Anyone who is familiar with satellite images of the earth knows that wherever there is a cloud, the surface of the earth is blocked from the satellite’s view. This is because the cloud top directly reflects the sun’s radiation back to space, or the cloud absorbs the emission from the ground and radiates from its top at a cooler temperature. This does not matter for meteorological satellites, as their objective is to get images of the clouds. But in the case of remote sensing satellites designed for monitoring the earth’s resources, or cartographic satellites that map the ground features, this is a serious impediment, as they cannot do their job over areas that are hidden so to say ‘under a cloud’.

The phrase ‘under a cloud’, however, has a different meaning in non-meteorological usage. As per the dictionary, being ‘under a cloud’ is synonymous with being in trouble, disgrace or disfavour. It is therefore used very freely and conveniently by journalists and writers of news headlines, to draw attention to what may be suspicious or strange. So much so, that when I made a Google News search today for ‘under a cloud’, it yielded as many as 4,981 results in 0.1 seconds.

If what I got from my search is to be believed (and why not?), the whole world seemed to be living under a cloud, of one form or another. There were news headlines about development under a toxic cloud, and lawmaking under an ethics cloud. There was a horse running a race under a legal cloud, and another horse doing the same but under an injury cloud. One sporting event was under a safety cloud, another was under a police cloud and a third opened under a cloud that was really there in the sky. There was one reference to the beginning of a new life under a corruption cloud.

A newspaper itself was said to be under a black cloud. Many different meetings in different countries were said to have taken place under a cloud. A president was sworn in under a cloud, an official refused to quit under a cloud, a prince’s military career could possibly come under a cloud. A medicine trial was under a cloud, and a person who died at a ripe old age was said to have lived under a cloud.

There were two interesting headlines, one about a ban on smoking under a cloud, for whatever that meant, and the other about a ray of hope coming under a cloud, while that ray could have come through the cloud or from behind it!. But there was one news item that warned about an all-inclusive and most widespread cloud: Climate forecast puts earth’s future under a cloud!

If you truly want to go under a cloud and get wet, go to Cherrapunji or Mawsynram, the wettest places on earth. Or to take an easier route, follow Binoo K. John: Under a Cloud, Penguin Books India, 2004. Or if you want some lighter stuff, particularly if you are a fan of Inspector Ghote, read H. R. F. Keating: Under a Monsoon Cloud, Arrow Books, 1987.

– R. R. Kelkar, 15 June 2007.

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