On Writing and Books

A Celebration of Monsoon

“The first sounds I ever heard were those of falling rain. It was tropical, the kind that seems to possess a metallic weight and mass, and it began bucketing down as my mother went into labour at a small mission hospital in the South-West Pacific” (Chasing the Monsoon p9). So begins a captivating description of the Indian Monsoon by Alexander Frater. In one season, he travelled with the rain clouds as the Monsoon set on the Southern coast of Kerala.

Frater’s father was a Scottish missionary in the South Pacific whose letters home reflected his passion for the weather. So his unfulfilled ambition to visit Assam passes genetically as a thirst for the rain god into his son, who follows monsoon winds from Trivandrum to Meghalaya. Frater went to Scotch College in Melbourne and later in the 1950s attended the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate. Finally, in 1987, to fulfil his childhood dreams, he visited India to trace the Indian monsoons from Kerala to Cherrapunji. He produced a book titled “Chasing the Monsoon: A modern pilgrimage through India”, based on this travel. Penguin Books published the book in 1990.

The annual season of rains unique to south Asia finds reflection in the Indian culture. The fever of Monsoon has captivated the Indian imagination for centuries. From films to many social and cultural gatherings aspire to celebrate the sensuality associated with the meteorological phenomenon. Since ancient times the season has been reflected in a world of myths, symbols, and metaphors that inspire festivities, rituals, and creative expressions evident in poetry, music, dance, and painting. The tales include the wedding of Shiva with Parvati, the coming of the Vaman incarnation of Vishnu. Moreover, Krishna as Ghanashyam (like the dark cloud) was born on a stormy night in this season.

Alexander Frater’s travels aim to get a personal gauge of the Indian Monsoon and culminate his wanderings under the ceaseless showers of Cherrapunji. His travelogue adds magnificently to the Monsoon literature. Synchronizing his travels with the imprecision of wayward nimbus clouds, the writer succeeds with finesse in making a religion of rain.

For him, the weather is marvellous, and his book shows that it is possible to read the weather differently. It reveals a whole culture and patterns of behaviour which derive from the annual uncertainty of determining which way the winds are blowing. The book has witty and evocative vignettes of people in all parts of India who anxiously await the recurrence of a seasonal pattern necessary for their very survival.

The prologue that sets the book’s tone depicts a vivid bond with the tropics, a keen interest in the weather inspired by his father, a spirit of adventure, observations about people and an innate bond with the rain. He writes about Kerala, Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Varanasi, Kolkata, Shillong and Cherrapunji.

“I spent more than a year to come up with the first line. That is always the most difficult line of the book. But once I had got that line, I finished writing the book within six months,” Frater says in an interview. His writing has an honest ring and makes no effort to overly glamorize or condemn – a common pitfall for travelogues centred on India.

Frater’s track is, rather literally weather-beaten: it begins in Kerala simply because the Monsoon does. If May is depraved here, it is because everyone is phoning the meteorological office. For all their gadgets and calculations, the Malayalee met men are as gloomy and harassed over the whereabouts of the Monsoon as the politicians who pester them relentlessly for news of it.

In fact, the best thing about this book is, in fact, this ability to integrate the most inconsequential and casual information into a delightfully fluid narrative.

In Goa and Bombay, Frater meets both high-fliers and the hoi polloi: poet Dom Moraes and journalist Pritish Nandy and taxi drivers and beach-strollers on Chowpatty. He watches the monsoon break as a flood that drives the city in a mixture of emotional relief and municipal torment. In Delhi next, he describes the operations of a Kafka-esque bureaucracy intent on denying him a travel permit to Shillong. But Frater manages, in the end, to make the right connections. He flies off to the Northeast via that stupendous maze of open sewers and shapely pot-holes known as Calcutta. His engaging, eccentric quest ends when he buys an umbrella in Cherrapunji.

Chasing the Monsoon is the dogged pursuit of insights into the emotions and moods of a whole nation caught up by an erratic and unpredictable weather pattern. But, most importantly, it ranks with James Cameron’s Indian Summer as a potential classic of travel-writing on India.

Monsoon is India’s annual miracle. However, nobody other than Indians can understand the real sense of perception of what the monsoon rain means for India until they experience it themselves. After two to three months of scorching tropical summer, the Indian Monsoon is a time of relief for everyone. It’s a time to rejoice and prosper.

Frater has beautifully narrated his encounter with rain and people while capturing India’s emotion-filled response to this incredible natural phenomenon. Some paragraphs leave you feeling drenched and free. What a fantastic journey this book takes through the heart and soul of India!

He made a documentary on Monsoon in India for the BBC in 1991 (World of Discovery – Chasing India’s Monsoon), which became a real-time hit across the globe. Later many National Television channels, including DW German TV and the Netherlands broadcasting corporation, made films on Monsoon in the early 1990s.

With exceptional sensitivity and wit, Frater uses facts, impressions and anecdotes to vividly describe his own experience of the Monsoon while also illustrating the towering influence of nature over the lives of Indians. For example, he narrates, “In Kovalam, you see this entity arriving. At least 40-50 people make a chain, holding hands and welcoming the Monsoon, which arrives to nourish India.”

Theories about the healing qualities of rain also manage to get his attention. He quotes the Kerala Tourism website (https://www.keralatourism.org/monsoon/:) “Seasons in temperate climate are quite boring. Here, it is such a huge phenomenon. As nature recoups with the rains, it is rejuvenation time for humans too. According to Ayurveda, Monsoon is the best season for rejuvenation therapies. During the monsoon season, the atmosphere remains dust-free and cool, opening the pores of the body to the maximum, making it most receptive to herbal oils and therapy”.

Frater’s account moves from being a blissful longing for the torrential rains he had heard so much about to the emotion of awe on facing the deluge, which he considered to be a “roaring cataract of falling, foaming water (Chasing the Monsoon p69).” There were moments when he greeted the first rains, like that in Cochin, and then there were others when he just missed them, like that in Goa.

For Frater, the monsoons in India remained the ideal romantic phenomenon that was the key to the country’s charm despite its impoverishment. “As a romantic ideal, turbulent, impoverished India could still weave its spell. For the colours, the moods, the scents, the subtle, mysterious light, the poetry, the heightened expectations, the kind of beauty that made your heart miss a beat – the key remained the Monsoon,” writes Frater. “I made the journey for both of us, to fulfil my father’s dream” (Chasing the Monsoon p236).

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