I was in London a couple of weeks ago and all the talk – rather predictably, I guess, given the British predilection for discussing the weather – was about how the rains were going to make a complete wash-out of September. The summer was effectively over, according to the weather forecasters, from now on it was going to be rain all the way.
The sadness and disappointment was almost palpable, as everyone agreed glumly that it was time to put away those sundresses and shorts and bring out the brollies and boots (not that you can ever quite put them away in England, which is famous for showing you all four seasons in the course of a single day). The days of balmy sunshine were over; from now on it was going to be wet, wet, wet.
As I nodded along sympathetically at my English friends, I couldn’t help marvelling at the very different attitude we in India have to the rain. We long for it during the long summer months when temperatures climb into the stratosphere. We count the days down to the arrival of the monsoon on our shores. We get rather stroppy if it doesn’t arrive on time. We measure every inch of rain to make sure that we have got our entire annual quota.We keep a jealous eye out for other cities, which may have got a little more of the downpour. And a bad monsoon can make us very bad-tempered indeed (not least because of its effect on our economy). Oh yes, we love the rain – about as much as the Brits abhor it. You could well say that this is because those poor souls have too much of good thing, with it drizzling down every single day (at least, it certainly feels that way). And because we have to suffer through a long, hot, dusty summer, we long for the relief that the rains bring with them.
In a sense, perhaps, for all our new-fangled urban ways, we are still an agricultural people at heart. And the sight of rain is an indication that we will have a good harvest this year. Remember the rain song in Lagaan, as the whole village turns out to celebrate the advent of the first monsoon clouds in the village?
In India, our attitude to the rain is much like that of a small child looking out eagerly for a much-awaited treat – and then jumping with joy when it finally arrives. No matter how old you are, if you are an Indian, there is a certain sense of joy and abandon attached to the rains.
As a kid I remember stripping down to my chemise and underwear and heading straight up the terrace when the first rainstorm hit. All the children of the neighbourhood would congregate here, yelling and screaming with excitement, as they were soaked to the skin in the downpour. And once enough rain had accumulated in puddles, we would make little paper boats and sail them, having impromptu competitions to see which one of them lasted the longest in the water.
Even now that I am all grown up, there is still something irresistible about the idea of going for a walk in the rain, quite unprotected by an umbrella or a raincoat. Nothing quite matches the feel of rain water as it drops down in tiny droplets on your head or streams down your face or even gathers around your shoes making them squelch so satisfactorily.
This probably explains why rains are such a staple of romance in India – both in real life and in the movies. Young lovers walk along the beach in Juhu as it pelts down; honeymooners book themselves a cottage in Goa during the monsoons; and Hindi film heroines all the way from Mumtaz to Sridevi to Katrina obligingly slip into see-through chiffon saris before dancing in the rain with their co-stars.
Of course, it’s not all about young love alone. Rains have a special significance for families as well. Some of them drive down to the seaside or by a lake to watch the rain come down. Others hunker down to play indoor games like antakshari or dumb charades. Some spend time listening to the many songs that celebrate the season.
And then there are those who make the most of rainy days by snuggling down in bed with a good book and a piping hot cup of tea (much as the English would make the most of sunny days by basking in the garden, with a glass of gin and tonic or a tumbler of Pimms within reach). Needless to say, a whole school of cuisine has been built around the monsoons.
In the north, the first sign of showers has the matriarch of the house setting on a pan of oil to deep-fry some pakoras. In Bengal, the rain is the signal to cook some khichuri with lots of ghee floating on top. In Gujarat, it’s time for some daal vada with chillies and salted onions for added oomph. And in Maharashtra, they bring on the gavati chaha (grass tea) and sabudana vadas.
As for me, the rains are just the perfect excuse to take a day off, sit well back on the balcony, and simply watch the sky pour down. The cup of tea is strictly optional though I wouldn’t say no to pakoras if anyone asked me nicely.