In The Purananuru, among the earliest literary texts of Classical Tamil and one of Sangam’s eight anthologies, there is an extraordinary poem that compares ghee dripping with “fried meat” with “raindrops falling on a lake of water”. The next sentence goes a little further and tells us that “cow’s milk” is poured into white cups full of meat to ensure greater epicurean joy.
Stop at these mind-blowing verses. About 2000 years ago, a poet drew a picture of meat, cow’s milk and raindrops. It was not an exotic expression but found a place in both our sacred and ancient heritage. To understand what it tells about our divinity, consider this mention of rain in an episode of Tulsidas Ramcharitmanas. Ravan abducted Sita. Terrified, the two brothers wander in the jungle. Since his beloved disappeared, the older brother spends his day teaching the younger the values of devotion, renunciation and ethics. As the sky darkens one day, Ram’s voice suddenly changes. The most stoic of men, he looks up longingly and says, “Look at Lakshman, the peacocks are dancing in the sight of the clouds. Under the spell of the falling drops, Maryada Purushottam, the supremely contained being, speaks the words that reveal what he has always carefully hidden. “Ghan ghamand nabh garjat ghora, priya hin darpat man mora (As the clouds break the sky, bereft of my beloved, my heart trembles with fear),” Ram said to his brother.
These verses were composed at a time when the gods were not separated from literature and when the representation of the divine in multiple forms was considered neither blasphemous nor contrary to a “profane” aesthetic. The rains touched and moved everyone, even turning Ram into a tragic and lonely lover.
Kalidas embodied such a lover in his Meghdootam (The Cloud Messenger), among the greatest love poems of all time. Few people know that he composed this poem in the hills of Ramgiri in northern Chhattisgarh, which was to witness the Naxal uprising several centuries later. Yaksha, the protagonist of Meghdootam, is actually an imitation of Kalidas. In the poem, Yaksha works at the court of Kuber, the ruler of the mythical kingdom of Alka located in the Himalayas. After Kuber sends Yaksha into exile for dereliction of duty, he wanders the countryside away from his beloved. Incidentally, Kalidas who was working in the Ujjain kingdom of Chandragupta Vikramaditya was also forced to leave the city due to some reasons. Living in exile, the poet created the exiled hero Yaksha, who asks Megha (cloud) to carry his message to his beloved. Among the many poems on rains and clouds, as well as on the theme of love-messenger, the Megha of Kalidas remains perhaps the most famous and recurring image.
It can be recorded with some sadness that few people in Ramgarh, a town adjoining the Ramgiri Hills, now realize that a classic of world literature was composed in their neighborhood. A love verse in Brahmi script is also inscribed on a cave in the hills, in addition to several other frescoes, indicating that before Kalidas, many others frequented these caves for their artistic creation.
Rains are perhaps the most accessible and widely used motif in literature. Since the rains offer an astonishing range of states from light drizzle to massive flooding, from lush greenery to excruciating humidity, they have come to symbolize emotions ranging from joy, melancholy and longing. to redemption and resurrection.
The metaphor of the rains and Kalidas takes on a completely different form in modern literature, bringing together existential questions and guilt, especially in Mohan Rakesh’s play. Ashad Ka Ek Din (A day in the rainy season). Kalidas of Rakesh is a village poet, in love with a village girl Mallika. After writing extraordinary love poems, pastoral poet Kalidas receives an offer to join the king’s assembly and become a court poet. Unable to resist material temptations, Kalidas leaves his village and his lover to launch his downfall as a human. While it’s raining in the Meghdootam were a harbinger of hope, in Rakesh’s play they appear at a decisive moment, often laden with grief and despondency. The glorious beloved of Meghdootam becomes a lost woman in Rakesh’s room. As the poet retreats into his own desires, Rakesh asks an incisive question through the motif of the rains: is artistry always in conflict with a desire for fame?
Mohan Rakesh gave a new take on Kalidas and his exile as it became one of the most performed Hindi plays over the past six decades.
Hindi poet Nagarjuna also challenged Meghdoot’s metaphor in his wonderful poem Badal Ko Ghirte Dekha Hai (I saw the clouds gather)’. Calling Kuber and Yaksha and others “imaginary” characters, he recorded his vivid experience of the bursting clouds on the Kailash Parvata.
There is another rain, less written, but more solitary and hypnotic. Raindrops that arrive with the snow, when the skies decide to rain down their love in two distinct forms. While most of us have experienced winter rains that bring a damp chill to the city, only those who have lived at higher elevations know the joy of snow and rain caressing our faces simultaneously. A rare moment of marital bliss, leaving you unable to choose between the two.
The Chinese poet Yiyan Han writes in ‘Snow in the rain poem’ about a time when flying snow “disrupts the footsteps of the rain”, with a competition between them as to who will be the first “kissed by the earth”.
We often want to believe that those who love the rain and who leave everything behind to get soaked in the first drizzle are homeless people, people in search of shelter, who find their only hope in the sky. Perhaps it is for such people that William Faulkner wrote, “How many times have I lay in the rain on a strange roof, thinking of my home”?
Now think of those expecting both forms of precipitation, snow and rain. That’s what the mountains do to you. They intensify the feeling of homelessness. The more powerful the mountains, the more humble and lonely you begin to feel, before one evening snow showers arrive to make you the chosen resident of the cosmos.