It is the time of the year when people across the sub-continent start to
look beseechingly at the skies for the season to end the tyranny of a
scorching sun in leaden skies. But the monsoon, bringing rains -
plentiful ones, that is - doesn't only mean better or changed weather or
the difference between prosperity and failure but more starkly, between
life and death itself. And in it is a great story too but not told
The monsoons were geographically once just deemed
seasonally reversing winds that caused rainfall, but are now seen as
part of a much larger system. They are not confined to South Asia though
it is from here they derive their name and play their most significant
role - for it is the rains they bring that revitalises the parched
subcontinent, ensures a bountiful harvest and revives people wilting
under the heat. The season has therefore been well featured in Indian
culture - mostly.
In the words of a celebrated Indian poet, it
"comes towards you like an orchestra, and not surprisingly, has inspired
some of our loveliest music, ragas which evoke distant thunder and
falling rain. For centuries our artists have painted monsoon pictures
and our poets serenaded the monsoon..." However, it has scarcely
received its due in prose works, save references in recollections of
Europeans in India - especially the British, well accustomed to rain but
still astounded by the monsoon.
And since it is the British who
pioneered plumbing its mysteries (right from Edmund Halley - of the
comet fame - in the 17th century), it is perhaps ordained or fitting at
least that the pioneering, the definitive, and, possibly the sole, work
chronicling the anticipation, arrival, spread and effect of the season
should come from one of them.
And Alexander Frater's "Chasing The Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India" (1990) never disappoints.
stranger to tropical weather or torrential rain, Frater, born in the
South Pacific island of New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in 1937, admits the
first sounds he ever heard were of falling rain. Another key formative
influence was a "luridly tinted Edwardian print of a deluge inundating a
range of steep grassy hills" purporting to represent Cherrapunji or
"The Wettest Place of Earth", presented to his father, a missionary and
weather buff, whose long-standing dream destination it was.
as happened, it was instead in the mid-1980s that a "bizarre chain of
events began leading me via a desert oasis in Chinese Turkestan and a
famous London hospital, towards Cherrapunji in place of my father".
Frater, who was balefully contemplating a sedentary life after a
mysterious injury on a jeep ride across the Karakoram Highway, met an
Indian couple at the hospital who enticed him into visiting India to
experience the monsoon.
Thus came his most singular journey in
1987 in which he welcomed the monsoon at Trivandrum, raced it to Cochin,
Goa and Bombay, awaited it in New Delhi where he fought desperately
with the bureaucracy for permission to visit the northeast. After delays
which even entailed a return home to wait, he finally secured
permission for Shillong only and then managed to swing a Cherrapunji
permit too but while on the way, had to stop overnight in Calcutta and
view its monsoon experience too.
Frater paints a most engaging,
witty - and enduring - picture of his experiences which spans weather
extremes, vistas beautiful and ugly and a colourful cast. These include
writers (the quote on monsoon's cultural effects above is by Kamala
Das), weathermen, journalists (Pritish Nandy), astrologers, hamstrung
civic functionaries, bureaucrats both obstructive and understanding,
lethargic taxi drivers, sullen shopkeepers, helpful hotel staff and
travel agents, astrologers, ayurvedic experts, spice merchants, fearless
pilots, eccentric inventors, overbearing but not unfriendly
intelligence men and more.
The treatment is sometimes most
Wodehousian - especially the restaurant scene where a party of Indians
entertaining an Australian ignore their guest and his queries to carry
on a spirited discussion on varieties of mangoes.
Rajiv Gandhi's India Frater visits, but save the unpredictable telephone
system and some other deficiencies then, many issues - the wide fears
of poor monsoons, the belated government efforts to assuage such
eventualities, civic bodies' incapacity to deal with rain's aftermath,
anti-outsider stirs in the northeast, debates on the future of the
Congress - are still around today and save the book from feeling dated.
mere curiousity about a foreigner's strange travels, Frater's account
is a perceptive look at the vagaries of weather and their effect on
society and economy and a vivid but sympathetic description of India at
both its best and worst. Freely available, it deserves to be
better-known - and read!
(29.05.2016 - Vikas Datta is an
Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)