While driving through my neighborhood a few months ago, I happened to pass a house that had a number of items placed on its driveway with an accompanying “Free” sign. There were the usual knickknacks – items once bought but of no interest to the owner now. What caught my eye, however, was the sizable pile of books. As I pulled over, my daughter rolled her eyes and asked me “You are not going to get any books are you?”. “No”, I lied, “I’m just going to take a look”.
The owner’s taste in books was quite eclectic. There were books on old English poetry, Shakespeare, assorted novels, Tina Fey’s autobiography, text books on psychology and a copy of the Arabian Nights. I picked up a few books and as I was leaving, a book titled “Chasing the Monsoon” caught my eye. I had not heard of the book nor read any other books by its author – Alexander Frater. I picked it up because it was on India.
When I got home, I took a picture of the collection and sent it to my cousin, Bakin, who is a veritable walking encyclopedia on books, music, movies, aircraft, war, history and anything really worth knowing. He sent me a text recommending that I read “Chasing the Monsoon”. I started reading it the following week and was soon engrossed. The author was born in 1937 in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific where his father was a doctor. At a young age, his father taught him how to predict the weather based on cloud formations, a much-needed skill when one had to hop from one island to another to treat patients. A painting of Cherapunji, the wettest place on earth adorned Alexander’s bedroom and when his father told him that the heavy tropical rains on the island were far less than the rainfall in Cherapunji, it left him with a sense of wonder.
Anyone growing up in India is familiar with the term “Monsoon” or its vernacular equivalent. We read about it in the newspapers, hear about it on TV and it dominates conversation. We studied about it in Geography where I learnt that the word Monsoon originates from the Arabic word “mausim” (“mausam” in Hindi) meaning season. In fact, my brother’s geography textbook was titled “Monsoon Asia”, it was not prescribed for my batch but I read parts of it nevertheless. Monsoons are sea-breezes that bring rain to sub-continent.
Alexander Frater suffered a whiplash injury while driving on the Karakoram Highway on a trip from Pakistan to Kasghar in China and this left him with a neurological condition. In 1986, while seeking treatment at a hospital in London, he met an Indian couple whose description of the monsoons prompted him to fulfill his childhood dream of visiting Cherapunji by flying to India and literally chasing the monsoon, starting from the southern state of Kerala and moving up North to Goa, Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and finally to Cherapunji. The book then is at its core a travel book that draws upon his experiences of that trip. There is a fair amount of scientific theory about the mechanics of the monsoons but it is not a dry read by any measure. Frater was a former columnist for the “Punch” and his wry sense of humor sparkles throughout the book.
Frater begins his journey in the southern state of Kerala at Trivandrum (now known as Thiruvananthapuram) where the Metereological Office is besieged by calls from newspapers, government officials as well as the Prime Minister’s Office. The monsoons are late and on the monsoons, hinge India’s agricultural and economic output, power generation, drinking water supplies and in short, the fate of its population and governments. This explains the frantic desperation in India when the monsoons are delayed or fail.
My textbooks had a dry explanation of the phenomenon that results in the monsoons replete with sketches and arrows moving inland from over the ocean. I wish I could have paraphrased Julius Joseph, the Chief Meteorological Officer when I answered my geography paper. He tells Frater “Though the monsoon winds constitute one of the greatest weather systems on earth, and an enormous amount of research has been carried out since, many questions remain shrouded in mystery. It’s like the human brain. We know it but we don’t know it.” He then delves into a more technical explanation speaking of temperature differences, air currents and so on. The difficulty of predicting an unpredictable and complicated phenomenon leads him to muse “The whole system is made of cobwebs – a big sneeze could give me problems”! I don’t think my teacher would have been amused!
When I was a young boy, I was intrigued by my dad’s gumboots. He never used them in Bangalore, they were relics of his stay in Bombay in the late fifties and early sixties when he wore them on his commute to work. These gumboots along with a raincoat and umbrella were essential gear. Bangalore, which receives less than half the rainfall of Bombay, did not require such gear and so the gumboots were stashed away in a box on our balcony. I would retrieve them occasionally and walk around clumsily on our balcony donning my raincoat and pretending I was Mr Walker, the Phantom himself in disguise, on a mission to bash the bad guys who ostensibly lurked around on my balcony.
Rains in Bangalore, as in many parts of India came after a dry hot spell in summer. As the clouds gathered, my mother would hurry to retrieve clothes from the drying line. Some of the windows that let water in were closed. As the first drops of rain fell, I rejoiced in the earthy smell that rose from the ground. I would watch and listen as the rain beat down on the window panes, a melody that has inspired many a song. Occasionally, my friends would gather at someone’s house and play Monopoly or Business. When the rain stopped, we would head out and float paper boats in the tiny rivulets that streamed down the road or splashed around in the puddles. The onset of rains usually brings down the temperatures in Bangalore and my dad still remarks that when in rains in Bangalore, one needs a sweater more than an umbrella.
I was in India in 1986 but I don’t remember the weather conditions then. Frater mentions that Bangalore, my home city, suffered from acute water shortages and Godmen were enlisted to invoke the rains. As far as I can remember, we have always had water shortages in Bangalore. Its no wonder that 1986 does not stand out in my mind! After experiencing the onset of monsoons in Kerala, Frater moved up to Goa where he did meet up with the couple who had invited him to India. They were surprised to meet him, they did not expect him to take them up on their offer of visiting them. He then made his way to Bombay where he was caught in a torrential downpour and marooned on the side of the road when his taxi broke down. He was invited in by a kindly slum dweller who shared a cup of tea with him. Rains do bring out the worst of Mumbai’s infrastructure but the best in the people of Mumbai. About ten years ago, my brother-in-law was stranded in his vehicle for 36 hours when the roads were flooded. Water seeped into his car and as he spent the night in his vehicle, slum dwellers whose tenements lined the streets walked around offering packets of biscuits and bottles of water to the stranded motorists, with no expectation of payment if one did not have the money handy.
When my dad wrote his “Organized Markets” paper for his Masters degree in Commerce, he had to write an essay on the topic: “Monsoons are a Gamble, Discuss”. As my dad recalls even today, he wrote a long essay about the “Ativrushti” (deluge) and the “Anavrushti” (drought) faced by Indian farmers depending on the vagaries of the monsoon. I think he had it right, not just about farmers but about Indians in general. While everybody suffers, I think the vagaries of the monsoons hit the farmers the most. A study reports that 60,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide over the last 3 decades. Many due to drought conditions brought on by the failure of rains which result in their inability to pay back loans with onerous interest rates. And when it does rain, it sometimes pours leading to flooded fields. A picture that stands out in my mind is the cover of a National Geographic that featured a tailor salvaging his source of livelihood – his rusted sewing machine while wading neck deep through water.
As I wrote this, I retrieved that copy from my stash of National Geographics, It was published in 1984, two years prior to Frater’s trip. Featured in this edition is the Oracle of the monsoons, Mr Julius Joseph himself! Oddly enough, the monsoons have been a looming presence in a few books that I’ve read in the last few months. It is the main theme of “Chasing the Monsoon”. In “Annapurna”, Maurice Herzog and his team of climbers, race to finish their ascent of Annapurna and return to the plains before the monsoons reach the mountains. In the “Snow Leopard”, Peter Mathieson experiences the tail end of the monsoons as he treks through Nepal. In Tim Severin’s “The Sindbad Voyage” his boat the “Sohar”, a replica of a 9th century Arab dhow on a voyage from Oman to China is caught in the doldrums but races to completes its journey before the onset of the monsoons in the South China Sea.
Frater had to struggle to get his clearance to visit Cherapunji. North Eastern India was wracked by an insurgency in the Eighties and it was well-nigh impossible for foreigners to visit. The wheels of Indian bureaucracy move excruciatingly slow but to Frater’s good luck, the old charm “Sifarish” or “influence” of distant contacts worked and he finally did get to visit Cherapunji on the last leg of his trip. Ironically, Cherapunji, which was considered to be the wettest place on earth, now faces water shortages. Deforestation led to erosion and water runoff. Population has increased and the climate has changed. A dangerous cocktail that now threatens vast swathes of India and the rest of the world.
The monsoons have always captured people’s imagination. Kalidasa, India’s legendary 5th century Sanskrit poet and dramatist wrote about them:
“The clouds advance like rutting elephants, enormous and full of rain”
as well as:
“With thunder as drum, with rainbow as bow and lightning as bowstring, and with showers of rain as arrows, the season assails the hearts of those who are away from their beloved wives” .
I would be lying if I claim to have read Kalidasa, these are snippets of his poetry that I have come across in articles.
In modern times, rains have featured heavily in Bollywood movies. In the movie “Lagaan”, the delay of rains and the ensuing drought leads to non-repayment of taxes by farmers to the British Raj. They are given a way out, the farmers can stave off their payments if they can win a cricket match against their British overlords. The rains have also featured in some memorable songs in Hindi movies. Raj Kapoor and Nargis’s declaration of their love in “Pyar Hua Ikrara Hua hai” from Shri 420, Amitabh Bacchan and Moshumi Chatterjee traipsing around a surprisingly uncrowded Mumbai singing “Rhim Jire Gire Sawan” (from the movie Manzil), Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman crooning “Rhim Jhim ke Tarane le ke aayi barsaat” (Kala Bazaar), an ebullient Sandhya singing “Umad Ghumad kar aayi re ghata” in V. Shantaram’s classic “Do Aankhen Baraah Haath” and last but not the least, a curvaceous Zeenat Aman trying to seduce Manoj Kumar with “Hai Hai Yeh Majboori” from the movie “Roti Kapda Aur Makan”. In an era when censors frowned on any hint of nudity, Indian film makers relied on rain scenes to thoroughly drench their heroines, who serendipitously found themselves wearing diaphanous sarees when they were caught in an unexpected downpour! I don’t ever recall what the male actors wore.
My experience with the monsoons have been very limited in the last couple of decades. I have braved a few hurricanes in South Florida, they don’t count as the monsoons and the threat there is more from the winds than the rain. Earlier this year, I visited India in August for my High School Reunion. The reunion was held in Kerala and I visited Mumbai before heading to the reunion. I was greeted with rains in Mumbai and hardly saw the sun during the week that I was there. By Mumbai standards, the rains were mild though. When I flew into Kochi airport in Kerala, it started drizzling and as we drove to Marari, the resort where we were staying, it rained incessantly. By next morning, the airport at Kochi was flooded and all flights were canceled for the next two days. It rained while I was at Marari but it was not a deluge. I was to stay back for a couple of days in Kochi and visit its fabled Jew Town and other historic sights, but when my friends chartered a bus to head back to Bangalore, I gladly joined them. My hotel at Kochi had canceled my reservation, they had lost power and were likely flooded. I had no interest in plodding through water logged streets to visit the sites. Besides, Kochi would always be there, the opportunity to spend a day with 20 of my high school classmates in a bus would probably never present itself in the future. As I boarded the bus, the thought crossed my mind that while Frater traveled halfway around the world to chase the monsoon, I was fleeing it!