Monsoon rains in Kerala – the greatest drama I’ve ever watched. They tick everything on Aristotle’s checklist for a good play. A country dried by summer and hoping on a good ending makes for a decent plot. Meet the characters. A thick blanket of menacing grey, humid air hugging skin. Gusty winds that uproot trees and power lines, darkness that comes calling even before night. And the stellar spectacle of a finale – prayers, predictions, and calculations answered in silvery drops. Stunning, stinging, and relieving all at once.
Writing this while watching blue and grey jostle in the skies, the earth still smelling of the last rain (petrichor is the word), I am reminded of the book I’m reading now. One that is as old as me, one befitting the best season in India. Alexander Frater’s Chasing the Monsoon.
“As a romantic ideal, turbulent, impoverished India could still weave its spell, and the key to it all – the colours, the moods, the scents, the subtle, mysterious light, the poetry, the heightened expectations, the kind of beauty that made your heart miss a beat – well, that remained the monsoon.”
― Alexander Frater, Chasing the Monsoon
A meteorological travelogue if there exists such a genre, the book and Frater literally chase the rains across India. Starting with the coast in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, the first spot to feel the rains. To Cherrapunji, the wettest place on earth (by average). The rains beginning outside, a storm I behold between Frater’s pages. As I bookmark them for later and dwell on the pleasures of reading, I remember.
Several miles away, walking distance from Xandari Harbour in Fort Kochi, are a few kindred who share this love for pages and words printed and written. Them souls warm the bare wooden benches at Comrade Santo Gopalan Memorial Library. Yes, comrade, we are talking Communism. And here’s a fact: It is in Kerala that the first Communist government in the world was democratically elected to power. In 1957.
This tiny room, with paint-peeled walls and a mossy scent in the air, has its doors open through the day. Welcoming with a bunch of the day’s newspapers, a wrinkled magazine or two, and the promise of conversations. Its pulse covers legends, political agendas, dialogues on the weather and the rising prices of vegetables. And just about anything else worth talking about. Not to forget periods of silence, disturbed only by the rustling of paper.
The Santo Gopalan reading room, just a few minutes from the Fort Kochi boat jetty, was born in 1968 with a handful of newspapers, but moved to its present home that opens onto the road in 1978. A fading portrait of Che Guevara tells of its Communist lineage. And, the man it is named after?
Apparently, Gopalan, came from Alleppey (home of the backwaters) to Mattancherry looking for work, became a scullion in the British Cochin Club and rose to be a butler. He was a gymnast and a body builder; his strength earned him the moniker Santo. Gopalan became a member of the Communist party and the Trade Union, championing the cause of the coir workers. His anti-establishment activities led to a confrontation with the police in 1968 and he died from injuries. Today, he is immortalized in four walls that hold within knowledge, companionship, and at its utmost functional self, shelter from the rain and sun. And, a brief respite from the ways of the world.
And, maybe, I should take Frater to the reading room. The rain in my hands and the drops wiping dust off the red oxide flooring of the room, I’d know the true spirit of this land I call home.