Up here in the northern part of the country, if one early June morning you are suddenly stopped in your tracks by a ringing, somewhat wanton “piu-piu-piu-pee-pee-piu-piu” call emerging from the trees in your park or garden, you will feel your heart suddenly lift. Look sharp and you might spot two large, handsome, black-and-white birds with long coattails and rakish crests chase each other through the trees. They are pied cuckoos, apparent emissaries from Africa, and are said to herald the arrival of the greatest show on earth — the Indian monsoon. Be assured, the curtain will rise in a month or so as scheduled.
To get a grandstand view when the curtain actually does go up, you really need to be stationed anywhere on the coastline of India or up in the hills (Delhi and the NCR, alas, don’t really do monsoon very well). The grand flotilla of gunmetal thunderheads approaches like an ai
rborne squadron, preceded by skittish breezes, ionising the air so that you feel heady and elated, as though you’ve just been breathlessly told by the one you’ve been besotted with that he or she loves you very much, too. Sheet or spear lightning flickers and stabs and the drum-rolls of thunder like an artillery bombardment make you reverberate. (As I used to tell my dog while hurrying home with him, “lighting and thunder will tear us asunder!”)
And then, it pours. The cracked earth bereft of any green sucks down the deluge — and then Mother Nature goes berserk. Seeds scattered or buried like grains of sand or pebbles in the ground suddenly come to life. Shoots rocket skywards, roots plunge into the soft, spongy earth sucking up water and nutrients: watch a time lapse sequence of this happening and you will be blown away. It’s a cue the creepy-crawlies have been waiting for. Bugs, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, centipedes, et al emerge in their billions, feasting on the fresh salads on display (to the annoyance of many a farmer) as also on each other.
Years ago in Bombay, while ostensibly studying late into the night in the verandah, I used to wait for the squadrons of termites to come flying in (the queen and her consorts on their aerial honeymoon), crash and sizzle against the table lamp and then shed their delicate wings to be grounded forever. The geckos on the walls also waited, grinning all over their faces. Completely fascinating were the large scarlet-and-black blister beetles that whirred clumsily on black wings: Who said there was no life on Mars? Where do you think these guys have come from? Don’t wear yellow or lilac in their presence or they will have you. (And yes, they can extrude a nasty liquid that can give you blisters.) Occasionally, giant flying cockroaches would land like superheroes, fold their cloak-like wings, wave their antennae around as though checking for radio signals, and, then, scuttle straight for you and creep the heck out of you. As a child, I learnt that it was wise not to tangle with rafts of red ants floating in waterlogged gardens because they’d been flooded out of their homes: if they got up your shorts… And now, in Delhi, I keep a sharp look out for manic charges from hooligan centipedes emerging from the plughole while I shower.
There are miracles and there is music too: serenading golden bullfrogs appearing en masse in a rain-filled ditch, taking part in a musical orgy that Woodstock would have envied. They vanish the very next day (before the moral police gets wind of them). They’d been waiting patiently all through the blistering summer, deep underground, conserving what moisture they had soaked up. When their curtain call came, they were ready! Fireflies wink and waft through the trees in the hills, pulsing their emerald siren signals to one another in codes as precise as any we may use for our most scandalous secrets.
All this is what the birds have been waiting for. Most resident species have spent the spring and summer courting and now it’s time to settle down. Baby birds need a lot of high protein at frequent intervals, which the plethora of insect life so generously provides: Big McCaterpillar burgers are devoured in their millions, as are furry moths, earthworms slurped down like noodles, spiky dragonflies bashed to bits to soften them up into baby food. The long-legged waders — the storks and herons — get busy with fishing, though some might have preferred the last desiccated days of summer when the waterholes and water-bodies had shrunk crowding fish and frogs into small areas, making picking them off child’s play.
As for the big guys in the jungles: the great carnivores too had it relatively easy during the summer when their thirsty meals crowded around scarce waterholes. Now, with water easily available, in streams and ponds all over, they need to work harder for their meals. But yes, this is, perhaps, counterbalanced by the arrival of baby hooves — and fawns are sweet and tender, not very experienced in the ruthless ways of the world, even if they may seem more like starters than a main course. The animals get a rest from us, too, as parks and sanctuaries close down, not so much out of kindness as because the roads become impassable.
And then, just as you are beginning to tire of the green mould on your shoes, belts and bags, and of all the sniffles and snuffles that the rains also bring (bacteria and viruses also love this season), the clouds begin to disperse and float away in large fluffy flotillas.
But before this happens, at least once, do go out in the midst of a downpour, raise your face to the heavens and dance and sing and celebrate this, the greatest show on earth. Your children will love you to bits for this, or be embarrassed as hell — so, you can’t lose much in any way!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.