The magic of monsoon

The magic of monsoon

The magic of monsoon

 Rain falling on a tin roof in the dark of the night. Sometimes only a light pitter-patter, scarcely disturbing the dreams of those asleep below, instead lulling sleepless souls into slumber. On other nights, beating down with vehement force, an insistent drumming rousing the unwary from their rest.

Two very different rhythms of that same ineluctable force, the monsoon, a thing infused with such powerful magic that two completely opposing manifestations of the phenomenon evoke the same instinctive response in those being treated to the seductive spectacle: one of a deep comfort hidden, almost hoarded, away in the deep recesses of memory.

To be woken up to the dance of rain on a tin roof is to remember it forever, and to hold forever the memories it triggers.

The small towns of the remote north-eastern part of the country that I spent my very early years in — Haflong, Shillong and Guwahati or Gauhati as it was called then, all places I then thought precariously perched on the edge of the universe — shared one common feature: many of the houses, especially the half-timbered ones in the style referred to as “Assam type”, had sloping roofs of corrugated tin, painted red or green and sometimes, very occasionally, a jaunty blue.

This was a region of much rain, of robust monsoons — indeed Cherrapunjie and Mawsynram were two of the rainiest places in the world — and the sloping tin roofs were perfectly pitched to enable the rain to flow down unhindered, and the sturdy metal also kept the water from leaking into the dwellings below.

The music that the rain made on these roofs was only incidental to their real function but, in my heart, rainy days and the cadence of raindrops on the rooftops were inextricably linked, and to this day, draw out nostalgic recollections of misty rainy days in years gone by.

In the hills of Shillong, the wind was as much of an elemental force as the incessant rain, and my earliest memories are of blustering windswept rainy days when sheets of furious rain washed over pine cottages and slammed down on glistening roofs with demonical force.

Yet, the thundering and the pounding of rooftops, the slamming of doors and windows, did not arouse any fear in my child’s heart; instead, quite contrarily, those days are remembered as being filled with the warmth of a coal fire lit in the hearth against the wetness outside.

To combat the recalcitrant weather, much effort was made inside the houses perched wetly on the steep slopes. As the wind moaned through dark, drooping pine trees ringed around them, houses were lit up as early as late afternoon, and the sight of windows awash with light always filled me with an inexplicable comfort.

Three generations — four, if I was to be counted — lived in our little pine cottage and rainy days in that honeysuckle festooned home was made the more remarkable for it.

My great-grandmother would be seated closest to the fire, a wad of betelnut and paan in the corner of her mouth; my grandmother would be on a bamboo murha a little distance away, almost always knitting something for someone in our large family.

My mother, tall and elegant, her sador draped over her head, would be at the dining table, pouring out tea from a china tea-pot into delicate tea cups, decorated in a floral pattern, hot tea that was passed out almost continuously all day, first to my grandfather and father and the many uncles always around, then finally to the women.

On an unusually lucky day, I would be given a little of that delicious, hot tea in my own small cup and I would blow at it and drink it down with tears in my eyes.

The rain never fails to evoke that cup of tea in my mind today. Or the picture of a family, comfortably languid in their closeness and affections, gathered around the welcome heat of a fire, the flames rising and falling with the cadence of their talk and the whistle of the wind in the chimney.

Time for togetherness

Stories were inevitably brought out into the watery light of those dim days: stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, others closer to home — tales of war and valour of the kings of yore and of local khasi legends suffused with the supernatural: fairies, ghosts and other such frightening beings.

Fortified by steaming cups of tea and plates of fried pakoras, one by one, the members of the family told their tales, against the sound of water sputtering down the guttering and swifter streams of rain water gurgling down the steep lanes of the locality.

Bewildered by all this talk swilling around, what I clutched onto and remembered best were stories of the family scattered around the length and breadth of Assam, anecdotes and tales that I still bring out on a rainy day, now and then.

In 1972, when Assam, as we knew it until then, split into the seven sisters of today, the rains followed us to the town of Guwahati on the banks of River Brahmaputra.

From a bungalow on the vast river — one that had an immense thatched roof, so there was no music of the rain on the rooftop here — I watched the rains approach the town, a sight familiar yet oddly unfamiliar at the same time.

The difference perhaps was in the sky, which was wider than I had ever seen before, and the drama of the monsoon found a truly fitting stage here. Day turned into night as dark storm clouds gathered over the river, growling and spitting out fire intermittently.

When sufficient tension had been built up, the heavens erupted with fury and rain crashed down, the like of which I had not imagined.

This was a furious rain and as it plunged down, the river rose to meet it, seething and roiling with a kindred tumult. As the rain continued, its strength and vehemence unabated, the river rose threateningly, and for the first time anxiety stirred in my heart.

There was no secure shelter from this force of nature and while the adults brought out pakoras, tea, roasted corn on the cob, and their stories too, I realised for the first time that rain could be a dangerous thing too. In those distant days, the monsoon did not flood the town; only the rural areas faced the full brunt of this wrath, but the rising river hinted at things to come and it is no surprise today that the city of Guwahati is under water.

Sunshiny shower

As dangerous as it could be, at the same time, rain could bring immense succour. I understood that a few years later as after a long hot summer, flayed by the hot winds that travelled in from the neighbouring deserts, the monsoon arrived in Delhi, the capital of the country, and the centre of my adolescent universe.

The besieged city exhaled in relief and anticipation as the skies darkened. It smiled as the heavens relented and sweet rain poured down soaking into the parched earth. With the first shower, the grateful inhabitants drank in that unforgettable fragrance: that of dry earth softening under the gentle assault of the first rain.

The trees that lined the great avenues of New Delhi had come into leaf just before the rains as if heralding its arrival and now with the advent of the monsoon, they drew on a fresh coat of tender green and their radiance softened the harsh summer contours of the city.

The wind now carried on it a hint of a coolness and under its gentle ministrations the city relaxed and rejoiced, celebrating this much-longed-for respite from the summer heat. Adding colour and flavour to this celebration was none other than that king of fruits, the mango.

Mangoes were everywhere and I remember in vivid, delicious detail the mango parties that the community got together to host: all around the scent of the mango and a buoyant sense of good times just around the corner.

Bringing to mind the monsoon in Shillong was the rain in Bangalore, a city I found myself in as a young adult sometime in the early 90s. Here it fell noiselessly from a gentle sky, its only flamboyance an occasional tremor as a gust of wind lifted the polite needles of rain.

The city, with its gentle slopes and houses with pitched roofs, was reminiscent of the cloistered town of Shillong and I succumbed to its graciousness with pleasure. In those days, the rain was not the threatening creature it is now: it did not beat down as it does now, and it was entirely possible to walk through it, minding one’s own business.

Impossible now, as it pours down with an intensity, an urgency it had not possessed before. Impossible now to negotiate the once-familiar streets clogged with traffic and rain water. Difficult sometimes to even recognise this beloved town.

After this winding journey, my memory leads me back to where it all began. Where it still begins, in fact. The place where the eye of the nation is focused, waiting with bated breath for the monsoon to touch its shores: Kerala.

One summer, I waited impatiently, held hostage by the oppressive pre-monsoon airless heat in the coastal town of Kochi. As the heat built up in immense waves and the city withered under its assault, in the first week of June the first tremor of relief appeared in the sky as dark monsoon clouds began rolling in from over the Indian Ocean.

When they hit land and erupted in that ancient rite of passage, the violent beauty of the drama unfolding in front of one was unforgettable.

Dark, malevolent clouds prowled the sky in restless motion, colliding with one another and intermittently, letting out great growls of anger. Eventually, when they exploded with full-blown vehemence, the earth shook and the sea trembled.

The waters of ocean tossed about, great waves crashed onto the shores washing away great chunks of it and bringing down anything — trees, huts, walls — in their path.

It was a primeval scene, one right out of the most ancient pages of history, and it stoked in onlookers a corresponding primitive awe and respect. The passion of nature could not be better displayed than by this beautiful yet fearful sight.

Thus the monsoon, the rain, bewitches one.

It holds one captive with its irresistible, sensual display of drama; every sense — sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch — is invoked by the dance of the raindrops.

The sight of rain falling gently from a wet sky, another one of a river turned dark and stormy, whipped up by frenzied rain; the smell of wet earth and the scent of mangoes, and the damp tenderness of rain falling on a bare arm.

All this and the patter of rain on a tin roof in the middle of the night cannot be erased easily from the mind and the soul.

They emerge, bringing with them all their attendant memories, year after year, in the wake of that first rain.

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