Is it just this year, or have all the transitions from spring into summer been like this? In recent weeks, the gathering dark clouds on the horizon, the whiffs of cool air and distant rumblings have provided me sudden seclusion from my immediate surroundings. They have also transported me to a world that is both familiar and distant. It is odd what a little moisture in the air can do for one’s grip on the present.
Indeed, monsoon is a state of mind. Even casually thinking of monsoon brings back a flood of memories, sights, sounds, smells and feelings – as though a Himalayan river has burst its banks. Till 10th grade I lived in Arunachal Pradesh, one of India’s most sparsely populated states. I do not have a seasonally sequential memory of the monsoons there, mostly due to the fact that seasons in Arunachal did not matter. Memories of life there are like a painted story: bright smears of games, friends, a pet dog named Marshall, fishing, school, belonging to a community, lush forests, mountains with patches of jhum agriculture, affection and security.
The monsoon would turn the river behind our house turbid, overflowing its banks. We would bet on which direction the fickle course would change after the water subsided. Cloudbursts during the monsoon would bring down red slush from the mountainside, making roads impassable. Migrant labourers would clear these slides, two people to a shovel – one digging into the debris and casting it away with the help of the other, who would synchronously pull at a rope tied to the shovel’s neck. The puller was usually a woman, who would be paid less than the digger. They cleaned mud and rocks in the rain, wearing torn plastic shoes held together by pieces of ropes. You could tell from their unsure footholds that they did not belong on the mountain slopes of Arunachal. Being far from their homes in the plains of Bihar and Orissa, they made way for us. I felt their distance from home.
Finishing 10th grade made me an educational migrant to Calcutta. I came to that dense populace with my father shortly before the onset of the monsoon in Bengal. The city’s uniform, limitless sky was a shock to my eyes, so used to a view broken up by peaks and valleys. As my father and I walked around looking for possible high schools, the monsoon descended on Calcutta.
This was a very different sort of monsoon – one indelibly mixed with humanity. This monsoon was up in the skies as much as it was overflowing the streets. Again and again, my father and I were forced to take shelter under the low-hanging canopy of teashops, where we would stand squeezed in close to the city’s humanity, all of us carefully avoiding the trickle from the swollen tarpaulin. I would watch the droplets generate on the tarpaulin’s crest, then be released like clockwork to the flooded ground. I felt relaxed and invigorated standing there. But the impatience of the urban folks was palpable, as was the listlessness of the lungi-clad rickshaw-wallahs, ready to wait out the storm for as long as it took. The odour of people was everywhere – in the trains, buses, teashops, in the lines to get the high-school admission forms. Monsoon brings back the smell of humanity.
White cranes flying in huge V’s against black monsoon clouds over swaying parrot-green paddy, the whole view sliced by the four bars on the window of a local train – that was the closest I came to mixing monsoon with rural Bengal. Of course, there were also the groups of boys playing football on slushy fields, with balls indistinguishable in colour from the field’s mush, darting towards goalposts made of leaning bamboo poles.
Monsoon reminds me of the first showers of 1984 in Calcutta, mixed with my first phase of personal urbanisation. It reminds me of my father’s refutation of the common wisdom of taking a rickshaw during a shower: one should not pay for getting wet, he’d say, as he headed out resolutely on foot. Monsoon reminds me of reading my mother’s neat handwriting on blue inland letters – with the exception of a few disintegrated words, where the monsoon drops had landed. For years afterwards, I would sit on the veranda with Amma, my grandmother, and deliberate over the possibility of a faraway rain. Didn’t the wind feel moist? Wasn’t it carrying the unmistakable smell of the first drops on parched soil? Well then, it shouldn’t be long before we get our share! More often than not, we were wrong – it was wishful thinking rather than meteorological certitude, but it made us happy. Monsoon reminds me of Amma.
I also remember the kalbaishakhis, the storms that announce the arrival of the monsoon. Kalbaishakhis meant running to latch the wooden window panes, which were too swollen to fit their frames. The fettered windows would stutter violently, like a decapitated hen being held to the ground. Monsoon also meant my cousin and I keeping a vigilant eye over our himsagars, a very sweet variety of mango, lest anyone felt emboldened enough to steal one. Monsoon reminds me of thinking about my sister and mother back in Arunachal, while staring through the iron bars on the window of my hostel room in Narendrapur. Monsoon reminds me of my boyhood’s uneasy transition into adolescence.
It was monsoon time when I finally joined the Bengal Engineering College. With my parents, I arrived with a new mattress, a pillow, a bright-blue mosquito net and two bed-sheets inside a bedroll – and a load of trepidation. Monsoon reminds me of that trepidation, of the overgrown grass and creepers on the Victorian buildings of B E College, and of the Ganga that flowed directly behind the campus. I need not have worried. Soon enough, my classmates and I would come back to our hostels for lunch, loudly vocalising our longing for the rain to come down hard, wishing for the second half of classes to be washed away. Our unified incantations of “Aaye, aaye!” (“Please come!” in Bengali) from the hostels’ verandas would have little effect, however, and the rain would predictably taper off even before the lunch break ended. This led to our strong faith in the existence of the ‘Varun-Seal pact’ – A K Seal being our principal, and Varun, the rain god. Monsoon reminds me of how the strings of so many lives were braided together amidst the greenery of the B E College campus.
After studying electrical engi-neering for four years, I started my first job in Calcutta, overseeing an air-conditioning project. Feeling the void of friends after leaving college, wearing starched clothes to work, the newfound necessity of aftershave lotion, staring at the almost vanished No Standing Allowed signs in a sardine-packed S7 bus – all of these memories are moistened by monsoon humidity.
The other day, as I was walking on the bike path near my present home, I saw that dark clouds had begun to gather in the sky – pregnant with moisture and ready to break. I saw children playing soccer (here in the United States, ‘football’ refers to a whole different sport entirely) on the synthetic green of the local high-school field. Black-and-white hexagonal sections of the numerous balls stood out vividly, along with the small orange cones illumined by the high-powered lights that had been switched on due to the premature darkness caused by the clouds. Teams could be distinguished by their distinct uniforms, coordinated down to their socks. The humid air was a prelude to the impending rain, and the wind exposed the whitish underbellies of the leaves. It was raining in America, but hardly a monsoon.
My heart suddenly wished for a palm tree – bent like a bow, with its wind-blown leaves looking like a woman’s hair caught in an updraft. I thought of a slushy football field with a single worn-out, earth-coloured ball, and teams distinguished by either bare or shirted backs. I thought of the four bars of a train window; of the five segments into which they would cut the paddy, the sky, the clouds; of the light from a distant hut shifting between those segments, in rhythm with the swaying of the train. It was monsoon season again, in my mind.
~Somnath Mukherji is an electrical engineer in the US.