Imagine reading this while it rains outside. A friend of mine lent me Alexander Frater’s Chasing the Monsoon a few months ago, when the monsoon was in full swing. She couldn’t have given it to me at a better time. While Frater spoke about the storms he’d known as a child in the New Hebrides and the clouds he was chasing through India in the late 1980s, the monsoon in Mumbai provided the perfect soundtrack to my reading.
At one point in Chasing the Monsoon, Frater writes, “With the monsoon roaring outside, even algebra could seem like a celebration of life.” Try telling that to those who have to walk through the dirty puddles, fearful of diseases like leptospirosis, or who get stuck in traffic jams that are as unmoving as a well-fed python. Still, it’s true that monsoon is a beautiful season, made up of the dull gleam of cloudlight and cool breezes. Historically, it’s made India’s musicians and poets go giddy with creativity. It still is critically important in terms of the country’s water reserves. Whether you want to be practical or prefer to stick your head in the rain-heavy clouds, the monsoon is one season that is critically important to us in India.
Incidentally, the only thing Indian about Frater is that he shares the subcontinental fascination for the rains. Frater is a British-Australian journalist and travel writer who came to India in 1987, to literally chase the monsoon as it made its way across the country. He began in Cape Comorin and with stops in Kerala, Goa, Mumbai, Delhi and Assam, he landed up in the wettest place on earth, Cherrapunji. Every now and then in Chasing the Monsoon, Frater slips in stories from the New Hebrides, a group of islands in the South Pacific where he grew up. The root of Frater’s determination to see Cherrapunji, which was difficult to access when Frater made his trip, lay in those childhood memories. Frater’s father had a friend who lived in Cherrapunji and was a missionary. They’d stayed in touch writing letters and Frater’s father had dreamt of visiting Cherrapunji, likening it to a pilgrimage. That’s where Frater’s fascination for the Indian monsoon began.
The India that Frater travelled through is very different from the country we live in today, making Chasing the Monsoon a travelogue into another time as much as it is a portrait of a country. It was the India of trunk calls and Illustrated Weekly. Back in 1987, to enter Cherrapunji, one needed a permit from elusive bureaucrats who sat in New Delhi. The India Frater describes, expertly mixing interviews with beautiful descriptions, is undeniably exotic. Much of it is true to stereotype, like the bureaucracy that’s stubbornly inefficient and beautiful women who run into the rain as though they’re in a Merchant-Ivory film. Naturally, there are many eccentrics and splashes of absurdity like “monsoon cures” that are just superstitions.
Balancing this exotica out is Frater the reporter. Chasing the Monsoon isn’t a book that’s particularly concerned with science or meteorology, but it is very curious about how people live and think. The limited science is perhaps a failing, but Frater ends up writing a little document of how we were as a people and it’s a truly intriguing read because it’s so tantalising to think of how much has changed and how much hasn’t in the last 27 years. Frater spoke to officials who worked in the Indian Meteorological Department to add a little lick of science, but the focus of the book was how piecing together a portrait of India through the way we see and deal with the monsoon. To this end, Frater spent time hearing out a wide variety of people, from poet Kamala Das to journalist Pritish Nandy, Delhi socialites, waiters in the hotels he lived in, crazy Goan elite, Port Authority officers, Calcutta Municipality folk; and Ba Bill.
When Frater went to Shillong, he met a Welshman who came to India as an executive in a tea company and stayed on after retiring. Frater also met his wife, who is from Meghalaya, and the rest of his family, including a son in-law named is Bill and who worked in the state’s police service. It struck me like lightning while reading Frater’s book that I knew the man he was writing about. Like Frater, I’d also met Bill, or Ba Bill as he was introduced to me. When Frater had met him, he was a young man. When I met Ba Bill last year in Shillong, he was a retired police officer and a venerable old gentleman who cracks jokes endearingly and can drink every young person I know under the table. Ba Bill was the one who had told me that if I had to choose between root bridges or waterfalls, I should probably see the waterfalls.
The root bridges are still on my bucket list, but Ba Bill’s advice was golden. Because until you’ve been chased and overtaken by the clouds that rush to Cherrapunji; until you’ve felt the wind, which is as substantial as a human being and infinitely stronger, pick up clutches of raindrops and fling them at you like fat, wet confetti, you don’t know what rain is. In 1987, I imagine Cherrapunji was even more elemental than what I saw in 2013. It was probably greener and wilder. The mountains along the way probably didn’t have the mining scars that have now left the rock face looking like raw, skinned flesh. There must have been more water in the falls too. However, Cherrapunji is still one of the most magical places I’ve ever had the good fortune to experience. Standing there, I understood why we once worshipped nature. There, with the wind that pressed against me, intimate and insistent, even as it rushed ahead to turn the water of the falls into fine, white spray; there, I could believe every story about nature sprites and gods. They were all around me: roaring, laughing, alive.
And then, without warning, it became quiet. I could stand without tottering. The water fell straight down along the face of the mountain. A tentative sunshine peered past receding clouds, becoming surer with every still, sky blue second. I looked down. There was a rainbow. It was beautiful, but standing in the brightness, I longed for the wind and the rain to come back. It didn’t. Instead, I did what I hadn’t been able to do while it had been wet: I pulled out my notebook and wrote down the words of a poem that is painted on signboards near the waterfalls:
The wind rules the land,
Howling like a maniac…
Even then, goodbye dear Cherra,
And your rain, goodbye.
I’m off to my home,
For my life is yonder,
Though my love is here.
Chasing the Monsoon takes you back to an India that was on the cusp of the changes that have wrought it into what it is now, for better and for worse. Frater is very much a foreigner in this land, but one who is affectionate, curious and observant. For me personally, though, Chasing the Monsoon is a book to cherish because as Frater found his way to Cherra, he returned me to that enchanted moment when all I could see, hear, feel and breathe were wind and rain.
Here are a few pictures I took at Cherrapunji.