Monsoon Special

Reading the raindrop: The Malayali and the monsoon

P Anima

Sight and smell: For the expat, the ubiquitous greenery, mud paths, red-tile roofs, coconut trees and umbrellas are a recurring motif of life in Kerala   -  S GOPAKUMAR

If nostalgia is an assiduously nurtured character trait in a Malayali, the monsoon is the go-to metaphor

Delhi has been sizzling with a cold-blooded ferocity that saps the body and demolishes the spirit. This weather mocks the very idea of rain. But it fills me with a strange sense of kinship; an unspoken understanding with all those people who had despatched scores of letters to Nostalgia, a write-in programme on Kairali, a Malayalam television channel.

As a young adult in the early 2000s, I was always amazed by the steady stream of letters — many from expatriates in the Gulf region — that landed at Nostalgia’s desk and were read out by a particularly composed anchor. Every letter dripped with nostalgia, as the writers spelt out everything that evoked Kerala to them — the ubiquitous greenery, red-tile roofs, mud paths, coconut trees and frond umbrellas. The one thing common to most letters was the mention of the rain.

 

Few, perhaps, do nostalgia better than Malayalis. Mediaperson Sashi Kumar described it aptly once when he called Kerala the “catchment area of nostalgia”. He was promoting a film called Loudspeaker, in which he starred alongside actor Mammootty and, well, nostalgia. If nostalgia is an assiduously nurtured character trait in a Malayali, then monsoon is the go-to metaphor. Little wonder then that hundreds of people wrote in to Nostalgia from West Asia, pining for the rain. Monsoon may be an elusive sight in their present lives, but it had been a recurring motif of their Kerala years. The state receives an average annual rainfall of 3,107 mm, almost three times the national average of 1,170 mm. Not surprisingly, the Malayali thinks of the monsoon as an ally and a frequent visitor that has hissed, spluttered and drummed its way into every memory.

The monsoon arrives in Kerala in two stints — the Southwest monsoon, which typically hits in the first week of June, and the Northeast monsoon in October. The Southwest monsoon, called Edavapathy (literally, halfway through the Malayalam month of Edavam), is waited upon like a cantankerous but wealthy guest: It’s demanding, but promising. In fact, its on-time arrival is crucial to the well-being of not just Kerala but the rest of the country as well. The October rain, called Thulavarsham (rain in the month of Thula), is angrier than the Edavapathy and plays to thunderclaps and lightning. A bountiful, life-affirming Edavapathy lasts well into August, and along with Thulavarsham, the state tends to see nearly six months of rain.

And that explains why the monsoon is much like that extra who photo-bombs every momentous frame in a Keralite’s life. When schools reopen after the summer holidays, it is present as the wicked sibling who delights in wreaking havoc on fresh uniforms, new bags and shiny shoes. It plays spoilsport at weddings; soaking the groom to the bone or blowing away the shamiana.

An element as pervasive needs as many words to evoke it. The monsoon vocabulary in Malayalam captures all the dimensions of rain. Perumazha is the torrential rain and chattalmazha, light and playful. Venalmazha is the unexpected summer rain and thorathamazha, the relentless downpour. In the poem Raathrimazha (Night rain), poet Sugathakumari treats the night showers like a confidante who has watched over her. Almost all poets of repute — from Kunjunni mash to K Satchidanandan and Vijayalakshmi — have written of and for the rain.

As a metaphor for both pathos and passion, the monsoon, of course, has its imprints on popular culture. In the song Pranayamani (from the film Azhakiya Ravanan), lyricist Kaithapram Damodaran Namboothiri attributes a whole range of human and poetic facets to the rain and a sensuous Bhanupriya brings them to life on the screen. The monsoon is an emotion as well as a character in films such as Piravi, Ennu Ninte Moideen and Thuvanathumbikal. And in Mazha (Rain) and Perumazhakaalam (Downpour), well, the titles say it.

Monsoon might be nostalgia’s lucky charm but living through it is less so. Growing up in Kerala, I recall that all it took was a droplet and the slightest sputter of thunder for power to go off infinitely. In June, the house resembled a refugee camp with clotheslines pulled from the living room all the way to the store-room via the library. The parched courtyard, which came alive with the first rain, was soon carpeted by slush.

Walking to school drenched, all the while struggling to keep the umbrella from turning inside out, might make for a romantic memory now. But all it meant then was sitting in a classroom reeking of 40 pairs of damp socks and shoes.

Monsoon has the knack of turning everyday chores into a challenge. The breather between two spells of rain is spent washing clothes. The few minutes the clothes get to dry in the open, beneath a rather weak sun, are considered a victory against the rain gods. Watchful women across the colony alert each other at the first drop of rain, which sets off a mad scramble for the clothes before the rain gets to them.

Mundane problems aside, the monsoon does spew disaster and tragedy in its wake. For those living in low-lying areas, it sets off an annual migration to temporary rain shelters in schools or to relatives who live in safer zones. After last year’s rain fury, the monsoon as monster is now a top file in every Keralite’s head.

It is the season every medical practitioner dreads, when health centres teem with cases of fever and infections. They are often on alert, tackling cases of dengue and hepatitis.

From a distance, the monsoon is another name for home and hope. Would I have ever written to Nostalgia? Probably not. But living in Delhi, where the earth is almost always parched, I won’t judge those who did either. Not anymore.

Published on June 07, 2019
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