Sandip Roy: Memories of Monsoons Long Gone

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Every year, monsoons sweep through South Asia and kill thousands of people. But the savage storms also offer lush beauty before the waters recede. Commentator Sandip Roy reminisces on the torrential rains of his childhood in Calcutta.


There have been more heavy rains in Bombay, or Mumbai, and thousands of people have been evacuated in that part of India. Floods and landslides from the annual monsoon killed nearly 1,000 people in the region last week, but schools in Mumbai reopened yesterday. Telephone service has been restored and trains have begun running again in the city. Commentator Sandip Roy remembers the gentler monsoons of his childhood in Calcutta.


With its thunder and lightning and sheets of torrential rain, the monsoon is its own season in India, next to the usual summer, winter, spring and fall. Farmers watch out anxiously for the monsoon every year to figure out their rice harvest. But for a school boy like me, the monsoons really meant the possibility of an unexpected rainy day holiday, the first dark clouds slowly piling up and blotting out the sun, the tremor in the leaves of the khodam(ph) tree outside my window. And then the clouds burst with rain descending like a curtain.

At any time during the three months of the monsoons, we'd go to bed hearing the patter of falling rain and hope that when we got up, the streets would be flooded with rising muddy water. In the morning, we'd make little boats from ruled sheets of school paper and float them along the street.

The vegetable sellers would crouch under blue tarps on front porches while shoppers braved swirling muddy waters, their saris and trousers rolled up to their knees.

Across the city, cars and taxis were stranded as the water rose around them. Sometimes the rain would be done in 20 minutes; sometimes it was an unrelenting downpour for hours, battering against the window, springing leaks in our ceiling. Rickshaws were in demand, the wiry men plodding down the water-logged streets, plastic sheets wrapped around them.

Of course, even as a kid, I knew monsoons were not all about blooming khodam flowers. When the water receded, usually after a day, the streets were littered with ribbons of sewage, buildings collapsed, and people broke their legs in the gaping manholes left open to drain the street.

It is that same monsoon, the same torrential rains that have killed almost a thousand people this year in Mumbai. Friends tell me of being holed up in their apartments for days, the sound of rain bringing sleepless dread instead of an unexpected holiday. Some had to walk for hours in darkness through slush and muck, sometimes in chest-high water, to get home. They watched amazed as divers rescued stranded people in the suburbs.

The romance of the rain is gone, replaced by mounds of festering sewage, bloated dead cows and shantytowns reduced to rubble and rags. This year, my rainy day holidays seemed the romantic, wishy-washy nostalgia of an immigrant. The season of the monsoon is powerful and deadly, nature reminds us. This year, we are just little paper boats in its wake.

WERTHEIMER: Commentator Sandip Roy is host of "UpFront" on member station KALW in San Francisco.

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