Rain dance

For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining, is to let it rain

Rain dance
I am not sure everyone knows this, but the ‘monsoon’ is not the season, but the name for the wind that brings rain from the southwest over the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. However, languages have a will of their own, and now, for all of us, the monsoon is the season when rain descends on us. Does it come from the southwest? or southeast? or northwest or northeast or ...? All we know is that it comes down hard on our heads from up above, sometimes changing direction, sometimes not, which we only know because our umbrellas take on a life of their own and are gone with the wind.

The rest of the world knows nothing of this. In England and Scotland where I spent quite a few of my youthful years, it rained as when it wanted to. Years ago, weather forecasts in the west were as reliable as they are now in India, which means not reliable at all, so unless you were arthritic, and could feel it in your bones, you opened one eye in the morning and looked up at the sky. If it was blue, you left your umbrella behind. If it was grey, as more often than not it was, you said, ‘curses,’ and tucked in your brolly under your arm. (The umbrella, by the way, made its own statement. I emptied my wallet to buy the very best from Harrods; it rolled nicely into a slim shape, and slipped into its own black case. Posh Englishmen stuck theirs out at a slight angle to hail a taxi. I tried to copy that at a Request bus stop; the bus driver swore at me, and sped away. First umbrella lesson: there was a class system in umbrellas; an Indian couldn't do what an Englishman could).

Funny that, when you consider that all umbrellas then were black. But the English, who as surreptitiously as we do openly, observed their own class/caste system, were expert at judging the quality of your umbrella by a lightning quick look. It had to be slim of course, as slim as the umbrella’s structure allowed it to be. When it was sheathed in its own cover as mine was, had a black leather handle and a brass clasp, you were a real brahmin. Unless the hand that carried it belonged to an Indian. In that case, you might as well have bought a cheap job, even a foldable one because your ethnicity ensured that your umbrella didn’t make a statement. I wonder what happens now, when a brolly is no longer a brolly, but a rather large appendage with vivid colours and swirling designs. These started on golf courses but are now on every street, but that doesn’t mean that their owners can all play golf or afford to. Democratisation with a capital U.

Nonetheless, the English and Europeans are a deprived lot; not for them the relentless downpour from June to September when each drop of rain wants to be bigger than its neighbour, and wants to hammer down on man and animal with a primal force. They only have a gentle drizzle through the year, and so what if it keeps the land green? There is no romance in it, which is why their poetry about it is so very anaemic:

‘For after all, the best thing one can do

When it is raining, is to let it rain.’

(Longfellow)

Or the same poet’s more famous lines: ‘Into each life some rain must fall,

Some days must be dark and dreary.’

This can get comical sometimes:

‘The rain it raineth on the just

And also on the unjust fella;

But chiefly on the just, because

The unjust steals the just’s umbrella’

(Charles Bowen)

What about romance? After searching high and low for some romantic references to rain in English poetry, this is all I could find: ‘It is not raining rain to me,

It’s raining violets.’

(Robert Loveman)

And, of course, the perennial favourite, Wordsworth’s lines:

‘My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky.’

Can you blame the English poet? There’s nothing magical about something that happens day in, day out through the year. Where’s the surprise? Where’s the drama? Where’s the unexpected? We have that. When it’s the monsoon and you are ready for the rain, you are still not ready for the rain. Your umbrella is in tatters, your raincoat in shreds, your clothes and your skin, soaking wet. Even when you are dry because it’s stopped raining, it only takes one passing car, its driver oblivious to the puddles on the road, to splash you with dirty water and ruin your day.

But these are everyday occurrences, and people learn to cope with them (is there a choice?) My earliest experience of a Mumbai deluge was in my very first monsoon after returning from Britain. I lived as a paying guest in Cuffe Parade in a lovely old house (it still stands there, desperately fighting redevelopment). Over the weekend, it began to rain, then to rain heavily, then to pour. By Monday morning, it had rained so much that the road outside the house seemed like an extension of the Arabian Sea which I could otherwise watch happily from my window. I was new to my job, and didn’t want to miss a day, so rolled up my trousers and waded into the murky waters. My courage failed me as I reached the gate. In any case, the roads were so flooded there were no cars around; so how could I get to work anyway? I turned back to wait for a let up. The ceasefire never seemed to come. Monday turned to Tuesday and Tuesday to Wednesday: I was cooped up in my room with no food to eat. On the third day, the neighbour’s servant took pity on me, and smuggled me a meal.

What did I do, apart from dreaming about biryani, butter chicken, Shepherd’s pie, finally even my dreams getting desperate, of sandwiches and idlis? With no contact with the outside world (there were no cell phones those days and I had no television), I now listened to my LPs – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart ... And I read and I read. Graham Greene, Nabokov, Milan Kundera ... If it was now, and I was (inconceivably) stuck in a similar situation, I would have added one more ingredient to ease my forced isolation. A nice selection of single malts. An occasional Cardhu, a wee dram of Lagavulin, or perhaps a Laphroaig.

If that was bad, years later the monsoon gods told us what they could really do if they set their hearts on it. On Tuesday, July 26, 2005, Mumbai received 942 mm (37.1 inches) of rain in a 24 hour period, breaking all previous records. (India’s previous all-time single-day record was set in 1912 when it rained 838 mm (33 inches). For Mumbaikars, 26/7 is forever imprinted in our memory, even those of us safe at home or in the office; but for those caught in the deluge, there was often tragedy as cars literally drowned, pedestrians were swept away and houses collapsed. Two-thirds of that rain fell in just 12 hours and much of it in the evening commuting hours. When the extent of the damage was assessed, it was found that 1,094 people had died. But even in this overwhelming tragedy, humanity asserted itself as stranded motorists were rescued by slum dwellers, who then gave them food and shelter for the night.

Bollywood being Bollywood, made two films based on that momentous day. One was called 26 July at Barista, and the other Tum Mile. The titles give the plot away. In any case, heavenly outpourings of less intensity have always led to outpourings of a different kind in most of our films: how else do you get your heroine wet? Raj Kapoor was a master at it: if you are old enough to remember his pairing with Nargis, you will remember the song Pyaar Hua Ikarar Hua ... in which their one shared umbrella had a starring role. But that was romantic; film makers have used the rain to tell us that the voluminous sari, in spite of its five meters, when wet is the best possible accessory to a woman’s body. From Zeenat Aman to Sridevi to Madhuri Dixit to Kareena Kapoor, which rain song has left a star’s curves to our imagination?

For the real romantic, when the rain keeps you indoors, what better way to pass the time than sit on a cosy sofa with your favourite drink, and read poems about rain? Like the Morning Rain by Du Fu, one of the greatest Chinese poets. He wrote this in the 8th century when life must have been so different from ours now, but that’s the point, isn’t it, to let your imagination soar?

“A slight rain comes, bathed in dawn light.

I hear it among treetop leaves before mist

Arrives. Soon it sprinkles the soil and,

Windblown, follows clouds away. Deepened

Colours grace thatch houses for a moment.

Flocks and herds of things wild glisten

Faintly. Then the scent of musk opens across

Half a mountain – and lingers on past noon.”

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