It has been a few years since I re-re-read Alexander Frater’s “Chasing the Monsoon”, one of those books that so perfectly captures India that it the book is, well, perfect.
(And yes, what a shockingly inadequate sentence that is.)
I loved this book the first time I read it, when I was fairly new to India.
A couple of decades later, this book is every bit as marvellous and funny and oh-so-beautifully written. A truly sensational piece of writing.
But this time, my 3rd (or is it 4th?) reading of “Chasing the monsoon” made me very nostalgic, for I fear that the India Mr. Frater describes in such luminous prose is slowly but surely disappearing.
The India of 1987 when he travelled across India following the monsoon was a slower, gentler paced India than the country where I now live circa 2014. India in 1987 was a country of poor telecommunications (oh, how I remember those days…how well…) of erratic internal flights (oh, how I remember those days…how well…) but of a chattiness and friendliness and generous warmth and slight dottiness that I loved and adored, and now miss.
Mr. Frater travels from Kanyakumari to Cherrapunji, the famed wettest place in earth (though it was dry as a bone when we visited a few years ago) tracking the monsoon as it makes its slow and life-giving way across India.
Mr. Frater wears his obvious scholarship very lightly, seamlessly weaving into his picaresque story snippets of history, lots of personal memories from an extraordinary childhood in the New Hebrides, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of climatology.
He is a man who travels lightly and well. The kind of man one would love for a travel companion. Observant, affectionate, ready to go with whatever flow takes him gradually across India. He clearly loves India, and even the bad moments (usually bureaucracy) bear witness to a resigned shrug of the shoulders and an acceptance.
And what a fabulous cast of characters we meet as we wander across India in Mr. Frater’s company. He meets and chats with and describes people so well, that I was often sorry when his travels took him on and away from such characters who positively leap out of the pages.
My latest reading of this book took place in my home, Delhi, in that week in late June when you pray for the rains. 29 June (the “traditional” day for the onset) came and went, with only a couple of showers, and just as Mr. Frater read the met reports assiduously in 1987, so I found myself reading my 2014 versions with a little more interest than usual, comparing the language.
2014 not looking good this late June, what with the monsoon being in a tailspin…
I have said in other book reviews that you don’t necessarily have to be in a particular place to enjoy a book, but if you are in situ, then the pleasure is heightened, and the fact that I am languishing in hot, powercut-y Delhi, all of us waiting for the monsoon, made “Chasing the Monsoon ” absolutely perfect.
There are too many wonderful encounters to detail them all, but I do have my favourites, such as the naked sadhu who made a century for the West Bengal Water Board. This encounter in the shimmering heat of Deeg in Rajasthan is delicious and utterly delightful:
“The heat haze made them wraith-like but, as they drew closer, their shimmering forms were slowly transformed into a small boy and a naked man. He wore nothing but an expression of lordly indifference, and he halted beside us without appearing to notice we were there. He was tall and well fed, with his hair tied in a topknot and a truncheon-sized member hanging halfway to his knees…”
Before the parties go their separate ways, Mr. Frater is told
“…the boy says his master once played cricket for the West Bengal Water Board. He made a century against a Slum Clearance Office team from Dhaka, but why he is telling us this I do not know. For some reason it is still important to the sadhu. And now I think we should give them some money and go. You must give it to the boy, not him…”
As I handed the boy some rupees the holy man spoke again.
“One hundred and two not out,” he said. “Three sixes, two fours.” The he turned abruptly and continued striding on down the road.
There are some moments that make you laugh out loud at the sheer dottiness of it all, such as this vignette from Shillong :
“We motored past a spot where a beer lorry had crashed a year earlier. Bill said so many passers-by had thrown themselves down to drink from the puddles, and in such quantities, that the senseless figures littering the highway made it look like a battleground.”
This is a marvellous book, written with elegance, and I finished it with sadness. I didn’t want the quest to be over. So it is fitting that one of the very last people we meet in India in Mr. Frater’s company is 75 year old Tom Richmond, who came to India in 1933 and never left :
“I said goodbye to my friends. Tom said, “My great-grandfather was George Richmond, the painter. Did I mention old George? He was famous, quintessentially the most English of artists, something to do with the way he used light.” He shook my hand. “Well, old cock, have a gargle for me when you get back. It’s summer now, isn’t it? Have you been to Buttermere? There used to be a nice little pub there. Sitting outside in the evening you could hear just about all the birds in England.” And then I saw there were tears in his eyes.
I cannot recommend “Chasing the Monsoon” too highly.