The rain is a muse. It inspires nostalgia. It heals. It triggers expression. We asked four writers to share with us their monsoon anecdotes.
A quick June shower could create river upon river of brown water next to the broken sidewalks. While the older men and women grimaced against the impending splash of a hurried car, children would run from little shops to watch their paper boats set sail and find adventures. The rains carried the scent of wet mud, something subdued yet livening. Not to mention a certain mustiness that could only be attributed to a slight perspiration of clouds from their travels across the heated plains of India. You spent one summer under the awnings of a stowed away bookshop, looking out longingly for the rain to stop. Each page exuded the erotic smell of freshly printed paper, the lure of which you experience till this day, when you stand, quavering, before bookshops on your way to worldly things. Sometimes when you enter, you walk between rows of them, your hands lingering over every cover, marveling at the stories that lie between the pages. A seductive force, despite the air conditioning that sanitizes everything. Not nearly as seductive as the smell of the dampening streets of Kathmandu overwhelmed only by the strong scent of coffee and the momentary lull in conversation with old friends.
Not nearly as primal as the sensation of wet cloth on the skin, or the experience of dusting off the mysterious particles of sand and soil that gathered in between your toes, or in the folds of your jeans. The wet discomfort erased by the steam emanating from a plate of food prepared by your mother. Her long dark hair is beginning to lose its saturation in your memory of her. But you remember the scents of the monsoon. You think it is the poet in you. But your training as a Biologist tells you that olfactory senses are stronger at revoking memories. Maybe that explains it better.
Back when we were kids, monsoon was a special season.Particularly, the pre-monsoon period I recall in many of my childhood tales. The opening showers weremostly unexpected, or otherwise underestimated. Dribbling rain overwood, tin, concrete, trees and the dry, dusty ground would often turn violent and full of rage. Orchestral clouds accented with deep blue shadows, would swoop in and drum down symphonies of rain, tuned for the Asiatic planes. A thunderstorm in Bengal, pre-monsoon rain in Nepal.
For us kids, these mislaid mango showers supplied a dose of fun and adventure, courtesy of the end of the academic year and countless hours for infantile curiosities to be watered and blossomed into mischievous quests. The little fun while it rained, were only a couple of paper boats long. At its shortest, they lasted a few hours. And these showers never suggested the arrival of the monsoon; in fact, they were fickle and with the gentlest wind, would disappear completely.
Overnight, clear skies would shine over a mesh of muddy streets, surrounded by wet houses. Deep trenches of water in plots of depressed or walled upland would space out the houses with large pools of rainwater. The swollen rivers of Kathmandu would vigorously move downstream through a city themed marshy brown.
Everyone was a victim, even us kids. Displaced from our playgrounds, courts and pitches, we were confined to the narrow roads connecting our respective homes. But then, just like an amused offender, nature would strike again.
When the first rains arrive and part, they drop off creatures of wonderful varieties, shapes, and sounds. Like the spring, ushering in birds and their colloquial songs, pools of leftover rain would start breathing. It was as if the previous volley of rain had picked up unborn critters on its way down, out of thin air and sowed them on the wrinkled land - to be ripened.
Suddenly, a steady siren - waves of croaks and chirrs rippled outwards from swampy sides of the neighborhood, adding to the soundtrack of the day. At nights, the nuisance of nature’s ill-advised carriers on blood lust would triumph over the supply of frogs, and we’d be left fretting for our lives.
Precisely during this interval of “good vs. evil,” the war for survival, us kids (usually made up of one young representative per house) would embark on our daytime adventures. Towards the usurped grounds we would walk, where squatting frogs patiently surveyed the waters for food.
Furnished with wrappers of instant-noodles as containers, cut-outs of old bed-nets as our dragnet and, of course, our buoyant imaginations, we would spin an epic tale of conquering the aquatic larvae populating those pools. For us, the short-bodied and smooth tadpoles were a source of intrigue and glee. We would catch them, stuff them under beds, in plastic bottles and around the house where the adults couldn’t seek them out. And in times of misguided compassion, we went as far as sheltering them in water tankers supplying drinking water to the entire neighborhood. Trouble.
Eventually,the excitement would wear off, swamps turned to thick sun-dried sludge, satiated till the next rain. Our “fish” (at least that is what we all believed they were) ended up being flushed down or returned to the nearest drying puddle. Schools would eventually start, and one by one the neighborhood would loose its troupers - their enthusiasm now shifted to buying raincoats, boots, and colorful umbrellas in preparation for the pending monsoon.
Looking back - going out on our childish pursuits were like a rite of passage. One that was shared with a generation of Kathmanduites. Like the pre-monsoon clouds that form at the bay, and touch ground only after crossing miles after miles, these outings connected us. To kids around town,to nature and to the monsoon culture here and beyond.
In the hills where I grew up, rain, first and foremost, meant floods, and when I think of rain even today, it still means floods...a flood of memories.
I was born in the remote village of Parbat. Since my parents wanted me to get a better education than was available in my village, they sent me to a boarding school in Baglung, the headquarters of Dhaulagiri zone. Baglung was quite a distance from my village, and I could go back only during long vacations or festivals. The monsoon season was eagerly awaited by everyone in the hostel since it meant the end of the mid-term exams, and the beginning of a one and half month long vacation. My father would come to take me home, and we would cover a five-hour long walk, which involved climbing up and down hills, and crossing a couple of rivers that had turned wild after a recent downpour.
Once home, I would be a free bird, going wherever I wanted and doing whatever I liked.
Monsoon was the time to wake up to the sound of the turtle doves or the pattering of a soft drizzle on the stone roof.
I could literally see the rain begin to fall on the hills of Taare in the east and gradually move towards my village. Every other day, there would be a huge rainbow that would connect my village to Taare, or to Dhaairing, a village to the south.
It was the time to climb the slippery dudilo tree and savor its ripe black fruits.
It was the time to scale every possible tree we could to look for nests, and perhaps eggs, or even better, newly hatched birds with soft new wings.
It was the time for my largely agricultural village, and my family, to begin ropaai, the planting of paddy saplings. We, the younger lot, wanted to assist our parents, but now I realize we were less help and more of a nuisance. Ropaai days meant a special khaaja that included sukkha roti, chaamre, and the mouth watering hot and sour aalu ko achaar.
It was the time to run in the rain, being soaked to the skin, slipping and falling umpteen times.
It was the time to tune into Radio Nepal, the only form of entertainment in those days, and to sing along to Prakash Shrestha’s Paani ko rimjhim barsat ko bela.
It was the time to celebrate Sawane Sankranti, a festival that children of my age enjoyed. We would wander throughout the day to gather the plants, herbs, flowers, and fruits needed for the worship that took place in the evening. Later, you could hear people shouting for diseases to go away, and feel the thrill when you saw them hurl burning firewood towards the sky and beyond.
Monsoon was also the time to celebrate Teej. My phupus would come to their maaiti with all kinds of delicacies as gifts, and I would munch on them sitting in a corner. Since my home was in the hills, the only fruits that would be available during the season were peaches. If I was lucky enough, and this would happen only once in a while, I could even follow my phupus to their homes in the plains and relish mangoes and guavas.
And, as the monsoon gradually came to a halt, it meant the end of the fun-filled days. It was time to go back to the distant boarding school. We would return with cuts and scars all over our bodies, and, of course, with many stories of adventures and mischief to share with friends.
Monsoon comes every year, and along with it arrives the floods and the flood of memories …but those fun filled carefree days will never return again.
Messenger in the Valley
Rain is differently disruptive in a village: if you are indoors, you are trapped there. If you are in the fields, you must run to the nearest fig or mango or jackfruit tree and wait in the shade. If the rain comes in slowly, the earth hisses and rises as fragrant vapors. If it comes hard, it pits the dirt and makes large, wet dents. If it clears within minutes, stopping as if to hurriedly deliver a message sent by a distant lover, the skies open and the greens of the forests become a different set of greens, the blues of the sky a different set of blues. Mulch darkens. Dust, whipped up by sun and wind, gets in your toes.
Irrigation canals and streams change their voices. A crow will patiently take the beatings of the rain, refusing to fly away on its heavy, soggy wings. Dogs bark if the horizon flashes with lightning.
The rumble of thunder measuring its way from the eastern end of the valley to the western end passes over your house, and reaches in to shake everything just a little, nudging your heart slightly to the left. Then it ambles away to tease your friend in the next house, and the pretty girl in the next village over by the river, until it passes right out of the valley.
If it rains for days on end the walls of your house become damp and birds will not sing in the evening to remind you that kaphalpakyo in the forest.The frog behind your house croaks until you get tired of listening to it, until you get tired of watching the gecko guard the light bulb and wait for moths. Rain can fall sideways and slantways, or it can dance on the palms of the wind that shakes and whirls it every which way. Sometimes, it can bring hailstones, some the size of peas, some the size of marbles, but once a year come hailstones so big they bullet right through slates on the roof and break open earthen pickle-jars, letting loose the smell of mustard oil and fermented radish and turmeric. Rain can puddle in the kitchen garden and wait for the neighbor's ducks to file in. If there is maize in the fields, the tattoo of rain on maize leaves sounds like an army marching towards a feast in a fairytale land. If you squat by a rice paddy, you hear the last drops of rain plop into the water, like a frog heading home. If these are the first days of monsoon everybody rushes about to prepare to harvest its bounty. If this is the second month of monsoon, the air is thick with the odor of fecundity and fields smell of fish and fertility. By the third month, there is too much mud and mosquitos, and rain is no longer a relief from the summer sun. Even the green of healthy crops appears oppressive. Eyes grow fatigued at the surfeit of green, and begin to crave the gold of ripeness, the brown spot of decay that comes with maturity. And, just like that, the lumbering giants of cumulus atop the mountains forget to surprise you: they watch ever westward, hypnotized by the fiery ball that, before its daily fall, paints them copper and molten bronze.
Sometimes flocks of sheep cross the blue sky. But the sullen, dark messenger dispatched by Kalidas so many centuries ago no longer stops by your village. Pity – when it comes next, you will have become a different person. When it comes next, you will be living in a city, glued to the windowpane, the taste of the iron grille on the window a faint reminder of the hiss of steam rising from the red soil of your village. Rain falls in the city on windows, roofs, asphalt streets, dog shit, a cart of rotting tomatoes, the clear plastic dome of a neighbor's umbrella, cactus in a flowerpot, of all things – cactus in a flowerpot. It falls on plastic tarps and buckets out spasmodically on passersby. It falls on movie posters and garbage heaps – and as you watch over a weekend away from school, purple, brown and green leaves shoot out of mango stones and wait for the garbage truck to take them away, far away, to a landfill site. If rain in the city doesn't fall from slanted roofs, it gurgles down grey gutter pipes and disappears.
Only when the rivers swell from being veins of sewage to a gushing, writhing body of murky water does the rain really show itself. The hills regain their dye of green, but they are distant, and there are too many barriers in between. Here, too, the cumulus giants lumber through September and October, but you are trapped in a quiet hall, nodding as you try to memorize lessons in tandem with eighty other boys. When the clouds call you out again, you will be far away – a foreigner, in a foreign land. You are in a desert. It doesn't rain here. There are no hills. But all is green around you.
Children here play under the spray of garden sprinklers. It rains a few days before you leave that city – it rains for three hours, and it is a warm rain, just like the rain in your village, but nobody comes out to play, except three children who run back and forth between their porch and the street, squealing as they get soaked. When it rains again, you have been back in your city for three whole months – the worst, infernal months punctuated with heartbreak and apathy – and you have been waiting for a shift in the wind, for some respite. Then, sometime in June, the skies rumble. Your nephew, who runs down the stairs to his grandfather's bed each time he hears thunder, finds you strange, perhaps even terrifying, as you step out to the wide balconyto sniff at the sulfur in the air. Like pink neon lettering hurtling over the valley, lightning stretches endlessly, crackles like whiplash. A drop of rain falls on your shoulder and soaks into the shirt, grows outward. It will rain. Not like it did in the village of your childhood, not like it rained in the school with football pitches full of mud, not like it did – as if a private message to you – in the foreign desert. But it will rain, and you will feel the gratitude of having been found.