One thing that never fails to move me is rain. And it has been raining – there have been all kinds of rain, from pouring bucketsful to a light misting rain that nevertheless manages to drench in a few minutes. What rain does to me is bring back an exact emotion, and when I think back to the most powerful memories it brings back, I can easily pinpoint two very powerful ones out of the uncountable numbers it seems to dig up.
It is 1996, and the returning monsoon has set in rather fiercely over the Bay of Bengal. The thunder rolls in from the sea. It is a rich, deep roll, with a bass that no land-bound thunder can ever hope to achieve. The humid air is thick with the smell of approaching rain, and I run from my hostel room, crossing the road that runs between the hostel building and the vast expanse of the Marina. I must have looked like a lunatic, for even the fisherfolk were hurrying home, away from the sea. The sky was, to anyone else, black and ugly. To me there could not have been a lovelier shade of inkiness. I drank in the smell of the rain as I ran to the beach. I reached the edge of the water and I stood, transfixed by the size of the waves, the violence with which they threw themselves upon the sand, and the foam that was whipped up by the frenzy. As I watched, the rain crossed over on to land, never pausing, never hesitating, just sweeping on. I was drenched in the first two seconds of the rain, my shorts and t-shirt providing no protection from raindrops as big as my head. I cannot recall how long I stood there – I just remember standing there, literally soaking in the savagery of the latest cyclone. When I finally returned to my room, night had fallen.
Even today, whenever there is a heavy downpour, it takes but a moment to be transported to the seaside, where the overwhelming emotion was one of wonder, never mind the insignificance of my presence there. By being there, somehow, in my mind, I had been part of the cyclone, and it had shared its power with me, and at that moment, I wouldn’t have minded dying. For a moment, I was that savage which was nevertheless lifegiving, dealing death with its left hand while nurturing life with its right. The intensity of that experience remains with me, even though I may flinch at the thought of getting wet in the rain.
It was 1997, and this time it was the Southwest monsoon. I was sitting on a hillside with Neelan, an old man of indeterminate age who had taken to me rather well. He was a tribal, and my classmates and I were studying his village and him as part of our training to be anthropologists. He was what we rather unflatteringly referred to as a key informant. Truth was, I had taken a liking to him and his wife, Myla from the time I had met them. They regarded me with a fond tolerance, rather as a retarded child who was socially challenged. This was because their children had been married off and lived in other villages, and I was a sort of replacement as I hung around their little house, forever pestering them with questions about everything they did. I was as interested in the tales they told at night as I was in their food-gathering techniques. I was behind Neelan when he went fetch fodder for his cattle, or when he was gathering tubers for a meal. Like I said, rather like a retarded child. The only time I left them alone was in the evenings, when, as dusk fell, all the boys of the village gathered in the central clearing to play whatever games it was they played. I joined in everyday, and learnt valuable lessons on how people interacted with each other. Also, being friendly with the boys got me an automatic ‘in’ with their parents – something I was glad never to exploit.
The particular aspect I was studying was their cognition of time and space, with and emphasis on their attitudes and beliefs on death. While this sounds nice and grand on paper, in the field it was rather painful, because most of the time you were dealing in ‘facts’ that no one would talk about, death being a taboo subject of discussion. Finally, it was Neelan who guided me through the mass of folklore, and their sparse pantheon, to their belief in the equivalent of a four-fold soul.
It was on one of those days that he took me up a mountainside in the Western Ghats. After trekking through thick evergreen forests, we suddenly came upon a bare hillside. He did not say a word, and just sat down on the rocky floor. I sat by him, and looked where he was pointing. Clouds, dark blue and grey, were slowly building up, and even to my city-boy’s eyes, they were recognizable as rainbearing. Neelan did not have much to say as I pointed out the different mountains, recited their names and their associated myths. Finally, the mood seemed to strike me too, and I fell silent as well.
The rain started as a gentle drizzle, and slowly built up into a downpour. We just sat there, getting drenched and not moving to get out of the rain. From where we sat, the entire range of mountains was spread out before us. This was the world of Neelan’s entire mythology. All the world outside of this was referred to by a word that is the equivalent of ‘foreign’ – regions where only a madman would venture. We sat and watched the rains pour down on the the entire world. As I understood what I was watching, I was filled with a serenity and calm that is indescribable. At that moment, Neelan and I were no longer researcher and informant. We were comrades who were watching our world being enfolded by the fingers of a lifegiving, nurturing rain. Each drop that drenched us was proof that our world was being supplied for, our food being grown, our forests being taken care of. At that point, everything else seemed to disappear into nothingness. The feeling of kinship, the feeling of oneness, the dissolution of the ego, the ease of it all, and the resulting serenity – these are the exact feelings that are recalled when I see the misting rains that are so common in the hills and in Hyderabad.