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Monsoon Special

Hearts on the horizon: It’s raining poems

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 08, 2019

Maximum monsoon: Poet Arundhathi Subramaniam locates Mumbai as the site where rain-driven nostalgia is born and eroded away   -  BusinessLine

Shared umbrellas and rain-drenched trysts are essential to the universe’s wellness regime

It feels impolite not to fall in love during the monsoon. And if you’re already afflicted, it feels rude not to do so all over again. Why wouldn’t you? It’s just another utterly crazy practice we’ve all conspired to legitimise, like walking in the rain and enjoying it. Essential to the universe’s wellness regime is the perpetual Ferris wheel of shared umbrellas and rain-drenched trysts.

 

Poets from this part of the world have, historically speaking, been rather taken with the idea of rain as the harbinger of love. Grandmaster Kalidasa, court poet extraordinaire (I believe they’re called #PaidMedia these days), must shoulder the blame for this, being the author of Meghadutam, a 111-stanza poem about a cloud that plays carrier pigeon for a lovelorn yaksha missing his faraway wife. Meghadutam, according to Srinivas Reddy, who translated the epic poem for a 2017 Penguin Classics edition, started the duta-kavya or ‘messenger-poem’ genre in Sanskrit.

This particular message proved to be memorable — well over 1,000 years later, Rabindranath Tagore would write several rain poems of his own, many of which were on the erotics of the monsoon. In one poem, the earth gawks at the sky, stupid in love (“Birohini chahiya aachhe aakashe”), begging for rain. In another, Tagore stops just short of name-checking Kalidasa, settling instead for a reference to “the verses of another poet/ that spring to mind/ alongside a long-lost monsoon” (“Bahujuger opar hote Ashadh elo”). In the post-Internet era, Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Varsha/Rain is part of a series of audiovisual poems called The Gathering of Time: Dialogues with Kalidasa.

“Once/ there was no horizon/ Sky and earth mingled/ in a womb of rain/ as you entered me/ Now I lie alone/ my vision clear/ my body rich/ with memories/ of passing showers”.

Kazim Ali’s oft-cited ghazal Rain (from his book The Far Mosque) ends with two couplets that channel a darker, obsessive strain of (possibly unrequited) love.

“I am a dark bowl, waiting to be filled/ If I open my mouth now, I could drown in the rain/ I hurry home as though someone is there waiting for me/ The night collapses into your skin. I am the rain”.

The presence of ‘dark’, ‘drown’ and ‘collapse’ in quick succession tells you that is a 21st-century poem — for rain today is more likely to be an outpouring of dangerous pollutants, as opposed to an outpouring of love. One can only assume that somewhere along the line, the cloud messengers lost their way and fell in with a devilish, sulphurous crowd. On the other hand, if climate change can’t convince you of your one true love, nothing will; see the Bollywood film Tum Mile, set in the aftermath of the 2005 Mumbai floods. Lovers wade towards each other in slo-mo, the water just above their knees even as the rain continues to crash down — that’s the kind of love that’ll see you through nuclear apocalypse (or “hard rain”, as Bob Dylan called it).

Arundhathi Subramaniam, therefore, rightly locates Mumbai as the site where rain-driven nostalgia is born and lost. In her poem A First Monsoon Again (Mumbai, July 2016), she writes that the first rains “are always/ this plagiarism of yearning”, that these annually renewed memories are but a facsimile of headier times, “when the heart turned Malabar/ the spirit Arabian/ desire Coromandel/ laughter more Gene Kelly”. Herr Kalidasa also makes a guest appearance, when Subramaniam finds “every dark cloud a courier/ from a classical past”. Towards the end of the poem, Subramaniam evokes a sense of almost biblical awe around the latest iteration of the narrator’s ‘first rain’ moment.

“...when we open our windows/ to the outrage/ the impossible nowness/ and say the word/ our voices alight/ with unguarded wonder/ and a kind/ of ancient terror/ ‘Monsoon’.”

Which is why, despite the feel-good vibes that lyricism-done-right can bring about, Tishani Doshi’s Monsoon Poem feels right on the money. This is a strange little poem. By no means cheerful, it’s not morbid either. It piles detail upon detail but is mindful of the larger picture at all times. Doshi begins on a matter-of-fact note, pushing back against the trite erotics of the rain-women-fertility nexus:

“Because this is a monsoon poem/ expect to find the words jasmine/ palmyra, Kuruntokai, red; mangoes/ in reference to trees or breasts (…)/ Expect to hear a lot/ about erotic consummation inferred/ by laburnum gyrations and bamboo syncopations”.

She’s also quick to decentre the conversation away from the anthropocentric nature of the assembly-line monsoon poems she’s criticising — for rains also mean “crabs scavenging the flesh of a dopey-eyed ponyfish”, “geckos (...) cramming fistsful of wings in their maws” and “dogs (...) fucking on the beach/ locked in embrace like an elongated Anubis”.

Effectively, what Doshi’s pointing towards is a kind of pernicious male nostalgia, the noises men make about ‘the good old days’— sometimes using classical conduits such as Monsieur Kalidasa for good measure.

“We forget how unforgivably those old poems/ led us to believe that men were mountains/ that the beautiful could never remain/ heartbroken, that when the rains arrive/ we should be delighted to be taken/ in drowning, in devotion”.

It feels impolite not to fall in love during the monsoon. Which is why some of us choose to fall in love with the monsoon instead — for better or for worse.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on June 07, 2019

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