I love clouds. I always have. Cloud-watching and cloud-reading have long been a pastime of humankind, but each new member of our species develops a unique relationship to and memory of clouds. And of course, South Asians have a special relationship to clouds because of our monsoonal weather system.
To me, watching clouds drift across the sky – catching the light, blocking the sun, gently breaking up, changing shape – is like a metaphor for the way thoughts form in the mind and float across our consciousness, combining with other thoughts and memories or changing them.
There’s also something very disinterested and pleasurable about cloud-love: we have nothing to gain materially from looking at clouds, and clouds are one of the few beautiful things in the world that other human beings cannot deny us even if they wish to. Clouds are above us, in every way.
In my new novel Clouds, one of the protagonists, Farhad Billimoria, is seen developing a theory of the mind (and human moods) modelled on clouds. The other protagonist, an Odia tribal named Rabi, comes from a tribe called the Cloud people, who venerate clouds and have a philosophy of life derived from their stories of their god, Cloudmaker.
This is the first monsoon since my book came out. And since technology and social media have given us ways to share clouds in ways that would have been impossible until fairly recently, I thought that along with my publisher we’d launch a little photography competition on Twitter last weekend to crowd-source the best pictures of clouds from cloud-lovers all over the subcontinent. That way, we’d have a vast collage of the different ways in which Cloudmaker was “playing puff-puff” across the skies of the subcontinent, brooding and creative, mysterious and magical, and draw in other Indians into the circle of “cloud people”.
Over 200 entries were submitted for the three-day-long #Cloudmaker competition, with cloud pictures from Mumbai and Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata, Chandigarh and Mashobra, Vadodara and Chennai, above the hills and over the sea. Some users submitted multiple photographs from different times and locations, testifying to a lifetime of cloud love. Some entries chose to focus only on clouds; others, to show them hanging over landscapes or cityscapes.
Three judges – the artist Golak Khandual (who painted the cover of Clouds) and the writers Natasha Badhwar and Gurmehar Kaur – got together to choose the best of these, and came up with four winners. Here they are, alongside six other cloud compositions that made the shortlist:
When the mind saw clouds drifting low in its sky, as I was now doing, it knew that something really interesting was going on in that lonesome world – that it was living a life that only it could live. And the therapeutic implication of this was that once the mind had experienced a powerful mood-cloud and perceived how many elements were in dynamic interplay in it – in my case, Bombay, San Francisco, Zahra, Zelda, memory, beauty, Zahra, laughter, farewells, rich language, dreadful puns, sexual tingles, Zahra, even the very thoughts about clouds I was thinking right now – then perhaps it could learn, self-consciously, to compound from the bewildering chaos and variety of life its own clouds of pleasure, peace or animation. Or even to dissolve thunderclouds of self-pity, rage or resentment.
The sight of clouds in the sky were like a spur for the clouds of the mind – it was those hot, flat, cloudless blue skies of India that made Indians so complacent, moralistic, fatalistic, monotone. No more of that kind of humdrum mental weather! From this day onwards, in anticipation of America, I’d make every day of mine rich in mindclouds – and I’d show others how to do the same. Perhaps in ten years I’d even be credited for bringing the new art of cloud therapy to the world out of San Francisco. I saw the function in the city hall...I was wearing a black suit and my hair was greyer...Zahra was sitting in the front row...— Farhad Billimoria in 'Clouds'