We had the first long spell of monsoon rain in the last four days. It is a beautiful time. Heavy showers, like the one you see in the featured photo, come and go during these days. You can see the sun dimming, the gusty winds setting in. You rush to close windows and doors, take in things, and usually do not succeed in preventing the first gust of rain from wetting a few things. I finished closing the windows and looked at the world outside disappear behind the cascading water. I had to capture this! My current phone camera is up to it. It shows what the human eye sees. The Family’s is too intelligent for its own good; it cleared up the blurring sheets of rain and brightened the photo until it lost its particularity: the shape of what she sees.
These stormy gusts do not last long; ten minutes to half an hour, and they are gone. When I looked at satellite photos of this mass of clouds I could see it covering about a thousand square kilometers, moving slowly, passing over Mumbai in about four days. But within this mass there were eddies and collections of more or less dry clouds. The less dry are the things which keep dripping for days. This early in the season they are a joy to walk out in. I went out to get photos of flowers getting wet in the rain. Unfortunately, as the ground beneath the bushes gets flooded, the bluebottle flies which feed on the rotting mulch get flushed out. I saw them on these leaves. By tomorrow they will be invading my home. It is little things like this which make you eventually tire of varsha.
Masks would have got wet and turned useless at their job if I’d taken an umbrella. So I dug out a poncho with a long overhanging hood. It prevents me from seeing anything (I remember a walk in Acadia National Park wearing this), but it keeps my face very dry. It is the perfect attire for close-in monsoon photography. Monsoon in the COVID-19 season is bad, it will prevent droplets from drying fast, and will help to spread the disease faster. But outdoors, during the rain, it makes things safer, by flushing virus laden droplets out of the air into the ground, where the salts and acid can destroy them. Every season has its dangers and delights.
It has been a rainy weekend. The heavy monsoon rains continued into yesterday, and looks like it will remain. I always think of July as peak monsoon. To check, I went back to my photos of early July. It is true, most of my photos from this week for the past fifteen years are memories of being cooped up at home for days due to rain. I rediscovered one of my early mobile camera photos: this one of the invasive giant African land snail (Achatina fulica). I knew it spread fast, but I was surprised to find that it is counted among the top 100 invasive species in the world. I guess we are number one. Here’s looking at you, cousin.
In June the monsoon was fickle. It started with two days of good rains but then petered out. The days were hot and muggy for a while, but the last few nights of June we had thunder and lightning, and finally, some rain. On the last day of June I went out to receive a delivery and was astounded by the clear skies left by the night’s shower. I don’t remember seeing a sky so blue in the heart of the city.
There was a cool breeze which made the humidity bearable. I walked towards a hedge full of flowers. At this time of the year these hedges are full of mosquitoes. I was trying to get a couple of quick photos, but I got bitten. Anyway, I was happy to get a shot of these flowers hanging over leaves cupping rainwater which reflected the sky.
Since I’d got bitten already, I pushed through the hedge to take a look at the small field beyond. Usually this serves as a practice field for the younger children learning to play football. It has been deserted for more than three months now. On some days I can see a family come down, and the parents let the children run around for a while. It was deserted now, and the low goal post was already rusted with rain. I wonder how many years it will take for the banyan tree to claim this whole field.
I pushed back out through a different gap in the hedge. A different place, and a different flower. This is a typical monsoon scene: flowers holding drops of rain from the last shower. I hope July rains are better.
This annoys me. Just look at that ludicrous sky, a splash of colour that any child with a messy paintbox can scrawl on to paper. I just had to take a photo to vent about it. Look at that wash of yellow at the bottom: what an inept attempt to show the blaze of the setting sun. If this was entered in a competition where I was a judge, I would sentence it to a hanging.
Others found themselves looking at different parts of this artist’s work. Here is a view someone drew my attention to: east across the Oval to the clock tower of the University with the concrete shell of the stock exchange looming behind it. At least this part looks like a competent watercolour, not the random splash of the sunset.
But then there is this view that another person pointed out, looking northwest at the city’s skyline. Again, the same amateurish dribbles of contrasting colours, and a very ham-fisted attempt at balancing them out by putting a red building on the right and blue buildings on the left and across the bottom. Really! I’m looking forward to the normal grey of smoke and car fumes to damp down the lurid imagination of this artist with the large canvas.
Between a post-travel quarantine and the lockdown, I’ve not left the gates of our housing complex for a hundred days today. Sitting at home, I think I’ve got more tuned to the natural world. I’ve noticed the seasons passing: vasant and grishma are over, and now we are in varsha (think of it as spring, hot season, and monsoon). On the 99th day I leaned out the window in the evening to catch the watery golden light of sunset filtering through monsoon clouds.
The air was full of the chattering and scolding of rose ringed parakeets. I looked at the canopy of trees just below me: such a variety of greens there. The parakeets seem to avoid the gul mohar tree for some reason. They would have been spectacular otherwise; imagine their green against the red of those flowers.
Why was this parakeet rubbing its beak along the bare branch it was sitting on? Was it cleaning its beak? I looked for other parakeets sitting down. There were many. Yes, and many of them seemed to be rubbing their beaks along bare branches, quite vigorously.
Could this be a search for food? Unlikely, I thought. There was enough other food available for them to be wasting the last minutes of daylight looking for insects under the bark of trees. It turns out that their beaks grow all through life, and have to be rubbed down constantly to prevent them from becoming too large. I hadn’t noticed this behaviour before,
I had to go and pare down my ever-growing stomach. But before that I tried to take a few photos of the birds launching off from their perches. It turned out not to be so easy. They seem to have planned out a route through branches and leaves before letting go of the perch: they twist and turn very fast, before coming to horizontal flight. The light was fading, and I’ll leave this exercise for the next hundred days.
The season which I love, the season which I hate. The rainy season, varsha, the monsoon. This is when peninsular India, including Mumbai, is so different from the northern plains. Summer winds down slowly in the plains, the towns turning warmer and warmer, emptying slowly as schools let off, people traveling up to the cooler Himalayas. But on the west coast of the peninsula, monsoon strikes hard even before summer can bake the earth dry. In my first years with digital cameras, I tried very hard to capture a sense of this spectacular season: the lack of sunlight, the continuous rain. I look back at those photos now and I find that I could have taken my own style of photos in a different direction, more misty, atmosphere, less concrete. I might want to do down that route again.
The outside world disappears for days on end, and you are thrown into your own internal world. Classical poetry called this the season of love. Perhaps the greatest of Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa, wrote a whole travelogue about the monsoon clouds carrying a lonely person’s message to his love across the whole of India. I followed that route, and saw that the description of the country is still true, even after nearly one and a half thousand years. Then there is the music of varsha, raga Malhar in all its variety. Another form that fits this season is more modern, the claustrophobic film noir, so wonderfully used by a few talented directors in the last decades. This is the exasperating season, when nothing ever dries, everything gets moldy. This is the season for the phone camera, a much handier replacement for the compact I used once for monsoon photos.
Classical Sanskrit poetry observed nature so beautifully: frogs and insects, grass and trees, rain-streaked stone and wet crows; the weft and warp of our daily lives. Every time I think of the monsoon, those wonderful stanzas from Kalidasa’s Meghdoot pop into my head: so evocative, but so hard to translate into verse without clumsiness. How do you translate “snighdhachhayatarushu”? The calm shadow under a tree? But that is only one word, less than half of the last line of an early stanza. Most translations into English that I’ve seen published, gloss over this word in an attempt to catch the meaning of the whole sentence. But that seasonal reference is then lost, the sense of grishma ending and varsha about to come.