Under my byline

High drama

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 15 August 2009

Monsoon clouds over LucknowOVERLEAF 42

Flying home to Delhi this week from the north-east, the window next to my seat revealed a tremendous drama being staged against the backdrop of the Himalayas. The mountains, from Bagdogra to Guwahati, were invisible behind the cluster of actors — that is, the clouds, from low, cottony stratus to high, wispy cirrus, all overshadowed by the towering few cumulonimbi. They put up an awe-inspiring show, these monsoon clouds piled up and up against the slopes, and scattered about on the floor of the atmosphere far below. Naturally at such times one is moved to poetry:

A cloud that charged the peak in mimic fray,
As an elephant attacks a bank of earth in play.

Those lines are from Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (translated by Arthur W Ryder), the Gupta-period story-poem which neatly brings together the drama and romance of the monsoon. When cloud touches mount again after a year’s separation, they embrace,

With the tear of welcome shed when two long-parted meet.

Up in the sky, on what classical Greek actors a thousand years before Kalidasa might have called the god-walk, there seems to be no other way to view the monsoon than as grand theatre. The natural forces at work up there and down here — cloud, wind, mountain, river — demand to be personified, and it is hard to resist their will. One stops disbelieving, and becomes pagan again.

In The Clouds (translated by Ian Johnston), Aristophanes, the comic dramatist of golden-age Athens, has the leader of his Chorus of clouds introduce her fellows thus:

Everlasting Clouds—
let us arise, let us reveal
our moist and natural radiance—
moving from the roaring deep
of father Ocean to the tops
of tree-lined mountain peaks,
where we see from far away
the lofty heights, the sacred earth,
whose fruits we feed with water,
the murmuring of sacred rivers,
the roaring of the deep-resounding sea.

And so on. It’s quite a sophisticated picture of the water cycle, for the times. In the sky above Assam (as above any other place, really) it is obvious how water-determined our world is. In the neighbourhood of the Brahmaputra the sheer volume of water is appalling — the river is a dozen kilometres wide and its floodplain apparently boundless, but even small streams have slipped their banks, and fields are either soaked or obscured by the water. When the plane passes over forest, one feels like a Vedic god surveying his wild domain.

Yet an hour east of Delhi, where the sun finally hits ground and there are no jungles to be seen, it’s clear that water is no less powerful, by the fact of its absence. The army of clouds has trailed off, and the survivors look light, weak and scattered.

There’s reproof in the air: if there’s not enough rain here, surely man must share the blame.

The wisest in this audience should here take note —
you’ve done us wrong, and we confront you with the blame.
We confer more benefits than any other god
upon your city, yet we’re the only ones
to whom you do not sacrifice or pour libations,
though we’re the gods who keep protecting you.

So say Aristophanes’ clouds. And they add:

They say this city likes to make disastrous choices,
but that the gods, no matter what mistakes you make,
convert them into something better.

Yes, but for how long? “O cloud, the parching spirit stirs thy pity,” sighs Kalidasa’s banished lover pining for his beloved, when he beseeches the raincloud to carry his message of love. But a divine being is arbitrary, and unconstrained by human duty. So we must serve, in order to be served, because, as Aristophanes has one of his characters (Socrates) say of the clouds:

Well, they’re the only deities we have —
the rest are just so much hocus pocus.

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5 Responses

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  1. Anamika said, on 18 August 2009 at 6:55 pm

    What about Shelley:

    “You are the daughter,
    of earth and water
    And nursling of the sky

    You pass through the pores,
    of the ocean and shores
    You change, but you cannot die.”

  2. Rrishi said, on 18 August 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Aha, a member of the literati. Wonder how she found her way here? :^)

    Shockingly good rhyme and scansion. I’d not seen that before — thanks.

    Myself I immediately recalled the old Romantic, and schooltime standard, Wordsworth: “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. Comparatively workmanlike, but warmly familiar.

  3. Anamika said, on 19 August 2009 at 9:01 am

    Was fascinated by Shelley since reading Ozymandias in class IX. And then the way he died, his love for rhyme and economy compared to Wordsworth…I have a soft spot for this Romantic:). The page http://www.web-books.com/Classics/Poetry/Anthology/Shelley/Cloud.htm has the full poem on a very ugly background.

  4. Anamika said, on 19 August 2009 at 9:14 am

    Oops..that got sent incomplete…I like what you said about “workmanlike but warmly familiar”. That’s Wordsworth for most of us. Though I wish he’d written slightly shorter poems.

  5. Rrishi said, on 20 August 2009 at 12:52 am

    Hmm, the thing I like now about that “Daffodils” poem is the immediate shift from lonely to crowd:

    I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd…

    Matter of changing appreciation with age, I imagine. As a schoolboy I perked up at “host” (of daffodils), thinking “army”, but the rest of it was pretty and dull. You need to know about that historical moment to get Wordsworth; and, perhaps, to be older?

    Skimmed (yes, philistine) the Shelley poem. Wish the old methods were still followed while I was in school and we had been forced to memorise chunks of poetry. Painful then, it would have been pleasant as well as useful now — & that’s what education is about. Were you expected to memorise? (Somehow, it seems a convent sort of thing.)


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