His knowledge of weather systems and accurate weather predictions has earned Sonam Lotus popularity rare for weathercasters. But Lotus — not to be confused with the flower, in the Ladakhi language it means knowledgeable — believes that he is just Sonam, “lucky”.
His early aspirations to be an engineer didn’t materialise but Lotus went on to become Jammu and Kashmir’s first scientist to join the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) as a meteorologist in 2008.
His surprising accuracy and his affable nature have won him public approval, and also the attention of the new-age meme-makers on the internet. Three winters ago, a video of Lotus went viral on the internet in which he is heard speaking in Kashmiri.
The video received attention from the public because of his broken Kashmiri and his accent. “A boy came to me and asked me for a video. It got so viral that people still come to me and ask me to speak in Kashmiri,” he said laughing. “It doesn’t affect me. I feel good and I take it very positively. People have respect for me.”
From the mountains…
When Lotus did a one-year rigorous training at the Indian Institute of Metrology in Pune his “family had no idea” about his job. Born in an agrarian family in Sharnos, a hilly village sixty kilometers east of Leh, Lotus struggled to pursue education. He had to shift to another village just so he could attend middle school.
Every morning, Lotus would wake up and offer prayers at the local temple before setting out to graze cattle owned by the family and collect firewood from Ladakh’s sparsely vegetated terrain. “I was very stubborn, I still am. I never lost strength. I trusted myself and was not afraid,” he said.
In between, he also took up a job as a tour guide to support his family. “I not only earned money but made a lot of friends,” he said, recalling his treks with foreign tourists and exposure to the world outside his remote village. “I even learned French during that time.”
His determination led him to the Jammu city, more than six-hundred kilometers away from Leh, to pursue his higher education. Then one fine day, Lotus had his tryst with destiny: he took a shot at the single post that the IMD had advertised at the all-India level.
“People often get scared in these situations but I didn’t,” said Lotus. “There was only one post available and even I needed just one post… I got selected.”
Shepherd to Weathercaster
When Lotus began forecasting the weather from his base in the IMD’s Srinagar department, “satellite imagery wasn’t very common. The computing power improved and now the internet was being used. It seemed interesting to people.”
Today, Lotus is Kashmir’s go-to man replacing astrologers and faith healers for determining the opportune time for events — marriages and even the treacherous travel along the Srinagar-Jammu highway. “People make plans based on my forecast,” he said. “I have been using my limited knowledge to tell things as accurately as possible.”
The changing weathers of Kashmir impact different aspects including pilgrimage, agriculture, and tourism, said Lotus. “This is why there is a huge demand for knowing constantly about it. And I feel happy to say that up to a certain extent, we were able to do that,” he said.
It takes Lotus, on average, two hours to predict the weather. But the process isn’t that simple. More than the winter, predicting the weather in summers is the most difficult, said Lotus. “The system is chaotic in those months,” he said.
From mapping the weather manually on charts, the IMD has shifted to automated computer systems. “We are now able to track the weather conditions of different places through automatic weather stations,” he said, adding that a meteorologist’s biggest challenge is the decision-making. “We try to be as accurate as possible.”
Over the years, the meteorological department has been using different types of forecasts including short-range, two to three days; medium-range, around ten days; and extended range, around four weeks, weather forecasts.
“Nowadays we have a lot of weather apps but they don’t have that consistency,” said Lotus. “We tell them what impact a certain type of weather has including waterlogging, road blocking, landslides etc. We suggest [preemptive] actions.”
Staying one step ahead of nature in predicting the weather, said Lotus, motivated him. “I want to help people to make better decisions,” he said, adding that he wants to focus on researching climate change in the future.
A lover of Kashmiri art, culture, and cuisine, Lotus enjoys every bit of these and on occasions when he misses his home, people, and food, he cooks thukpa – Tibetan noodle soup – for himself, said Lotus. “I have adapted to the Kashmiri lifestyle over the years.”
A bookworm since childhood, Lotus enjoys reading for leisure and believes that books have the power to shape minds. Lotus is a firm believer in A.P.J Abdul Kalam’s saying, ‘If you fail, never give up because F.A.I.L. means ‘First Attempt In Learning’,” and often suggests children to read Kalam’s Ignited Minds — a book for young readers.
His lifestyle and how he feels internally are mostly influenced by the Dalai Lama. “If you read the books of the Dalai Lama, you will feel inspired to be peaceful and humble,” he said. “I try to follow that path and to be as humble as possible.”
In a place where conflict dominates the news and discussions, Lotus’ weather updates had initially come as amusing to many in Kashmir. Over the thirteen years of his service, he became a critical provider of information on Kashmir’s vagarious weather — well ahead of time.
“People might think that it is not critical, but they don’t know what can happen if they are not informed well in time,” he said. “My religion and language is different from theirs [Kashmiris] but they treat me like their friend. This is huge for me.”
In their own words, Lotus said — in his famously broken Kashmiri — that Kashmiris call him “panun nafar”, our own.