Burning heat and biting cold — if we had to live only with the two, we would not have the economic and cultural history we do or, come to think of it, our political history. Both the dangerous and pleasant consequences of wealth and the stark consequences of poverty come from the rains, and it is because of the rains that we remain (sort of) "sujalaam, sufalaam, malayaja sheetalaam".
Alexander Frater understood this, as evidenced by his book Chasing the Monsoon (1990). This was perhaps not surprising, for he came from a family of Scottish Presbyterian missionaries and doctors working in the Pacific Islands. By way of personal orientation, he’d grown up in a tropical climate. By way of being mentally and emotionally attuned, he was raised in a sect of Christians that did well in India, especially in south India and particularly in the Madras Presidency, because their sturdy pragmatism and solid underlying belief in a Benign Providence struck a cultural chord with many, even if they did not convert in the targeted droves.
Whatever be the alchemy of his analysis, Frater proved that he perfectly understood India when he wrote, "As a romantic ideal, turbulent, impoverished India could still weave its spell, and the key to it all — the colours, the moods, the scents, the subtle, mysterious light, the poetry, the heightened expectations, the kind of beauty that made your heart miss a beat — well, that remained the monsoon."
Of course, every culture understood the importance of rain and expressed its feelings on it. But rain acquired great poignancy and intriguing nuances where it mediated extremes. If, for instance, you ticked off the six seasons — Vasant (spring), Grishma (summer), Varsha (the rains), Sharad (autumn), Hemant (early winter) and Sishir (deep winter), you realised that the most terrible season and most bountiful alone had female names – Grishma and Varsha. You could not help but also notice that Krishna was celebrated as Ghanshyam, ‘Dark as the Raincloud’. With Krishna came a whole poetic and musical tradition of romancing the rain, “ghanaagamah kaamijanapriya” (the clouds approach, dear to lovers), as Kalidasa said in the ‘Varsha’ section of his poem on the six seasons, Ritu Samhara.
As to which, the general opinion is that Meghaduta, Cloud Messenger, by Mahakavi Kalidasa from about the 5th century CE, now translated into several bhashas, is the ultimate classical rain poem. Its first English translation, by Horace Hayman Wilson, turned 200 last year. It may be a slow, heavy read in this century, but is worth one’s while for his many interesting cross-references. It’s a lovely poem, especially in its description of the Gangetic Plain, and is delicately erotic in places.
Indians waiting for the rains seem rather like the exiled Yaksha in Meghaduta, who, longing for his wife, looks hopelessly at the sky while burning in virah-agni, the fire of separation. “On the first day of Ashadha” (around June 15), he sees a cloud that hugs the mountain-top, a massive raincloud advancing like an elephant, and gathers kutaja flowers in offering…