It’s a rare episode of Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas. Ravan has abducted Sita, and the two brothers are alone in the forest. The elder brother spends his day teaching the younger one values of devotion, renunciation and kingly ethics. One evening, as the sky darkens, Ram’s tone changes. The most stoic of men, he looks up with longing and says, “Look Lakshman, the peacocks dance to the sight of clouds.” Under the spell of the falling drops, Maryada Purushottam, the supremely contained being, utters the words that reveal what he has so carefully concealed. As “clouds shatter the sky”, Ram tells his brother, “Priya hin darpat man mora (bereft of my beloved, my heart trembles with fear).”
Ramcharitmanas was composed at a time when the gods were not divorced from literature, and the depiction of the divine in multiple forms was considered neither blasphemous nor against a “secular” aesthetic. The rains touched and moved all, transforming even Ram into a tragic and lonely lover.
In popular imagination, rains bring joy and cheer but artistes have often viewed it through the prism of sorrow. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) reaches its denouement in the scene where Durga, having had a stroll in the rain, falls sick and eventually dies. The sonorous tragedy of In the Mood for Love (2000) is woven around the soulful drizzle that drenches its hero as he rushes to the heroine, who is standing quietly under a bulb. The rain in Wong Kar-wai’s film is a recurring metaphor that evokes a longing that can never be fulfilled. It conveys the impossibility of yearnings, which can only be felt, but never consummated.
So when Kim ki Duk, having made fairly violent movies, crafted his meditative Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003), the only season he omitted was of the rains. Was the image of a solitary monastery in the middle of a hilly lake being lashed by rains too overwhelming for the screenplay?
And yet, rains seep in, defining the narrative. The movie’s landscape quietly witnesses the changing seasons and the consequent transformation in the young monk. It’s summer now, a young girl arrives at the monastery. Suddenly, we see a silent, and unannounced, drizzle. Unmindful, the girl lets herself get soaked in the rain before the monk places a wooden basket over her. The script is not even half over, but in the water bubbles formed on the lake’s surface is glimpsed the path the film would take.
So, are there artists and authors who have avoided, rather resisted, rains in their oeuvre? And with what significance? The first, and the most obvious, name is of Franz Kafka. The bleak, dark fiction of Kafka leaves little space for the sky gods. Perhaps, for an author confronting both his inner demons and a perceived demise of god in the public sphere, a raindrop was always an impossibility. Even in his many letters to Milena, the woman he loved the most, there is almost no mention of the rains. He vividly describes his mood, health, weather, and even the time of the day (afternoon or evening) he wrote the letter. But not the rain, except for a rare instance. “Dear Frau Milena,” Kafka begins, “Just now the rain which had lasted two days and a night stopped, though probably for the time being, nevertheless an event worth celebrating, and this I am doing by writing to you.”
Kafka’s diaries, spread over 14 years, contain rich details about his life, mood and friends — again, almost without a mention of rain. Not a coincidence, perhaps, that Milena’s favorite author was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in whose oeuvre, too, rains struggle to get in.
Was it for Kafka then what William Faulkner wrote years later, in the novel As I Lay Dying (1930) — “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home”? Rains, perhaps, drenched Kafka, but he, under the burden of an unbridled but unnamed guilt, could never find his home.
Rain as the metaphor of guilt and creativity also surfaces in Ashad Ka Ek Din (One Day in the Season of Rain), among the most defining modern Hindi plays. Mohan Rakesh’s work, widely staged by leading theatre personalities of India over the last five decades, centres around Kalidas. A bright poet in love with a village girl gets an offer to become the court poet of the king. Unable to resist the temptation of wealth and fame, Kalidas leaves his village and his beloved only to precipitate his fall as a human being. Rains arrive at crucial moments in the play, and bring a change in the narrative. The central question Rakesh asks through the motif of rains is this: Is artistic insight always in conflict with a desire for fame? The play lends a creative turn to the figure of Kalidas, the great Sanskrit poet. Its title alludes to Kalidas’s Meghdootam (The Cloud Messenger), among the greatest love poems of literature.
At the other end of the spectrum is the near-invisible rain in the works of Nirmal Verma, among the finest prose writers of modern India. “We must resist from giving details of things that captivate us. We must not try to name them as they reveal themselves in a gesture that is extremely mysterious and elusive. And yet, their impressions must remain within us in the moment of writing,” he once wrote.
In his work, the reader can trace subtle references to rain — fleeting impressions which rarely find overt expression. His texts are like an overcast sky, with the readers moving from one word to the other in anticipation of imminent rains. Imagine a novel that stretches over you like an invincible dark brown cloud. A cloud that rarely bursts, but asserts its perennial presence. When the gods are forcibly evicted from literature, they enter novels in the form of clouds.