People can bet on anything. The Pandavas lost their kingdom and wife Draupadi in a game or dice; Frank Sinatra bet his fancy hat on a comely girl and lost it and Rafiq Mian of the Walled City lost his pet goat on the outcome of an India-Pakistan hockey match. There are other bets too, like those on cricket matches and the sighting of the Id moon. But the cloud- betters are a breed apart. Long before the monsoon arrives the bets are on.

Rajasthan is famous for it. People bet on the amount of rainfall in the season and if it is scanty blame the seths for tying up the clouds by witchcraft to create scarcity and price-rise. Years ago Dr Taneja of Rajinder Nagar used to predict the rainfall from July to September for this newspaper’s readers. While not writing prescriptions in his dental clinic, he wrote postcards to the editor every fortnight to get his forecasts published. They were uncannily true. When a postcard failed to find space in the paper he would land up in the News Editor’s room and express his disappointment with a little stammer. There were those who tried to ridicule him by contesting his predictions but they generally came off second best. Befor Dr Taneja, an Anglo-Indian from Mount Abu, C B Cokaine, kept a close watch on the minimum and maximum aggregate rainfall of the hill station for the benefit of readers, once chiding the paper for relegating Abu to the sixth place (it used to be No 1) in the weather report.

The last fad in Delhi is cloud-betting. Idle old men, not welcome in their homes while the purdah ladies are busy with their chores, seek shelter under shady trees and bid cups of tea and biscuits on whether a noonday cloud was going to bring rain. Since no money is involved, it can hardly be called gambling. The only benefit is that parched throats can be slaked, not with cold water, but steaming cups of tea. After all for the hungry it kills appetite too when taken with a heavy biscuit made in the local bakery.

Fazal Mian can outbid anyone but that doesn’t mean he wins every time he stakes a bet. Clouds are rather fickle these days. They come in huge masses and disappear, sometimes even without releasing a few drops of rain. Chunna Mian is a morose type, who bids only when he spots a cloud really pregnant with rain, wafting in the Sawan breeze. But Alamgir and Azim Bhai just lay bets for the heck of it and don’t mind losing so long as their friends are kept amused. Next time you see a raincloud remember that somebody may be betting on it.