There must be a reason why there's no word for monsoon in Hindustani; 'barsaat' means, simply, rain, and 'saawan' is the month in which the monsoon arrives. Yet, the word monsoon itself comes from the Arabic 'mawsim', appropriate season. And there must be a reason why, to the English, a "fine" day means a bright one, sans clouds; and in India mothers bless their daughters saying, "may there never be 'dhoop', sunshine, on you". They are clearly not wishing a Persephone-like Hades for their daughters - the phrase just refers to the suffering caused by extreme summer heat.
Never was this culturally ingrained difference brought home to me better than when I had to select photographs for a book on India's cooking traditions. The German editor picked the ones with bright sunshine and lots of blue sky and I, without thinking, the cool, green, shady ones.
There's enough said about the vicissitudes that the monsoon brings. The newspapers start, in June, with pictures of naked urchins jumping into the water at Delhi's Boat Club, or a pigeon craning its neck to catch a trickle of water from a dying hydrant, with a caption invariably about beating the heat. A few weeks later, it's all about overflowing gutters and drains, clogged roads, traffic congestion, motorists stuck under bridges and people falling to their death in uncovered manholes. For all of this the municipal corporation is held accountable. In the rest of the country, where municipal corporations have no jurisdiction, the havoc that the monsoon can wring is force majeure, and in any case too serious for lighthearted comment.
After weeks of 45-degree temperatures and relentless blue skies, what can one say of the excitement and deep satisfaction that clouds and rain bring that poets and painters have not expressed so much better? The sound of the wind, the brief stillness and sudden darkness before the downpour, and then the thrumming sound of the rain, the real, monsoon rain, coming down - the air suffused with the fragrance of dry, thirsty earth getting drenched.
In this part of the country where rain is so rare, it is rumoured that the essence of that smell has been captured in a perfume, 'mitti attar' (fragrance of wet earth). And there are paintings that speak to you, landscapes which are tense with anticipation, of green paddies and trees swaying in the wind that presages the first monsoon rain. Their only colours are green and grey, but how many shades of green and grey!
To a north Indian, growing up in Delhi, the music of the monsoon reflects the spirit, or rather the atmosphere of the season with all its expectancy: The early clouds coming and going away and, finally, the glorious sense of relief and gratification with the first downpour. Megh and Malhar are the appropriate ragas. A bandish in Mian-ki-Malhar describes the clouds, the thunder and lightning:
'Garaj garaj barsan ko aye
Aye badarva mahi
Chamak chamak bijli darave aye badarva kaare ...'
(Dearest, the gathering clouds are growling, the flashing lightning is terrifying, the black clouds have come… and it’s going to rain!)
But to me the plaintive 'kuhu-kuhu' of the koel is immediately associated with mangoes. Delhi's Andheria Mor was once a mango orchard, named after the blackish-green of mango leaves and the deep, dense shade of darkness they create, and seems the perfect setting for this 'dadra' in Desh. Desh is not properly a monsoon 'raaga' but is sung now, and while many 'bandishes' speak of 'virah', of separation and impossible longing - as often as of clouds and rain - this is perhaps the best loved:
'Chha rahi kali ghata
Jiya mora lehraye hai
Sun ri koel banwari
Tu kyun malhar gaye hai
Chha rahi kali ghata
Jiya mora lehraye hai...'
(My heart sways and lurches with the gathering clouds. Foolish bird, why are you singing too?)
This, like so many of our songs, defies translation and is about anticipation and disappointment. The clouds promise more than just drops of falling water. What the singer is longing for is obviouss; what is the koel singing for?
But for many of us the monsoon means more than the sound and smell of the rain: we feel the monsoon and make it our own. I remember a hot, dry summer day, with the desert cooler bringing a comfortable chill into the whole house. Suddenly we could smell 'bidi' smoke mingled with the cool damp air and decided it must be someone smoking outside, near the cooler. I was stopped on my way to ask the smoker to move away: an aunt remarked that it reminded her of rain in the hills, with a Himachali smoking his 'bidi' quietly in a tea shop. Naturally the next thing to do was to have 'masala' (spice) tea, with milk, 'elaichi' (cardamom) and lots of sugar!
We're all at work now, with little time for small pleasures, but the other must-haves in the monsoon were 'pakodas' (spicy fritters) and 'cheelas' (thin gram flour pancakes) - fried 'besan' (gram flour) in one form or another. Salty yellow 'besan cheelas', so thin that they tear in the pan, with a tart 'dahi' (yoghurt), tomato and green chilli 'sabzi' (vegetable curry). Alternating with thick, soft 'atta' (whole wheat flour) ones, sweetened with 'gur' (jaggery), caramelised and slightly crisp in parts, with a burst of flavour when you bite into a seed of 'saunf' (fennel) now and then.
We make these less often now, but the moment there's a serious downpour, a cry for 'pakodas' goes up. Thin oblongs of potato, whole spinach leaves so skimpily covered with besan that the dark green of the leaf shows through the golden batter, crisp onion rings coming apart as you fry them - the trouble with all of them is that you don't know which one to end with. And the choice of chutneys: green 'pudina' (mint) and raw mango or sweet and sour 'sonth' (tamarind sauce)? Or ketchup from a bottle?
It seems to be a pattern: we eat milder food in the dry heat and stuff with sharper, stronger tastes in the monsoon. It could be because spices aid digestion but, more likely, because it's mango season. 'Ram Kela', which makes the best mango pickle, comes now and it's worth waiting for because the pieces of mango in the pickle stay firm and crisp for months, sometimes years. Try using any other raw mango and very soon, the pickle is mush. And is there anything that compares with sweet, ripe mangoes? The best ones come with the monsoon: 'langda', 'chaunsa' and 'choosu'. There is no point arguing with the Alfonso brigade; we eat those because they come early and we have no choice. The 'chaunsa', it is said, should be eaten only after it has been washed by rain. And is there anything that compares with the joy of biting into the unmistakably fragrant, firm, pale yellow flesh of a 'langda', sweet yet slightly tart, while it pours outside?