Chasing The Monsoon by Alexander Frater

How do you like your rain? In silvery chains or sheets? A murmur or a roar?

If I had a choice I would, any day, opt for a sweet lullaby, over a thundering torrent. Then again, Indian rains often just have one mode: a deluge. And it was to see the onset of that deluge that Alexander Frater (who hears about the “two great wet arms” of the Indian monsoon from an Indian couple in the U.K.) makes a trip to India and chases the monsoon from Kerala to Cherrapunji. The result, aptly titled Chasing The Monsoon, traces his journey as he tries to keep up with the cloudburst. He picks up the monsoon at Trivandrum. The deluge, when it begins, gives him the sensation “of being cocooned inside a roaring cataract of falling, foaming water”. He then gives chase, taking a boat to Alleppey, drifting past rural Kerala, until the rain coming hissing over the water, whisking it to a froth. In Cochin, he greets the monsoon but in Goa he arrives after it. Bombay, glimpsed through “streaming windows” seemed like a “misty abstraction” thanks to the monsoon that had beat him; whereas getting to Cherrapunji, leaves him — and the reader — somewhat maudlin, watching, as the flight banks over the swollen Brahmaputra, the punishing excesses of the rains.

It works because…

It’s such a simple, splendid idea — following the arc of the monsoon and discovering a whole country and its people. Influenced by his father, a weather buff, for whom a visit to Cherrapunji, “with his rain gauge, would be a kind of pilgrimage”, he decides to go there. Frater willingly enters the maelstrom, gushing about the “genuine monsoon experience, real frontier stuff”. Why, in a moment of pre-rain muggy hallucination, he even dreams of bottling the scent of rain, (“Monsoon! The aroma India adores! Give it to your loved ones this Christmas!”) And, it’s especially refreshing that, for a book about rain (where everything could’ve been heavily romanticised) Frater sticks to the square and the fair, and even asks (though one of the characters) “where’s the romance in mud, slush, rats and floods?” What ultimately makes the book work though is the humour, his poker-faced wit; you’re sure to enjoy his description of ambassador cars, designed to last 40 monsoons (but needing a few days to go from 0 to 60); his surreal meeting with a dotty rain-maker, and the pink, lace-trimmed umbrella he’s offered in Cherrapunji… “Monsoon”, we learn, “had inspired artists for centuries”. Here, it has inspired a writer, and through his lovely prose, us…

And this one stays with you…

“At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started. Two hours fifty minutes later racing cumulus extinguished the sun and left everything washed in an inky violet light. At 4.50, announced by deafening ground-level thunderclaps, the monsoon finally rode into Cochin. The cloud-base blew through the trees like smoke; rain foamed on the hotel’s harbourside lawn and produced a bank of hanging mist opaque as hill fog. In the coffee shop the waiters rushed to the windows, clapping and yelling, their customers forgotten. One, emerging from the kitchen bearing a teapot destined for the conference room (…), glimpsed the magniloquent spectacle outside, banged the teapot down on my table and ran to join them crying, ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’.”

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