Maximum Magic

Catharsis, Aristotle's word. It liberates from the relentless heat, cleanses, purges and catalyses. Floodgates, literal and metaphorical, are opened   
Ratna Raman Delhi

It is easy to make paper boats and launch them in the water. It is far more difficult to make aerodynamic paper planes. This holds true of the paper planes of my childhood. The wings were either too thin or too broad and the planes always nose-dived much in the manner of Charlie Brown's unfortunate kites. 

With the boats, it was a different story. Using old paper torn from leftover notebooks, bad grades were exorcised by becoming part of building material for boats. These were placed gingerly upon the down rush of rainwater gushing down storm water pipes from every household. All this rainwater joined the larger stream on the road since the volume of rain invariably exceeded the street drain's capacity to channelise the water in any reasonable manner. 

It was the adults who complained about water-logging, traffic snarls and potholed roads. For us, this was always an exhilarating moment. The hand- fashioned craft would bob up and down the muddy brown waters and then wobble out of sight at the corner of the street, carrying its cargo of dead flowers or ants and leave us with a welter of feelings.

This is so typical of the monsoon, the most significant season in India, where farming is mostly rain-dependent as our social science textbooks repeatedly inform us. In landlocked New Delhi, subject to relentless scorching heat, interminable dust storms and fine ecru dust that sifts through and blows indoors irrespective of all you might do to keep it out, the wait for the first rain is like a sharp need, craving to be appeased. Having neither the balmy summers that Europe boasts of, nor the occasional sea breeze that coastal Chennai and nearby Visakhapatnam draw sustenance from, the most read sections of the newspaper in the north during June are the weather forecasts. 

Will it be pluvial in June and July or will we continue to wilt in the hot weather, is the collective angst that grips everyone?

When the first drops of rain touch down on the parched soil or on the dry fine dust that the summer storms have smeared liberally everywhere, the delicate odour of wet mud that is released into the air is a refreshing marker of change. Suddenly the great outdoors is a happier place, cool and fresh with the trees resplendent in their newly washed foliage. For school-going children it is the time of damp uniforms and coming home to in-house verandahs full of the day's laundry, drying on improvised clotheslines, or the more recent portable ones. 

There is also a flurry of umbrellas and raincoats but fortunately the days of avuncular black umbrellas and dreary oily duckbacks are over. Now there are smart folding umbrellas in every colour under the sun, even the black ones come with a silvery waterproof lining, and the raincoats in solid colours with a hood make every young person's living out of couture dreams possible. Blue and white hawai chappals are no longer a source of embarrassment. Damp school shoes are now replaced by trendy floaters and flip flops and worn with derring-do and bohemian ease. The weather, of course, demands the consumption of endless cups of chai and hot pakoras in the northern plains while steaming cups of coffee and crisp daal vadas are de rigueur in the more sultry coastal regions.

Catharsis, Aristotle's word, to describe the effects of 'Tragedy' can be freely borrowed to explain the impact of the Indian monsoon. It liberates from the relentless heat, cleanses, purges and catalyses. In this sense the rains are truly cathartic. Floodgates, both literal and metaphorical, reopened. 

Strangely, when one stops to think of it, despite our long coastlines and tropical weather, cultural practice dictates that our beaches serve more as picnic spots and are used for walking or for the mandatory morning run. The fishing boats are sites of hectic activity in the morning and innumerable beach foods are available at the Marina, Juhu, Calicut, Shangamugam, Kovalam, Miramar and Calangute. At each of these beaches, there are hordes of people at the water's edge, darting in and out of the waves, fully clothed, even engaging in water sports; but rarely do Indians frolic and revel in the seas and oceans. 

All that spontaneous overflow of powerful expression is reserved for the rains. We share an age-old relationship with the rain and its presence is celebrated in literature, popular culture, in the quotidian and on celluloid.

The flight of dazzling white swans juxtaposed across a dark grey monsoon sky in young Ramakrishna Paramahamsa's village was a transfixing moment that accelerated the spiritual journey of the sage and Kali worshipper of Bengal at an early age. This mystical moment is one of the innumerable instances of how the rains have initiated countless human experiences and provided a backdrop to wide-ranging situations. 

A centuries old sangam poem celebrates the coming together of two lovers seeing in their union a process as elemental as the mingling of red earth and pouring rain. Kalidasa's Meghadootam powerfully invokes the cloud to double as lover's emissary, while the originary stories of Raag Malhar demonstrate the link between longing, lives and rainfall that is so quintessentially Indian.   

Malhar's history is entwined with the lives of two of our legendary musicians, Tansen and Baiju Bawra. Both musicians, inhabitants of this hot country, excelled at Raag Deepak. The lamps at Baiju's king's palace were lit by his singing of Raag Deepak while Tansen apparently set himself alight with a virtuoso rendering of this 'hot' raag. Two singers, Tana and Riri, were summoned to sing Raag Malhar, thereby invoking rain to douse the flames. 

Baiju being Tansen's contemporary, probably imbibed the raag from the two women. Both men, however, still remain associated with the raag and perhaps it is also called Mian ki Malhaar, since it was a life-saving antidote for Tansen. 

In the second half of the 20th century, Vividh Bharati (All India Radio) regularly broadcast singer Mukesh's plea for the celluloid lover of Sabak for excessive rain (Barkha bairan jara jamke barso) so that his beloved would be unable to go home. Yet again, there is the heart-soothing jugalbandi of the young lovers in Paheli, accompanied by the musical jaltarang of the eternal Bengali rendition: Bhisti pare tapur tupur, tip tip tip tapur tupur

BJ Thomas's Raindrops keep falling on my head (watch the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with Paul Newman, Katharine Ross and Robert Redford) captures the happy, effervescent celebration of the season; as much as the anxious cajoling of the Herman Hermits' Don't go out into the rain or you're gonna melt, offers snug companionship and safe indoor viewing of the rain. Possibly one could watch the falling raindrops form saucer shapes on the water collecting on the ground. 

Out of the innumerable audiovisual celebrations of the monsoon, the rain dance in Namak Halal by Amitabh Bachchan and Smita Patil, accessorised by an umbrella, a white and crimson saree and an empty cycle cart, palpably captures the joie de vivre of the monsoons (with the catchy lilt of Aaj rapat jaye to hame na utthaiyo: If I slip or fall today do not help me up). Again, the rain-drenched and storm-kissed fort in the movie Bombay provides the backdrop for the combustible love song Tuhi re featuring the religion-crossed love of Manisha Koirala and Arvind Swamy.

After a long absence from New Delhi, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi sang to a large audience one May morning in 2000 at Nehru Park. This was a tableau scripted in another realm. The heavens opened when he began to sing, sheltering under a diminutive cloth canopy. Thousands of people, young, able-bodied and geriatric, stood spellbound in pouring rain through the entire concert as if this was part of their everyday routine, providing new meaning to the expression 'singing in the rain'

Bhimsen Joshi's Saawan ki boondaniya in Raag Kedar, an evening raga, celebrates the rainfall of the tropics accompanied by thundering storms. This is an extraordinary rendition reveling in the tumultuousness of the season. 

As a civilisation we have come a long way from the period in which we collectively cowered and offered sacrifices to placate our seemingly irate rain gods. Living in our waterproof urban shelters, we no longer need to recruit the services of that hard-worked god, Krishna, who balanced the Govardhan Parbat on his finger tip, thereby saving entire villages from the onslaught of the rain.

Yet we have learnt little from our frequent encounters with the rain and have year after year frittered away this abundant watery gift. 
What we should fear now, is not the wrath of the anthropomorphic gods but the anguish of subsequent generations who will never grow and live unless we change the ways in which we use our rainwater. Given the logistics of shrinking water tables, today, in the early evening of our democracy, it is time to take cognisance of the immeasurable value of the little drops of water that make for a mighty ocean of liquid wealth. It is imperative that we conserve, store and recycle for the dry season the incredible amount of run-off rainwater that we waste annually. 

Building laws in New Delhi, for instance, now mandate provision for car parking space within new buildings. Similar water-harvesting rules need to be rigorously implemented. It took 30 years of water scarcity and debacles in water sharing talks before Chennai sought to implement water harvesting in a big way. New Delhi remains capitally behind despite the enormous surface areas that we really need to tap. Actually, now that we have dug up virtually all sections of the city for the Commonwealth Games, this should be a good time to put water-harvesting measures in place.

Maybe the city's Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) could be distracted (from disrupting vehicular movement within residential colonies with unauthorised gates) and asked to compulsorily participate in a collective process to save our water resources.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2010

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