Chasing the Monsoon

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Where I dig through my archives and repost the stuff I like. This is from 2007.

Ask me again a year, three, or five from now and all I will remember is driving up, around, up, around, up, around, in the swirling clouds as the rain lashed at my windows and I feared for my life, balanced so daintily in this tin can navigating itself on the hairpin road. This being Meghalaya, where everyone loves their rock ‘n’ roll, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” blasted from this tin can while I said a little prayer.

The purpose for this journey? To spend the tail end of my summer living out the monsoon in the world’s wettest (inhabited) place. If London gets close to 600mm of annual rainfall, where I was hitting up racked up 12000mm consistently, also the holder of two world records: highest monthly rainfall, highest yearly rainfall.

Ask me again a year, three, or five from now and I will still tell you the same thing: I’m not sure why I do the things that I do. Except that I was chasing the monsoon, that year and it just so happened I was paid for it.

We’d gone from my beloved Calcutta hurriedly, up to Darjeeling. I was eager to revisit that hill station with such a huge chunk of my heart before the rains shroud my beloved Kanchenjunga in the monsoon mist. I remember walking, walking for no particular purpose, just as it’d been the last time. Even in leaving, I remember driving, driving for no particular purpose. We drove down the winding mountain roads, stopping in Garidhura for a chai. In Garidhura a toothless man grinned at us, saying he’d been an English teacher for decades but hasn’t had much practice in a while. We only had time for a chai and a chai’s worth of conversation; then we continued driving, driving very fast, driving around bends, past tea plantations, past army barracks. Rapidly descending in circles but what the air took in altitude, it gave back in the freshness of tea plantations and the lingering scent of Darjeeling, my sweet, strong, Darjeeling without sugar.

But to chase the monsoon across to the west coast and down south — there was a quick intermission of the scorching Indian summer in the plains, by the Ganges and in the desert. Before long the three weeks of enforced vegetarianism had passed, and so had the worst of scorching Indian summer nights, there we were in Bombay. Expecting the monsoon to lash at Bombay as it had the past year, we quickly took off to catch a bit of the beach before the sea devoured it. Palolem, Goa. The monsoon had caught up with us. It didn’t rain but it poured for more than 15 hours a day — a few died in a neighbouring state, while they began to dismantle everything on the beach slowly. We were one of the last huts standing, still reluctant to leave, even though the monsoon had taken our electricity and internet and phone lines, and the sea crashed at our doorstep every night. A man stood in a raincoat knocking at my door at 10pm, saying he loved me and can you please come to Palolem in December. I broke poor Jailesh’s heart without him being ever able to understand why. We packed up the next morning, waited for the rain to subside before braving the journey out of Palolem and into Canacona. Even within the comforts of my air-conditioned sleeper bus to Bangalore, water went drip drip drip on my face, and unlike more natural elements, a broken air-conditioner right above me is more predictable than I’d like.

Ask me again in a year, or three, or five, and I don’t think I’d be able to explain how I got myself to Bangladesh just one month after suffering from a faulty air-conditioning unit somewhere between Goa and Karnataka. Dhaka, Sirajganj, Syedpur, Rangpur, Bogra. What I really want to know is why in the year of 2006, every restaurant costing more than a hundred Taka had simultaneously decided to call themselves “Armani Restaurant”. No matter what anybody tells you, remember that Armani Restaurant in Dhaka, and Armani Restaurant in the Hotel Anik (Residential) Sirajganj, and the Armani Restaurant on the national highway to Syedpur, and the Armani Restaurant in Rangpur, are all uniformly bad. Even if an organization hands you an open tab for food and drink and rest, steer clear of the Armani restaurants that every man and his brother-in-law’s-cousin-in-law-owns.

I missed the monsoon in Bangladesh that year, but certainly had plenty of flood victims to interview. One week I was sitting in an upazilla health complex between a man and his last toe (severe, untreated multi bacillary leprosy), the next week I found my monsoon in a mad taxi ride from Shillong to Cherrapunjee. Pulling closer and closer into where I was going to stay the night, strange romantic signs painted on the rocks before me began to appear. I will hold your hand in the rain, one went. I remember thinking: great, if only I had a hand to hold out here, and could do so without being blown away to Sylhet by this rain. Sohra, Cherra, Churra, Cherrapunjee. Sohra charmed me out of my raincoat, amusing itself with my feeble attempts at their language. I think it rained in Cherrapunjee every time the worst Khasi speaker in the world said ai sha dut laitilli, called someone khong, asked her for doh terkhong, and said kyublei.

But it didn’t rain quite as much as I needed it to. The morning I left Sohra, as I sped from Shillong to Guwahati to Calcutta and Bangkok, I think it began to pour, and I’m never going to be able to eloquently describe what it’s like living in a Victorian governor’s house suspended between one thunderstorm and another, the precise moment before the rain begins, how the clash of light dances across my front door and across my fireplace. How your conception of the basics: as basic as love, and what you feel about rain, can be changed by experiencing the wondrous rain in the monsoon in the world’s rainiest place.

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