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 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 :
There are some moments that make you laugh out loud at the sheer dottiness of it all, such as this vignette from Shillong :
It is from Shillong that the author has to make a dash to the airport to leave a restricted area, since his permit is about to run out. To anyone who has driven in India, this fabulous description will ring a hilarious (but scary) bell :
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 cannot recommend “Chasing the Monsoon” too highly.
If you now feel like buying the book (and for Indian readers, it would make perfect monsoon/pre-monsoon reading) then nothing could be simpler. Simply click on the links below:
You can also buy this as an ebook :