Today a sudden fierce rain storm flooded our street in Kolkata – the first rain flood of the year. Within minutes it seemed the street was filled with murky water, the leaves of the kadam tree floating around, the yellow Ambassador taxi’s wheels half vanished in the water. A man waded through gingerly clutching a shopping bag and trying to hold onto a sturdy black umbrella, a Mahendra La Dutta umbrella, no doubt.
Rains and floods can cause havoc as in Kedarnath. In village India they are about oilseed and rice crops. But for us in the city, it’s about saundhi mitti or shoda maati - the heady smell of summer-parched earth soaking in fat drops of rain. I learned that there is an English word for it too – petrichor. But it doesn’t do it for me. It doesn’t conjure up the same image of sudden menacing clouds that blot out the sunshine, squalls that leave the ground littered with magnolia blossoms. Petrichor does not convey Durga and Apu looking up with startled delight at the sky in Pather Panchali, or the first drops of rain on the sweetseller’s bald head.
The rain still washes the city and creates an older city, a more timeless one. The sight of office goers scurrying at the first raindrops, hurrying to get wherever they are going before the rain really pelts down. The rattle of the rain on tin roofs, the rickshaw puller, wading through the water, his dhoti hiked up to his knees, the motley crowd sheltering under the awning of Kundu’s Doctor Chambers, the sudden rash of pale grey white mushrooms at the foot of the old tree – these are all familiar sights, as unchanging as the yellow paint job on the house next door, fading in the summer sun, moss-stained by the monsoon rain.
Yet if I look closely, it’s not quite the same.
Once our street was lined with two storey houses, each with its own balcony and terrace. A sudden afternoon rain storm meant an aunt next door or the maid would rush to the terrace to yank the drying clothes off the line. But now few houses have terraces anymore. In apartment buildings, the closed balconies double up as drying racks.
Once the street dogs would flee the rising waters and climb up on to the front porch of the houses. Now those porches are gone and with them the shelter for stray dogs and the old men who would sit there with their Ananda Bazar Patrika, their morning cigarettes and a cup of strong tea. The dogs have nowhere to go for the flats have gates that are barred to them. They skulk under the awning of the Kundu’s Doctor Chamber trying to scrounge some space with the people huddled there.
As children we tore pages out of old ruled exercise books made paper boats and watched them bob through murky waters, the Royal Blue ink from forgotten lessons washing away with the rain. Now I cannot see a single paper boat. The only things floating are the debris of our lives – plastic bags, garbage, a single strand of an orange marigold garland. Dirty as it was there was something magical about our Venice especially from the dry snug comfort of our homes. We were not the ones walking the streets with plastic bags on our head or being splashed head to toe by a fan of muddy water from a passing car.
Composer Shantanu Moitra told The Times of India that rains are no longer about romanticism. In contemporary urban India they are about dirty streets, lost productivity, traffic snarls. Despite a Zoobie Doobie in 3 Idiots, we probably won’t easily get another out and out rain-drenched song like Rim jhim gire saawan again.
There are other ways to show sensuality now instead of needing the excuse of monsoons and chiffon. Pritam said in an interview in all his years in Bollywood, no one has asked him for a rain song. Lyricist Swanand Kirkire said he’s never been asked to write a rain song either. He theorized that perhaps today’s generation, used to air-conditioned rooms have little sense or interest in rain or nature the way an older generation did. Rabindranath Tagore wrote songs for every season. But no season, not even Bengal’s fabled Pujos, got as many songs as the monsoons – something for every mood, joyously and dancing with the clouds or steeped in melancholy.
That was then. The songs are still there but when the waters recede tonight there will be just muck and garbage and moldering leaves from the marketplace and fights about dripping umbrellas in public buses. There will be no remnants of forgotten melodies, no strains of Malhar, not even a capsized paper boat.