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Furious winds were thrashing the windowpanes of our family's 4th floor apartment. It was June and I'd just returned home from the forests of Pench and mountains of Kashmir. The stormy afternoon was a portent of happy times to come. In a week, I'd be chasing monsoons along the east coast. In three weeks, I'd be in the thick of monsoon in Kerala. Soon after, I'd be in Rajasthan, covering a monsoon festival for crying out loud. And I would end the monsoon chase on the glorious green slopes of Sahyadris. By October, I'd be soaked and satiated.
Only trouble was that the erratic monsoon of 2016 had no plans of sticking with my plan. It's no surprise that I love monsoons. If you had any doubt, this Instagram series (#30ReasonstoloveMonsoons) should clear it. So when I saw the gale-force winds rocking my hometown, my anticipation was running through the roof.
Arriving at the coastal town of Vishakhapatnam on assignment, I was regretfully informed by my relatives that it had indeed been pouring cats and dogs, but only until I arrived. I drove through the lush forests of Araku valley (Eastern Ghats in full Monsoon Glory) where the effects of monsoons were fully visible but there wasn't a drop of rain to quench my thirst. Although, a week later, chugging out of the railway station towards my next destination, dark storm clouds hovered above the hills of Vizag. They poured down with a vengeance, as the city disappeared into the horizon.
The previous year, I couldn't shake the rains off my trail. From January till December and from Ladakh till Turkey, unseasonal rains hounded me everywhere I went. It was as if the monsoons were chasing me. The tables had turned on me this year. Marking the beginning of my woes, the drought followed me to Kerala too.
It was July and we were traveling along the ancient River Nila, also known as Bharatapuzha in Kerala. The plan was to enjoy the rains and explore the vibrant culture the river has inspired for centuries. We stayed in gorgeous heritage houses which were hundreds of years old and witnessed intriguing art forms that were breaking both gender and caste barriers. Everything was good. Except, it rained everywhere in Kerala apart from a 10 kilometer radius around me, like I was carrying my own invisible shield. Our local hosts were as amused as I was exasperated.
Pothundi Dam, Nelliampathy, Kerala
"It was raining just yesterday!" said my hosts.
"It's pouring here," called another man from the next village.
"It was raining like all hell broke loose the last time we were here, which was merely weeks ago," gleefully rubbed in my fellow travellers.
For two whole weeks, rains eluded me like a mirage teasing a nomad in the desert. It was always within tantalising reach yet it never rained upon me. On the very last afternoon before I left Kerala, a perfunctory downpour was to be my best encounter with the monsoon in God's Own Country.
"But it's only July. Monsoon will last two more months, I'll meet the rains soon." I say to myself.
August took me to Jaipur. I once visited Rajasthan in monsoons and have been dreaming of returning to the desert state when it rains, ever since. Yes, it rains in the desert and it is nothing like we can imagine. There's fresh greenery everywhere. I was there to photograph a "sawan" festival – a festival that's celebrated at the onset of the monsoon – Hariyali Teej. So I should get some rains, right? Wrong!
"Well, it has been raining till yesterday. We're surprised it's so sunny today", chuckles a lady in a colorful saree.
"Traditionally, it has always rained on the day of Teej. This year looks like an exception!" sympathetically adds another woman.
"Of course it is an exception, the rains have stopped conspiring with me this year!" I dejectedly reflect.
Still believing in a happy outcome, I reminded myself I had one more month before the rains go away for the year. It was early September and I arrive in Mumbai with stars in my eyes. Mumbaikars are fed up of monsoon already, as evidenced by the angry curses floating in the twitterverse. But I was looking forward to the infamous rains, only to realize the monsoon has deserted the city of dreams too. The first two weeks of September were terribly humid. I hiked in the green valleys and on the slopes of Sahyadris but there isn't a drop of rain falling on my head. Instead, I’m sweating bucket loads due to Mumbai’s oppressive sultriness, even inside the lush forests of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It’s unreal, that it is supposed to be monsoons.
Ready to book my ticket out of the terribly humid city, “One last hike”, I told myself. Along with a dear friend, we went hiking to Sagargad in Alibaug where the ruins of a small fort and a fantastic waterfall are the prime attraction. There’s a heavy mist, hanging low over the hills of Sahyadris. They look as alive as possible in a luxuriant coat of green. The rumble of a brimming cascade was encouraging. Soon the mist descended upon us and I could feel the crisp freshness of an impending downpour.
Dripping in sweat until then, the heavy rain cleared the salts clinging on to my face swiftly. The water tasted sweet in no time. My raincoat was tied tight to my waist; I wasn’t going to hide from the rare opportunity to enjoy the monsoon in wilderness. Looking at me facing upwards, as if thanking the heavens with my outstretched arms, “Happy?” my amused friend asks. I break into a huge smile. On our way back that evening, the sky turns a dark blue under the cover of a thick spread of storm clouds. We are treated to another round of heavy downpour.
I was soaking wet, at last! Phew.
Ratangad, the jewel of Sahyadris, was nothing more than a mandatory hike to be ticked off the Sahyadri bucket-list. Who comes to hike in Sahyadris and not climb a fort? No one. So there I was. But it turned out to be a parting gift from Sahyadris to me. Encompassing a whole range of surreal sights that included jagged peaks ensconced in swirling clouds, entire hilltops covered in the “Sahyadri special” – mass blooming of Sonki flowers, misty views of the expansive Bhandardara Dam waters and an unforgettable torrential downpour that briefly cleared up these views for us, my heart was brimming with joy at the unreal beauty of Sahyadris in monsoons.
“You say you love rain, but you open an umbrella and walk under it”, said someone wise. Not me! I lugged around my purple rain-jacket all over the place. Not once did I use it. At first, it never rained. Later, I didn’t want to escape the rain. I waited for rains for all of 3 months to no avail. Yet, who would’ve thought that the last week alone would give me more memories of relishing rains in pristine nature than I could have hoped for? If the weight of expectation takes the fun out of travel, the sheer uncertainty of circumstances adds an equal amount of gratification to whatever it is that we find.
My cravings of all things monsoon – fresh greenery, frolicking like a kid in gurgling streams, getting lost in unbelievably misty whiteouts, wildflowers that come to life in a sudden profusion, waterfalls and everything else – were gratifyingly met after weeks of tantalizing denials. Magic, just like happiness, is not a tangible affair that goes on and on. It’s an ephemeral moment in time that disappears the very next minute. But the permanence of that feeling could very well outlast a lifetime, I know the monsoon of 2016's will.