Word Nerd: How Moody is the Monsoon?

29 Aug

How Moody is the Monsoon

As I write this Word Nerd piece, August is nearly at an end, and so is the rainy season.

In the Indian subcontinent, the rainy season is also known as monsoon, a word which originates from the Arabic ‘mausim’. Mausim means that which comes around once a year. This could be a festival or a season. Arab sailors were among the earliest to record this weather phenomenon and name it. Over time, the word was adopted into English, along with others which shared its roots, like lilac, macabre, and mufti. But while the word became English, the phenomenon has stayed Asian.

Of course, when you and I say monsoon, we mostly mean the rains, and not the seasonal reversal of winds over Indian seas. Understandably so. Since ancient times, weather has been viewed from a farmer’s perspective in agricultural lands like India. Monsoon meant an outburst of rains because that was what mattered. Even kings were called rain-makers. A king’s righteousness pleased the gods who sent down timely showers.

Therefore, rains have occupied a central place not just in terms of understanding climatology but also in shaping culture. Clouds, thunderstorms, rain showers have exercised a powerful hold over the religious and poetic imagination of many. Think Noah’s ark, and the Biblical floods. Or the Vedic personification of rainstorms as Indra, the king of gods, who wields the thunderbolt as a weapon. A large number of hymns is dedicated to him. Not surprisingly, he is a god meant to be placated, given India’s tropical climate.

Another great example is Kalidasa’s work ‘Meghdoota’. In the poem, an exiled husband wants to send a message to his dear wife. He gives it to a cloud. In most of Sanskrit literature, rains are associated with a series of love sports and festivals –  peacocks dancing, tree branches clashing, the clouds rumbling; all seem to evoke love in the poetic imagination, coming as they do, after the scorching Indian summers.

In English literature too, the rains are a ubiquitous element. As Alexandra Harris notes in this essay, bleak weather commonly symbolises punishment in Christian narrative. Paradise meant eternal spring. So storms in Shakespeare are reflective of the inner life of the characters – think of old King Lear on the moor, inciting the rains to drench the steeples and drown the weather cocks. Or Keats in his ‘Ode to Melancholy’, describing the clouds as weeping (“But when the melancholy fit shall fall/ Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud”), and William Wordsworth wandering “lonely as a cloud”. Again, there is Emily Bronte with ‘Wuthering Heights’, where the weather is almost like a character in the novel, mirroring the tumultuous fates of Heathcliff and other characters.

What does the rain mean to you? Is it somber, dramatic, annoying? Do you have a favourite poem or piece on the topic?

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