by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Heat is eerie: lipsticks left unrefrigerated melt into deformity, ice cream liquefies and renders the scoop useless; fruit and flower stalls carry the smell of that peculiar cusp between ripe and rotten.
Then rain comes, licking the sky green; the veil between the mysteries and the sun-weary, bleached and hardened world dissolves away, becoming thin as a glassy insect wing. A dusty estrangement washes out, newly woven silken webs everywhere; meditation is possible again.
Clarity makes me humble: I’m smaller than a melon seed, slighter than a fishbone. I’m the moisture in the air and the movement in antennae; I’m filament and feelers, the quiver within the quiver, the wet crease in the smallest leaves. I’m also a rusty door hinge, static on television, soaked clothesline, scurrying lizard, the moving minute hand on the timepiece that is suddenly ticking louder; Rain changes the acoustics entirely— each syllable, sob, twitter, footfall, turning of a knob, is distinct. The airwaves have cleared and the cosmic channels open up.
I watch the raindrops make rings on the surface of a mossy cistern: water bangles! I imagine the continuously disappearing rain bangles on my wrists. Leaves float, throats are stirred into singing: a frog’s croaking has a timbre of energy today, as if it is charging the earth in its deep, steady way.
Birdsong becomes an articulation in a foreign tongue I long to translate and memorize. I’m filled with a peaceful attentiveness. I listen like just another creature, to the sound of rain and the rustling and chirping in response. It occurs to me that the overpowering heat of summer hurts every sparrow, toad and tree as much as it hurts us. It also occurs to me that the heat has a maddening effect—we build rage, boil over, our spirits wilt, our vision blurs as if in sweat, our demons hover incessantly; we lose focus of the essence. It is a defeat of the soul because the body is under an immense attack.
Over the years, there have been many droughts and deaths due to water shortage in Pakistan. Those who did not die or suffer bodily harm have certainly felt the influence of the hot climate on their psyche. I recall connecting road accidents, brawls, conflicts, lethargy and depression to the infernal heat.
The Sultans and Mughals made gardens and designed cross-ventilated buildings to stay cool in this land. The West made air conditioners. Pakistan has been in limbo— advanced enough to acquire energy consuming, heat-producing vehicles and appliances, not advanced enough to have an uninterrupted energy supply to support them. The result is a nightmare: a constantly weakening relationship with nature and fellow humans. Vegetation is replaced with complexes upon complexes of flats and business plazas—buildings that are not in harmony with the climate. “Load shedding” or scheduled power outages have, for decades, decreased productivity and debilitated the system.
The rich have their air conditioned cars and houses, and some have generators for use during power outage hours; the poor suffer incessantly, putting all their energies into survival and inevitably failing to improve the quality of life in the long run.
There is an inexplicable desolation in the sun’s blinding glare, the parched vegetation, panting animals, fast rotting food, amplified chaos in the city. It can be compared to solitary confinement: the heat seems to burn the thread that joins us to the world around us. This desolation of being severed from everything, even ourselves, is expressed in the lexicon: “Cloud” and “rain” have welcome connotations, as if they will relieve us from alienation and bring the relief of reuniting. “Abr e karam” is “cloud of mercy,” “baran e rehmat” is “rain of mercy;” “badal” (cloud) is a metaphor for relief. As children we would chant in unison “barrish baarish” (rain) standing by the windows, thrilled by the downpour. Later, I discovered that the desire for rain ran deep in the culture’s roots. A great classical tune Raag malhaar, and hundreds of folk and classical songs have been written and sung in praise of rain.
A drizzle releases a subtle musk that makes one fall head over heels in love with the soil. Heavy rain often follows, with gusts of wind moving in wide arcs. Thresholds and stairs collect pools of new rain, curtains get drenched. It’s a wild embrace. From verandahs and windows we watch the spectacle: the ghostly shroud of dust, the thorny, forbidding feeling is gone. We are cleansed and alive. Children go to the rooftops to bathe in the rain, special treats are shared— “pakoray” (gram flour fritters), samosas, and hot syrupy “jalebi” with chai. As with everything else, we celebrate with food, chatter, and song.
The way I am inclined to enjoy rain is by spending the day sitting by a window, reading by lamplight, feeling wildly alive but secretive and snug like Thumbelina in her walnut shell.