Divine grace

Summer hardly being a temperate occurrence for Indians, our relief at the cool touch of rain is palpable

You are what you celebrate, goes the old adage. Actually, I just made that one up. But it’s as true as the wisdom of the ages. When you need to study people—their loves, their fears, their dreams—you need to carefully observe the things they celebrate. That unfolds the entire mystery of who they are.

And no one, but no one, can celebrate nature like we do, for our festivals are all connected with the changing moods of the seasons. None, in particular, can be creatures of rain and storm like us, for Indians thrive on those. Shravan, more popular as saawan, is a celebration in our land in no less measure. It holds pride of place among the seasons, for it encloses within its liquid grasp the very essence of our lives: the three Ls of love, longing and the more practical, livelihood.

Since the ancient roots of Indian civilisation, saawan carries myriad connotations. Trad­itionally, the onset of monsoon showers spelt an interlude for travellers, the time when weary hearts headed home. It was a time for reunions, for passion to reign supreme. This ancient thread lies at the heart of innumerable cultural representations, from Indian poetry to art and cinema, which is famous for its depictions of lovers in the rain. In such an electrified atmosphere, lovers far apart would yearn still more. Valmiki’s Ram­ayana has brilliant metaphorical allusions to the rain showers in the voice of Rama, separated from Sita, his heart overwhelmed with the effect that rain brings:

“The lightnings flash and sparkle; alas! their golden lustre in the darkness of night reminds me of my lost Sita. . . .

Now the wind falls and the earth is bright with rain tears, and I hear the sighing of Sita as she weeps in pain and sorrow. . . .

The rainbow comes forth in beauty like Sita arrayed with jewels and ornaments. .

Now the earth is refreshed: trees are budding and flowers bloom again in beauty, but I cannot be consoled…”

Rama’s grief is in stark contrast to his expectation of joy and fulfilment in the wake of the showers. Indian poetry and songs on rain brim with exuberance at their sight. The Raga Malhar is a classical music tradition dedicated solely to monsoon—said to bring forth the raincloud with the sheer strength of its notes. And in a confluence of art, music and nature, the Ragmala miniature paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries are personified depictions of each of the six ragas that represent the six seasons of India, along with the Raginis, supposed to be their wives. The love metaphor of rain knows no bounds.

Interestingly, the Ragmala paintings were patronised by the mughals— muslims in faith. But therein lies a beautiful thread of commonality between hindu-muslim beliefs: rain as a benevolent life-force. Islamic beliefs hail rain as the bounty of Allah, and when you beseech your lord during rainfall, your prayers would surely be answered. Rain is rehmat divine. We welcome this rehmat unto our land in countless delightful ways. The saawan ka jhoola slung from hanging branches invites the monsoon winds to whip you around with a torrid frenzy. Folk music abounds with lush songs of saawan sung by young girls and women, expressions of the heart swaying with joy.

The Hariyali Teej is the quintessential monsoon festival, wherein women of all ages deck themselves in green as a mark of solidarity with greenery everywhere; adorn their palms with green mehndi and sing odes to the monsoon. The folk songs, known as Kajri, also carry deeper meanings of longing, as many of them centre around the married woman’s memories of her father’s home, where she could play and laugh with abandon. In one such song, the cloud is entreated by a woman to fly to her father’s home and be the “eyes of his daughter”, raining down upon him.

“Badri, baabul ke angna jaiyo

Jaiyo barasiyo kahiyo

Kahiyo ki ham hain tohri…

bitiya ki ankhiyan…”

From a religious standpoint, Teej is dedicated to goddess Parvati and her union with Shiva. But more than anything it is the celebration of the union between earth and sky, brought about in the person of the rain. Khalil Gibran portrays this gloriously in these lines from his song of ‘The Rain’:

“…The field and the cloud are lovers,

And between them I am a messenger of mercy.

I quench the thirst of the one,

I cure the ailment of the other...”

In stark contrast with all of this exuberance, however, is the representation of rain in English literature, where the colours transform from vivid green to steely grey. The rhyme ‘rain, rain go away’ is such a far cry from the ecstatic yells of children frolicking on rain-drenched streets in India!

Most markedly, Ernest Hemingway in his A Farewell to Arms persistently uses rain as a metaphor for impending doom. Right at the beginning of the novel, Frederick Henry sets the tone with negative associations of rain. “In the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain.” This rain is black.

Shortly after, it is followed by an outbreak of cholera, killing seven thousand people. And later, it is raining when the Italian army begins its retreat. A soldier’s statement, “Tomorrow, maybe we drink rainwater,” turns into a prophecy of doom, for the following day they meet their end.

Hemingway’s heroine, Catherine Barkley isn’t made happy by the showers either. “I'm afraid of the rain because sometimes I see myself dead in it,” she says to Henry. “And sometimes I see you dead in it.” Close to the end, as Catherine is operated upon, Henry looks out of the window and finds rain... In the next few minutes, Henry loses both his child and his love all “in the rain.”

Perhaps this resentment of rain has something to do with the cold climate of the west. For them, summer is the friend, smiling kindly down and blooming flowers around. In Shakespeare’s famous sonnet Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, the bard likens his muse to summer but insists that “Thou art more lovely and more temperate”. Summer hardly being a temperate occurrence for Indians, our relief at the cool touch of rain is palpable.

Tagore puts it best: “The rain has held back for days and days,

My God, in my arid heart.

The horizon is fiercely naked —

Not the thinnest cover of a soft cloud,

Not the vaguest hint of a distant cool shower.

Send thy angry storm, dark with death,

If it is thy wish, and with lashes of lightning

Startle the sky from end to end.

But call back, my lord,

Call back this pervading silent heat,

Still and keen and cruel,

Burning the heart with dire despair.

Let the cloud of grace bend low from above

Like the tearful look of a mother on the day of the father’s wrath.”

But even so, there’s something greater, something more sublime in our connect with rain. It isn’t as though we aren’t deluged by ravaging showers; it isn’t as though the rain doesn’t bring peril for us. But we still await it with bated breath. Our land and its people have a more instinctive connect with it, like religion—like god. It is spiritual.

Yes, religion creates innumerable encumbrances in our lives, binds us down with rituals and inescapable lists of rules. But we draw our sustenance from it, our solace and our strength. It is the Indian’s life force and lifeline. Much the same is our bond with the rain: it might increase our daily burdens, but we draw our sustenance from it. Our joys, our solace, our strength. This is what we celebrate, this is who we are. When you begin to sing paeans to the rain, once is not enough.



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