Barsha elegy

It was Hegel, if I remember rightly, who said that one understands the meaning of something only when it is a thing of the past. Or at least nearing its end. It's a sobering thought, pointing up yet again the limitation of the human mind. To me, it also implies an inevitable nexus between understanding and elegy. The mood naturally becomes elegiac, as one contemplates the inexorable physico-chemical processes that are wreaking havoc on the earth's fragile ecosystem – especially when one lives in a small low-lying, overpopulated country bordering a slowly rising sea. If, as calculations indicate, a third of Bangladesh eventually goes under water, where will the millions of eco-refugees go? Will they perish in a Malthusian apocalypse? And with the climate going haywire, as has been predicted, will the remaining population in the remaining tracts of land be able to lead the kind of life that Bengalis have lived for millennia?

The most palpable signs of what is to come are said to be the increasingly frequent meteorological glitches, such as droughts and delayed rains. And so, as the monsoon played truant for a month this year, my thoughts turned to its significance in our lives. The monsoon, of course, largely determines the climate of the whole of Southasia. Like the six seasons, we share the monsoon with the rest of the Subcontinent. But we owe more to it than any other part of the region.

Herodotus, the Greek historian from the fifth-century BC, described Egypt as the gift of the Nile. One could well describe Bangladesh – or, indeed, greater Bengal – as the gift of the Ganga-Brahmaputra river system. But I would like to take a step up the chain of causes and effects, and declare that Bengal is the gift of barsha, the monsoon. Indeed, this is true in a more fundamental sense than Herodotus' statement about Egypt. The Nile's largesse of irrigating water and fertilising silt benefits hardly five percent of Egypt's total area; the monsoon's munificence, on the other hand, is bestowed on the whole of Bengal. Besides, without the monsoon, our mighty rivers would be mere rivulets, as they would fetch only miniscule amounts of silt. And without silt, most of Bengal's land mass would not even have taken shape. Bengal and Bengalis owe our very being to the monsoon. The philosophically inclined – especially those of a Heideggerian bent – might well dub it an ontological connection.

But how can we sum up the monsoon's impact on our lives and on our sensibility? It waters the parched soil, inundates the land, helps crops grow, and it often causes floods, which damage crops and property. Every year it subjects Bengal to a deluge, from which the land rises again, rejuvenated.

For someone not concerned with its practical effects, the monsoon is something quite different. When, after a hot summer, the monsoon clouds darken the skies, lightning zigzags and thunder crashes, and raindrops soon keep falling on one's head, then soak the skin, cooling it till it breaks into delicious goose-bumps, the experience is paradisiacal. When one sits and listens to the falling rain and looks out at the waving grey curtain of water outside, one may quietly slip into a pleasurable reverie – or even a profoundly meditative mood, as did the Buddhist bhikkus of yore: it was their custom to stop wandering when the monsoon broke, and to withdraw into their viharas for a stretch of sustained meditation.

The monsoon's capacity to induce reverie certainly makes it conducive to poetic creativity, for poetry is born of reverie. It therefore comes as no surprise that Bengal's greatest poet, Rabindranath Tagore, should devote more lyrics to the monsoon than any other season – basanta, the season of kings, included. Are those songs and what they celebrate to become a footnote to literary history?

~ Kaiser Haq is a professor of English at Dhaka University.

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Himal Southasian