Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Chasing The Monsoon – Alexander Frater — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 22, 2008

Water is life sustaining. Especially in countries like India which are agrarian and densely populated its importance cannot be underestimated. Not a day goes by in India where one or more items in the news is not dedicated to the topic of water — either the complete lack of it or the sudden unmanageable excess. And one of the fundamental sources of this precious resource in India is monsoon. As a consequence, the occurrence of monsoon is a central event in the life of majority of Indians. All governamental growth projections are subject to the orderly behaviour of monsoon. Nowhere in the world are economics, politics, prosperity and the thin divide between famine and subsistence so intricately intertwined with monsoon as it is in India. Despite its centrality, the amount of available digestible information on monsoons is very limited. What is available is either wrapped in metereological arcane that an ordinary man finds it difficult to appreciate or confined to inaccessible annals of age old literature. For a vast majority of Indians, monsoons are both a boon and a bane. It is very rare that an Indian can say that he has not been impacted by monsoon in some way or the other. Who does not remember the sheer joy of sneaking out and getting wet in monsoon rains.. or the slushy discomfort prior or after the monsoon… or the maws of craving that one gets sucked into for something hot and spicy immediately after a rain?  Yet for all this I have not known any good book on monsoon that has fired the imagination of the common public. My remembrance of rain in literature is Nissim Ezekiel‘s “The Night of the Scorpion” — while the backdrop is wonderfully evocative of rain (not sure if it is  monsoon rain) it is certainly not about rain. It is about India, the attitude of its people and the heartwarming behaviour of a mother. The other one was Somerset Maugham‘s wonderful story “Rain” ( definitely not a monsoon rain) — there again it is more about the fall of human beings by temptation against a backdrop of superb evocation of the sense of rain. However, one book that I re-read in the recent past which had an explicit focus on monsoon and rain and the way it affects the lives of people in the sub continental India has been Alexander Frater‘s “Chasing The Monsoon“. This was a book that I read as a college student and picked it up for a re-read in an indecisive moment and yet for the all the indecisiveness, I could relive the joy of reading a thoroughly entertaining book

Chasing The Monsoon” is essentially travel writing where the journey is confined to the path of south eastern wing of monsoon. Frater describes his journey from Cape Comorin — the southern most tip of India — to the terminal point at CheeraPunji in Meghalaya via Kerala, Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Assam. What makes his journey interesting is the wide variety of people he meets in India — the rich, the poor, the famous and the ordinary  – all plagued and blessed by monsoon and each holding diverse and interesting views on monsoon. A wonderful aspect of the book is that through these interactions Frater manages to paint a glimpse of the complexity of India. Laced with rich references to the past, Frater furnishes an interesting portrait of monsoon while gracefully avoiding being didactic about it

For all the sad inequities of poverty, lawlessness, bureaucracy and underdevelopment that one gets to see in India, she still manages to bewitch a majority of people who have close encounters with her. Frater is no exception to that. Consider when Frater says the following: “This seem to be a nation of millions of foreigners, a bewildering accretion of mutually exclusive tongues, gods and cultures, the governance of which, shaky although it might be, appeared nothing short of miraculous“.. or…”Waving back, I reflected that India was a giant web of interlocking personal networks which, once infiltrated, would keep passing you along indefinitely“… or…”India might be an independent sovereign state freed from the constraints of the British rule, but now the descendants of the Britons were coming back and, like many of their forbears, adoring the place. Molly, possibly in the teeth of her expectations, found her self bewitched in Arcadia. As a romantic ideal, turbulent, impoverished India can still weave its spell, and key to it all — the colours, the moods, the scents, the subtle mysterious light, the poetry, the heightened expectation, the kind of beauty that made your heart miss a beat – well, that remained the monsoon“… I have also seen this bewitchment with other writers like Jhabvala, Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin and even our good old permanent resident of India Mark Tully

Frater displays wonderful capacity for observation and narration. There are times when the quality of Frater‘s descriptive powers almost reminded me of Bruce Chatwin. Consider when he says the following: “Thunder boomed. Lightning went zapping into the sea, the leader stroke of one strike passing the ascending returning stroke of the last so that the whole roaring edifice seemed supported on pillars of fire” …. or…”the sea a motionless silver plain stippled with fragile pencil-thin fishing canoes”or…”I hadn’t known sun like this before. It penetrated the crown of the head and imploded in the brain so that you got dazzle inside as well as outside

Even while painting a picture of India and its people Frater never loses focus on monsoon. Time and again through his interactions with people living and with references to the observations of the dead, Frater manages to bring essential nature of monsoon quite picturesquely. Consider the waywardness of monsoon when he says “I wondered about the nature of this monsoon. The personality emerging was that of a troublesome relative about whom responsible family members were constantly worrying — he’s disppeared again, he’s turned up on so-and-so’s doorstep, he’s in trouble with the police, he’s got drunk up in the train and finished up in Minneapolis. I would have to keep a very very close eye on it” or in his interaction with the famous poetess Kamala Dass: ” I put the sadness theory to her she crisply dismissed it. “Nonsense!” she said. It’s the most beautiful time ! It means rejuvenation, greenery, growth. It’s nothing less than reaffirmation of life“… or…. Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote that insects and undertakers were the only living creatures which seemed to enjoy the monsoon climate — though it was he tartly noted, ‘Better than the House of Commons’

One of the characteristics of travel writers is that a majority of their observations tend to have short currency which probably will remain that way because they are observing the present and not the future…. this is something that I commented on while writing about Paul Theroux‘s “The Great Railway Bazaar” and that is evident once again when I read Frater. Consider this when Frater says “I made a mental note to call Delhi but then, remembering I would have to use the Indian telephone system, immediately cancelled it“… from that point to today the Indian telephony has come long distance.. figuratively atleast as much the distance that Monsoon travels from Cape Comorin to Cheerapunji

Overall, “Chasing The Monsoon” has been a wonderful, entertaining, informative and interesting read. I am now looking forward to read Frater‘s other books viz. “Stopping-Train Britain” and “Beyond Blue Horizon” and I hope that they will give me the same satisfaction and joy I encountered reading his “Chasing The Monsoon

Afterword: Time affects people in ways that one cannot imagine. Frater meets Pritish Nandy in Bombay and one gets to see a sense of idealism in his days as editor of Illustrated Weekly. As a student it was a magazine that I bought religiously, read end to end and reread some of the articles. There were some outstanding folks who used to write in there: Claude Alvares, Bharat Wariavala, Rajni Kothari, Dr.Ashok Mitra, Romila Thapar are some names I can remember. From that point to the current transformation, Mr.Nandy is unrecognizable. Good or bad is not for me to say.

2 Responses to “Chasing The Monsoon – Alexander Frater — A review”

  1. Vishy Ranganath said

    Great review Vish. Thanks

  2. Vish Mangalapalli said

    Thanks Vishy…. I like this book quite a lot

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