Friday, July 10, 2020

Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater

One billion cubic feet of snow fell in Boston during the winter of 2015. There was so much snow that the city just quit plowing alleys after a while and carved out paths instead. You an igloo. After that bruising winter, I remember how excited we all got when we saw the first blade of grass. When my in-laws visited us that spring, she asked why Americans got so super enthusiastic about spring. How to tell her about the snow? The cold? The numbing winds? Instead I said, “Imagine how you feel when the monsoon breaks after that insanely hot summer. It’s much the same feelings that spring brings about.” 
Even more so than spring, monsoon in India is tinged with awe and plenty of romance: the songs, the slow-roasted corn sold on the streets, the mini paper boats that children float on those sudden rivulets.
A native of Mumbai, known for its biting wind-driven monsoons, I was excited by the premise of this book: chasing the first monsoon rains all across India. Frater, an Englishman, starts from the very southern state of Kerala and moves north on to Goa, Mumbai, a huge jump to Delhi, Kolkata and on to Cherrapunji, the wettest place on earth. 
The travelogue that emerges is witty and engaging told with generous doses of empathy. I especially loved the sections on Trivandrum and Cherra. Because the author has to chase after the breaking of the monsoon across the subcontinent, he doesn’t linger. Which is a pity because after the initial joy comes the weary dampness that seeps into your very bones, which too would have made for great reading and a more measured view of the live-giving rains.
It’s hard to ignore the white colonial gaze here. Yes, it takes an agonizing two weeks and a painful walk through the notorious Indian bureaucracy for Frater to receive permission to visit Cherrapunji but only a native will recognize how easy it is otherwise for the author to lean on his whiteness to get access. At one point, Frater describes how Herman Kisch, a British Civilian officer, staved off devastating famine in India. While indeed commendable, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at Frater’s labeling it as “a triumph of humanitarian engineering and one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed on India by the British.” Sure, that might be true but the lack of context is glaring.
All told, this is still a lively and quirky account that’s a revealing slice of India and its people. Tastes better when consumed with samosa and chai.
For the record, my favorite capture of monsoon in Mumbai still remains this Bollywood song from the ‘70s. Moushumi Chatterjee in a sari and Amitabh Bachchan in a suit (!) and the sheer abandon of giving in to the rain. Be still, my heart.
Editor's Note: This review is a departure from my usual 100-word capsules.

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