Why reading poetry in the rain also means reading rain into poetry

“The lovers brought with them a sky / and took away the sun.”

I realise that I‘ve been friends with too many Bengali and Assamese women named Mousumi or Moshumi. I even had a class mate named Monsoon, the only monsoon I personally knew. When I pointed out to a friend that the Arabic-origin word “mawsim”, leading to “mausam (Hindi)” and in turn to “morshum (Bengali)” was the root word, she balked. After all, wasn’t the monsoon an Indian or a subcontinental phenomenon?

All the raindrops of Arabia weren’t going to stand any chance against the heavy, cloud-laden, sky-deepened, lightning-lit, rain-ravished environment of the region from June till early September.

In Guwahati, Assam, where I was born and brought up, our summer or monsoon breaks would mean a drenching in the sound of torrential rain from my home’s asbestos roof, clearing fungus from school shoes every second day, playing kabaddi in the muddy field with neighbouring boys and girls, and watching my nutty brother walk back from school shoeless to catch kawoi and tangra spawn in plastic bags from the overflowing street drains. That was the time when the classical blue-green clouds of the oft repeated phrase “aashadhasya prathama divase” or “the first day of the rainy month of Aashadha” would resonate with my newly learnt song that the music teacher had drilled in dutifully:

Ghon boroxun pisol maati
lahe lahe diba pao
aju binondo ghore jao hey

Torrential is the rain, slippery is the walk
tread carefully
this day one goes to the beloved’s house

— (Free translation)

I’d found a curious passion in this folk song-poem from Goalpara while discovering the poetry of the monsoon. Radha pleads with Krishna to alert her by thumping gently on the bamboo wall of her hutment on his arrival, so that the sound merges with the great showers from the sky and no one notices. The lovers’ rendezvous was not just about love, but also about the glory of the monsoon rains.

Before that, Rabindranath Tagore’s rain odes, countless of them, had moved my senses since childhood. This was to the point where the poetry of Tagore came and went with rain clouds mostly during occasions such as the poet’s birthday. Only recently I started reading them again, albeit in English. This time, it was in a translation by Dhaka University professor Fakrul Alam. For the grandiose alliterative first line by Tagore starting “Oi ashe oi oti bhoirobo horoshe/jolo shincito kshiti shourobho robhoshe…”, Alam writes:

There, there they come – monsoonal clouds –
Exhilarating, awesome, moisture-laden,
Fragrant, earth-soaked, dense, rejuvenated
Dark-hued, somber, glorious – ready to burst!

Their deep rumblings quiver dark-blue forests
Tense peacocks out on strolls cry out
The whole world is thrilled, overwhelmed.
Intense, amazing – monsoon is on its way!

— Rabindranath Tagore, translated from the Bengali by Fakrul Alam

Living in Delhi for almost a decade kept throwing me in the throes of Teej, a festival of rain celebrated mainly by women. I never got around to participating in one out of utter lack of interest, but the songs and capers associated with Teej brought me closer to the ghazals, geets, kajris and thumris associated with rain in both the folk as well as the classical tradition. Top that with the fact that Coke Studio India gives a modern twist to the age-old kajri form:

Badri badariya…ghiri re…
Kajri kajariya…khiri re…
Gagri gagariya…bhari re…
Kajri kajariya…khiri re…

The clouds gather/the dark kajal darkens/the full water pitcher spills filled, etc.

— Free translation

The tradition descends on a more eclectic sphere when I read a young contemporary poet echoing monsoon sentiments in his lines, albeit about issues decidedly modern:

Delhi’s very own harvest, for the soaked lover, what rest?
Crackdowns, protests; what’ll he take in this season of amaltas?

It’s thunder, lightning; will the revolution be frightening?
Or will all beauty, romance now be wrenched by the monsoon?

— 'Amaltas–Monsoon: A Dual Ghazal', Maaz Bin Bilal

Very recently, I became familiar with the word “petrichor”. Somehow, despite all the adulation by friends and foes all over the word, it didn’t sound very elegant to me. I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it. Apparently the word means “a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather” (Oxford dictionaries).

I’m still to find the word in poetry, considering its popularity with the creative crowd. On the other hand, verses in Hindi and other bhashas on the subcontinent are replete with similar meaning but lilting words. “Sondhi khushboo” in Hindi, I admit, sounds pleasanter to the ears.

Recently we had this discussion at home about the various patterns of rains. The family regarded me with mild humour for trying to make a case for “jhirjhir”, “rimjhim” and “jhamjham” rains, all different in intensity and poetic delight. If Eskimos are known to have 50 different words for snow or ice, why can’t we have a few for rain as well?

Writing about monsoon (and) poetry reminds me that rains have always travelled to our minds from other hemispheres as well. “Rain, rain, go away/come again another day” or “Rain, rain, go to Spain” are as familiar as “brishti poRay tapur tupur nodaay elo baan/Shib thakurer biye hobay teen konne daan (Now the rain falls pitter patter/Shiva will marry his three brides soon: Bengali)” or “Yere yere pavasa/tula deto paisa/paisa zhala khota, pavas ala mota (Come o rain come o rain/we will give you money/the coins turned out fake/the rains poured in big: Marathi).”

Whether one reads Jack Gilbert or Robert Brautigan – and they perhaps never used the word monsoon – the feel and fervour of the rains remain familiar. Love, longing or lust, all lyrically rolled into our gaze moving skywards.

I don't know what it is,
but I distrust myself
when I start to like a girl
a lot.

— 'It's Raining In Love', Richard Brautigan

Another young Indian poet regards rains with somewhat tragic irony:

The lovers brought with them a sky
and took away the sun. After the trade,
this room, still, with the darkness
of its things, wouldn’t let the moon
touch its sorrow. Beyond the window,
your rain already at work,
filling up craters it further creates.
Where have they kept the sun, cloud,
if not in your backyard?
The girl, drunk on her first breakup,
doesn’t need the perfume of earth
to put her at ease, but a prescription
for amnesia. Cradle me instead:
the faultlines on my walls before
collision – but let her trudge.
A comet she held so tight in her fist
is now just water, and there’s enough
of it tonight, logged in her streets.

— 'In the Fair', Mihir Vatsa

Here the rain, “already at work”, evokes an endearingly negative sentiment. Much akin to Begum Akhtar cursing the rains in the famous ghazal by Sudarshan Faakir:

Hum toh samjhe thay barsaat mein barsegi sharaab
Aayi barsat toh barsaat ne dil tod diya

I’d imagined the rains would cause drinks to pour
But the moment the shower fell, it broke my heart

— Free translation

Does the above couplet not remind you of that other restless soul, Agha Shahid Ali? Rains and freedom were just the same for him, a downpour on the senses. And Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral brings us rain as memory. It’s a conduit for peeping within the wrinkles of one’s years through the curtain of rains. It’s a river that moves ahead carrying stories and matters of the heart:

भीगती हुई एक स्त्री आई जिसका चेहरा
बारिश की तरह था जिसके केशों में बारिश
छिपी होती थी जो फ़िर एक नदी बनकर
चली जाती थी इसी बारिश में एक दिन...

A woman appeared drenched in rain/who had a face like the rain/who had hidden in her flowing tresses some rain/and who just turned into a river/and left one day in the rain...

— Free translation

When this river flows away or recedes into oblivion, can rain or the monsoon be inhaled regularly even while it is not raining? Petrichor will be the label of the fragrance, perchance. There indeed is a story that the art of the “rain perfume” travelled through Kannauj via the Mughals, with Emperor Akbar encouraging the development of a Khushbookhana aka perfumerie during his reign.

There are other stories dating back to the sixteenth century. Cynthia Barnett, an environmental journalist, has captured the process of rain perfume making in her book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.

But perhaps poets too tire of the rains, or at least think of the times when the weather will indicate brighter climes:

Tell Shakespeare to attend some leisure hour,
For now I’ve business with this drop of dew,
And see you not, the clouds prepare a shower –
I’ll meet him shortly when the sky is blue.

— 'The Summer Rain', Henry David Thoreau

The days of rains begin with a month marked in the calendar to show us the clouds gathering and rushing in but the rains of the heart and souls continue longer at times – for love, for loss, and at times, for the simple pleasures of life. The drops linger on forked tongues. If most of us on the Subcontinent are bilinguals and know how to switch our “rain code” with swift ease, there are other paroles that hide inside the phonology of rains, dropping down in silence:

over stone

il pleut aujourd’hui au Fort Chambly
il pleut exactement comme il pleuvait il y a 400 ans
il pleut comme il pleuvait il y a 1 400 ans
il pleut comme il pleuvait il y a 11 400 ans
11 400 années de pluie

as rain falls this afternoon
a man in wet clothes
stares at stone over stone
the low clouds, the rain

Louis XVI reinaba en Francia
en Nueva Francia llovía
sobre las piedras y los bosques
sobre la piel del río Richelieu
sobre los hombres del regimiento de Carignan-Salières
una lluvia que se repite meticulosa
desde el alba del tiempo
the man’s hands
brush along
the stone walls
it’s still raining
as it did at the beginning of time

— From Trilingual Day of Rain/Día bilingüe de lluvia, by Alejandro Saravia, translation by María José Giménez

All of us harbour multiple languages about the rain. About monsoon too, whether it is mawsim, mausam or morshum. One of my own poems has a character called Mausam:

I stop by Mehrauli's seam to quench my
thirst after summer's sudden squall
dusts our eyes; you too stop Mausam
point with your frangipani fingers at
pale lemons the nimbupani man cores

— Arisen of Wood
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