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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 steadily.

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 Malayalam:

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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Rajeev Srinivasan

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