My nephew was born in August. He arrived early, prematurely born, as if restless to hear the sound of the rain first-hand. The acoustics inside the womb weren’t good enough, I suppose. The monsoon would have left by mid-October, when he was expected, as the colloquialism goes. But all he got that year, nearly six years ago, was an armour, a mini-infrastructure of swaddling clothes and kathas to protect him from a damp lurker. Moisture, water, rain — they seemed to be a premature-born’s enemy. The poor infant lay in his cot, with his eyes closed most of the time, indifferent to sky and ceiling. The nine months that followed, with the exception of the regulated interactions with water, in the bathtub, or the water that leaked out of him, had conditioned him to a life of dryness.
And then a raindrop fell on his soft head one day. It was end of May. He knit his scanty eyebrows and put a question to the sky. He didn’t know it was the sky, of course, but the query had been made. The answer arrived promptly: another fat drop. The first had been on his forehead. The second one was on his left cheek — a plump drop on a plump cheek. I can say this not because I treated him like a frog on a dissection tray, inspecting every pore for change, every few seconds, when I was with him, but because he was in my lap when the raindrop landed on him. It had annoyed him, this invasion of his privacy by an impertinent drop of water. I watched this dialogue of two non-verbal beings — the infant and the raindrop.
Soon it was June. The monsoon had arrived. At first it was the loudspeaker of the rains that affected him — not just the thunder which is always a surprise, even for adults, and which woke him up from his sleep, but the incessant foot-tapping of raindrops on the tin roof that covered the terrace. All other seasons affect the skin and the hypothalamus. Only the rain commands the attention of the eyes and ears. I began taking him to the balcony from where I’d watched the rains as a child. At those untidy moments, it sometimes seemed that the rains, and not blood, had stitched our destinies together. I, awful singer, hummed my favourite songs of rain, as if training him to accept someone who would be an important family member, someone who would spend a few months every year with him, with us. But it was more ineffectual than potty training.
Every season is a foreign language, one that makes us brush up our old skills when it returns to renew its acquaintance each year. Winter demands we hide the body, turning layers of clothing into metaphors of wombs and caves. Summer is, in that sense, its antonym, peeling being its raison d’être — the near-phenomenological movements, an abandoning of clothing to the barest and decent minimum. Spring and autumn are fraternal twins, and restore us, after winter and summer respectively, to what we are conditioned to believe as the happy normal. In between these poles, winter and summer, spring and autumn, is the sneaky monsoon. Orphan, homeless, iterant, but also predictable in its annual comings and goings, the monsoon is the most foreign of all languages. Even if one spends a lifetime learning it, one won’t be able to get its caesuras right — for who can say when it’ll stop raining? Think of the vocabulary that it demands — umbrella, raincoat, gumboots; so different from wearing a scarf or sweater — and you begin to understand why one feels like a failed student every year when it rains. A tiny part of you will get wet, no matter what your armour — that wet patch is the red mark on your answer script.
How was I to teach an infant this foreign language? Everything in the world, for a nine-month-old, is, in any case, foreign. Where are the beds and swings and toys inside a mother’s womb, after all? There was, of course, no question of being “immersed” in the language — the result wouldn’t be knowledge but pneumonia. At first, I turned to words — onomatopoeia. “Pitter patter raindrops …” — how ineffectual. The pitter-patter sophistication of falling rain might have been appropriate for Europe, but raindrops did not fall with that sound in sub-Himalayan Bengal, where we were. “Aaye brishti jhepey …” went a Bangla rhyme. The semi-violent energy of the onomatopoeic jhepey, as also in jhapta, a lash of rain, as if it were a slap, slightly reminiscent of the Hindi jhaap for slap; the tender, even affectionate, rain-babble of tapur tupur, another Bangla parody of the sound of rain on tin roofs; jhiri jhiri, like a painter’s description of the drizzle, tiny broken lines that’ll never join. But where were the words that held the flamboyance of the rain? Words suggested not violence, but only an anaemic beauty.
The infant showed no curiosity — a procession of black ants on the floor was more interesting to him than water droplets. As he grew up and began crawling towards a home in language, I took him to various places to see the rain, to all the clichés in particular — to the flat lotus leaves on which raindrops trembled like mercury, to forests where the sound of rain is imbued with nervous fear, to car windowpanes and electric wires where their beauty was in their vulnerability, to puddles, which was the temporary graveyard of raindrops. He remained adamant in his indifference to the monsoon.
A few years passed. He began going to school. He loved to spell.
One day he told me that he’d found the “house of rain”. My old ambition stirred again.
“Where is it?” I asked, like only an aunt can, marvelling at the metaphor of a four-year-old.
He took out his notebook and scribbled something in his hasty handwriting. “It’s inside this, see.”
“Drain.” That was the word. He covered ‘D’ with his tiny thumb and showed me the rest. “Rain.”
I learnt a new language.
Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree.