Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Monsoon Musings

One of the first pieces of non-fiction I can remember encountering is a book called 'Chasing the Monsoon' by Alexander Frater. I was a middle-schooler at the time and was oddly compelled by the idea of reading something that wasn't a story. Somehow, it made me feel grown-up. Not to omit the fact that chasing clouds across a chaotic and vast country seemed a piece of foreigner's nonsense - it was an enterprise no Indian would undertake, a whimsical quest no Indian parent would countenance. Which of course rendered the book doubly intriguing and exotic.

I must confess that I don't remember very much of the book. I don't think I ever got past a chapter or two. Non-fiction would reveal its charms to me much, much later, sometime around my early twenties (how it pains me to acknowledge that that particular time in my life is past). But it did leave me with the impression that while the rains rained everywhere, they monsooned only in India. Gloriously and uproariously wet and temperamental, the Indian monsoon was unique and identifiable - it traced a defined trajectory and left mixed blessings in its wake. 

Knowing what I do now, I realize that in undertaking his quest, Frater was no pioneer. In developing a (presumably temporary) infatuation with the monsoons, he had in fact arrived late to a large and fairly raucous party. I'm no anthropologist or culture-studies maven, but I doubt monsoon fetishism anywhere else can compete with India's feverish, high pitched version. We do monsoons differently here.

Kalidas' Meghdoot (Not strictly monsoon, I know. But it traces the path of a cloud). The malhar raga - miyan ki malhar, megha malhar, gaud malhar, and all its other complex, nuanced permutations. Miniature paintings based on the monsoons, populated with peacocks, trees in full bloom, lightning, thunder and lovers either ensconced indoors or separated by surging rivers. Our mythology is rife with torrential rains, particularly when it comes to Krishna. Researchers believe that the importance of elephants (that figure in the divine dreams of both Mahavira's and Siddhartha's mothers) can be linked to their symbolic significance as the harbingers of rain.  

And then there are the baser (or more commonplace, if you'd prefer) rituals that accompany the monsoon - rain dances in movies and  outside of them,  hosted by questionable hotels and respectable housing societies alike. Food magazines and newspapers doing specials on pakoras and fritters. Fashion magazines insisting that this year, designers have found a way to make raincoats and PVC desirable. Corn eaten on the cob, by the sea. Lychees. Resigning oneself to floods and delayed local trains and traffic jams. Abstaining from seafood. The annual examination of rain-preparedness conducted by dailies and tabloids, which this city almost always fails, sometimes with devastating results. Monsoon weddings.

We may style ourselves as a 21st century power, but our relationship with the monsoon is anachronistic, even primal. We need our rains, we enjoy the respite that they provide, but they  extract and endow in equal measure. Floods. Landslides. Death. Crops. Water supply. Growth rates.

The absurdity of our reliance on the rains strikes me with greater force now that the headlines are proclaiming that India is confronting the specter of drought. Drought? A word that rings of the past, of helplessness, of factors utterly and completely beyond our control. In a country in which the politicians and do-gooders both fail us, which has been impacted by economic doldrums originating elsewhere, which is roiling internally and which consents to targeted violence disguised as morality, it seems odd that pundits would discuss the weather. The thing is, India's rains aren't just a barometer of the mood or the stock market. Our collective relationship with the monsoons runs deeper than that. For better or for worse (and often it is the latter), the monsoons form part of our yearly experience of the world. We feel differently when it rains.

And with the monsoon having seemingly forsaken us, I, for one, am feeling worried. Disappointed. Confused. It isn't smooth sailing till it rains. And it isn't June, July, August or September either.

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