By Anindita Satpathi
Is the image of a solitary rain watcher, aloof and inexorably drawn to the rhythm of the falling drops, a universal one? The gazer’s absorption in the rain makes it seem as if they are harbouring a secret, one that makes them oblivious to the spray on their fingers resting on the ledge. As a theatrically dreamy middle child, I have often wondered which part of selfhood rain stills or lets bloom. Is it forever bound to be the preserve of the dispirited, anxious, unwell and sensitive, a lighthouse of sorts for the wandering or dejected mind?
Rain was an incubator for my natural despondency, an unbidden glorious reprieve from the mundane. It gave me a legitimate excuse to marinate in a deliciously welcome sort of melancholy. I wanted to wrap the greyness of monsoon around me, read and ruminate, for the stark sunlight on every other day allows for no fantasies. I could freely romanticise about lives I thought I knew from books, young women whose hearts were in a state of turmoil, looking drawn with limp hair and no appetite. In my reckoning, this luxury of undeniable sorrow was afforded to these palely pretty women in countries bleak with the lack of sunlight. I wanted to belong there, be required to wear bonnets on occasional sunny days, because rainy days in Kolkata were the only ones that allowed such visualisation. My favourite sister from Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women was Beth. She symbolized a harmony of wistfulness and hopelessness, as did the protagonists of Jane Eyre and Jamaica Inn. They made me want to transmute from a gawky 12-year-old to a withdrawn and kind 25-year-old with a long braid and a worn grey gown. Both contended with rainstorms on momentous days of their lives.
In the exaggerated humidity of the city I grew up in, rain was frequent but its mood refused to linger. A spurt of showers in the morning would be followed by a blooming of the sun, shafts of light brushing briskly past leaves still laden with drops. I would get visibly upset at this abrupt change of weather when the day had started promisingly gloomy. If it was a school holiday and the drizzle continued for hours, I would perch on the narrow windowsill resting one leg on the low bed for support, and twist my torso to see the rain better, pressing my face against the window grille. As far as I could see, the house beyond our backyard and other surrounding buildings were persistently or gently drummed, the mossy water stains getting etched deeper on the façade. I could peer at the drops sliding like mercury balls off the glossy dark leaves of the golap kath tree, the pops of colour on the potted balsam plants getting smudged and dripping teardrops on the tips of the sprawling neem tree. When the rain stopped, you could see aparajita and shiuli flowers strewn on the ground. The tropical lushness of our backyard maintained a modesty in height except the creeping voracious bougainvillea that reached all the way to the terrace.
I wondered what people in other houses would do when it rained, whether everyone felt the irrepressible urge to fry fish to the texture of pork crackling. The usual urge for chai and pakora is unlikely to be up to muster for Bengalis who must supplement their pumpkin and brinjal fritters. These can then be had with steaming rice to spruce up the ubiquitous dull lentils. I did not look forward to lunch then, I wanted to conjure up visions of sitting by a fireplace and drinking cocoa, forever put aside a plodding life mired in catching buses, reaching class, absorbing information or attempting to regurgitate it.
My overachieving younger sister still dislikes overcast days. She wants the day to be bright and uncompromising so she can draw the fullest productivity from it.
My practical older sister dislikes the mustiness and inconvenience of rain and romanticises the opposite. One of her favourite things is the warm thoroughness of laundry dried on the line, preferably hand washed by her, because why trust the vagaries of a washing machine that doesn’t know which spots to scrub. I associate that grainy smell with crushed betel leaves.
At a time when the calming quality of rain had not been harnessed, purposefully repackaged into soft jazz overlaid with the sound of rain, there was no way to simulate it. Rain was an organically designated break then, palpably slowing down time by blocking out the ticking of clocks and activating a heady sense of inertia, making you want to curl your toes in anticipatory comfort of being dry and indoors.
Windows in Kolkata houses are often at hip or waist height so rain watching requires mild discomfort or dragging a chair to the window. One has to stoop or slouch or bend, elbowing the wooden shutters with slats where the drops cause miniature muddy rivulets on the gathered dust. The slats are devious, they let in the spray but not enough to cause puddles. I thought of it as an architectural collusion with the elements to not let the inhabitants of the house escape the insistence of rain.
Storms in Kolkata are thunderous affairs with prolonged foreplay. The air contracts, pricking through the limp, sluggish heat to reluctantly burp thin reams of breeze. Scudding grey plumes collect as a backdrop for the tops of the stately coconut and palash trees. The wind then proceeds to vigorously blow dry the leaves and branches, imperceptibly triggering what to my childish mind was an air of revelry through the neighbouring houses. The sky would turn a bright white soon after the first fat drops fell, lightening from an ominous shade of flint.
A general air of confusion and calling out to save the laundry was punctuated by the sound of falling odds and ends from windowsills and balconies, accompanied by the symphony of doors and windows slamming on their hinges. The darkening of the sky was a precursor, the minor drop in temperature such a relief from the oppressive heat that we would liken it to the outdoors becoming air-conditioned. We could get entangled in the saris yet to be collected from the clothesline or dash between the two covered sections of the terrace, sometimes getting stranded under one if it suddenly started raining.
I used to look forward to the rains in Delhi, where monsoon isn’t a defined season, but found it wanting. Families don’t need to prepare for consecutive days of rain, for water to seep in through cracks, for clothes to not dry, for corners to start smelling musty. And because it isn’t frequent, its drip-drip calming quality is ineffectual. Rain in Delhi falls as erratic drops or unrelenting sheets. The looming canopy of clouds is replaced by lightning even if the build-up to the actual thunderstorm is similar, if not more violent, but its sense of mystery is diminished. When viewed from a high rise, the rain is very distant, it lands so far below. You can’t luxuriate in puddles forming, hear the drizzle or sit by a window and watch fat drops slosh onto the leaves.
I found an equivalent to my childhood rains in Kerala from the terrace at my in-laws’. The back of the house has overgrown foliage and the rain is magically soothing, but as a grown-up my imagination stops at the boundary railing of the house.
Once, when it rained heavily towards the end of school hours, I had the sanction to let my hair loose from the tight ponytail that causes an awful halo of frizz and take off my glasses. Unable to see clearly, I imagined myself as drenched but droopily attractive, perhaps catching the eye of the boy I liked then. When I got home, I realized it was quite the opposite. The unironic dissociation of fact from fiction as wrought in my head then is not as stark now. At the time, I had not been able to connect my flights of fancy to the kalbaishakhi, an impending rain front that advances from the northwest and the havoc it wreaks in parts of the state, when it was taught in school. Paeans have been written to it, honouring the abandoning of the self to a freefalling raptness and the Bengali preoccupation with it is still alive.
Anindita Satpathi used to be a Delhi-based media professional currently roughing it out in Toronto with words, music and movies. She makes balsamic vinegar reduction when it all gets too much.