Cover

Monsoon Special

Chasing the clouds

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 08, 2019

Starting point: Cherrapunji under a monsoon cover. Writer Alexander Frater’s unique connection with this wet corner of Meghalaya was spurred by a painting that was gifted to his father for his wedding istock.com/danielrao   -  istock.com/danielrao

A painting of rain-drenched Cherrapunji leads to a book that continues to delight readers 30 years after it was written

A certain sub-genre of journalism — a dexterous blend of memoir, history and nature writing — has given us memorable books over the last decade or so. I’m thinking of works such as Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk, Mary Morris’s The River Queen and Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus. In each of these books, the author’s journeys (literal and metaphorical) happen because of deeply personal reasons. Not only does this add an edge to the narrative at crucial, chapter-ending moments, it’s also a bit of a tightrope act to pull off, craft-wise, making these books all the more impressive.

 

In the late ’80s, British journalist Alexander Frater embarked on one such journey for his book Chasing the Monsoon. Frater’s premise was simple — to follow India’s summer monsoon, from the day it hits what was then Trivandrum, all the way to Meghalaya’s Cherrapunji, then the “wettest place on Earth”.

Frater decided to write this book because of his own unique Cherrapunji connection. His father, a doctor and a weather science enthusiast, had received a rather vivid painting, a framed Edwardian print, as a wedding present. The painting captured a rain scene from Cherrapunji. As Frater explains in the prologue to the book, throughout his childhood he was intrigued by this faraway place that he had never been to, but which relentlessly evoked nostalgia.

“What made it remarkable, though, was the weight and density of the rain. Water fell torrentially from low, scudding cloud and sprang from the hillsides in countless foaming cataracts. Flapping sheets of water hung spinnaker-like in the air, more went surfing down the slopes. Its curious bottle-green opacity suggested that the artist (L. Geo. Lopez according to the signature) had placed his drowned landscape at the bottom of a lake.”

During his travels, of course, he learns loads about the vagaries of the monsoon, and there are the inevitable cultural shifts that happen along the way. What makes Frater’s book a classic, however, is his ability to make weather science both accessible and a surprisingly effective way to tell human stories — whether he’s attending a village group-think session, or talking to a doctor-turned-ice-cream-vendor in Goa (the good doctor claims that just before the monsoon’s arrival, the waters of the sea “produces substances that help people with rheumatism”), or charting increased crime rates in areas where the monsoon is painfully late.

There are moments of unexpected tenderness and, sometimes, hilarity. In the middle of the Mumbai leg of Frater’s travels, he finds himself thoroughly exhausted after a whole day of cat-and-mouse with the rain, only to discover that the weather bureau had classified the day’s rainfall as merely “heavy showers”; the monsoon was still a day or two away. Exasperated, he confesses to a clerk at the Taj Hotel, “This is deeply confusing”. Without missing a beat, the clerk says, “Sir, it is deeply confusing time of year.” In a similar vein, the author has a memorable encounter in Cochin with one Mr Menon — “a dapper man with the language and manners of an Oxford High Table”. Menon’s wry put-down of the monsoon is hilarious.

“A good Hindu is supposed to remember the monsoon in his prayers and, back in the days when he also prayed for his king, would even refer to him as the ‘rain-maker’. For me, though, there’s nothing metaphysical or symbolic about it. It’s merely a period when the phones go down and the lights fail. Old people, feeling the chill, take out their socks and shawls. (...) And it’s the time mildew grows on books; when your Complete Works of Shakespeare starts turning pea green, a certain melancholy, inevitably, sets in.” Equally funny are his interactions with some well-known figures: Veteran journalists Sanjoy Hazarika (then The New York Times India correspondent) and Pritish Nandy, poet Dom Moraes and so on. These quick little character sketches are so entertaining that you don’t mind Frater spending more time on them than strictly necessary for the narrative.

When Frater finally arrives in Cherrapunji, he is clearly moved. “Whenever the clouds parted, more waterfalls appeared. I may even have induced one; dimly, through drifting mist and at the precise point I suddenly willed it to be, I perceived a new cascade emerging from the rock. I had never seen so many, had never imagined that such a profusion of these lovely, diaphanous things could be congregated in a single area,” he writes.

Finally, it’s worth noting that unlike many other travel books about India written by white authors, this 1990 publication has aged well. And one of the reasons behind this is that — counter-intuitive as this sounds for a journalist — Frater does not treat everything he comes across as a puzzle that he must figure out within a few paragraphs. As a meteorologist tells Frater, “(the monsoon) is like the human brain. We know it, but we don’t know it.” Sometimes, that’s what good writing looks like. It answers one question while opening up two others in the same passage, and Chasing the Monsoon is a great example of this.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on June 07, 2019

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