How we experience the rain shapes our perception of it and how it affects us, writes Suprabha Seshan. Open yourself to it, and it may change your world.
We who’ve known the monsoon rain in Vayalnad shall for ever feel its waters pocking our dark bodies. Hard rain, day after day, month after month, permeates our thoughts and dissolves our skin, as it does the forest where we live. This rain runs through every pore and every niche, every rootlet and vein.
This monsoon, another kind of monsoon, is mostly a memory now, but one that shall live as long as we do, as long as there are Paniya people here, and Kurchiyas, and the tales of early migrant settlers; as long as there are men and women who sing its song.
We are syncretic with rain. We can be called a rain culture. It’s no secret among us that it is these mosses and trees, these lianas and orchids, these dark-leaved glowing canopies gusting with the wind, who call the rain in from the sea.
In Vayalnad, we anticipate eight months of rain in a year. The two monsoon periods last for six months, bracketed by many weeks of local thundershowers. The onset of the wet period is marked by cobra lilies, its end by the fallen petals of Impatiens flowers. Six hundred centimetres of rain can be expected.
During the southwest monsoon, from June to September, the nights are exhilarating, hammered by wind and savage dreams. Streams swell and leeches stalk on trails through snapping forests. Tree frogs multiply. Invisible cicadas whine deafeningly through the thick air, shrieking at the sudden arrival of hard rain.
By November, the northeast monsoon gives way to sun and warmth with short spells of thunderous rain that brightly coloured
butterflies dance in. Tracks disappear as leaves fall from tall trees that turn pink, crimson and rusty red. In this dry season, all seasons converge. There is leaf fall, and new growth, and flowers and fruit.
The accepted and current name for this district in the Western Ghats of Kerala is Wayanad. It is derived, some people say, from vayalnad, meaning land of fields. Others say it comes from vayunad, from the land of winds. Normally I use all three interchangeably. However, here I’ve used vayalnad, mostly because I like the sound. It’s closest to rain.
There is a near-constant amount of water on the planet across geologic time. It moves, changes form: if not within you, it is under you, around you, above you. Seven billion human bodies store over 200 billion litres of water. These too are part of the planet’s hydrosphere, the combined mass of water found on, under and over the surface of the planet. Your eyes make you believe that there is an inside and an outside. But close them, relax, feel the ebb and flow; feel the rocking of your mind as you fall asleep. In and out are just convenient mental devices, for the skin of your body knows otherwise. There can be no damming of this water.
They who know us, know the rain. We who call the rain, know the sea. Those who know rivers, call the clouds. We are mist, we are river, we are moss and human. The sea knows the rivers which carry our waters thence. So it is that the sea knows this Vayalnad.
The streamlet from this little hill gathers along with countless other rivulets to join the Kabini puzha and then the Kaveri, until it reaches the sea on the other side of the peninsula. Every person on its way drinks a molecule of me, and of trees and other creatures of this forest. What a loop of water we conspire to be!
When I think of resilience I think of rain. I believe that as long as there is water on the planet, as long as the planet spins, it will rain. On land, the cooling effect of a mantle of plants in the path of the wind culls the rain from the clouds that stream in from the ocean during the monsoon. The Russian scientists Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov have proposed that it isn’t temperature difference between land and sea that drives wind patterns, as conventional meteorology concludes. It is the presence of forests which breathe faster during summer that causes sea-to-land air currents to form. They call this breathing action of the forest which moves the rain a “biotic pump”. Their theory, once controversial, is slowly gaining ground.
But they warn: if you remove the forests, you will remove the rain. So long as there are resilient plants, there will be rain. As long as there is rain, there will be the biosphere. The resilience of one leads to the resilience of the other: an ecological tautology.
In order to survive the painful and unceasing awareness that the planet is going down, I fashion little stories, born of little observations from this land where I live and extrapolate to the rest of the world. For instance: plants create an air-conditioning effect on a once barren hillside; their transpiration creates a little cycle of mist and coolness and seeps of groundwater which lead to moss and other plants and more transpiration, building up to local thunder bursts. A forest grows over a very long period of time. Life begets more life. I believe our future lies in these refugia, these remains of wild nature. Here we will nurture each other, nurture the water, as we do the plants and the children and the forest, and this culture of the rain.
“Ende koottare, mimikree cheyyam.” (Pretend you are the rain.) You are these raindrops that hammer so hard, your sounds can be heard from afar, a million leaves thrashing the drums of your descent. You are the trees receiving this rain, breaking the flow, harnessing its tide, guiding it down to the leaf litter below. You are the twigs, the branches and boles, the soaring buttresses of trees where epiphytes grow. You are the lichen, the orchid, the fern cloaking the trees, soaking the rain, absorbing its fall.
Now pretend you are the rain dancing. Soil receives you, revels in you, absorbs you, as you pour down boles into the ground, further and further seeping, running, gurgling though root and rock, to bank to stream, to river to sea. You are the gleaming drop, perfect hydrant bursting upon cuticle, slipping down drip tips to humus: the musty mother of all beings in this forest. You are the surging sea water racing on a wind powered by the sun, spun by the planet’s Coriolis force; thunderous, savage, mighty, unstoppable airborne sea. You are the shafts of sunshine intermingled with greens of every hue, the shifting shapes of light and water and air and chlorophyll. You are the flow, the fall, the crashing and the howling of a rainforest in the monsoon.
We are the rain. We are all things between and beneath that looming thunderhead. Here it comes.
Today, the cicadas begin thrumming at dawn, earlier than usual. Rain has been imminent since. In the blue-grey light filtering through the forest canopy, a whistling thrush appears, hopping on the trail. He stops to sing. Fluted notes carry far, the intervals impossible to imitate, sweet, so very sweet. He hops closer to where I sit on the stone wall. Large leaves of ginger plants dip to occasional drops. Clouds move grimly over the valley, their low black bellies bulging with rain.
Now pretend you are a tavala, a luminous loving he-frog, a Rana, singing your heart out in the rain. You are not alone, there are ten thousand others in this forest. Chrew-chrew-chrew-chrew-chrwack, Rana, sweet Rana, sitting on a lily leaf asking for love.
Pretend you are a gap in the rain. A woman walks with a dog. A pond, quiet at first, comes to life as she bends down, pauses, is still. Mating grasshoppers flick past her nose, mating frogs chirrup on the lily leaf. Large brindled ants in pairs on a mossy wall, orange-tip butterflies flick dancing, fat bluebottles bumping their blue bottoms on lily pads. Picture-winged flies skate like helicopters landing. Rana peeks out. Chrwack-chrwack.
Now pretend you are a karinkorangu, a Nilgiri langur, a bundle of black fur swinging, hurling through this light-edged leaf world, now under rain, unfathomable. You hoot and clamber through the breaking boughs, as winds come racing in through these creaking giants.
Mongee, we cry in joy, as we jump down the bank into the undergrowth, unmindful of wet, the leeches, the bank. Everybody, sooner or later, creeps through the bush here under the gaze of the mighty ones, feeling the bark with roughened hands, hewn from years of jungle life. We are shape-shifters of the jungle, now human, now beast.
I stood looking in from the verge when I called the she-langur and clucked and hooted. I watched her turning her ebony face, her perfectly chiselled miniature face, delicate, impassive, before bounding on to rest on a bough, legs crossed, toes hooked, arms loose, our lady of leisure. Then I bounded behind and below her, in a rush of green and brown and wind and cold straight through my hammering heart, eager and happy, giving the woods the weight and size of my straggling limbs to match her joy within the trees.
When my body, my trunk and my branches were rooted and firm, free and secure, my arms a languid leaping form, light but strong; when I was a langur upon the tree, and then the tree under the langur; I crashed through the verge, keeping pace under her, thinking bush, thinking branch, thinking slope and weight, thinking food as I spied a pale pink mushroom. What am I, Ammey, swinging simian spelling the forest with breath and limbs and soul?
Today I’m on a hill, asleep at dawn. I dream of Vladimir Nabokov and my problems with taxonomy. I am lying between some dogs and tussocks of grass.
Nabokov is standing at a podium, writing, his work laid out like a jigsaw puzzle. I am a collector of humans and I’m there to collect Nabokov. I’m writing a “Taxonomy of Human Beings” for collection, conservation and research. I am there to meet him, my book of notes heavy in my pocket. As I approach the podium, my book gets heavier and heavier, and finally so heavy that I can’t walk. I am weighted down, pinned to the ground. The book opens out and there is a card index and an electronic database and a folded map of humanity, which flutters out. It opens and becomes bigger and bigger and grows into a winged creature full of veins. At the end of each is a shard of world truth, numbered one, two, three, and so on. I tell him I need writers for my conservation project and I am there to collect him, to pin him down at the end of one of the veins.
He laughs at me and says, “I work first vertically, then sedentarily and then supine. You are an idiot woman for thinking I will do only the animals.”
I awaken to sun on the hill. Twelve fairy bluebirds, spiky golden heads of a thousand stalks of grass, the wind singing through it. Dreams open into the clouds this morning. Furry grass blades play with dog rumps and a human face, filtering the pre-monsoon dawn light onto brown skin. The morning news is raucous. I lie on the hill, curled up and dream-heavy. Eyes meet patterns dissolving, a single flickering stroke of light through one side of a leaf. Stroke becomes coin becomes green, shiny leaf skin. I think I shall work on the taxonomy of leaf light. I’ll work exclusively supine, lying skin to skin with a grass stalk in the quiet rain.
Strange things happen in this forest. A bug sucks and then pees. Droplets of bright water shoot out of its bum and fall rain-like on the forest floor. I saw it today with my own eyes. Orange and black bug on a Heliconia leaf, shadow-spangled, tumbling in the gusting wind, peeing.
It rains even when it’s not raining in the jungle. The bugs are peeing.
I sat with R during lunch today to talk about rain. He is of the Kurchiya people, a hunter-cultivator tribe who have been in Vayalnad for a couple of hundred years, brought as fighters by the Malabar chieftain Pazhassi Raja to stand against the East India Company’s invasion of these mountains. There are tales within tales to be told about these rebellions, the alliances and counter-alliances between Hyder Ali and the English, between the English and the rajahs, and the rajahs with the Nairs and the Kurchiyas and the Mullukurumbas. Fierce battles were fought in the forest where I live.
R’s descriptions of rain during his childhood are anecdotal evidence that patterns have shifted. Now the rain and the dry period are no longer distinct in the way they used to be. Everything is topsy-turvy; there is a merging of the seasons.
He told me an old Kurchiya saying for hard rain: “Agathu vechcha kaalu poratthu vekkulle.” (Feet placed indoors, do not place outdoors.) Then he added that a real hard rain is chendikoda maya, or “drummed rain”.
He said Kadars had lived in this forest. There is evidence of their presence. His forefathers spoke about them. He added that the Kadars had undergone vamshanaasham (extinction). I told him that there are Kadars elsewhere. He reiterated that the Kadars of this forest became extinct. He didn’t know how this had happened. We wondered if they had been slaughtered outright, or if they’d caught some disease. I said there are many ways to destroy a people, like spreading small pox wrapped in blankets (given as gifts), or through slavery, or displacement. It later struck me that there is indeed such a thing as an extinction of a people in a place, if we recognise that there is a uniqueness to every people in every place; that the Kadars of this forest are different from the Kadars of the Thrissur forests. And so it must be recorded that the Kadars of this forest are extinct.
Ecological literacy is a term coined to describe the ability to read or understand the natural environment in which a person lives, an ability that requires systems of recognition based on categorisations that derive meaning from the lives and behaviours of non-humans in the environment. It is now widely accepted that this cognition of nature is as varied as the landscapes and cultures of this planet.
It is a fact that people here in this forest read, understand and act upon the natural world in different ways. The Paniyas notice things that the Kurchiyas don’t, the Kurchiyas notice things that settlers don’t, and the settlers see signs that urban-born naturalists don’t, who notice things that I don’t, and of course, langurs, frogs and praying mantises note things that humans don’t. Furthermore, infants, children, men and women (with their gendered lenses) have various “systems” of attending to things, based on their enculturations and experiences. Thus there are many scripts, and many alphabets, and a mind-boggling sea of languages, all in one place. The human tribes of Vayalnad, and the thousands of plant and animal species of this same place, all recognise and understand different things, and yet conspire to cohabit in a meaningful way, to create the culture and meta-culture of this place. Perhaps I could be forgiven then, for being overwhelmed by the myriad tales and languages I hear and “read” on a daily basis, from following the tracks of countless lives lived in this one place, tracks left across spiralling loops of time.
I’ve been 22 years in this forest. I find “reality” becomes more complicated: richer, fuller, many-voiced, polyphrenic (many-brained), even syncretic. Some time ago, I began to discard my species lists and science-speak, not so much in an act of rebellion, but rather, just by absorbing the speeches of others and from relating with different humans and non-humans who note different things. Over time, my own personal baggage, my mental frames of yore; in other words, my habitual ways, became less fixed. I’ve undoubtedly had more fun this way, and also found more meaning, just by falling into a convivial and inclusive thought and speech.
We are entrained to different ways of seeing born from different kinds of experiencing. My fear is that this diversity of human experience is itself in danger of being driven extinct, of becoming subject to vamshanaasham. My work is to be a bulwark, like Pazhassi Raja, against this flattening and forgetting, through a community that actively sustains and cultivates both mind diversity and biodiversity.
It is evident to all old peoples anywhere that plants can heal the world, if only we let them be.
I fantasise of another land, without evil, without hubris, that will be born from the debris of the old one.
It is evident that Earth, this ancient and humiliated Earth, begs to bear life. She is collapsing from the ceaseless gouging of her skin, her organs, and yet she is full, still fertile and carrying.
Meanwhile, the Paniyas sing their migration song and go to the dying river to catch the ailing snails. They dance in that slow shuffle dance that they have danced since the beginning of time—shuffle shuffle step, shuffle shuffle step—playing their cheeni and thudi, which from afar resounds with grief, a grief that, to me, mourns the slaying of this world.
From Africa they came (paleoanthropologists say), the first people of this land. Watching them catch fish in the stream, I feel I’m witness to an ancient and timeless action: this is how they’ve caught fish for aeons.
I see them walking around Gondwanaland, eating river snails and river fish, sea fish and sea snails, sea crabs and land crabs, leaves and roots, walking the dry, windy coast of one peninsula and then the wet, windy coast of another, the craggy sides of creaking continents; walking and walking and walking, these old peoples. They skirt forests and rivers and mountains of granite, sampling the abundant fruit of rainfed lands, this monsooned land, these old winds bursting with rain hitchhiking to the green mountains across the vast water: sky rivers meeting earth rivers, rushing thence to the uninterrupted ocean.
According to blind old Kangan of the Paniyas of this forest where I live, this is how the Paniyas came here, how they came to be:
Manakottu uthappe, Choru podi kettipoya
Illathirimanjathu poyi, Kunyukuttine uruvakki thiricha
Arenathageku aanum ponnum,
Arenameetheku angaleyum pengalum aayi
Adunthoo ellarum kandarinjum ketarinjum,
Namma volichattu kandey
“In a jackfruit leaf, he bundled up his rice and went
To Illathirimanjam he went, where he met the children’s mother
They were sister and brother, as they were also male and female
From there everyone came to know, our light was seen.”
Adunthoo patthu kulathuna adaara thirikaan, Pathu moonave moonathi
Pathu makkaku nadapa naadu, Ilapa tanalu, Pudipa kombu
Enni adakuva boodu muthachi
Ketti kalippa kaavum kallum
Achi adakuva kulavum kunyi kuttiyum
“Then ten families came forth, from the next ten ancestors male and female
Land to walk for all these ten, shade to sit, branch to hold
To comfort themselves, a sacred place
To make and play, some groves and deities
Uthappa and Uthamma [first father and mother] gave these to their children.”
Old blind Kangan died a few days ago, taking with him this old song. Young Paniyas today don’t sing much anymore. What irony that his song should be sung into this machine, held in the hand of a wayward naturalist hunting for stories, like other baubles from the forest. I asked the children of Kangan’s hamlet recently if they know the Paniya migration song, to which they replied, sorrowfully, “No”.
I live with gardeners who serve the wild plants of these mountains. It can be said they serve the forests, and thus the rain and all the places all this rain goes to. Over the years I’ve tried to understand why they do what they do. I offer here a synopsis of our never-ending conversations on the tricky subject of the future.
One friend: “I went to the karachchi grass. I went to the mala, to the puzha and the koda. I went to the marten, the trogon and the crested serpent eagle. I went first to the night light and then to the dawn light, to talk about what we leave them when we die. I think about this all the time.”
Me: “We need to write a long list of instructions to the children coming after us, if there be children anywhere on earth. What will they do? How will they live? When you and I die, you there on your side of the hill, and me here on mine, what will remain?”
A second friend: “Can I leave this hill full of flowers? Can I leave it full of spores? Can I leave it ripe and ready, bursting in every direction, fecund for another 500 years? Can I leave the garden to the forest? Can I leave the forest to the rain, and the rain to the forest? The people to the land, and the river to the trees? Can I leave the elephants to the vayanavu, the cobra to the mound, the land to the bees?”
Me: “I know when the last breath is gone from your body there will be dreams migrating, secrets flying, from one valley to the other. Secret forest, secret garden, secret spores, secret wind, secret waters full of secret blessings. I know your love, I watch its action all the time. But not only do the plants speak with us. The breath of life with which we began, the quadrillions of bodies born to this world, work furiously, as machines accumulate all around.”
A third friend: “This is why I do what I do today. I think about all the people of this place, my plant friends, my animal friends, my river friends and others. And the slivers of time left, they get narrower. A decade is one quarter the time it was when I was born.”
And this sanctum? It will flourish for a time, but not for long without its humans. Sanctuaries are inseparable not only from plants and animals, from water, light, fungi and soil, but also from humans.
Here I declare my philosophy: the merging of bodies and minds in the way of the wild, where symbiotic life—those long-term interdependencies between different species—yields syncretic life; in other words, together-thinking between different species, peoples, entities, groups and ecologies; where endless diversity leads to endless possibilities for all, including you and me.
Merge minds with the rain, take root in the land, and see. When you enter the wild like this, you gain not just a single new identity. You gain many. Of rain, and flower, and frog, and moss, and bee.
We speak today of the rain, the water that falls upon the ground from the sky. While it is safe to assume that somewhere in the world it is raining, it is not safe to assume that it will rain here forevermore in the way it always has. Depending on where you are, you might have to get used to deluges, to savage droughts or vengeful clouds. Be prepared to move, for water is all-powerful. It can sweep you away or make you crawl miles on your knees for a single drop; it can freeze your insides or hammer your skull wide open. The blue planet’s waters are playing hard in this endgame of our collective lives. Forget your bank balance. Make a boat.
Keep your children safe, and afloat.
Suprabha Seshan lives at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary and works as an educator and restoration ecologist. She was winner of the 2006 Whitley Award and is an Ashoka Fellow. She occasionally travels to give a talk titled “Rainforest Etiquette in a World Gone Mad”.