Celebrating the monsoon

The season holds special joys...Photo: Sandeep Saxena  

Normally the land frontier defines the contours of a country but the vastness of its seas and oceans open up wider horizons and the possibilities of voyages to other shores and cultures. The sea becomes the end point and the buffer zone of the national compass. The cloud-making seas, fed in turn by many types of global rains, divide and create a distance. Yet, at the same time, the invisible sea lanes lead us beyond boundaries of the border. It is not surprising that the Malabar coast became a leading trade hub and a vibrant passage of cross-cultural mergers and dialogues. It is also the place where the monsoons hit mainland India first…

Technically, of course, the monsoons first hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but they are too remote in distance and national awareness, so the prize goes to Kerala. The gusts of wind that herald rain bend and break the coconut trees, which are very weak or too stiff and upright, but the more flexible ones bend and extend their palm leaves to break the downpour and so many tiny waterfalls hang out from their branches. The tropical green acquires a shine and gloss with a rich dark tinge. In Eastern philosophies, the strong and wise person's attribute of skilful resilience is often compared to the bamboo tree or reeds of grass that, unlike big firm trees, can bend with the wind and rain to survive better. On the Kerala coast in Varkala, the swirling grey waves rise to hit the red cliffs, unable to sweep their tongues inland.

Perhaps the most wonderful place to watch the onset of the monsoons is Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, bordering Kerala. At the very edge of South India, one is exposed to two seas merging into the Indian Ocean. The monsoon sky is lit with the mystical mix of the declining sunlight and the rising moonshine, refracted by the prism of puffy nimbus clouds which play hide and seek with the sun and moon. The sea heaving and swelling with the downpour reflects the turbulence of the dark clouds. A long line of pilgrims of sectarian colours wait patiently outside the Kanyakumari temple, hoping for a miracle of the ‘ darshan'. Outside the temple, another miracle is happening; the miracle of nature, of water and sky, wind and light, thunder and lightning. The whole nation holds its breath, awaiting the announcement.

Like the self-sufficiency in food while mass hunger continues in many parts, it is another great contradiction of India that there is too much water in some areas while droughts prevail in others. Distribution is the key word in both cases. Meanwhile, traditional and local water management practices, which sustain the most deprived in remote areas, are ignored and damaged by ‘modern development'.

Indigenous systems

I had to pass through some of the highest mountains passes to reach Ladakh which is too high for the monsoon clouds. The sun is sharp through the thin air and the horizon stretches across the barren slopes, magnifying the sense of space. The snow from the glaciers melts in little streams down the valley to be collected and shared cooperatively and circulated among high and low villages in one of the most developed traditional systems of water self-management, complete with water umpires, water spirits and magical stones that divert water. It is the tourist season and Ladakh is a dry and ‘hot' destination. Winter festivals are rearranged for the tourists who are escaping too much rain in the mountains and too much warm humid mess in the plains.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of Cherrapunji. A split bamboo pipe ran around the house to collect rain. I only knew that the water, in the kitchen and bathroom, came magically from nowhere. With deforestation and climate changes, some meteorologists think that Dharamsala, along with Darjeeling and Sikkim, has taken over from Cherrapunji as one of the rain centres of the world. During the monsoon, people are forced to do retreats indoors and contemplate on the streaming drops. This is the place to invent rain meditation with the assured background mantra chant of slow, chattering, wild thundering, rain, to explore equivalent levels of consciousness and also patience. The monks and nuns put up rainbow-coloured umbrellas on the maroon clothes. The beggars huddle with the dogs in the last dry corners. The crystal clear water of the Bagsu turns ugly brown with floating tourist plastic bottles. There is water everywhere but not a drop to drink in the tap.

I lived in Holland for two years or nearly eight drizzly seasons with two long winters in between. The rain there, like in that part of Europe, is slow but cold, grey, depressing and unpredictable in any season. There is no song and dance to celebrate it like the monsoon festivals, romance and music in India. I got depression living in artificial ‘Philips' light, which doctors recognise as a disease caused by lack of sunlight. Holland can only be a second home. India is first home if only because of a soul, which has grown up with the changing bright seasons and the mountain escape in summer.

The Dutch try to make up for the grey skies by their good cheer, openness and a friendly international, outlook. They live in small houses with big cosy (‘gezeluk') spirit. More than any other people they have conquered and harnessed the forces of water, both rain and sea. The land is low, making outlet difficult and now machines to pump the water up. India can learn from the Dutch to build a better and vast network of canals and small dams to store and circulate excess rain to dry areas.

In England, almost everything appears grey or dark; the misty air, umbrellas, clothes, hats and taxis. In Aberdeen, Scotland, even the houses are made up of grey stone. The rain interrupts sunsets and Wimbledon matches. It is amazing that a sunny game like cricket was invented in England, where it is so difficult to complete a full day's play, let alone a five-day test without rain. In Germany, the rain is sometimes called ‘acid' because it contains dirt of the skies. The business capital of the world, New York, has perhaps the most air-conditioned automatic banking centres where I found many homeless Afro-Americans sheltering form the rain and cold.

Better prepared

On the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Beijing, as soon as we crossed the Russian-Chinese Manchurian border, it started drizzling. Large Chinese families got in, marking the most dramatic change in weather, people, buildings and food. While the Russians sipped coffee or vodka, the Chinese guzzled big flasks of green tea. On the train from Beijing to Hanoi in southern China, it was the time of one of the worst floods. There was water everywhere. Some people were killed and hurt and communications disturbed. But the trains were running and there was not the massive disaster as in India, where hundreds of people are killed and thousands displaced. One wonders if the Chinese are better at evacuation, relief and drainage. The Yellow River was muddy brown and bursting at the seams but not as vast and violent as the Brahmaputra during the monsoons. There were little lakes everywhere and in the middle rose many tiny but steep hills like in a child's drawing. The mist hung in patches on the hilltops and along the pools in a space of stillness. It was a picture of a dream, charming; belonging to another world.

In Rajasthan where I grew up with the changing seasons, hopefully it will rain well, although the prospects are not very good. The sheep, goat and cattle-herding nomads and migrant workers will get news of ‘choko zamano', literally ‘good world' but also meaning good rain. They will hurry back to their lands to sow seeds. The ‘nadis', ponds and dams, will hopefully be full. It will be time for festivals. The biggest one rated, as one of the most colourful in the world, will be celebrated in Pushkar around the most sacred pool of water in full moon. The pool was created by Brahma, the cosmic creator himself. The villagers and pilgrims do not come to say prayers to the gods in the temples. They come to worship the water itself: the life sustaining element created by the harmonies of nature

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 2:55:14 PM |

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