Monsoon Memories

Once again monsoon rains have arrived in Kerala breaking the lengthy spell of scorching summer temperatures. The arrival of monsoon clouds over the Arabian Sea is an eagerly awaited event .The muggy air seems to bear down upon one. After a dry spell, lasting for months on end, the parched earth calls out for the first drop of rain. Sun and even the red earth give off endless heat. Just about everyone begin to make meteorological predictions – everyone has their own theories about the impeding edvappathi, monsoon rains that are expected to start during the middle of the month of Edavam (first week of June) on the lunar calendar. And then, one day, the unbearable wait comes to an end. When the first raindrops of monsoon fall, it is almost as if the land and its creatures heave a collective sigh of relief.

Monsoon is the seasonal reversals of wind direction, caused by temperature differences between the land and the sea. It is not exclusive to India. It occurs over northern Australia, western and eastern Africa and the southern United States. But none of them are as well pronounced as the Indian monsoon.

Our monsoon is no ordinary heavy shower. It is magical, it is romantic, it is divine, and above all it is our lifeline. Gusts of wind blow away everything in their path. The tranquil sea becomes a turbulent pool of water. Loud thunders, bright streaks of lightning, blowing winds, and swaying palms all add to the spectacle. The most spectacular clouds and rain occur against the Sahyaadri Mountain ranges (Western Ghats), where the early monsoonal air stream piles up against the steep slopes, then recedes, then piles up again to a greater height. Each time it pushes thicker clouds upward until wind and clouds roll over the barrier and, after a few brief spells of absorption by the dry inland air, cascade toward the interior.

For me, monsoon is a word that stirs up many fond memories of growing up in Kerala. Monsoon mornings bring an invigorating smell of damp earth, budding leaves, washed streets, knee-deep water, crisp air, and ominous clouds rolling across the sky. We woke up at dawn to the sounds of rain water gushing through the drains into the inner courtyard. The distinct delicate fragrance of burning sandalwood incense sticks mingled with the strong scent of lighted camphor cubes from our prayer room would envelop the whole house.

And just as the monsoon rains arrive in June, schools in Kerala would reopen for another new academic year. We trekked our way to school and back, with overturned umbrella and dripping wet skirts. By mid morning there would be a break in downpours. We would peek through the school windows wondering why it was not raining then, but would be pouring again when we left school. And the fun we had in the evenings making paper boats with old newspapers and floating them in the water drenched backyard. At supper often we enjoyed a bowl of warm kanji (rice soup) dotted with dollops of golden ghee (clarified butter) while monsoon rains fell relentlessly.

With monsoon comes a renewal of the life cycle of farming. In India planting and harvesting are largely dependent on seasons. Rainfall is crucial to the cultivation of rice and a drought meant famine. Cultivation begins with the onset of rainy season. When the seedlings are planted, they need more water to ensure a good harvest. The arrival of monsoon is considered as nothing less than a holy event and many rituals are observed to propitiate the gods of wind, rain and sunshine. In Kerala during the festival of Vishu in mid-April, farmers would mark the auspicious beginning of rice farming with a ritual called chaal (furrow).

When the monsoon is late, farmers in my home town perform a ritual, pleading to God to bring rainfall to the rice fields. They believe that rain is late since their village is home to a sinner. They would make a gigantic human form, Kodumpaavi (ultimate sinner), with rice straw and attach a long rope to it. Several people would pull it around the streets while others accompany them singing a song and pleading for rainfall -kodumpaavi chakaathe, koda mazza peyyathe – (oh God, the sinner is not dead and the rain is not falling. Please take him away and give us rain). And sure enough when it rains in a couple of days (as it always does in the tropics) the farmers firmly believe that their ritual brought the rains.

Half way through the monsoon season we would get ready to welcome Sridevi, the Goddess of plenty and prosperity to our midst. On the last day of the month of Mdthunam on the lunar calendar (mid-July) houses get a thorough cleaning.-floors are scrubbed and mopped, cobwebs are cleaned and furniture dusted. In days past, towards dusk of that day one of our maidservants, with a pail of trash in hand, walked out of the front door of our home. We children accompanied her shouting chetta purathu poo, Sridevi akathuvaa- let all the dirt and evil go out the door and let cleanliness and goodness come inside. My mother walked behind her sprinkling handfuls of water on the floor, performing a symbolic purification ritual.

From the next day onwards, a special place was set up in our prayer room to honor the Goddess. My mother decorated a wooden plank symbolizing the goddess with sandalwood paste, bright red kumkumam powder, and garlands of seasonal yellow mukkutti flowers and dark green karuka grass. Among the lighted bronze oil lamps and platters of fruits and flowers rested a silver bowl filled with nivedyam, popped rice mixed with fresh coconut and brown sugar, to propitiate the goddess. Throughout the month of Karkitakam at sun down Hindu homes reverberate with readings from the epic Ramayanam.

Dark days of monsoon are also a time for ancestral remembrance. On the day of new moon, Karkitaka vaavu, special prayers are offered in memory of demised ancestors. In the belief systems of the east fasting or at least depriving the body certain luxury food, is considered a means of achieving a higher state consciousness. In times past a symbolic observation of this belief was practiced on every new moon, especially new moons during the monsoon season, by consuming only kanji (rice soup) instead of cooked rice.

Everyday vegetarian meals also would be different during this season. Preparing an appetizing meal becomes a challenge. The abundant summer vegetable crop is long gone and nothing grows in the flooded soil Use of frozen or canned vegetables is almost unheard of in our villages. All of the drying and preserving of vegetables done during the summer months come in handy. Several root vegetables that have longer shelf lives; edible leaves and various kinds of dried beans becomes the mainstay of our vegetarian kitchens during this season. Spicy hot shallot soup, yams and Indian garbanzo beans cooked in coconut and cumin sauce and creamy hot semolina pudding are some of the monsoon season favorites in our village.

By mid August the fury of rain subsides, and bright sunshine warms the earth. The farmland is carpeted with rich green rice stacks that sway in the breeze. Once again it is time to bid farewell to the rainy season and to welcome the golden harvest season.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN