The monsoon is as significant to Kerala as a knight-in-shiningarmour is to a damsel in distress. A flutter of joy best describes the heartbeat of people when the first pregnant black cloud is spied loitering in an otherwise immaculate blue sky. A green state is about to get greener. The surf is on the cusp of more magnificence. Nature’s opera is about to begin. And I want a front row seat.
I arrive in Kerala on the 28th of May. The weather department has predicted the monsoon today, give or take a few days. And there’s a palpable sense of excitement in the air. In the taxi to the hotel, which I share with a honeymoon couple and an elderly lady, I learn that the monsoon here is all things to all men. The lovers reveal with a passionate sigh, “We’ve been coming here every year since we first met. There’s nothing like the sound of rain pouring upon fertile soil… veritable feast to the senses… fragrance of the earth… foaming, talkative sea…” they are lyrical.
But the elderly lady chimes in with an impatient wave of the hand, “Yes, yes, but the rains are also the best time for Ayurvedic treatments. Any Ayurvedic specialist will tell you. This is the time when the body heals best. At first I was sceptical. But now, after a year of relief from a lifetime of crippling ailments, I trust it. Every June, I bring my weary bones back here for a rest.” The taxi driver, not to be left out, says, “Lots of rainy I don’t like, because then my customers become lesser. But two to three days rainy at a time, means good climate. Cool. Beauuuutifull.” He then tweaks his flourishing moustache and adds, “School starts and rain opens at same time. My childrens love going splishsplash to school in new gum boots and raincoat!”
We arrive at the hotel. I find the manager waiting as eagerly for the rains as any farmer. He casts a scrutinising glance heavenwards and says, “When the monsoon arrives, the whole place gets a thorough wash. I love to see all the litter flushed away.”
But next day, despite the forecast, the atmosphere is dry as a bone. The only drops leaking from above are the tears of disappointment I weep into my handkerchief. “But the weather department predicted”… I grumble. Then I recall a passage from Chasing the Monsoon, the monsoon-lovers’ Bible, by Alexander Frater, “The monsoon itself is a creature of such grandeur and complexity that it defies comparison with anything…. Predicting the burst is not just a matter of dry figures and charts. As it approaches you begin to feel elated, even slightly intoxicated. Maybe ithas something to do with the charged particles in the air; I don’t know. But only a foolish forecaster ignores his emotions.”
Strolling along the golden beach, I am conscious of a sky that is brilliant blue, the clouds so white they could easily be posing for a detergent commercial. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll soon change to grey. But I live in hope. Gamely, I climb to the top of a lighthouse which is open between three and five every afternoon. As I drink in the spectacular view of Kovalam, the guard informs me, with an air of originality, that the monsoon in Kerala is a very special phenomenon. But he has a point; yet another aspect of this story. These very rain clouds begin their long journey from this coast, he says, and travel all the way up to the Himalaya. As we speak, I feel the humidity build in the air. My hair clings damply to its moorings. Perspiration oozes out of me. The sun shines more brightly than ever. “We will have rain tonight,” the guard says confidently. I bow to that superior phenomenon — local knowledge.
That night I am awakened by a whining south-westerly wind. I clamber onto my window for a prime seat to witness nature’s performance. The lights go out in the beach-town. The lights come on in the sky as lightning flashes resplendently. The crows have been blown away. The coconut palms thrash wildly. The surf roars. The earth has never smelt sweeter. And it rains. For this, the landmass of the Indian subcontinent heated up over months.
For this, the hot air rose up attracting the cooler sea air inwards. The moisture built up slowly into these clouds and they travelled across the Equator, across the Indian Ocean, here to my window. The night adds its own atmospherics to the first monsoon downpour.
But, in the monsoon gospel according to Alexander Frater, you can see the spectacle as he saw it, during the day. “The imbroglio of inky clouds swirling overhead contained nimbostratus, cumulonimbus and Lord knows what else; all riven by updraughts, downdraughts and vertical wind shear. Thunder boomed. Lightning went zapping into the sea, the leader stroke of one strike passing the ascending returning stroke of the last so that the whole roaring edifice seemed supported on pillars of fire. Then… we saw a broad, ragged band of luminous indigo heading slowly in shore…. The wind struck us with a force that made our line bend and waver. Everyone shrieked and grabbed at each other.”
Quite the opposite of Frater’s “pillars of fire”, we have the official announcement of the monsoon by AB Majumdar, Deputy Director- General of the Met Department, who we can forgive for by now having become inured to the passionate melodrama of monsoon arrival. “Thick clouding, an offshore trough and strengthening and deepening of westerly and south-westerly flows over the Arabian Sea and the southwestern peninsula brought the southwest monsoon into Kerala.” Hmm.
Soaking on the beach, I can hear the farmers and sense the earth sing at the news that the weather department has predicted 103 per cent of the total average rainfall in the country this year. Rain is crucial for the kharif crop. But not everyone is happy. The fishing folk in the nearby village grumble that they can no longer go out to sea. One tells me plaintively, “If we don’t work we starve. Sometimes we can’t withstand the loss of regular wages. So we go out to sea…. Some of us don’t come back,” his voice has an ominous ring. His little daughter is oblivious of his plight. She sits happily in a flowing spring, catching drizzle-drops on her tongue, just glad that it’s not hot anymore.
As I wander down a winding Kovalam street, Ayurvedic treatment centres call to me from either side of the road. A well-oiled masseuse tells me, echoing a million other voices, “The monsoon is the best time for a treatment programme.” “Why?” I demand. “The atmosphere is cool,dust-free and clean. The body’s pores are most open at this time. Mind and body heal well.” Frater’s book heartily endorses this opinion. “After the rigours of summer, the body is rundown and exhausted. But then the rains come and offer, each year, the chance of rebirth. They nourish and sustain. Suddenly the body has potential for strength and growth. That is the moment to treat it for chronic conditions…” A little further I read, “The Kerala monsoon cure, or special treatment, has become very fashionable, although ironically it’s based on theories that were devised 5,000 years ago.”
Since a hundred Ayurvedic centres surround me, I trust my hotel to make a recommendation. The manager informs me that the Mitra Centre for Panchakarma, which can be found on Lighthouse Road, is a good option. . But he chides me with a wiggle of his finger, “These oils require extensive preparation and are not cheap, my dear.” Lying on a bed covered with an oilcloth, I feel the light monsoon breeze on my skin, then the gentle pressure of a woman massaging the stress out of my body. A small boiler stands in a corner of the room. Out of this she ladles a generous spoonful of warm oil into a dropper from which the oil oozes onto my body. I emerge feeling invigorated.
And even though it is monsoon time, the spring has come back into my step. After four days of magnificent rainy nights but calm dry days, I pack my cloud-print umbrella for Mumbai. On the way to the airport, all I can see of a political rally on the road is a sea of shiny umbrellas. Although the tones beneath the umbrellas are thunderous, the colourful waving umbrellas make it appear like a playful tea party. On the flight home, the plane bobs in the lightning, like a boat on a rocky sea.
Back home in Mumbai, I watch as the travelling monsoon breaks. This time there is no lush greenery, just a concrete jungle getting watered. Less spectacular, but still lovely. The unbearable heat has gone with the wind. The other similarity to Kerala is the excitement generated by little children splashing through puddles on their way to school.
But when I inform my friends in Kerala, they say, “Even this is more spectacular here.” “How so?” I probe. “Oh, the literacy rates are much higher. So more children walking to school!” With that I have little left to do but bow to the fact that Kovalam is in every aspect the perfect place to watch the monsoon break.
By Sonia Nazareth
Sonia Nazareth is back from her Masters in Anthropology of Media from SOAS. Now she can be found brandishing pen and camera as she travels around India and abroad, when she’s not lecturing at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.