At the end of a long summer every year, the whole country looks eagerly to Kovalam, 17 km south-west of Thiruvananthapuram, for a reason other than its internationally acclaimed beach resorts — the southwest monsoon kicks off from here. Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Prater provides a dramatic backdrop for the build-up of the monsoon in Kovalam, just before it begins its digvijaya all over the subcontinent.
We always welcome a much-awaited rain in the middle of summer, the pre-monsoon showers culminating in the rains of the Edavapaty (southwest monsoon) towards the end of May and also those of the Tulavarsam (the afternoon-and-throughout-the-night showers of the northeast monsoon, with the accompanying percussion orchestra of thunderclaps).
It’s human nature to start complaining about even the least of inconveniences, though it would have been a much-craved-for boon a moment ago. We groan about the rain when it lasts a day too many, even if it comes after a couple of months of severe drought. Not only we here in Kerala, but our erstwhile colonial masters who taught us the English language through their nursery rhymes did too, but more understandably so in a bleaker clime of rains and sleets and storms that dominated the major part of the year:
Rain, rain, go away
Come again another day!
But how can we forget the very soul of the agrarian economy in our tiny strip of land, which entirely depends on regular and moderate rainfall? Our agricultural almanacs were all set, from ancient times, according to the patterns of rainfall. The sowing of dry-land paddy, planting of tapioca, yams, colocasia, the different varieties of beans etc., happened within Pattamudayam, the tenth day of the Malayalam month, Medam,(mid-April to mid-May) which was the harbinger of the pre-monsoon showers. Tiruvatira Njattuvela, the solar transit of the Tiruvatira asterism (Alpha Orionis) which usually starts in the 3rd week of June and lasts the next two weeks, was the ideal weather condition in which the crucial growth of the pepper vine, and other agricultural plants of Kerala, happened over the millennia. A quote ascribed to the Zamorin Raja of Kozhikode is seen, despite its faulty date of 17th century (The English occupied Kozhikode only in 1792), as stressing the importance of that particular rain-shine sequence over a fortnight:
“They may take the pepper vine back to England, but can they also take the Tiruvatira Njattuvela?”
Kerala’s ‘God’s Own Country’ hyperbole is built on its greenery, comparing it metaphorically to a Divine Garden. This greenery, bordered on the west by the blue ocean and on the east by the hills, valleys and mountains of many shades of green, yellow and blue, captivates the mind of the traveller viewing it from the plane’s window for the first time, somewhat affirming the tall claim of the Department of Tourism. However, this greenery, and the watery expanses that stud the back of the coasts — we call them ‘kayal,’ wrongly translated as ‘lakes’, but are really ‘backwaters’— are possible only because of the regular rains we get almost around the year, except during the high summer in the Kumbham to Edavam stretch(March-May). Do we thank these rains when we get them in the ideally moderate way, as vigorously as we press our palms to the crown of the head and curse them away when they are inconvenient?
But the deluvial torrents cascading from the skies for at least 4-5 days continuously on four different occasions within the space of the last 40 days, bring to mind quotes like: “It rained 40 days and 40 nights without stopping….” from the Book of Genesis, which describes the beginning of the great deluge (in which the patriarch Noah builds an ark and saves the male and female of all species of creatures, by keeping them afloat over the all-conquering waters). The gods seem to be really angry now about the damage that man has wreaked upon the slopes of our part of the Western Ghats, which reportedly saw more than 200 incidents of landslides claiming as many as 40 lives and counting over the past few days. The ominous tone of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his One Hundred Years of Solitude, implying the murderous suppression of the plantation workers by the capitalists, “It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days…,” resound in my ears as I listen to the sheets of rain falling over our house for the last 28 hours, almost continuously, and goes on (as I write).
We are now witnessing one of those rare occasions when nature goes on a rampage and does the unimaginable with the rains. What is popularly known among old-timers as 99 le Vellappokkam( The Flood of 1099 M.E.—in July 1924 C.E.— a calamitous flood which is being described as smaller in scale to the one we are experiencing over the past month, but involving larger human casualties estimated around more than 1000 at that time) left many vivid accounts of it in verse and prose, but Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s short story Vellappokkathil(In the Flood) tops them all for its tenderness, compassion, humanity and equipoise in the face of a deluge that washed away a large part of life and culture to the seas. My mother who had witnessed this flood as a little girl, had narrated to me episodes similar to the ones described in this story.
I have vivid memories of the week-long continuous rains of 1957 which set off a series of landslips and cloudbursts which claimed many lives across the state and left large tracts of land submerged. There was another similar one in 1992.
I have to confess here that I personally love rains, however torrential they are, and , listening to the rains, I hum the iconic song Rain by the blind Puerto Rican singer, guitar maestro and composer, José Feliciano:
Listen to the pouring rain
Listen to it pour,...
Listen to the falling rain,
Listen to the rain….