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Many years ago, my sister came home from work one evening to find her little daughter and her friend just standing quietly in the drawing-room. Ever suspicious, she asked the little girls what they were doing. “Oh, we’re playing waiting-waiting,” the little girls told her. They lived adjacent to a doctor’s clinic and they had seen patients waiting before being called in.
That’s what probably every living creature in India does at this time of the year. We all play “waiting-waiting” for the monsoon. Some wait quietly, some not so. Trees everywhere stand stoically, their exhausted leaves coated with summer grime. Many have shed their leaves — it’s too hot and dry to work for even them. In the hills, the pines, explosive with resin, can flare up at a moment’s notice, setting entire ranges ablaze. Other creatures, like toads, have buried themselves deep beneath the soil, conserving what moisture they have hoarded from the last downpour maybe a year ago. Koels and cuckoos all over the country call hysterically, summoning the rains. (The call of the pied cuckoo is said to signal the approach of the monsoon.) And we scan forecasts and curse El Nino, which is supposed to inflict itself on us again.
Then one morning, the skin prickles, though the sun still burns bright in the ivory sky. By the evening, a scudding charcoal armada is arrayed across the horizon, the air is ionised and electric. The first showers are best appreciated in the jungles and hills or on the coast. To rumbling drum-rolls of thunder, the clouds cascade in, smothering hills and valleys and forests, a silver veil of rain preceding them. Peacocks go berserk. The first pattering of silver bullets on broad leaves gives way to a deep-throated, steady roar that may last an hour or a week. The animals soak it up quietly; elephant and deer wafting through the rain-mist flicking their tails and flapping their ears. The big cats, fastidious about getting wet, shimmy their paws disgustedly (it’s hopeless) and seek shelter under trees and bushes and rocky overhangs, while pre-teen monkeys dance their heads off. Your dog, of course, will go joyously nuts and then come indoors and shake itself all over you.
Birds suddenly disappear. Kites, herons and other high-flyers, at first ride the approaching winds with the exultation of surfers, but then, as it threatens to rend them asunder, fold wings and dive for cover. The smaller birds have long since gone to ground (or rather, into the trees). Here, they will crouch, bedraggled and miserable and wait it out quietly; they need this rain as badly as any living thing.
But there is hysteria and madness in the mud! Frogs and toads burrow their way out of their tombs, for a frenetic night of love they will dream about all year. They jump and pounce and plop and clasp, latecomers are ruthlessly kicked out. Ants are suddenly everywhere, speeding up and down “ant freeways” or swarming ruthlessly over ant-kill. Nightmarish centipedes and millipedes undulate their way with the nauseous wave-like motion of a million synchronized legs (Not a comfortable feeling, when they come pouring out of the shower drain while you’re singing there with soap in your eyes). Dragonflies shimmer and zither, their tinted cellophane wings glittering, set alight by great golden shafts of sunlight, as the clouds realign momentarily. Snails glide around, glutinous with mucous, shredding vegetation. And this bonanza of creepy crawly life is what the birds have been playing “waiting-waiting” for: their nests are full of ravenous babies, all in need of high-protein meals, 10 times a day!
Even cement-clad city jungles have their moments. Years ago, in Bombay, clouds of rust-colored termites would suddenly fly into the verandah on thundery nights, shedding their wings like gossamer as they headed for the lamps. For the geckos, it was bingeing time and they grew fat and prosperous and looked very happy indeed. Snakes, flushed out of their holes, may seek shelter under roofs (and beds), and need to be rehabilitated. Greenery burgeons everywhere: filamentous, fragile saplings sprouting between the cracks in the pavement, velvet moss cushioning rocks, creepers strangling balcony railings and twining around wire mesh and furry stuff growing even on shoes and belts.
Perhaps, the most enchanting moments are just after the downpour has ceased. You step into a world, diamond-bright and sparkling, every leaf, every blade of grass washed clean, mint-new. The musical plink-plonk of raindrops falling off drip-tip leaves is accompanied by the susurrus hush of rain-filtered breeze through the trees. In the hills and mountains, this is invariably accompanied by a new, muted background baritone. That little stream or nallah that tinkled down the hillside is now a frothing torrent, tumbling and foaming with the excitement of having grown up in a trice. Step into it now, and it’ll carry you off!
Then, as the plink-plonk xylophone slows down and falls silent, a long sweet whistle, aching with heart-breaking loneliness. Up there on the roof, a blue-rock thrush has clambered and is singing, as behind it a rainbow arches across a sky still dark as granite. It’s singing, and actually just telling the world that the rain has stopped, and that it is still alive and well.
And that it was always worth playing “waiting-waiting”.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird-watcher
The story appeared in print with the headline The Waiting Game