Monsoon, a Feeling for Rain


Dhaka street in the rain, from 1999
There was enormous freedom when I was young, nine or ten years old. My friends and I, we’d dump our bikes in a park somewhere and head off into the bush for daylight hours, exploring overgrown tracks, spotting turtles, catching lizards, tadpoles and small fish called guppies. When we came back our bikes were right where they’d been left. Life was largely carefree.

The Buriganga, Dhaka in monsoon time, 1999
In northern Sydney there are patches of eucalypt forest everywhere; the topography is of small hills and contaminated orange-tinged creeks. We’d make mud jumps for our bikes; or slides down a muddy bank into the polluted water. We’d do dangerous things like exploring the network of large stormwater drains armed at best with a torch. It did for spelunking adventures. On weekends, our parents rarely knew where we were, expecting only that we’d show up some time around sunset. The freedom to roam was the most common way to be a child in those days; these days I suspect many kids are unable to benefit from such freedom. These days, driven by a culture of safety and fear, things are more supervised.

The only time I recall any trouble for our expeditions was for arriving after dark, or returning home wet. In the cold of Sydney winters it can take most of half an hour to be substantially soaked: the nature of fine drizzle. I’d sneak in the door shivering, attempting to avoid my father who never understood the impossibility of paying attention to a triviality like the weather until it was all too late.

It’s good to be an adult, to arrive at the front door as I did last week, utterly soaked after walking through the streets of Dhaka in a monsoon downpour, without having to sneak past my father. In the monsoon season there’s a choice: find a skerrick of awning and stand sardine-crammed with all the others waiting for the rain to stop, or giving in to it, accepting you’re wet and continuing on your way. The latter option becomes all the more tempting when, before you find the nearest shelter you’re already half-drenched, which in the monsoon takes most of half a minute.

And while the sensible ones take shelter the going gets fast, no longer having to zigzag through the Dhaka crowds; the streets are yours, the bucketing warm water releasing the toils of a day at work, the noise of the city, the day to day trifles. At the end is a shower, a towel, a change of clothes and cup of coffee, but for now it’s just you and the rain; in the city monsoon there’s a striking solitude to be had, of you alone amongst ten million others.

‘What is monsoon?’ my mother asked over the phone line from Sydney. ‘It’s rain, lots and lots of rain.’ But it’s so much more than that.

Ploughing at the start of the monsoon
In the village there’s the hearty percussion of each downpour on the tin roof, waiting inside, sleeping or reading a book or eating mangoes; window-watching the world dissolve into miniature lakes and rivers and estuaries. It’s the great delta reminding us she’s there. It’s the time of the poling across fields to reach the market on the small boats called noukas. It’s the very culture of the land.

Slipping and sliding, negotiating impossibly thin boundaries between rice field oceans, only to have to wade through ankle deep water to a front door is how to visit monsoon friends. There are the occasional courageous knee-deep mud trudges too to distant markets, a chorus of frogs, the strain and determination of your leg muscles; and in places there’s that sport, mud-skating; and all is barefoot, for it is well-understood shoes are worthless. ‘You are good on the mud,’ I remember villagers telling me, more politeness than actuality; but if there is any truth in it, it comes from learning to walk on Norwegian ice. In Sydney there is no equivalent.

Hatiyan market, Lenga Bazar, with just a hint of rain
In the village too the sky makes the world stop, plans delayed, schedules trapped in tea shops and houses and mosques. In Hatiya the world shrinks to along the bitumen main road, further friends remembered but unseen for days and weeks, separated by a great barrier of mud. In these months, lives are shaped temporarily by the whims of the sky.

The locals were surprised how often I would brave the rain, but it’s not surprising since I am talking of the short holidays from Sydney, when each Hatiya minute was priceless and putting off a visit to a friend’s place unthinkable; or a trip through the mangroves to the beach! ‘I like how if you have a plan it gets done,’ a friend once told me, which came as a surprise because I always felt a bit disorganised and spontaneous; but he was correct regarding the monsoon. ‘You can’t worry about a bit of rain,’ I told them, and sometimes I had to coax them from under their shelters. ‘Don’t worry, I have a superpower to make it stop’; and of course they wanted to see that. So did I. We’d start out and occasionally it did stop which impressed nobody more than me; it was Paul the octopus style, although the European mollusc is much more successful than I ever was; and when it didn’t work I’d blame them for not allowing me to concentrate properly on the sky. That would humour them all the more.

Monsoon rice fields
‘Why don’t you use an umbrella?’ I can hear my mother say. Ha! Umbrellas are for the between times; the height of the monsoon ridicules such feebleness. As well you know there is simply no point even to unfold them; and it’s not uncommon to see people already walking through the rain giving up, putting their umbrellas down because they are already soaked and there’s just no point.

In the pauses, when the sun streams through the clouds and steam rises from the road, you can really consider the glare of the greenery, the great renewal and growth. And at night, on those lucky nights when the moon is full, well there is just nothing like its reflection on the sea of the rice fields, even more so for the island moon of deep Hatiyan villages, where there is no electricity to defeat its brilliance. There in the silvery light, nearly as bright as day, under the fifty million stars and meteors, you know, this is how the ancients knew the night to be.

In Australia the monsoon is a news item. ‘The monsoon has broken in India,’ newsreaders announce. It’s one of the few seasonal phenomena worldwide that’s considered newsworthy there; even the start of the ‘wet season’ in northern Australia is not reported in such a way. It was hard when I heard it, the announcement of monsoon, when I was not here to enjoy it in person; although usually by mid-monsoon I was thankfully on the way.

Rice fields of Hatiya
From the air Bangladesh has become an ocean. It’s a unique wonder: a mesmerising expanse of tiny household-shaped islands joined together in that unlikely squiggle of causeways we call roads; one of the best views from the plane there could be. I used to fly in captivated, ready for the dangers of the rolling Meghna, to meet again the mighty monsoon world; although of course arriving after the monsoon has begun is cheating, for the great rain is the great reward for surviving the furnace of May.

Back in the city the rickshaw drivers guide their vehicles along where the road ought to be, somewhere under the water. You hope not to fall unexpectedly into a hole. Office workers jump awkwardly across puddles, sporadically dipping their business shoes where there is simply no other choice; street stalls employ whatever plastic sheeting they can find and others embrace the season, splash, dance and go silly in the nautical cityscape.

A dry spell in the Dhaka monsoon in 1999
We can complain about too much water, but in the end it’s obvious: when the monsoon is not there, or sporadic like it is this year in Dhaka, the planet, and we little humans that inhabit it, are all the poorer. Monsoon reminds that we belong to the world and the world does not belong to us. Monsoon is time itself. The monsoon screams, ‘this is life! There is life.’ And it’s impossible not to listen.

So there you go, Mum, as far as my words can tell you, from Thiruvananthapuram to Thimpu, and as an essence in Bengal, that’s what the monsoon is: lots of rain and lots more than rain. But if you really want to know, you need to feel it, on the face, on the arms, in your squelching boots and sopping socks that drench even the very gaps between your toes.




From monsoon to fishing in the Bay of Bengal? Or chatting in Dhaka?

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Monsoon, a Feeling for Rain






Bangladesh Dreaming: Article Index for articles about Bangladesh
Free counter and web stats