ONCE upon a time, till not very long ago, we used to have the monsoon. Now, barring coastal areas, in most cities across Upper India, we have the rains. The difference is not simply one of etymology but of a change in lifestyle, urban planning, global warming, shifting weather patterns, in short a whole new cityscape that bears only a passing resemblance to what once was. The monsoon is a glorious burst of rainwater, preceded by damp masses of moisture-laden clouds scudding across the skies, bringing darkness at noon and followed by days upon days of uninterrupted deluge. The rains, or the rainy season, is a much shorter affair, bringing waterlogged streets, traffic jams and irater-than-usual city-dwellers.
Having said that, there is no denying that the average person living in North India looks forward to the end of June more eagerly than to any other phenomenon — natural or otherwise. Several cities have a designated date for the arrival of the monsoon; in New Delhi, for example, it is always June 29.
The first chaste encounter of cool water and hot earth, grey sky and parched land, is preceded by severe dust storms followed by an occasional drizzle that brings the temperature – usually hovering at 46°C or so – down, but it leaves everything – including your mouth, nose, ears and eyes — covered with a fine, powdery dust. For weeks before, the city pages of the dailies are filled with reports from the Met office. There is speculation everywhere. People talk of nothing but the unrelenting heat that smothers everything like a dense blanket.
Water tables dip alarmingly low, taps run dry, hot gusts of loo sear, roads bake and homes give off heat even at night. Will the monsoon keep its official "date" or will it make us wait? How far has the easterly and westerly arms of the monsoon progressed across the length and breadth of India? These questions take precedence over all else, even exam results and university cut-offs, as everyone waits with breathless anticipation!
And finally when the rains come lashing down — not the short-lived drizzle of the pre-monsoon shower but the real thing — the city lets out a collective sigh, as though it has been holding its breath all through the long harsh summer. A sort of hissing sound, as the earth takes in the full impact of the water, is followed by a long breath of relief from a city sweltering under the merciless sun. You can hear it when the first fat drops of water fall on the parched earth. Or, when the skies open up as though someone has pulled a plug. Or, when the rain falls in endless sheets of water. That is the time when even the city, no matter how blythe and blasé, begins to show traces of its kinder, gentler self. Perfect strangers look at the pouring rain and smile at each other. Others stretch out a tentative hand to capture tremulous drops of water, marvelling how this liquid beauty has transformed the city within minutes. But as I said before, the monsoon we used to have were an altogether different affair from the rains. They lasted from end-June, raining vigorously till August, then sporadically in September and then again in October, when the retreating monsoon winds would bless vast tracts of land across upper India one last time before the onset of winter. Now, with changing global weather patterns and over-crowded, over-congested cities, the rainy season is less clearly defined.
Having grown up in Delhi, I remember the monsoon of my childhood as a period of unmatched joy. Cycling back from school (yes, there was a time when children could actually cycle on the roads of Delhi, that too main roads!), I remember getting drenched in the rain and coming home with soaking wet school textbooks. But it was compensated with piping hot bhutta bought from the roadside. Being young, it was fun to get wet in the rain and watch others sheltering under the giant neem and jamun trees that lined the roads. Later, it was a treat to pick the fallen plump jamun berries from the road or to buy some from the vendors who tossed them in tangy masala and served them in little cups fashioned out of leaves.
Another family favourite during the monsoon, was driving through pouring rain to have chaat at some sweets corner. The joy of pani-puri, aloo tikki or dahi papri was no match for home-made pakoras. Or going to the India Gate Lawns where one could run and dance, romp and play in the rain with complete abandon, for everyone else — young and old — was doing the same. I remember boating in the shallow canal near India Gate, upturning the boat and standing in waist-high waters with a bunch of can-get-no-wetter school friends!
Now, as I wait expectantly for the rains, I draw solace from reciting rain-related poetry to evoke the old magic. Reading Bikat Kahani, The Baramasa by Afzal Jhinjhanvi, I am transposed to a world of love and longing associated with barkha bahar, the rainy season:
Ari jab kook koel ne sunayi
Tamami tan badan mein aag lahi
Andher rain, jugnu jagmagata
Ooka jalti upar taiska jalata?
(Ah, when the cuckoo sounds her cooing
It sets my body aflame
The glow worm glows in the darkness of the night
Why does it burn one already on fire?)
The virahini of the baramasa feels the pain of separation most keenly in the month of saawan for it is during the rains that men traditionally stayed home or came back as business was slack possibly because roads became unpassable. Tradition also demanded that a young bride would be called to her parents’ home when her brother would be sent to fetch her at the beginning of the season; shortly after a token visit, she would return to her husband’s home and resume her conjugal life. When there is a departure from this time-honoured way of life, when the woman finds herself alone and bereft during the months of the rains (traditionally said to last for a chaumasa, or four months), then the dark clouds, the call of the koel, the darts of rain, the smell of damp earth, the dancing peacocks, the blood-red birbahuti insects, remind her that all other women are with their husbands while she is not; she is reminded of seasons past when she had enjoyed the plentiful rains with her beloved and is tormented by the thought of his dalliances elsewhere. Different baramasas used this repertoire of images in different ways. Here’s a sampler:
Papiha de namak ghaavon ko ke pee
Ghari sahar ghari doobe mera jee
(The cuckoo pours salt over my wounds and tells me to drink it
While all the while my heart sinks from minute to minute)
Asaarh aaya ghata chhayi gagan par
Rasawat man mera rasiya sajan par
(The month of Asaarh has come, the clouds cover the sky
My heart pines for my feckless beloved)
But for me nothing can beat Chitra and Jagjit Singh’s evocation of Bachpan ka sawan when it comes to recapturing those magical days of long-gone childhood.
Woh kagaz ki kashti, woh barish ka pani…