The Monsoon Breaks

I was staying at a small hotel in Meerut, a town in north India. There had been no rain for a month, but the atmosphere was humid. There were clouds overhead, dark clouds burgeoning with moisture. Thunder blossomed in the air.

The monsoon was going to break that day. I knew it; the birds knew it; the grass knew it. The smell of rain was in the air. And the grass, the birds, and I responded to this odor with the same deep longing.

A large drop of water hit the window-sill, darkening the thick dust on the woodwork. A faint breeze had sprung up, and again I felt the moisture, closer and warmer.

Then the rain approached like a dark curtain.

I could see it marching down the street, heavy and remorseless. It drummed on corrugated tin roofs and swept across the road and over the balcony of my room. I sat without moving, letting the rain soak my sticky shirt and gritty hair.

Outside, the street rapidly emptied. The crowd dissolved in the rain. Then buses, cars, and bullock-carts plowed through the suddenly rushing water. A group of small boys romped along a side street, which was like a river in flood. A garland of marigolds, swept off the steps of a temple, floated down the middle of the road.

The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The day was ending, and the breeze remained cool and moist. In the brief twilight that followed, I was witness to the great yearly flight of insects into the cool, brief freedom of the night.

Termites and white ants, which had been sleeping through the hot season, emerged from their lairs. Out of every hole and crack, and from under the roots of trees, huge winged ants emerged, at first fluttering about heavily on this, the first and last flight of their lives. There was only one direction in which they could fly - toward the light - toward the streetlight and the bright neon light above my balcony.

The light above the balcony attracted a massive, quivering swarm of clumsy termites, giving the impression of one thick, slowly revolving mass. A frog had found its way through the bathroom and hopped across the balcony to pause beneath the light. All he had to do was gobble, as insects fell around him.

This was the hour of the geckos, the wall lizards. They had their reward for weeks of patient waiting. Plying their sticky pink tongues, they devoured insects as swiftly and methodically as children devour popcorn. For hours they crammed their stomachs, knowing that such a feast would not come their way for another year.

In hot upcountry towns in India, it's good to have the first monsoon showers arrive at night, while you're sleeping on the verandah. You wake to the scent of wet earth and fallen neem leaves, and find that a hot, stuffy bungalow has been converted into a cool, damp place. The swish of the banana fronds and the drumming of the rain on broad-leaved sal leaves soothes the most troubled brow.

During the rains, the frogs have a perfect country-music festival. There are two sets of them, it seems, and they sing antiphonal chants all evening. Each group lets the other take its turn in the fairest manner. No one sees or hears them during the hot weather, but the moment the monsoon breaks, they swarm all over the place.

When night comes on, great moths fly past, and beetles of all shapes and sizes whir at the open windows. Recently, when my housekeeper, Prem, closed my window to keep out these winged visitors, I remonstrated, saying that as a nature-lover I would share my room with them. I'd forgotten that I am inclined to sleep with my mouth open. In the wee hours I woke up, sputtering and coughing, to find that I had almost swallowed a large and somewhat unpleasant-tasting moth. I closed the window.

AT night, the fireflies light their lamps, flashing messages to each other through the mango groves. And sometimes one wakes up to find 30 or 40 mosquitoes looking through the netting in a bloodthirsty manner. If you are sleeping out, you will need that mosquito netting.

The road outside is lined with fine babul trees, now covered with powdery little balls of yellow blossom, filling the air with a faint scent. After the first showers a great deal of water is about, and for many miles the trees are standing in it.

The common monsoon sights along an upcountry road are often picturesque: the wide plains, with great herds of smoke-colored, delicate-limbed cattle being driven slowly home for the night, accompanied by troops of ungainly buffaloes and flocks of black, long-tailed sheep. Then you come to a pond, where the buffaloes are indulging in a full-bodied wallow, no part of them visible but the tips of their noses.

Within a few days of the first rain, the air is full of dragonflies, crossing and re-crossing, poised motionless for a moment, then darting away with that mingled grace and power that is unmatched among insects.

Dragonflies are the swallows of the insect world; their prey is the mosquito, the gnat, the midge, and the fly. These swarms, therefore, tell us that the ground's moistened surface, with its moldering leaves and sodden grass, has become one vast incubator teeming with every form of insect life.

After the monotony of a fierce sun and a dusty landscape quivering in the dim distance, one welcomes these days of mild light, green earth, and purple hills coming nearer in the transparent air.

And later on, when the monsoon begins to break up and the hills are dappled with light and shade, dark islands of cloud moving across the bright green sea, the effect on one's spirits is strangely exhilarating.

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