The above is the opening line of a poem that is frequently recited (indeed often uttered unconsciously) when the first drops of the annual rains begin to fall. I’ve been unable to establish its provenance: some have told me that it’s Tagore (see below), others that it’s not. A few people have recited it for me and although I only understand a few of the words, it sounds beautifully lyrical and evocative. I love the onomatopoeic element in the title of this post.
The word on the street throughout June was that the rains were ‘late in coming’ this year. Barsha, the rainy season, usually kicks off in early June. There was a palpable sense that everybody was waiting: awaiting the rain, awaiting a reprieve, awaiting a reward for enduring and surviving the furnaces of the preceding months. The sense of relief when the first giant drops began to fall was overwhelming.
The monsoons are a mixed blessing for Bangladesh and are both revered and feared. Because relatively little rain (20-25%) falls during the remainder of the year, agriculture will not survive if the monsoon fails. There were reports in the papers this year, in the run-up to the monsoon, stating that farmers were unable to sow their summer rice-crops in time, because of arid soil and lack of rain. The very fertility of the land depends upon the deposits carried downstream by the rivers during the rainy season. On the other hand, if the monsoons bring too much rain, flooding ensues resulting in damage to property, shortage of drinking water, spread of disease and, in the worst-case scenario, loss of human life, with devastating effects for society. Some people live in particularly vulnerable areas and, as a result, are always at the mercy of the monsoons. (You can read about my visit to one such area – the low-lying river islands, known as chars, in the Brahmaputra River – in post 55.)
The rainy season is inextricably linked with the history, agriculture, economy and culture of Bangladesh. For those fortunate enough to escape serious flooding, Barsha is a joyful time and has inspired poets, writers and songwriters. The monsoon acted as a muse for Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore (see post 29), and many other artists. In Bengali novels and short stories there is almost always some reference to the monsoon rains. Rain and romance replace our sun, sea and sand. (Although we do have ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, one of my favourite musicals.) Barsha is the inspiration and motivation for many cultural programmes and festivals throughout Bangladesh. The rains bring the promise of hope and well-being. After the deluge there is replenishment and an air of abundance countrywide: vegetation is in full bloom, rivers are bursting, and fruit is ripe and plentiful.
This year, a downpour at the end of June signalled the beginning of the rains. During the monsoon season it doesn’t rain all the time: in fact sometimes it feels as if it doesn’t rain that much at all. When it does rain however, it pours. It also rains at other times of the year. In fact, I experienced my first ‘real’ downpour at the end of March – shortly after my arrival – when I was soaked to the skin within a few seconds by heavy, warm rain. I found myself plodding gingerly through ankle-deep murky water (afraid of what might lay beneath), while on my way home to the induction flat. (During the rainy season most people wear plastic flip-flops.) I could feel warm mud squelching between my toes. The rain felt pleasant on my head and on my face, though once again I felt that I was wearing too much clothing (see post 10). Around this time too there were impressive, though slightly terrifying, thunder and lightning storms, accompanied one evening by freakish hailstones the size of golf balls. One particular electrical storm stands out. On that evening I lay on my bed in the dark, with the curtains open, and watched one of the most spectacular sound and light shows I have ever seen. The lightening came, not in flashes, but in brilliant sheets of grey-blue illumination that lasted for a few seconds, revealing a spooky-looking neighbourhood, all the more so because the electricity was out. Deafening peals of crashing thunder followed, before giving way to a volley of giant hailstones. I wouldn’t like to have been caught outdoors, but from the comfort of my bunk it was incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring. It had been a long time since I had witnessed an electric storm like this one. The rains that eventually followed were of extraordinary force, yet only a curtain-raiser for the real thing. I love the way the air is cooled and freshened by storms like this one, albeit for a short time only.
With the arrival of Barsha, old memories come flooding back. I clearly remember the first time I experienced the monsoons: it was in Varanasi in India and I was caught completely off guard. It’s a long time ago now and generally my memory is not great, but if I close my eyes, I can replay that entire scene. Despite not thinking about it for years, I remember every detail: how frighteningly fast the water rose, almost to my waist; the splashes of colour in saris and stalls; the smell in the air as the first drops fell; the thunderous sounds of water falling all around me, from enormous rain drops, to transparent sheets of water tumbling from roofs, to vigorous streams suddenly bursting from pipes; the laughing, leaping and gleeful yelling from saturated onlookers, their faces upturned and their arms outstretched welcoming the rain; the way the water glistened on their brown skin; the delicious feel of that warm rain on my own parched skin. I was utterly transfixed. I was the only white person in this picture, and one of the few who had attempted to shelter, in vain, under a canopy. I felt absolutely powerless, exhilarated and petrified all at once. Wading through the water-logged street afterwards was like wading through a fast flowing river, and a highly polluted one at that. I could do without the macabre memories of colliding with sewage and swimming rats and other unidentified objects.
In Bangladesh my experiences have not been as intense, though unforgettable nonetheless. I’ve only had one experience that comes close to that in Varanasi, as described above, and that was at the end of July. There had been a thunder-storm and rain throughout the night. The following morning it was dark and still raining, and when I looked out my window I saw that the streets were flooded. I felt like I did as a child waking up to snow: I couldn’t wait to go out. Looking down from the balcony, I could see a sea of umbrellas. Business men in suits carrying briefcases had their trousers rolled up to their knees and were walking nonchalantly, though carefully, through the water. Rickshaws and CNGs were on alert because it wasn’t possible now to see the obstacles to be avoided. There was more traffic than is usual on ‘our’ road. There seemed to be a lot of the white, private mini-buses that bring certain employees to work: perhaps they had been diverted due to the floods?
My journey to work was a slow one, but very exciting. The city of Dhaka had become a watery Atlantis overnight. People were even friendlier than usual and seemed to be delighted by my delight. The rickshaw-puller (wallah) gave me a sheet of plastic to cover my knees, and I held on tightly, in case we unexpectedly dropped into a hole. We had to make many U-turns and occasionally a wheel got stuck. The wallah would dismount and dislodge his rickshaw. For much of the time, I was sitting in the rickshaw while the wallah waded through the water guiding me along where the road ought to be. When we finally got to Mirpur Road, I eventually hailed a CNG to take me to Agargaon, but we ran into floods again when we turned into the side road that leads to the NILG (my workplace). The CNG-driver said that it was too dangerous to go any further and advised me to turn back. But I had got this far, and I could see the occasional rickshaw navigating the floods further along the road. So I waited……and waited……and eventually a rickshaw came along. The road was buried beneath a sea of brown water, the colour of milky tea: everything looked new and unfamiliar. At one stage it was as if I was in a boat. I was sitting up on the back of the rickshaw with my knees drawn up to my chin, and the seat (where my feet now were) was underwater. Children were swimming alongside waving at me, shaking my hand, splashing me and laughing. Some were hauling drift nets through the water: I’m not sure what they were hoping to find. Opposite the NILG, there is a community living in a cluster of houses constructed of bamboo, and I could see people standing around in the floods amongst their cows, their houses flooded. Incredibly, they were all laughing and waving. I will never forget this animated journey through waterlogged Dhaka.
Getting home that evening was more difficult than usual though, and I started to worry as I waited, and waited, outside the NILG for a rickshaw or CNG to take me through the floods. The road was unusually quiet. I tried walking in every possible direction but I kept running into high floods. Eventually, a rickshaw approached carrying a passenger. It stopped and a very kind woman called Dilruba invited me to share her rickshaw. She was wearing a veil so I could only see her eyes: she told me that she was an English teacher and living in the ‘colony’, a housing complex for government employees in Agargaon. She got me through the floods to a CNG stand further along. Finally, after another long wait, I successfully hailed a CNG.
Unfortunately, I discovered later that this day had resulted in disaster for many of my fellow residents in Dhaka. The UK Mail Online reported that at least 6 people had died and thousands more had been stranded in their flooded homes, following the heaviest rain to fall in Dhaka in 53 years. There was widespread disruption throughout the city: the deaths were caused when live power lines snapped. The article stated that 13 inches of rain fell in a 12-hour period, the most rain in a single day since 1956. I have included a couple of photographs from Reuters that accompanied this article in my photograph selection below.
Unsurprisingly, children love the downpours and floods. I have seen them splashing about in puddles, standing under torrents of water falling from rain pipes, soaked through, shrieking happily. One day after work I was standing under an awning at the NILG, watching the rain bucketting down. I was laughing at a little boy dancing in the rain in the distance. He came closer then and put on a magnificent performance for me. I would say he was no more than five or six years old. He was dressed in little black pants that were too short for him and flared at the ends, and a matching black shirt in the same shiny material. I’ve never seen any child dressed like that before or since. He was soaked through and his clothes were stuck to his body. He danced like a little Michael Jackson, laughing and splashing throughout. He was completely adorable. Another very surreal few moments in Bangladesh, and a fitting tribute to Michael Jackson too, who sadly passed away a few days ago.
I’ve put some photographs together of the day I described above, i.e. my journey to work on 28th July 2009. All photos are from this date except the first and last ones. The latter – no. 31 – is from a day I spent in Old Dhaka. When I went to get transport home in the evening there were floods, though I hadn’t noticed excessive rain throughout the day.
(Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work. 😦 I have replaced them with links to a web album until such time as I can find a better solution.)
Click on image below and then on the top-left image (31 photographs). Enjoy!
For more on the serious consequences of flooding in Bangladesh see post 53.