Monsoon musing

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

They say that this year the monsoon will hit the Indian subcontinent hard and strong. They say that we who have been parched by the sun six months and some long, will now cower from the rains, for the next few, and then some. They say that climate change is real. And that we have made it so. That we shall reap what we sow, which is, in this case, the opening out of the heavens, in the kind of bounty that one neither wants nor can handle. The monsoon in this part of the world, that creature of romantic songs, and tea by the window, is a capricious creature of munificent gifts and unbearable fury. Not six months ago, I wrote about a city suffering the monsoon and its unreasonable gifts, brought to its knees by the usual combination of bureaucratic surprise and political willfulness.

And yet, the many years that I was away from these tropical parts, I missed the monsoon. And the fragrance of the first rains. The rains smell, like all writers attempting a description of smell will tell you, like nothing that you may have smelt if you haven't smelt the rain. Its closest description can only be brought about through invocation. Invoke if you will, a morning of semi-darkness, one where the previous night has been spent in heavy argumentation with people you love, where food and drink have flown in equal measure, where one has said things that sound right and ring true, and where sleep has brought dreams of the kind one wishes to remember, but can't. As you emerge from this dream-filled, accomplished stupor, something of the nature of memory winds through your nostrils, and you remember every moment of every happy day that you may have ever lived. Your limbs feel supple, and your mind light, and your body feels one with the bodies of leaves, and tree trunks, and branches, and flowers. And you know that it has rained. Such is the potency of this smell that people have even tried to bottle it up.

Memory and rain go together in my understanding. The most striking analogies I remember when dealing with emotional upheaval have to do with dramatic thoughts of lightning and thunder, and tearing asunder of sea and sky. I also sleep soundly to the background music of thunderstorms. And yes, I like Wagner. It would be promising I think, to think myself primal. But it's not primal as much as it is this that we are creatures of the world more than we realize. The earth enters us, its seasons are our bodies, and its flows our moods. The condition where the weather affects how we function, is to my mind, one of the most seamless things in the world. In times of light-less-ness, we try and stem this with electricity, and music, and thick walls, and television. But open your windows, and there stands the rain, gloomy and tender and dark and mysterious, and if you invite it in, it will stir in you all that is controlled so carefully through reason, and rationale, and civilizational legerdemain.

ChasingthemonsoonLong years ago, as I waited out a lush, dripping, monsoon afternoon, at a stodgily named but beautifully curated store called Bookpoint at Ballard Estate in the city formerly known as Bombay, I picked up Alexander Frater's supremely fun travelogue Chasing the Monsoon. Frater writes in sparkling, dry, and empathetic prose of his encounter-ridden travels across India, as he, yes, chases the monsoon. Seeking to follow the rains from Kerala in South India to the north-east regions of the subcontinent where the south-west and north-east monsoon winds meet, Frater doggedly charts a path across India, meeting the kind of colourful people one only finds in a book. In his hands, the everyday is joyful, while people are kind, intelligent, funny and lyrical. I'd like to think that the rains made them so. For the rain brings out the contours of the world. Its people are articulate, its walls sharp, and its objects clean. Its greens are an obscene green, bringing to mind oil-painted pipes, and parrots. Its flowers open out in plain sight.

But there are as many kinds of rain as there are moods of the heart. There is early morning drizzle and dew, offering company to newspaper boys and milk vendors as they inhabit an almost dawn, but done with its business before you wake up.There is that mid-morning downpour which finds its way into clothes, gumboots, and bags, making walls weep, and coloured clothing bleed. There is the rain that always teases and threatens and offers signs — the air more humid, the sky a darker blue, everything clouded in foreboding — and yet never falls. And then there is the rain that descends without a break, days and nights on end, breaking roads, flooding plains, interrupting electricity, and stopping whole worlds in its tracks. In love, sometimes, I want to be that kind of rain.

But more often than not, in love, I want to be the woman of the rain song. The rain song is that glorious invention of Hindi film culture which in engaging tooth and nail with censorship that forbade kissing, and nudity and some manner of vaguely defined obscenity decides to stage love as fantasy. Not that this fantasy has much of an imagination. In this set piece, the skies break open, and the heroine runs out into verdant landscapes seeking for her clothes to stick to her body and showcase her glorious curves, otherwise unavailable to the viewer's gaze. Some part of my romantic desire is forever stuck in this drenched imagination of rain. Even as I much prefer my rains served with an umbrella at hand.

These last few weeks of rain, but then no rain, in the city formerly known as Madras, I lie by my window sill in my apartment situated in the smallest national park in the country. I am beset by a sudden and unexpected melancholia — a longing, a saudade, an inability to encounter a complex world. And slowly, quietly, the borders of my longing solidify into the desire to make a paper boat, and to go find a stream somewhere, and to sit on my haunches and float it down, down and away. I give up, voluntarily, my need to communion with people, and instead wait for the animals on my sill — two monkeys, and a squirrel — to sometimes come by and stare straight and quiet into my blank gaze. Together, we inhabit the monsoon.