I remember 20 years ago a race against the rain. The auto I was in bumped and jounced across the old pontoon bridge on the Yamuna and I bumped and jounced with it. The summer had been scorching and bleak, the rising peaks of the temperature charts matching the hysteria in the brainfever bird’s call. Delhi was parched, baked and strung out, yearning for the rain.
I needed to make it back home — to Mayur Vihar — before the rains broke, and the auto driver had the same idea. We both craned forward, as though the sputtering auto was a horse we were urging to gallop. The bridge — a ramshackle, cobbled-together affair, that lay almost on a level with the water — bucked and heaved beneath us. Above the thick brown river, black clouds roiled, spitting out spikes of lightning on the horizon. The terrifying intensity of the lightning combined with the eerie lack of thunder gave the whole scene a heightened filmic quality. It was as if the entire Marvel Studios special effects team had been given creative carte blanche and an unlimited budget to sum up the word ‘apocalypse’.
And when the storm broke, all hell let loose.
Cut to 2019 and I’m waiting for the rain again. This time, I’m in England, in my garden, worrying that I’ve put the leek seedlings into the ground too early. Spring has been dry this year, and even though I’d watered the earth well, a few inches below the damp surface, it crumbles in my fingers like a biscuit.
The clouds are feathery, pale grey and move in slow smoky wafts. The bullfinches and goldfinches are making merry on my neighbour’s bird feeder, and under the eaves the housemartins are swooping in and out of their nests, their beaks bristling. There’s no Sturm und Drang here — none of India’s colour and drama. In England, ‘it seldom rains but it pours’ is a phrase only used in its metaphorical sense. Usually, it rains often but mostly gently.
There is no smell quite like the scent of fresh rain on dry earth: Petrichor seems to quench something in the soul. For the philosopher Alan Watts, however, it was the sound of the rain rather than its smell that entranced him. Although he had spent most of his adult life absorbed in various investigations into Eastern spiritual traditions — and, in particular, Zen Buddhism — it wasn’t until 1961, at the age of 46, that he first visited Japan. “And when at last I did get [there],” he writes in his autobiography In My Own Way, “I didn’t rush off to a Zen school to gobble up all the wisdom I could. I went to look and to listen, and to see things in a way that insiders often miss; and I found what I wanted… the sound of rain.”
In Kyoto, “gutters were bubbling, and water was spilling from bronze, dragon-mouthed gargoyles at roof corners. Everywhere the soft clattering of wooden sandals like small benches with legs on the soles to keep your feet above water.”
The sarod virtuoso Ali Akbar Khan once said, “All music is in the understanding of one note”, and Watts riffs on this idea. If you relate to the world entirely through the sense of hearing, he writes, “You will find yourself in a universe where reality — pure sound — comes immediately out of silence and emptiness, echoing away as memory in the labyrinths of the brain. In this universe everything flows backward from the present and vanishes, like the wake of a ship; the present comes out of nothing, and you cannot hear any self that is listening. This can be done with all the senses, but most easily with the ears. Simply listen then, to the rain.”
Listen to the rain: It is nothing but itself. It is no more and no less than what it is. It mimics nothing and means nothing. Try and capture it in language, and all that will be revealed is the way in which language, inevitably and always, falls short.
As I listen to the English drizzle and watch the earth change colour, drop by drop, my prayer is that in India, as the monsoon breaks, everyone will — at least for a moment — take a moment to pause. Listen to the rainfall, attentively and with pleasure, like you would a piece of music. Its crescendos and murmurings, its glissandos and whispers. It is a benediction and no wonder is associated with the unstrained quality of mercy — just another name, in this context, for forgiveness or love.
First published The Hindu Business Line BLInk supplement 7.6.19