June 10, 2007

Symphony for monsoon and plastic roof

As I write this, it is sweltering.

My shirt is drenched, my skin prickles and the tiles outside my window are radiating even more heat. There is an expectant stillness in the air, a quiet, breathless anticipation. Clouds scud across a bright blue sky; they’re coming from the right direction, but there are too few of them, and they’re fluffy and white, practically all silver lining.

Damn. It’s still summer.

Y’know, there was a time when the end of summer was mourned, when the rains though loved, were dreaded. Because the change of season heralded holidays’ end and school’s commencement. Even then, though, the gloom would be washed away with the first showers, with the gallop up the stairs to the terrace for the ritual first drenching. And then, of course, paper boats must be made, with pages surreptitously torn out of brand new exercise books, and launched in the storm drains while dawdling one’s way to school, carefully finding the shortest distance between puddles to splash in en route.

Funny, I don’t have many rain memories from the first nine years of my life, when we lived in the East. There are vague recollections of one of those depression-in-the-Bay-of-Bengal type cyclones in Vizag; of running out to the terrace to pick hailstones to suck on in Secunderabad (this was before acid rain); but none from Madras.

As I write this, the sky has grown darker. While I struggled to turn a drizzle of words into a flowing whole, thicker, greyer clouds have covered the sky. Less sunlight, yes, but that hasn’t made a difference to the temperature. It’s muggy, and still, so very still.

In college years, the rains meant hikes in the nearer bits of the Western Ghats. It’s about the only time that part of the world is anything but brown. The undergrowth wraps itself around your sodden sneakers, wet branches lash your face, you squelch your way through mud churned up by a hundred pairs of feet before you. Water tumbles past you, in burbly streams and garrulous waterfalls, and ahead and behind you, scores of brightly coloured windcheaters mark the long line of hikers whooping and singing through the downpour.

When attendance registers gave way to muster sheets, the rains were more inconvenient—if no less welcome—as transport went haywire, as phone lines died, as meetings got delayed and flights and trains were cancelled. And sometimes they contributed to office morale, as stranded colleagues dripped their way back to office and shared food and other (strictly medicinal) stimulants through the night.

As I write this, the distant rumble has grown closer. A mad breeze whips the mango tree in front of the house into first a shivering at the touch of its sudden cold embrace, then quickly into a mad dance of reunion. The sun is nowhere to be seen. There is a flash of lightning, and almost immediately, the crash of thunder overhead. It’s almost here. Almost.

Thanks to the occasional travel writing I do, I have been fortunate enough to see the rain come rolling in to what must be the greenest, most beautiful places on earth. In Kerala, a whooshing torrent of water crashed through the palms and on to the sloping, tiled roof. Ah, I said, an early monsoon! To be told, with a grin, no, no, that’s just a pre-monsoon shower. In Assam, in the hills, in a circuit house perched on a knoll with a picture post card view, clouds came boiling through distant passes, filled the valley, obscured every peak. And then even the nearest trees faded to a hazy outline, and big cold drops sliced in horizontally, and yeeeha! I was walking in the cloud.

But most spectacular of all was even higher up in the air, on a flight from Delhi to Bombay. Delhi was baking, with temperatures in the young 40s. As the plane zoomed southward, from empty, burnished blue skies, we flew over the monsoon’s vanguard, a scattered armada of little clouds, harmless puffs of cotton candy, casting enough shadow for perhaps one small town each. And then the captain told us to belt up; bad weather ahead. My knuckles went white as I peered ahead at.. at.. at a freaking angry, murky, swirling wall of cloud that extended up, down and sideways as far as the eye could see. The plane bored straight through and I could see nothing but that the wings were wet, streaming water. After an age, we broke through, and.. we were floating above an unruly carpet of cloud, brilliant, whiter-than-detergent-commercial white, twisted into phantasmagorical shapes by passing winds, spires, and spirals, and whorls, and castles, and mythical creatures, and waves, and, here and there, shafts of sunlight cut through, stirring up fluffy maelstroms where they met the thicker clouds. I completely forgot that I am terrified of flying.

As I write this, there is a clatter on the plastic roof of my neighbour’s backyard. Big, heavy drops stipple a pattern on the tiles, and quicker than you can say “the impressionist school,” they have the entire surface drenched. Thunder crashes once more, loud and long, drowning out the tappetytappetytap of the rain on the roof, but like a tablaichi spurred on by the cymbals in a mad fusion jugalbandi, the rain plays the roof even louder.

As I write this, the earth lets out a breath, and the air is sweet with the smell of the very first rain. There is a lull. The pause between movements, where the toffs say that if you clap, you reveal yourself to be a culture-challenged arriviste. Lightning carves a baton across the sky, thunder booms and the rain plays a tentative little riff on the coconut palm. A gust of wind and it all takes off again, and this time, there is no hesitation, no pause; the tattoo on the roof is almost a single sound, and it is joined by the violent gush of water from the terrace drainpipes. Lightning silhouettes the players in mid-note and the thunder goes into a long, long crescendo that sends the pomeranian two doors down into hysterics. The rain is now onenonstopneverendingcelebration.

As I write this.. Dammit, I’m not writing this any more. Screw the neighbours and what they’ll think. I’m not too old for a rain dance.

Published in Brunch, the Sunday magazine of the Hindustan Times, 10th June, 2007.

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