Memories of monsoons past

My earliest, and perhaps fondest, memory of rain does not involve rain at all. It’s from Shillong, and I have this vague picture in my head of my father and I with a red plastic bucket. Hail fell around us, and even as my mother shouted from the door of our little airmen’s quarters, we collected as much as we could. It was dangerous of course, blocks of ice falling from the heavens at speed, and with our only protection being a black service-issue umbrella. There was no reason to collect that ice, we had no use for it, and all I did with it was watch it melt. It drove my mother mad. But I remember that laughter, and the cold, crisp air of the high east for what it was: pure, unadulterated joy.

In Jamnagar, in Gujarat, we were ready for school at half past 6, and would be herded into an Indian Air Force truck, rain or no rain. I would fight to find a place for my little sister to sit, and once satisfied, would resume conversation with my gang of merry men. It was only after we reached school that we would realise that it was closed. You see, there were no phones then, no local television, and news would only arrive if someone brought it to you. The driver would ask us kids to sit tight as he checked for any other children to be ferried back home. In that time, we would start up a cricket match. The western rain was no joke; I used to own gumboots for the monsoon. And so we would run in the rain, get drenched, bowl fast, fall down, splatter mud over each other. And in the 30 minutes that it took for our driver to return, a 5 over game would be done, complete with a fight, a man of the match, a sore loser, and bragging rights for the way back.

The rain in Pondicherry is unpredictable: it's cyclonic, and there is no real set season. It usually comes around my birthday, in October, and it's a lovely time to be in my town by the sea. There's a particular laziness then, the mood of a small town having coffee and reading its magazines by the window. Not much moves in the cobbled paths of the white town, the paved roads of the Tamil enclave, and the dirt streets farther out, except perhaps a sullen, wet cat trying to find a place to lay low in. The power goes out sometimes, and when the town quiets down in the evening, I can hear and see the rain falling down the sloping roof of my father's house.

I went to college in an even smaller town 200 kilometres to the south, and there was a spell of record breaking rain in my first year. We were stuck in the hostel for 4 days. Food was brought out to us in an Ashok Leyland truck requisitioned for it. I used to sit near a set of stairs where the wall had broken down, and dangle my legs over the adjacent field, flooded and full. The rain would hit my legs and I would sit there listening to music on the radio of my flip-phone. Some of those songs stayed with me, and when I listen to them even now, I’m reminded immediately of the days I spent stranded, surrounded by water, sated.

I went to business school in a university by the hills and fell in love with the place irrevocably. This was the Palakkad gap of the Western Ghats, and this was mountain rain. People carried umbrellas everywhere and the roads would be filled with yellow flowers after. I never had an umbrella but I had friends, and that’s the same thing. I remember different kinds of rain-drenched days there, but what I remember most is one of the first evenings, when we walked to a welcome dinner from our faculty, and and the mist fell on us in waves, white and heavy and cold and gorgeous. All of us seemed magical, ghostlike figures. I carry that dusk around with me still: It was the first time I thought I was, you know, somewhere.

Around late January, there is a short spell of winter rain in the capital. I was told that this happens every year. It’s bone-chillingly cold already, and the rain doesn’t help. But because I couldn’t do without my early morning tea, I would take my umbrella, wear three layers of clothes, and walk to the little stall in the next street. There would be a fire going, and I would wrap my hands around the plastic cup. Breathing out my own personal mist, I’d take in the tea’s sugary, cardamom-rich warmth. My companions at that time were mostly rickshaw pullers, and they came to know me well. Once in late winter, I carried my Kindle out because I wanted to read as I had tea. They examined the device thoroughly and asked me to read out something for them. The next day, having downloaded a Hindi book, I did so. I remember how they listened, and how their eyes glistened in that light.

Rain in Madras was beautiful, and it always messed up roads, traffic, and your plans. It gave brief respite to a hot city, and even though I was there three years, I can’t seem to remember particular occasions. Except one. We were going for dinner. She had dressed up. The cab arrived at the gate, and we tried to run into it. But she'd forgotten to close the umbrella, and fought with it frantically for a few moments before she succeeded. Water dripping off our heads, we got inside, looked at each other, and burst into laughter. I’m sure she doesn’t remember this at all, but it’s enough that I do.

Written in October 2019.