A light drizzle started just as I stepped out of the car and started walking to the GO train station yesterday. As I settled in and switched on my iPod, purely by chance the first track that shuffled up on my iPod was a composition in raga Megh by the legendary Ustads Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali Khan (brothers, who debuted on All India Radio in 1942, when Salamat Ali was only 8 years old.) Megh (meaning “cloud”) Malhar is one of the oldest ragas in Indian classical music and legend has it that if rendered with devotion, a performer can cause rain to fall. Remaining dry on board the train, I shut my eyes in rapture and although physically headed to Union Station, in spirit I was transported to India.
Rains, when they arrive in India, are a major event for more reasons than one. In a country where until recently agriculture contributed almost 20% to its GDP, rainwater represents a most valuable resource for crops. The onset of Monsoon season (Varsha ritu) is also eagerly awaited because it offers a reprieve from the long, hot and sweltering months of summer (Grisham ritu). Dust storms sweep across the barren, parched landscape all through summer with the limp, listless branches of trees offering some shade but no letup from the scorching earth underfoot. Cattle and stray dogs lie where they can find respite, too hot and tired to even scrounge around for food scraps. Humans lounge about like damp rags, trying futilely to cool themselves with hand-held fans made of woven bamboo strips (“punkhis”) or newspapers.
Sometime in late-June, summer monsoon starts to build up off the south west coast of India and rolls Northward. All eyes turn skyward in expectation. And lo, one day the blinding, scorching sun blaze is overshadowed by ominous looking dark clouds, riding in on the back of strong and cool moisture-laden winds. Thunder and lightning create a spectacular show as the skies open up and rain comes down in windswept sheets of water. As the first raindrops start to hit the ground, one can hear the sizzle and watch steam rise from the hot, parched earth. But, the piece-de-resistance is breathing in that wonderful aroma of “saundhi mitti.” A very loose translation could be “dampened soil”, but it is just not possible to capture that aural essence or describe the feeling it stimulates. Our grandmothers and older aunts would urge us kids to run outside and bathe in the “first rain” of the season, as they firmly believed it was a foolproof cure for “pitt” (prickly heat) and sundry summer ailments. Strong gusty winds and the thick, lashing raindrops would sting but we would try and outlast everyone else getting drenched. The more libidinous older lot would try and emulate scenes from Bollywood movies and with a raunchy song on their lips join in, throwing all caution to the wind. Neighbourhood girls and ladies would take turns on rustic rope swings hung from stout trees, pray and sing “sawan” and “teej” songs, dance and celebrate. “Maalpua” (pancakes), “gujia” (dumplings), “kheer” (rice pudding) and “rabri” (reduced sweetened milk with layers of cream) would be served to all, together with hot “pakoras” (fritters) and “chai” (boiled tea with spices.)
Friends here in Canada, who may not have traveled to, or experienced monsoons across South or South East Asia will not be able to appreciate the expression “it is raining buckets.” Imagine someone standing in a balcony above, literally emptying buckets full of water on creatures below. While rains in the countryside or up in the hills may evoke poetic emotions, it is altogether a different experience in towns and cities where roads get flooded in no time at all. Swirling, muddy rivers spring up in streets as a result of gutters overflowing with debris, discarded garbage and God knows what else. Street urchins (and yes, we did this too as kids) race their paper boats, prodding them with small branches broken off the trees by strong winds. In Calcutta (now Kolkata) I have witnessed the more enterprising lads hoist the gentry – who did not wish to get their shoes or clothes wet – on to their back to ferry them from a pavement to the other side of the waterlogged road, for a fee.
From Kalidas’ early opus “Meghdoot” (“Cloud Messenger”) composed over 1600 years ago, to Rabindra Nath Tagore, Gulzar and others, the Indian sub-continent’s literature, visual and performing arts are replete with compositions that express a very diverse range of sentiments evoked by the falling rain. From the “papiha’s” (brainfever bird or hawk-cuckoo) cry of “pihoo” (literally, beloved) representing the wistful longing of the maiden waiting for her beloved’s return from distant lands to the joyful dance of the strutting peacock displaying its dazzling plumage, hymns and prayers, all evoke pathos and glee in equal measure.
It is almost impossible for me to pick a single favourite barsaat (rain) melody. But, as the “spitting rain” comes gently down to water my handkerchief-size lawn, a few treasured songs come to mind:
Indulge in recollecting those moments of close proximity with a gorgeous stranger as the two seek shelter from the falling rain in Zindagi bhar nahin bhulegi (That rainy night with the unknown beauty will remain unforgettable all my life)
Listen to the papiha’s pihoo call and the roll of thunder in “Kahaan se aaye badraa” (Whence do these dark clouds (of despair) roll in from, causing the kohl to run from my eyes (with the tears)
The coquetry involved in reminding the beloved of emotions arising because of the falling rain in O’ sajna barkha bahar aayi (O my beloved, the season of rains has sprung on us)
And, finally the sheer exuberance of Singing in the rain!