They called it a pre-monsoon shower, the one that pounded Bombay on the first day of June some years ago. I was in the fevered state I customarily am in as June rolls around, a state the May heat induces, a state best be described as “yearning for rain.”
So I was thrilled with the June 1 deluge.
Sure, by complex meteorological calculations it was perhaps merely a pre-monsoon shower. To me—as I sat on a little parapet that morning, watching the clouds grow swiftly darker, the wind whip up little dust devils, the first few drops thump heavily around me and then turn into a serious downpour—it was the monsoon come again. And like every year, I felt the warm tingle flooding upwards from my toes. I breathed deeply of that intoxicating earth smell, marveled at the sudden coolness, quaked as thunder boomed overhead. And all over again, I thanked somebody that I was right here, right now, to enjoy the start of the monsoon. Certainly, by the time September comes around I am thoroughly sick of the rain, dirt, umbrellas that break, floods, the feeling of being slightly damp all day. But in June, there’s nothing quite like that first rain of the season. Pity the numberless hordes across the globe who don’t know it!
And in fact, on a recent visit to the States, I ventured out one evening into what the radio told me insistently was “very heavy rain.” I thought to myself, not for the first time, “They call this heavy rain?” In Bombay, we’d laugh.
One year, the monsoon blew in on the wings of a cyclone. That night, the wind howled through the trees, slamming our windows and doors shut. The rain wasn’t heavy at first, though it became heavier as the night wore on. The thought, when it came, was irresistible. How about a walk along the nearby seashore? The rain in our faces, the wind in our hair … In minutes, we were there, laughing and cavorting, wet like we had been dunked. It was an extra-dark night, I remember. Some bright lights out at sea were the only gaps in the blackness. But we had little time to be curious about odd lights, just enjoying the feel of the rain. With the wind, it was as if hundreds of small wet thorns were whizzing through the air and slamming into our faces.
I returned home with adrenalin flowing, charged up like I hadn’t been in weeks.
And that night the cyclone was even stronger than we knew. The next morning, an astonishing sight. A huge ship, run aground on the rocks just offshore, no more than 150 yards away. Ah yes, those lights at night out at sea, that’s what they were about. The freighter lay like some hulking sea beast, silent and looming. Already, people were thronging to look at it, Bombay’s newest tourist attraction. A shipwreck, of all things! In the thousands they came, for weeks and months afterwards. The ship lay there for two years, to us always a reminder of a wild, beautiful June night when on that stretch of shore, it was the wind, a new monsoon, a ship heading for disaster on the rocks … and us.
The monsoon comes every year, I know. In that banal sense, it is routine and predictable, I also know. But banal and predictable don’t capture how the first cloudburst never fails to delight. How it always packs that breathtaking punch. How it is such a decisive answer to long days of draining, wearying May heat.
Not that the May heat does not have its compensations, of course. When the gulmohur trees outside our home burst into flaming red and orange, I can’t help the indulgent thought that our balcony is, bar none, the most spectacular spot in the city. Almost overnight, the trees go from nondescript green to that vivid, livid color. Within days, the flowers drift down, turning our drab compound into a lush carpet.
Summer’s here again: I know when the gulmohur blooms. In Bombay, that can only mean mangoes. I know it’s an illusion, but every year the orchards seem to have been more fecund than ever. We are overrun with carts and baskets full of the luscious yellow fruit, bursting with ripe flesh and sweet juice, here in opulent variety. Though you know your true Bombayite by the way he dismisses all but the exquisitely shaped Alphonso, the King of fruit. Of any other mangoes, he’ll say derisively: “Those are not mangoes!”
So in May, I think: so what if it’s hot as hell and I’m never quite free of sweat? There are mangoes to be eaten! All month long, it seems, my fingers and face remain in a permanent state of stickiness. Then June arrives, and I think: so what if it’s going to be a long 12 months before I get mangoes again? The rains are here! And in a flash, they have washed away May’s sweat and stickiness.
That’s why mangoes and gulmohurs are just the advance notice, only a reminder that summer must give way to the rains. They point the way to that release from the heat we all long for, the magnificent climax of that first rain that always seems to know when May has turned to June.
In his scrumptious Chasing The Monsoon, Alexander Frater wrote of watching the monsoon break on Kovalam beach in Kerala. “Everyone shrieked and grabbed at each other,” Frater wrote. In his case, that meant the dark-eyed woman to his right, and this is how he described the moment:
Her streaming pink sari left her smooth brown tummy bare. We held hands much more tightly than was necessary and, for a fleeting moment, I understood why Indians traditionally regard the monsoon as a period of torrid sexuality.
Then, as the deluge really begins in Kovalam, she is gone.
A momentary romance, that quick magic sensuality, the wisp of a mystery—this is the stuff of the monsoon. Yeah, I’ll be cursing it as July wears on into August and September. But in June, it’s an entirely different emotion. I felt it on the seashore that night with the odd lights, I felt it on the parapet that June 1, and I feel it building as I write this, knowing that when you read these words, it will be pouring in Bombay.
And if you’ll excuse me, about now I feel the urge to get wet.
|A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.|