Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Monsoon!

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Whenever I say the rains just don’t come like they used to; that they have shrunk and that they fall in spots, never over the whole city and never wholesale like they once used to, young people (and sometimes old too) very sagaciously tell me that is because Lahore has grown so much.


There can be nothing more blatantly stupid.

Savan, the fifth month of the Nanakshahi calendar, lasts from 16 July to 15 August and is celebrated in sub-continental music, poetry and lore. There was the sizzling dry heat of Jeth (15 May-14 June) when the sweat on a man’s body dried even as it oozed out of the pores of the skin. Jeth was the month whose heat stunted the growth of every vegetation because of its aridity and it was a time when birds of the wing and animals sought the shade of trees with their mouths hanging open. It was when the colour of the landscape was burnt to a half tone: half green vegetation, half khaki dust and the sky a nameless colour, scarcely blue and not yet full grey.

If Jeth was bad, there followed clammy Harh (16 June-15 July). In my childhood, sub-continental climate worked with clockwork precision. On the last few days of Jeth, the Poora, that moist east wind rising over the Bay of Bengal that presaged the coming monsoon, would first be felt. One day it would be dry and crisp, the next you’d be sweating even in the shade. My father would always remark on the arrival of the Poora and note that Savan would now not be far behind. And then Harh would make itself felt as the hardest month of our Indian calendar: hot, sticky, a little windy but still burnt out of colour.

By mid-Harh (about the beginning of July) the pre-monsoon storms would have drenched the earth. From the parched dustiness we would move to the warm, clayey feel underfoot. And the petrichor! (Incidentally, this is a word hitherto unknown to me and recently passed on by friend Shaista.) Oh, the petrichor – that smell of the first drops of rain on the parched, packed earth came straight from the abode of the gods.

We have now forgotten the dust storms of Harh. Late in the afternoon about sunset, the cry would go up in our home that was almost like ‘Batten the hatches!’ on a ship entering a storm at sea. ‘Khirkiyaan darvazay bund karo. Andhi aa rahi hai!’ We would rush outside to watch this wall of dust sweeping out of the northern or north-western horizon and within moments swirling all around us, getting into our eyes and ears and crunching under our teeth. The sky would turn dark as dark can be; it would be as if after sunset even when the sun was above the horizon.

As children we had learned that these storms were either red – laal – or black – kaali andhi. The latter had the eeriness of the supernatural about it. It was the kind of storm through which djinns like Nastoor of children’s stories would be flying on secret missions. Now, decades later, I realise that the name Nastoor very likely derived from Nestorian Christians and became part of latter medieval folklore of the Muslims.

Even at the call for the doors and windows to be shut to keep the dust out, we children would be in our swimming trunks in anticipation of the coming deluge. Ten minutes into the howling storm, perhaps fifteen, but never a second more, the first drops would hit the dusty ground to smother us with petrichor. Huge blobs of raindrops would come down, thinly first and within moments like rubber bullets washing the dust out of our gritty eyes. And then there would be a virtual sheet of water descending upon us.

Oh, the abandon of it all! The running wild, beating our skinny bellies and chests with our hands and screaming for joy – an ecstasy I have rarely felt after those heady days of childhood summer rains – the splashing in the swiftly forming puddles and wallowing in the lawns flooded within minutes of the coming of the first drops. Everyone would be out in the rain; even our parents. I remember them with hands held out holding their faces up to the falling rain: the classic gesture of thankfulness.

Temperatures were tempered; the green began to wax, almost tentatively as if not yet certain it was time to burst forth. It waited until the beginning of Savan for that was as the signal for the earth to break into a riot of colour and growth. Virtually overnight the shades of verdure would change and they could literally dazzle the beholder with their many different nuances – green yet with a dozen or more different gradations. New shoots would break out and there would be a tangible spurt in rate of growth.

Who remembers the call of the koel and the papiha in Lahore? We have destroyed all those huge indigenous trees to replace them with imported dwarf ornamental rubbish and the rains no longer come as they once did. No surprise then that we no longer hear the frenzied calls of these elusive birds in Lahore. That was a sound associated in sub-continental lore and poetry with the coming of the monsoon. It is now lost to us. As lost as the monsoon is.

We had come to trust the regular recurrence of these Harh dust storms. They came once every week. As soon as it got hot, the storm erupted to cool the earth and make for refreshing al fresco sleeping. Indeed, even before Savan actually began, the rains would be regular. But these were nothing but showers lasting an hour or so at most.

Aside: the legendary dust storms of Harh and a thing of the past. Youngsters in their twenties do not know them. A generation that grew up watching television and then playing with their cell phones did not have parents talking to them at the dinner table. They have no idea what a Harh storm looked like. They have lived without the delight of the knowledge that rain was following within minutes of the wall of dust hitting them.

Savan was just another deal, however. Savan meant dark roiling clouds erupting now from the east to bring darkness in the morning and now from the west with a goodly picking breeze that fell cool on sticky faces. There could be or could not be thunder and lightning, but there was always, always, always rain. No one could imagine just a dust storm. Rain that lasted hours and hours. You had the beds laid out in the veranda and went to sleep lulled by the pitter-patter of falling raindrops, and every time you woke in the night the song continued. Even when it was finally time to be up for the new day, the rain would be coming down in all earnestness.

This was school vacation time and romping in the rain was the thing to do. We did it until our fingers and toes became all wrinkly with the water and our lips turned blue from cold. Shivering, our ardour somewhat washed out, we’d still linger in the rain, until we were ordered in.

This was how it was. No three consecutive days would go without a nice shower all the way through Savan and into Bhadon (16 August-14 September). The days that we had no rain, those immense cumulus clouds, fleecy white and bordered with a touch of grey, would turn the sky into a celestial kaleidoscope. They would tumble and turn: from rabbits they transformed into dinosaurs into flowing rivers into goblins into prancing horses, airplanes and anything else a child could fancy.

The rain came and stayed for days on end. And it did not rain in spots: I remember travelling with the family from Lahore to Multan in a long ago Savan and the car’s wipers were not switched off for a moment in that three hundred-kilometre journey. From my youth in the 1970s, I remember travelling from Kharian (later from Peshawar) to Lahore in constantly falling monsoon rain without a dry spot anywhere. I also remember flying from Karachi to Lahore in July 1980 without seeing land and the chatty captain telling us that it was pouring all along. The plane landed in Lahore in a downpour. I remember mullahs giving out untimely calls for prayer in order to make the rain stop. It never helped.

It would rain so much and so incessantly that the bathroom towel would be forever wet. Clothes, sitting room upholstery and curtains got that musty smell of moisture that refused to dry. And we loved it all because the rains never stopped.

About the middle of Bhadon (late August) the monsoon would begin to peter out. The nights would be heavily dewy and the blast from the large pedestal fan would have us shivering in our sleep. This was signal to begin sleeping indoors again. September evenings were positively cool and there was no question of anyone being able to sleep under the open sky without a thick coverlet.

In the past two decades I have seen rain dwindling. We have it only in spots now. No one knows what the phrase ‘widespread rain’ means because now it rains on The Mall and not on Temple Road. Or it rains in Johar Town and not in Model Town. The years 2010- 13 saw some better monsoon which young people thought was a freak. My brother who teaches at LUMS was told by one of his brighter students that these increased rains were because of global warming! This poor young man’s parents had never spoken to him on what monsoon rains meant. What the meaning of Savan Bhadon was in sub-continental lore. The poor man has lost his mooring; he does not know what it means to be a child of this great and wonderful land of the subcontinent, that rare land that has five distinct seasons every year. Or at least had them until things began to dry out.

The last real rain in Punjab fell on the night between 17-18 August 1997. It began at 8:00 PM and ended on the following afternoon. Lahore virtually went under. And this rain was spread from Sukkur to Peshawar and parts of eastern Balochistan. The following year, again in August (I forget the date) we had another spell of rain lasting several hours.

That was the end of it in Pakistani Punjab. After that we have never had any widespread rain in Pakistan. It rains in spots and at most for a few minutes. My diaries for the past several years record falls that lasted five or ten minutes. There are only a few entries going over thirty minutes. In the past quarter century, I have never fallen asleep to the sound of falling rain and woken in the morning to it continuing. I have only once seen an early morning rain.

So, gentle reader, Lahore (and other cities too) may have grown. But it is the monsoon that has shrunk. We have a lost a part of our folklore for who remembers the ditty: ‘Kaaliyaan ittaan kaalay rorre, meenh vasa day zoro zor!’ This was the song of the boys who rain in the streets of Lahore through the blinding sheets of rain pelting on their sun-darkened skinny bodies. This was their prayer for God above to never let it stop raining in summer.

But God did not heed and the boys have forgotten this psalm.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 2:00 PM,

10 Comments:

At August 4, 2014 at 8:44 PM, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Dear Salman sb. Just to add to your olfactory indulgences, there are two other smells apart from Petrichor, namely that of Ozone, the fresh smell that usually precedes the rain, and the one after a storm has moved through, an earthy-musty whiff of wetness. This is the aroma of geosmin, a metabolic by-product of bacteria or blue-green algae.

But in the end I must say you are the master of nostalgia....

 
At August 4, 2014 at 8:47 PM, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Being a resident of Pindi, I am reminded of the cloud burst of July 2001, which lasted over 16 hours and almost drowned the two cities.

 
At August 5, 2014 at 11:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thnx atleast you did not blame it on our sins.

 
At August 5, 2014 at 7:47 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Savan was a part of our literary heritage. It still is a part though there is no barsaat.

 
At August 6, 2014 at 11:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right. I grew up in Pindi but I remember the 2 aandhis you describe. And miss them.

 
At August 6, 2014 at 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Kaali andhi, Jumerat ki Jhari' and so much more are things of the past. My kids will never know.

 
At August 6, 2014 at 2:06 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Rehan. I'll add both words to my vocabulary.

 
At August 6, 2014 at 2:07 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Dear Anonymous, our sins have nothing to do with the dying of the monsoon. Our mindless messing of the climate has everything to do with it.

 
At August 8, 2014 at 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think mindless messing of the climate is also a sin.

 
At August 9, 2014 at 10:38 AM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Really sir i learns a lot from your articles

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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