Of downpours and ‘Nonsoons’

Ranjit Lal | Updated on July 03, 2020

Flavour of the season: There is no better time than the monsoons to settle down with a charcoal-roasted bhutta oozing butter and lemon juice   -  MOHAMMED YUSUF

Remembering a childhood spent observing monsoon showers — and watching nature go into overdrive

* What better time than the monsoon to get to work on a charcoal-roasted bhutta oozing butter and lemon juice?

Having grown up in the coastal cities of Madras and Bombay (as they were then known), from the mid-1960s and all through the ’70s, we had certain expectations of the monsoons — and they rarely disappointed us. In Madras, our housing complex had two huge gardens, one at a lower level than the other. And after a proper downpour — de rigueur every year — the entire field-sized lower lawn would, of course, turn into an unexplored river and simply had to be forded. So off you went, soon thigh-deep, in the glinting waters. And then recoiled, horrified, as a deadly looking fiery red mass floated determinedly towards you, with tiny, spindly legs flailing every which way. It was a raft of vicious (you knew from previous experience) little red ants that had been flooded out of their colony, now making en masse for the nearest bit of shelter — you! If they swarmed up your shorts... You turned around and splashed heavily back to the edge. The other great memory of the Madras monsoons was a cyclone that struck one year, churning up the ocean so that it dumped chunks of colourful coral and lovely sea fans (and the cartilaginous skeleton of a pot-bellied sea-horse) onto the beach, apart from a treasure trove of shells.

But only in Bombay could you fully appreciate the wonderful orchestral grandeur of the rains. Around June 7 (school opening day!) and you’d see this enormous bank of bruised purple stretched across the western horizon, over the sea. It was preceded by a silvery veil, driven inland by a skittish breeze — the scouting advanced guard. And then the battalion of clouds would darken the day and the silver bullets of rain would pummel down, like from a billion Gatling guns. From the tenements at the base of the hill our flat was located on, and indeed from the whole of Central Bombay, a great joyous roar would erupt as street urchins and others came outside to dance in the first downpour. That downpour could continue for days, nonstop.


Yet, nothing in the city really stopped. People just donned their Duckbacks and gumboots, unfurled their umbrellas and life went on. Sure, roads would be flooded — and how we yearned for water to get into the car’s distributor en route to school! But somehow you reached: Late, soaked and intrepidly grinning. Of course, the best was when the school declared a rain holiday, which happened at least two or three times.

This was when we went off for trips to the ‘lakes’ — Tulsi, Vihar and Powai (where the Sanjay Gandhi National Park now is). Clad in a cloak of a million greens, the lake waters glimmering gunmetal and mercury, it was wonderful to walk around, splashing through the numerous silver streams that tumbled down from the surrounding hills. At night, you looked on in amazement as hundreds of little brown termites flew straight into the table lamp (around which you were hunched, cramming), to shed their wings and wriggle. The geckos went just stir crazy.

In fact, nature got into overdrive now: With plant life burgeoning, out came the army of insects to feast on it; and many birds, too (even the vegans), had their families now, so their babies could get their protein requirements fulfilled via caterpillars and spiders. In the forests, deer, and gaur dropped their calves too. Ironically, the predators had a tough time as precious water was no longer confined to the muddy waterholes where they could lie in ambush...

Delhi’s monsoon was an eye-opener. In September of our first year here (1980), I asked someone, “So when does the monsoon hit Delhi?”

“Oh,” they said with surprise. “But it’s over!”

“But when did it rain?”

“Remember that day in July?”

Here, it just took a light half-hour sprinkle to shut down the city. Electricity transformers exploded, the phones died and the roads turned into filthy torrents. Of course, you couldn’t go to work — better stay home and slurp tea and scoff samosas (well, how was this so different from what you did in office anyway?). I still maintain that I perspire more when it rains during the so-called monsoon here, which I had quickly dubbed, the ‘nonsoon’.

I guess the only place to really experience a proper monsoon in the north would be in the hills and mountains. The same dark cloud-light envelops the hills, as clouds waft into your rooms. Then the pattering on the slate roof turns into a roar and thunder rattles the windows. The treble tinkle of the stream nearby deepens to a basso profundo. Finally it stops — leaving behind just the musical plink-plonk of raindrops falling off leaves: Then the long and incredibly sweet whistle of the blue-rock thrush which has flown up on the roof, assuring you that all was well. A diamond-bright sun blazes forth and a gigantic rainbow arches across the opposite valley.

What better time to get to work on a charcoal-roasted bhutta oozing butter and lemon juice?

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird-watcher

Published on July 03, 2020

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