozen drenched locals took a breather from hauling sandbags and smashing bricks to gather around me and compete for my attention. The stories came at me from all sides: how women were killed because their saris snagged on debris, how bodies were singed by the 130-degree heat of the storm, how the island was equipped with one shelter for every 35,000 people, how local politicians stole relief materials.
A cheerful schoolboy in a white shirt buttoned to the collar pushed his way forward to describe his experience. “I was eight at the time,” said the boy, named Asel Haider. “My family had just built a new house, and we believed it to be very strong, so many neighbors came to stay with us. There were 47 people in the house that day. Eighteen died.”
Asel paused and turned his face impassively toward the ugly sky. “It was raining heavily all day,” he said, “and the wind was blowing like hell. My father went outside and the wind tore the hair from his head. Around midnight, we all got into bed, but nobody slept. An hour later, the water poured in with great speed. I was confused. I didn’t know if I was in my house or at sea. Then I realized I was in a coconut tree, about 20 feet above the ground. When the sun rose I saw my mother in the branches of a nearby coconut tree. She was naked. Everyone was naked. Our clothes had been torn off by the wind. My mother was crying because my baby brother had been pulled from her lap by the water and she didn’t know where he was. We stayed in the trees all day. You know,” he said, staring through the downpour, as if some lost form were on the verge of materializing before him out of the wind, “the weather that day was very much like this.”
I wandered back to my boat. The sky was black and the tide was moving out. The sea looked rough. Great lumbering swells hoisted from the surface; whitecaps sketched nervously across the chaotic waves. My boatman, a 14-year-old boy with vivid bloodshot eyes, assured me that travel was safe. “No problem,” he said. I liked his bravado. There were no lifejackets on board and no safety equipment. I felt menaced and invigorated, ready for the elements. I removed my shirt and tossed it at the shirtless boatman, who entered into the spirit of the moment and gave me a thumbs-up and playfully wrapped my shirt around his head. I looked for lightning on the horizon to provide an accompaniment to my voyage. The rain was blinding. It was difficult to keep my eyes open, but I did, even when I started screaming.
Perhaps I was only whimpering. I don’t think the boatman heard me, or if he heard me, he might have mistaken me for a whooping American cowboy. The trip took 45 minutes, and 45 minutes of terror is the minimum that a visitor to Bangladesh ought to endure. The boat would crest a wave and glide into a prolonged silence, then drop to the sea with a jarring slap. This action was repeated again and again, as if for emphasis. The plastic seat that I clung to came unbolted. I tried to stay calm by examining the boatman for outward signs of anxiety. When he caught me looking at him, I gave him a thumbs-up. “No problem,” he shouted, with a notable lack of enthusiasm. Water was pouring into the boat and swirled around my calves. There was no shore in sight. I heard the boatman call to me, and though I couldn’t hear what he said, I turned my head and squinted through the rain. A fishing trawler — one of the countless 47-foot wooden ships that could be seen teetering in the bay — was sinking about 50 yards away from us. I studied it. It looked like a sinking ship. My boatman did not swerve. Evidently the notion of attempting a rescue was out of the question, and I felt sick and relieved. The sea seemed to be stuck in slow motion, every wave a prolonged gesture, every sputter of the outboard amplified and struggling to communicate instruction through the storm.
That evening and the following day I walked along the pier in Cox’s Bazar, trying to learn the fate of the sinking fishing boat. No one knew what I was talking about. Men sat in the rain chewing betel and mending nets. Great bloody piles of pomfret and hilsha fish lay on ice. I returned to the capital city of Dhaka and learned from a paragraph in the newspaper that during the storm in the bay at least 21 boats had gone down. A hundred people were dead.
Your Morning Weather
Dawn. The first webs of sunlight unwind across the phosphorescent green waters of Basabo, a middle-class district not far from Dhaka’s center. A line of canoelike boats called koshas sways at the water’s edge. Silence and stillness, except for the sound of a few shallow waves lapping against concrete and a distant shouted greeting that skims along the rippling surface. You might think you’re at the lakeshore.
You’re not at the lakeshore. A ragged column of early commuters can be seen trudging through the thigh-high murk, rising toward you like the perplexed survivors of a shipwreck seeking dry ground. Rush hour: Move aside or be splashed. Office workers wade by with their trousers rolled above the knee and their briefcases hoisted toward the sky. Shirtless laborers pushing against the tide of traffic with tubs of fish balanced on their heads, shopkeepers raising the grates of their storefronts and watching the water pour forth — the chorus of the awakening submerged masses. This is day 35 of the flood of ’98, and the water is becoming wearying. “How are you?” a man calls to me as he creeps past, sandals in hand. “Very good,” I reply. I’m enjoying the weather, the fluid mosaic of bright colors, girls in orange and red saris, men wrapped in plaid lungis knotted high on their thighs like diapers, a dozen women concealed behind black veils, squatting on the soaked planks of a boat. “How are you?” I call back to the man. He points to the sky: strands of charcoal wafting lazily towards us. His voice trails off with regret. “Very bad,” he says.
Water courses through the streets of this cramped city of nine million, cutting doors neatly in half, rising to the level of ground-floor windows, a stagnant blend of monsoon rainfall that has been refused by the city’s drains, trash that has sailed forth from flooded landfills, and voluminous raw sewage. The sight of naked toddlers scampering in the flood is, as a result, less charming than meets the eye. One woman washes dishes in the stream. Another leans out a window and empties a bucket of trash. Another collects water in a ceramic jar. “Are you drinking that water?” I ask her. “No,” she says, “I’m using it for cooking. I get clean drinking water from the mosque half a mile away.”
I’m among the dry ones — those with the means to hire a boatman to navigate the streets with a crude paddle, or those who pay a toll to shuffle along an elevated bamboo walkway fabricated by a local entrepreneur, or those who have engaged a bicycle-ricksha puller, as I have, to haul them through the water. Rich people — and all Westerners are rich in Bangladesh — are not permitted to get wet and hire poor wet people to keep them dry. My ricksha wallah stands astride the pedals of his rusted single-gear Chinese bicycle, bare feet caroming through the water with each revolution. His legs are etched with cables of lean muscle, like those of a professional cyclist. His calves, however, are blistered with sores from prolonged contact with the floodwater. The water deepens. His pedal strokes grow more labored, and he is forced to dismount the ricksha and pull the vehicle along, submerged to his rib cage like a horse fording a deep stream.
I’m enjoying the weather, the theatrical weather. The props are real and the crumbling sets are real and the drafts produced by the offstage wind machine are dazzlingly lifelike. The hot blue sky turns black in a flash, accompanied by a thunderclap. In an instant the street life of Basabo blurs behind an opaque scrim of rain. The monsoon winds, bearing ribbons of moisture from the southern seas, empty themselves in great sexual spasms, a kind of thick relief, a high-pressure rinse to scour the sooty urban film that coats everything here. Like a dutiful nursemaid, my ricksha wallah, squinting through the rain, covers me with a sheet of plastic. He catches me admiring the legs of an elderly boatman, which are decorated with what look like tribal markings: toes and feet and ankles stained a garish shade of neon purple. The wallah shrugs. “The water eats your skin,” he says. “Very much pain.”
Wet and hot this afternoon, with bright patches of discoloration and very much pain.
In Bangladesh the weather is obvious, and so are an outsider’s conclusions about weather, which can strike with the bluntness of a hideous blue sky: People shouldn’t live here. The same sentiments, of course, could apply to southern California, which shares with Bangladesh a propensity for earthquakes, landslides, droughts, and tidal waves; or southern Florida, which is nearly as susceptible to tropical storms as Bangladesh; or the Mississippi basin, which is apt periodically to suffer costly flooding. It seems to be a fact of geographic perversity that the least habitable land, logically, is often regarded as the most appealing, economically and aesthetically. We want proximity to beaches and ports and good farmland, and so we locate ourselves on insecure ledges, exposed to the elements. This is our human habit. Bangladesh is simply a concentrated expression of this habit. Bangladesh is the perfection of human vulnerability to nature.
Meet Jahangir. Jahangir drives a three-wheeled motorcycle “baby taxi.” On one of my first days in Dhaka, Jahangir drove me to an appointment in a downtown office building and along the way told me that his house was underwater. “I will show you my house,” he said, “and you will buy me a new one.” I couldn’t resist an invitation to a flooded house. Jahangir came for me later that day, and he took me by boat to his neighborhood, on a flooded island in the Buriganga River, which defines the southern edge of Dhaka. “It’s cheaper to live here than other places,” he told me, and I could see why. Jahangir’s neighbors continued to plod along in squalid rows of shacks that seemed to have been dropped haphazardly in the river. “This is a neighborhood for poor and ignorant people,” one of Jahangir’s friends, who had tagged along for the ride, informed me. Jahangir nodded enthusiastically. Many families had moved to their roofs. One woman called out to Jahangir as we drifted by, telling him that she had been awakened that morning by a snake in her bed. Jahangir laughed. Across the lane, another woman said that her infant had nearly drowned the previous night when he rolled off the bed-mat into water. Jahangir laughed again, and then turned to me and issued a tragic sigh. “This is why you must buy me a new house,” he said. A number of other residents, believing that the presence of a foreigner meant relief was on its way, called to me for handouts as we drifted past. An old woman, angered that I refused her requests, retrieved a paddle and vigorously splashed me. The water was not refreshing. I removed a dirty weed from my hair. Jahangir laughed. He located the spot, 30 feet underwater, where he believed his house to be. We stared into the water. There wasn’t much to discuss. We drifted past flooded shops and watched a pretty sunset. I saw a rainbow that I tried to ignore.
Jahangir received a little private relief from me that night — I gave him about $20, the equivalent of a month’s wages for him — but it wasn’t enough to buy him a new house, and he was disappointed. He dictated his address to me and made me promise to ask my friends and relatives to send him money. During the rest of my stay in Dhaka, Jahangir showed up at my hotel each morning to remind me of my pledge to assist him. I would be eating my omelette and checking the morning papers for tips on good flooded places to visit, and the guards at the gate of the hotel would bring Jahangir to me and stand by disapprovingly while he pleaded. He began to annoy me, and then my bad conscience began to annoy me. I told myself: Jahangir is a real person, not a character in a magazine article. He drives a baby taxi and spends each day sitting in a cloud of noxious fumes and when I take him to dinner after seeing his neighborhood he can’t read the menu and his slum is under 30 feet of water and as a result his two children are sleeping on the floor in a relative’s slum 10 miles outside of town. He boasts to me of his wife’s beauty and of his own sexual prowess. He is annoying. He doesn’t have as much dignity as I would like him to have. He’s willing to resort to begging. His address is S. K. Mohammed Jahangir, 44/10 Plassey Barck, Near Azad Office, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He requests American funds, and would like to remind my friends and relatives in America that packages sent to Bangladesh should be tightly sealed.
Is geography destiny? Although the overflowing waters, which cover about two-thirds of Bangladesh’s Wisconsin-sized landmass, would surely create havoc in Milwaukee, in Dhaka the flood is being taken in stride, especially by those whose knickers are not waterlogged. “This is not a great flood,” says Mohammed Ershad Hossain, a dapper little man in a Muslim skullcap who is director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department. (Hossain, it will turn out, speaks prematurely; by September, the flood will grow to be the worst in Bangladesh history.) Hossain spends much of our appointment reciting temperature data to me from a stack of yellowed papers. He is my personal Bangladeshi Weather Channel. A ceiling fan thrums overhead. I slouch in my mildewed chair. “So far,” Hossain explains to me this August afternoon, “only about 12,500,000 people have been affected by the flood.”
Bangladesh, my weatherman tells me, is the inhabited residue left behind by perpetual flooding. Flooding is Bangladesh’s history, its identity. Bangladesh is essentially a drain, the subbasement of the subcontinent, an unsteady formation perched atop shifting sands dumped in the Bay of Bengal over recent geological time. As such, Bangladesh is not only among the world’s least developed nations, industrially; it’s perhaps the least developed, topographically — constantly in flux, sliced up and patched together by the action of holy silt-heavy rivers dropping through the country like a holy terror.
Land is a fleeting and transitory substance in Bangladesh. The most recent catastrophic floods, in 1987 and 1988, killed 4,500 people, disrupted the livelihoods of about half the population, and kept two-thirds of the country in beachwear for a month. When their socks had finally dried off, a consortium of Bangladesh’s foreign-aid donors cobbled together a grandiose paternalistic scheme geared toward the negation of Bangladeshi weather. The World Bank coordinated the endeavor, called the Flood Action Plan, which dreamed of turning Bangladesh into Holland, lining the riverbanks with hundreds of miles of dikes, undertaking large-scale dredging operations to keep the channels free of obstructions, and installing elaborate systems of pumps and embankments around urban areas. Bangladesh has a tradition of frustrating its benefactors, though. The embankment surrounding Dhaka, built in the aftermath of the 1988 floods, held for 40 days and 40 nights of flooding this year but has finally been breached.
Almost $150 million was spent on studies and pilot projects under the Flood Action Plan, which briefly generated some heat before being dismantled in 1996. World Bank flood specialist S. A. M. Rafiquzzaman admits that “no one is talking about making a watertight solution anymore.”
Weather creates excellent photo opportunities. The flood was a nice story with nice photos. I felt a kinship with my Bangladeshi counterparts on the flood beat. The English-language Daily Star ran a photo feature throughout the flood season under the title “Dwelling in the Deluge,” and in the pictures the flooded people had a glow of classical serene misery. People in weather bear an uncanny resemblance to their spiritual brethren, people in war.
Half of the three million or so residents of Dhaka’s indecorous slums are believed to be refugees from the eroded countryside, where land is wantonly and regularly scooped away by the currents of rivers. Of course, when the rivers recede during dry season, freshly carved sandbars are sometimes exposed, and Bangladeshis — two-thirds of whom make their living from the soil — have been known to contend violently for the right to sow these new lands with crops. Six months later, the sandbars disappear again.
One afternoon I stopped in on a flood-relief shelter on the outskirts of Dhaka. The shelter was in a crumbling and poorly-ventilated secondary school. The 5,000 flood victims had set up camp wherever there was the suggestion of space — in stairwells, corridors, closets. In one smoky 12-by-15-foot room, at least 100 people were sleeping, cooking, and covering their genitals while their clothes were being washed in sewage. I felt like a voyeur among the undifferentiated mass of weather casualties. For the moment, I told myself, we weather-watchers seem to know which side of the lens we belong on, but the harrowing skies can make a photo opportunity of us in a darkened instant. A tiny old woman in an orange sari approached me and placed my hand on her forehead. I recoiled. I was prepared to look, but not to touch. The woman was startlingly feverish. I led her downstairs, where a group of homeopathic nurses was running a clinic. The woman, they told me, was suffering from pneumonia and rheumatism. They gave her one of the three herbal medicines they had on hand, which they assured me were made in America. I asked if the medicines were effective. “Of course,” they said. I asked if the woman would recover. “No,” they said. I asked the head nurse to estimate the percentage of the people in the shelter who were afflicted with serious health problems. “One hundred percent,” he said. It didn’t sound like an estimate.
I left the shelter, rinsing my Tevas beneath a spigot, and recalled a photo opportunity from the previous week, when I’d spent a blazing day drifting in a boat over a vast lake of flooded farmland. On my way back to the mainland, my boat brushed past a woman who was walking in slow, dazed circles through chest-deep water. She was weeping. My boatman called to her, inquiring. In a desolate tone she reported: I’ve lost my duck.
The Red Phone
Not all natural disasters in Bangladesh are natural. Some people are born to suffering, some people have suffering thrust upon them. “It’s unfair to say that Bangladeshis are victims of geography,” said Secretary Azad Ruhul Amin, the highest-ranking appointed official at the Bangladeshi Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. It was a good line, even if it was not unrehearsed.
I don’t know what I was expecting to hear when I reported to the Secretary of Disaster, whose job it is to make the weather disappear by political fiat. Amin projected the aura of a busy man with important disasters to attend to. A red megaphone was displayed in the corner of his office. He twirled a glass paperweight in each hand while talking to me, and when I asked him questions or told him about the disaster sites I’d visited, he kept himself busy reading his mail. He described to me his ministry’s various tasks of coordinating and supervising and facilitating and implementing. He described the steps that had been taken in the aftermath of the 1991 cyclone to reduce casualties. More shelters had been constructed, he said, and state-of-the-art radar and satellite equipment had been donated to Bangladesh to track storms with great accuracy, and the Red Crescent Society had organized a successful volunteer program to evacuate people when cyclones were imminent. As a result, Amin said, even a cyclone like the one in 1994, which hit the coast at speeds of 155 miles per hour, had caused only about 300 deaths, mostly among fishermen — as well as some 85 political refugees from Burma who were killed when the tin roof of the building where they were being detained collapsed and sliced them up. Every cyclone has a silver lining.
I stared at Amin’s desk, which was arrayed with a comical assortment of nine or 10 telephones, each one a different color. There was a red phone, underneath which was tucked a little red book that contained the secured numbers of 250 very important officials, the Secretary explained. The red phone buzzed and the Secretary picked it up and cooed. And there was a blue phone and an orange phone and a black phone and a green phone, and every so often one of these subordinate phones would buzz and the Secretary would bark into the receiver for a moment before returning his irritated gaze to me. I had a fantasy of these phones being connected to disaster sites around the country, and in my fantasy the phones buzzed all day and all night with pleas for respite and the Secretary offered assurances and consolation in the seductive tones of a chat-line operator.
What, I asked the Secretary, was his ministry’s strategy for preventing the flood of ’98 from worsening during the final weeks of the monsoon? “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said, “and praying to God.”
I like to watch the weather. I often find myself lured outside like a sleepwalker by the encroaching weather. I can feel the change coming. The street noise is suddenly muffled, as if a tarp has been draped over the city. The beer bottle at my lips tastes metallic. My imaginary dog whines beneath the sofa, and the neighbor’s wind chimes are rattling, and the domesticated indoor air is stirred with a tense infusion of air that smells of salt and dirt and ice crystals — air that has been sent from some distant place of urgent weather. I leave the apartment. Pigeons scurry from the gutters. I stare at the agitated inky sky, which looks as though it could unfold like a Chinese box. The sky hesitates. It seems to retreat into itself for a moment of anguished consultation. And then the shards of sky begin to fall like dead weights.
Hostile weather is arousing. Weather is a participatory sport. To be knocked to the pavement by a sudden gust, to see your tracks in the snow vanish beneath squalls — one feels thrust into a living theater of dense atmospheric symbolism.
Who has not on traumatic occasion felt one’s spiritual kinship to the Bangladeshis awakened by the smudged and debauched skies? Early in my junior year of college, a hurricane was forecast to hit the coast of southern New England. Hurricane fever swept the campus. Custodians distributed masking tape, with which we sealed our dormitory windows. Classes were canceled for the first time since activists had occupied the administration building 15 years earlier, proving that while baby boomers were roused by Vietnam, my generation was left to make do with virtual Bangladesh. The hurricane was called Gloria, and the song of that name seemed to be blaring from every radio in Rhode Island. I preferred the Patti Smith version; I was an English major with a fondness for ardent weather. I stayed up all night with a few friends, mixing sugary drinks and waiting for the wind. We roamed through the deserted streets, watching the windblown garbage get wound in trees, trying to decide if the air was hot or cold.
A broad swath of circumstance separates those of us with the luxury to seek out extreme weather from those who are routinely persecuted by it, and for whom the greatest solace would be the absence of weather, the white room across which no sun passes. It would be glib to claim that weather is democratic. It seeks out trailer parks and Bangladeshi slums with particular vengeance, though less calculatingly than the landlords who cede to the poor the poorest refuges. Even those in the path of danger, however, cannot help but seize the power wrought by the obliterating weather. I spoke to a meteorologist at a regional weather station in a storm-battered corner of Bangladesh, who told me that when cyclones were approaching, crowds of townspeople would push their way into the musty room with the radar monitor, eagerly watching the weather approach them and bracing for the overwhelming frisson of landfall. “I can’t deny that it’s very exciting,” he said.
It is exciting. Weather in the foreground, weather in the background. In 1985 my mother died during a winter so brutally cold our house felt like a place of confinement. Ice weighed down the roof. Snow drifted up to the windows and pressed in. It was a season of bad weather absorbing all sound, of silent weather and fear. The squirrels in the attic froze to death. And yet on the day we buried my mother it was as though the sun appeared for the first time in months in a brilliant nimbus that cracked open the earth. I might as well have been in Bangladesh, the disturbance over the bay gaining speed as it lunged toward shore.
One night in Dhaka I wandered through the hot mist in the streets outside my hotel, thinking about weather. It was raining and it was going to rain. Crows shook noisily in the trees. People huddled over fires in vacant construction sites. United Colors of Benetton was holding a “Monsoon Sale,” though prices were not reduced enough to meet the budgets of the millions of Dhaka’s residents who were living in flooded slums or who squatted in the mire outside the American Embassy and sloshed through streets of Mediterranean-style fortresses inhabited by international aid workers and businessmen.
I heard a shout and walked absently toward a ricksha that had stopped beside a gate. Two young girls, perhaps 12 or 13, gestured me toward them, giggling. A lengthy pantomime established that I was American and they were Bangladeshi. They were sweet and shy and friendly, and invited me to ride with them. I climbed into the ricksha and squeezed between the girls, like a tourist taking a buggy ride in Central Park. Only when the rain began to fall harder did I realize that the girls were prostitutes. It was pouring. The girls took turns pulling their fingers through my hair. The drenched ricksha wallah shouted curses over his shoulders at the girls. I sat there rigidly, unsure of what to do next. The rain emptied the streets and made me close my eyes and seemed to wash away my anxiety. It washed away the world in which the ricksha puller was treated like a slave, it washed away the shanties in which the servants of the nearby diplomatic residences were living in water, it cleared the air of malarial pests and the stench of rotting garbage, it fell like an elixir to restore to the children who clung to my wet shirt some semblance of unburdened girlhood. The ricksha finally circled back to my hotel, and though I paid the driver and the girls, it was hard to make them understand through the pelting rain that I’d had all I needed for the moment, a long ride through the transforming weather.
Where is God in Bangladesh? God, I told myself, is saturated in the saturated details. That’s what I told myself. I was stalled on a narrow muddy lane on a cliff in the port city of Chittagong, about 135 miles south of Dhaka, making a half-hearted effort to find the site of a landslide I’d read about at breakfast in the morning paper. My effort was insufficiently feeble. Soon enough I found myself being led down the slick mud stairs behind a concrete mosque, into a slum-filled canyon with damp orange walls that were streaked with moss, to a sunken hovel against the side of a cliff.
A dazed man coated with crusted mud was brought to me like a shackled prisoner dragged before a tribunal. His name was Mohammed Altaf Hossain. This was where he had lived with his family for 12 years, and he was currently digging through muck in an effort to retrieve cooking utensils. We stood atop a four-foot layer of mud, which not long ago had been part of the cliff and beneath which Hossain’s 40 ducks and 30 hens reclined in poultry darkness. I surveyed the scene and performed a rapid calculation. I calculated that some small part of Hossain’s vacant spirit — say, five percent — was down in the ground with his livestock.
The other 95 percent, I thought, remained beneath the mud that had swallowed Hossain’s house at four o’clock the previous morning after two days of strong, steady rain. Hossain said that his family had been asleep when the earth took them in with a sudden blow. He was entirely buried, except for his face, and so he continued to breathe. His wife was sunk to her torso. It was dark and confusing, Hossain said. After half-an-hour one of his sons managed to extricate him, and when he stood up he fainted. He was brought to by his wife’s screams. He struggled to dig her out from the mud, and when she was freed he saw that his seven-year-old son had been trapped beneath her. “My son, my son, what has happened to you?” Hossain cried, and fainted again. His son was dead. Soon he discovered that his infant daughter, too, was dead. A funeral had been held later in the day, and now Hossain was beginning to clear the ground to rebuild his house beneath the crumbling cliff.
As we spoke, I could hear Hossain’s wife wailing in a neighbor’s hut like a battered siren. I could hear the loudspeakers of the nearby mosque being tried out in the rain. “Hello, hello,” said a voice, echoing through the canyon. “Testing. Hello.” It might as well have been the mocking voice of God sent to test the resilience of hapless followers, the voice that rang out with scolding frequency throughout Bangladesh. How could Hossain fathom what had happened to his family? How could he be lowered with his family into a family grave, and then find himself risen, and then be forced to go on? How could such a thing be done?
“I asked God whether I have sinned to deserve this,” said Hossain, in a shamed whisper that seemed to drift down from a distant place, beyond the skies, beyond the disintegrating earth. “God will give me the answer when I’m dead.”
The answer may be concealed in the frayed fabric of the sky, the sky that neither begins nor ends in Bangladesh, the sky that scrolls in an uninterrupted belt from the clay ruin staked by Mohammed Altaf Hossain to the shimmering green lawns of weatherproofed, enlightened suburbs. Like a horde of people with ancient, half-forgotten injuries, we can feel in our bones the changing weather, the clouds gathering in the darkness on the edge of our blind spot. Hossain has been there, in the deep weather. You don’t come out whole on the other side.
I turned back toward my rented car, and when I approached the steps to the mosque I heard someone calling to me. It was a neighbor of Hossain’s, a boy. He was breathless. “Mark,” he said, “would you like to meet another family that was buried under debris?”
I paused to consider the boy’s offer. No, I said. No, thanks. Not just now.
Contributing editor Mark Levine wrote about the town of Atlin, British Columbia, in the September issue of Outside.