Let the rain that is sweet fall
Let medium rain fall
Not the rain that is too strong
So that it breaks the young rice
Not the rain that is not enough
But give us the medium rain
That will help the grain to grow
Let the rain that is sweet fall.
So goes a prayer for rain in Chokri, a language spoken by the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland. Rains have always been an integral part of the human calendar—portending bounteous harvests, the joy of summer ending and much more. Whether it’s the rain rituals of the Palaiyars in Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills or the millions suffering from unprecedented heatwaves in India’s plains, the rains only gain significance as climate breakdown and agriculture distress deepens.
They are a crucial source of drinking water, food production, regulating weather systems and so on; as is seen in the hills of Kodaikanal, which have witnessed unusual rainfall patterns of late. ‘It rains less now than it used to when I first visited some 18 years ago. But there have also been seasons or days of excessive rainfall,’ says Cyrus Mistry, award-winning novelist, playwright and Kodai resident.
Most rainfall is welcomed in the mountains as dried-up streams start flowing, the forests come alive and farmers sow grain. It catalyses the renewal of nature, wildlife and agriculture. Rains shape language and culture through rituals and stories. At the same time, they are capable of destruction, hurting the vulnerable and the powerless. Across mountain ranges, they have become erratic over the years. In the Eastern Himalayas, they have disrupted food production in Nagaland and—coupled with increasing urbanisation—caused frequent and devastating landslides in Sikkim and Darjeeling.
In books from these hills, rain is a potent literary device, a harbinger of joy and tragedy, forming the backdrop of epic journeys, transformation, discovery or ennui. And so, every day, even as I hear of unseasonal downpours disrupting life elsewhere, I can’t help longing for mountain rain, for a walk in the post-shower mist, as I plan my own voyage to the mountains.
In Easterine Kire’s Son of the Thundercloud (2016), rain plays a crucial role in an age-old prophecy. When a solitary traveller takes shelter in an unnamed Naga village, he finds himself in the company of two 400-year-old women. They have been surviving on a diet of hope, waiting for a centuries-long famine to end. They say the Son of the Thundercloud will bring ‘rain and mist that softens the soil, and the earth will sprout grain and grass again. There will be food and life.’
The rain does come, eventually, transforming the land and the sisters, themselves. The birth of the Son of the Thundercloud—from a single drop of rain—brings an end to the famine and desolation.
The monsoon in the Naga hills, Kire writes , is called Khuthotei (rice-growing season) and typically lasts from May to early or mid-October. Lately, rainfall has been erratic here too, starting by end-March and going on till May. Rain takes many forms: in Chokri, Sezuo or Süzu refers to the week-long rainstorms of May; Nuoba teirü, or mud rain, ‘suddenly falls on a perfectly sunny day’; Tülümhüzü is the ‘rain that comes as a short thunderstorm, darkening the skies in seconds but spending itself quickly’; and Garunyi sö Süzu, or pre-monsoon rains, signal that the ‘monsoons are not far behind’.
East of Nagaland, surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, lies Sikkim. On my visit there last November, a friend described their summer as ‘a wall of water’ from May till September. It was in Gangtok that I happened to pick up Chetan Raj Shrestha’s The King’s Harvest (2013) at Rachna Books, a charming bookshop tucked into the hillside, on a street lined with cherry blossoms in early-winter bloom. The novella is a stunning parable about the formation of modern Sikkim—where the rain is an ever-present witness. Tontem, a simple brute with a physical deformity, is entrusted by the Chogyal, the king, with the farthest estate in his kingdom—the mythical, extremely fertile Lhaizalzed. In this land, known as the ‘valley of constant light’, every fruit, grain and vegetable under the sun can grow —provided the seed is sown by ‘an incomplete man’. Tontem finds himself working these fields, taking refuge from a cruel society, to restore Lhaizalzed to glory. He soon reaps immense riches, growing rice, maize, barley, cardamom, millet, mangoes, lychees, apples and oranges.
But for the last three years, the king’s representative has not collected the royal’s share of the harvest. So the loyal subject must journey to the state capital, Gangtok, to rectify this. On a day of endless rain, when Tontem emerges from 32 years of complete isolation into a changed world, he is speechless. Giant wheeled rats (cars) and cement boxes (concrete houses) are everywhere, as are uniformed men with guns. The king is nowhere to be found. In the middle of that demonic city the drizzle turns ‘into an insolent torrent.’ Tontem misses the Lhaizalzed rain ‘which came only when summoned.’ The rain that had given order to his life on the farm, brought him untold riches, now sets the stage for great confusion and loss in an alien, urban setting. Consolation arrives only when he finds someone from the past to explain his place in this new world.
In the southern part of this erstwhile kingdom of Sikkim lies the Queen of Hill Stations—Darjeeling. Now part of the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in West Bengal, this wild forested hill tract was gifted to the East India Company by the King of Sikkim in the early 19th century. In his memoir from the early ’90s, No Path in Darjeeling Is Straight (2017), Parimal Bhattacharya—then an English teacher at the Government College—introduces Darjeeling through its infamous monsoon. The ‘endless rains’ and perpetual fog of July and August often ‘conspired to cut short the lives of Englishmen [and Indians from the plains] who came to stay.’ The casualties included George Aylmer Lloyd, the Columbus of Darjeeling, who first came to the hills in 1828 to negotiate a deal with the king of Sikkim. As also Louis Mandelli, the Italian tea planter and ornithologist, who left behind a ‘few thousand specimens’ of rare Himalayan birds.
Owing to the excessive rain and fog, the sanatorium that was built in town in 1844, was eventually shifted 500 feet below to Jalapahar, the burnt hill. The notorious monsoon landslides of Darjeeling—aggravated by deforestation and haphazard planning—are fatal even today for many working-class residents, whose homes are often washed away with roads, trees and other buildings. However, Bhattacharya notes that rains do end the acute water shortages of the summer. Once the water begins to flow, the tensions and skirmishes in long water queues abate. Life is restored, somewhat.
Despite the morbidity and the ‘wetness that seeps into the bones’ during these months, this is when the author falls in love with the town. Wrapped in fog, the days are filled with a murky, ethereal light, the tourists are gone (Kodai folks know this relief!), swollen springs murmur around every corner and newborn leaves glisten. And when the monsoon recedes, the clear skies reveal the mythical Kangchenjunga peaks.
The end of monsoon also sets off his zoologist friend, Hemraj Chhetri, on a quest for the rare Himalayan salamander, which mates in puddles formed during the rains. The Tylototriton verrucosus is an endangered amphibian that was thought extinct—until found in a pool in Darjeeling in 1964. Locally called pokhri, these pools have provided a natural habitat to the ‘living fossils’ (unchanged for 150 million years), until most of them were destroyed by the tea gardens and pollution from pesticides and detergents. Bhattacharya describes accompanying his friend on these excursions, following tiny trickles of water spiralling downhill and occasionally getting lucky: ‘[We] would find the greyish pink creatures in suspended animation. Sometimes we would spot them from a distance on the edge of the pool, clinging to the rocks like damp leaves, but they would jump back into water in a flash at the sound of our feet.’
In 2015, a new salamander was in post-monsoon ponds of the Eastern Himalayas—the Tylototriton himalayanus. That makes these mountains home to the only two salamander species in South Asia. Otherwise thought lost to the vagaries of time and ‘progress’, these elusive amphibians seem to be revived by the rains. At a time when the world we know is changing irrevocably, this season heralds both life and death in the most curious ways.