Musings by Shekhar Nambiar
‘The monsoon has arrived in Kerala’ used to be the lead on AIR’s news bulletins every year in the first week of June or late May those days. Year after year, the script remained the same, only the voice changed. If it was Surojit Sen announcing the onset of the monsoon in the morning eight’o clock news, more like a proclamation, it would be Lotika Ratnam at 1 pm, and the baritone of Melville de Mellow, known famously for his coverage of Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral, for the 9 pm bulletin.
Talking of news broadcasters, can one forget the lovely voice of Ranjit Kochar as she brought news in Punjabi,the veteran Hindi broadcasters Devki Nandan Pandey and Ramanuj Prasad Singh, or the stylish Malayalam news broadcaster Sankaranaryanan? They were legends at a time when radio was in its heyday.They set the gold standard – the best of the best – for broadcasting, radio and television.
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Radio remains to this day the most personal news companion. It cannot be replaced by any other form of communication. The listener is one with the presenter, forging a personal and inexplicable bond. Such was the Radio’s and its presenters’ powerful impact that if they said the rains had arrived in the Andhra coast, you could literally be transported to Vizag or Srikakulam and visualise the scene being narrated.
Radio brought the Bangladesh liberation so vividly and effectively to Indian homes that even after five decades, Khulna, Chittagong and Jessore have remained etched in minds.
In the northern hot and dry plains, news of the monsoon would bring a sigh of relief to people exhausted and weary from the hot and sweltering heat of the parched Indian summer.
This year, it has been somewhat patchy in regions where the monsoon should have picked up sufficient force. This is in keeping with the trends in recent times, with the monsoon not sticking to its known pattern of centuries.
In Kerala, where the monsoon casts its first magical spell, rains this season have been sporadic so far. Yet, the northern coastal parts of the state have received quite a bit of rain, if not in its fullest fury, and so has Dakshina Kannada.
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Mangalore has reported continuous rains, indicating the monsoon bucking the age-old pattern of it first hitting the Kerala coast, in Trivandrum particularly.
“Mumbai is still away from the monsoon, it is yet to come here,” said a friend with whom I’d enquired the other day if the rains had arrived. I tried to read between the lines. Was he disappointed? Or relieved as rains these days mean clogged drains, flooded streets, traffic mayhem and the Mithi river – or whatever remains of it – wreaking havoc.
The infrastructure woes are not confined to Mumbai. There’s scarcely a town or city in India that does not get affected by rains.
Look at the recurring floods in Kerala. Its main rivers, flowing east to west, and their overflowing catchments, we are told, are perilously close to breaking the major dams.
A feature of the fury of the monsoon is the continuous downpour. One particular season, the sun did not peep out from the clouds even for a minute and it rained night and day for three weeks. Now in retrospect I marvel at the fact that life did not come to a grinding halt, and water in all its force just kept draining itself out in the river and then into the sea. It was one of the most enjoyable monsoons I’ve even seen.
I am tempted to remind myself of the book ‘Chasing the Monsoon’ by Alexander Frater, who literally follows the monsoon as it hits the coast deep south in Kerala, traces its path through the state northward, past Karwar in Karnataka, and then on to Goa, Maharashtra and Mumbai of course, and beyond.
The monsoon’s progress across India is both fascinating and romantic, because as Frater recounts, it gets intrinsically linked to the people, land and its culture.
Rains, land & culture
Look at it this way. In Kerala, the rains mean a full season of oils, Ayurvedic medicines and massages, especially for the aged, for lubricating their creaking bones and aching muscles, and general rejuvenation. For agrarian Kerala, it’s the sowing season for paddy, as the fields, earlier parched by the scorching sun, are now tilled and three-parts full with water from the incessant rain.
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Almost in harmony and synchronized, the first hint of the monsoon tells the children that it’s time for school to reopen, after the long Vishu break, get new school uniforms stitched along with books and stationery, as well as the customary umbrella for whatever little protection it can offer from the torrential downpour.
Manna from above
Life all along the western coast, right beyond Goa, the Konkan coast and Mumbai and Ratnagiri, is somewhat uniform, be it in food habits or living styles. It’s all about the one big monsoon season as the region sees rains for nearly six months in a year. If anything, what people miss most on the coast is sea fish, which is difficult to procure during the season. The rough and risky sea makes it difficult for fishermen to venture out much. Deep-sea trawlers are able to be at sea but overseas demand and high profits from the export market make them stay away from the domestic market.
In much of India, good monsoons are considered a blessing from the higher power above who provides the people food, prosperity and well-being.
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A bountiful monsoon provides food from all sources – millet, maize, rice and wheat, greens, and fish from the sea and rivers. Not to mention water for irrigation, drinking, washing and cooking.
Frater’s journey can be traced, at least to some extent, by a rail journey along the Konkan coast starting from Malabar in Kerala to Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra.
The journey is breathtaking beyond words and can match any other train ride in the world. Sadly, we do not have an Orient Express for a leisurely travel, soaking in the scenic beauty and the rain. The track is not yet fully electrified and, for most part, is single line but broad gauge.
It goes without saying that rains bring in joy even if there’s misery as large tracts of land and homesteads get inundated across the country.
The real joy of the monsoons is out in the countryside. Many tourism promotion agencies are advertising monsoon tourism as a package.
One of my most precious memories has been spending time during summer vacations at my mother’s house in a valley surrounded by small hills and homes of family, cousins and friends. Later on in life, I called this small town or village, not far from the sea, Little Hill – derived from the Malayalam Cherukunnu- and mimicking Bill Clinton’s Little Rock in Arkansas.
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The earliest memories I have of those days is learning to swim in the large family pond with a depth of upto 40 feet and more and the excitement of running along the well-laid steps and diving spots.
At the peak of the rainy season water fills up to the brim and begins to drain out through the outlet at the top of the steps, to flow out past brackish water fields, and empty into the nearby tidal river. The water in the pond changes to transparent azure blue from dark green, with the deepest parts of the pond becoming visible.The boldest and most able-bodied amongst us ventured quite deep displaying our underwater swimming prowess, visible to those above through the crystal- clear water. The children, barely out of primary school, could beat scuba divers hollow and remain underwater for as long as they wanted. These were untrained champs who, given an opportunity, could have easily competed with the best at the National Aquatic Championships.
They were, or are, champs in the truest sense, displaying a rare talent, stamina and courage – whether in backstroke, freestyle, butterfly or breast-stroke. As with everything in life, they remain where they are, faceless, unsung and nameless.
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