Commentary/ Rajeev Srinivasan
Sibilant, sinuous, sinister...
The rain pelted the windows of the Bangalore high-rise office complex with
furious intensity on that late June day. It must be raining heavily
in Trivandrum, too. Which is where I had hoped to be on June 1st, the day the
monsoon is supposed to arrive, but alas, I was late. As Alexander Frater
mentions in the luminous Chasing the Monsoon, I too was born during the first
rains, and perhaps the very first sound I heard was that of raindrops.
I have always loved rain. When I was a child, I would sit on the porch of our
old house -- the one with the curving verandah and the heavy, green, bamboo
blinds -- and simply watch the rain. When the rains began, I would roll the blinds
down, and I'd be safe behind them, cozy and dry, away from the spray. In the
bright light of the fluorescent lamp, the rain would dance, taking on an organic
life of its own -- sibilant, sinuous and sinister.
When the first rains come, I always remember what my ancient ayah used to tell me -- that snakes
would mate when the air was fragrant with the unmistakable scent of wet earth.
I never saw them, but I imagined them exulting in the electric rain, entwined and
entangled in serpentine ways. Once, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, 10,000 miles
away, I recounted my ayah's tale to a beautiful German-Mexican woman I met; we
went for a walk after a sudden thundershower. She was tall and lithe; she kissed
me, and not chastely. Her bare arms were cool around my neck.
I remember nights in Trivandrum, monsoon evenings in June, when I would just sit in the open verandah of our new home -- my parents have lived there for 25 years now, but we still call it the new house -- and watch the rain, mysterious and lovely as a vishakanyaka,a poison
maiden -- dangerous and irresistible at the same time.
I liked the rains best at my grandfather's house. In the little Kerala village
house, we would sit around the nalukettu, the interior courtyard open to the
heavens. Grandpa's dining table was on the long side of the courtyard, and the
raindrops shone like liquid gold in the dancing light of hurricane lamps. The
rain would leave little meanders in the soft grey earth of the nalukettu, and
little deep holes along the edges where the sloping red tile roof dripped
Our pond would become muddy and reddish; despite my entreaties, my mother would not
let me bathe in it. The well would fill, and I would draw water from it with a
pail and fill the tank in the bathhouse. When we went for a walk, a neighbour's
pond would have overflowed onto the path, leaving a large puddle in the stony
red laterite soil. We had to walk carefully around it, avoiding the sharp thorns
of the pandanus hedges.
We would go to the Bharani festival at the temple of the Mother Goddess; there
would be huge competing chariots and horses, 30 feet tall, drawn by
enthusiastic men from the various karas, districts. It always rained on Bharani
day, and the chariots made deep ruts in the muddy paddy fields, knocking down
the narrow little varambu, walkways, that separated the fields.
Sometimes my cousin and I would ride our bicycles around. We would come across
swollen little rivulets, spanned by a single rickety coconut tree trunk as a
makeshift bridge, only navigable on foot. We would wade in, knee-deep or more,
carrying aloft our bicycles above our heads, safe from the rampaging waters.
Much later, I listened to violent Pacific storms in Northern California; after
seven years of drought, the rains returned, roaring in from the ocean, knocking
down huge trees and flooding low-lying areas, flood-plains where developers had
unwisely put up houses. The Russian river -- there had been Russian fur-trading
posts on it a hundred years ago -- was in spate, and entire communities were
flooded out. But San Francisco normally doesn't get enough rain.
In Kerala, they talk about the idava-pathi, mid-Taurus, the southwest monsoons's characteristic sudden downpours taking you by surprise. No warning, just a sharp drencher. And then, immediately after the deluge, the sun would peek out, and
the land would be blindingly beautiful, flooded with sunshine, freshly-washed. A
medieval poet wrote, in delicate Manipravalam, a mixture of Sanskrit and
I see the jasmine creeper, dew-laden after the rains
Present its flowers to the bright sunshine
And I remember your smile, my beloved
Through your tears, after a lovers tiff
As you try, in vain, to hide your love behind your anger
Kalidasa waxes extremely eloquent about the rains in Rtusamharam: it is his
favorite season, the srngara rasa, romantic love, personified. Love-lorn women
await the arrival of their lovers. It is not surprising that a certain yaksha,
banished from his kingdom, chooses a rain-cloud to bear his
viraha-dukham, anguish of separation, to his wife in Meghadutam.
The retreating monsoon, the northeast monsoon, seems to get short shrift in
literature. It is altogether of a different nature, brooding, not flashy.
Presumably, the Tamil poets have written of it. In Malayalam, we talk of the
thula-varsham, the rains of Libra, when there is thunder and lightning and the
skies are overcast all day; and when it does finally start, it rains lightly,
incessantly for hours. A positively Nordic sort of rain, this, not the lighthearted, calypso rain of June.
And then there is the cold rain of northern climes. When I lived in the
northeast of the US, I understood the Strindbergian gloom with which new
Englanders greet the rain: for it is a bone-chilling, soul-destroying,
influenza-bearing rain. Entirely unlike the delicious, delectable, delirious
rains of India -- warm on one's skin. It is difficult for northerners to
understand the difference. For they say, 'into every life a little rain must
fall', as though that were such a bad thing!
Rain makes an effective backdrop in films too. A most oppressive feature of the
claustrophic future Los Angeles in the brilliantly visualised Blade
Runner -- one of the best science fiction films of all time -- is the unending gray
acid-rain drizzle that pervades the place. More than anything else, this one
'prop' tells the viewer of the dystopia that the world has become.
In the exquisite Malayalam Piravi, the expectant mood with which everyone
awaits the monsoon -- the tension, the anxiety -- reflects an old man's mood as he awaits his son's return; later, when his realisation that his son will never
come back unhinges his mind, there is a downpour, like the tears of the gods; or
is it the love of his dead son?
I too remember a particularly low point in my life. I was praying at a temple in
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A gentle rain fell; I chose to see that as a benediction
from God. I chose to believe that it was God's way of telling me to carry on. And so I have, thankful that God made rain.
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