Previously in Atlantic Abroad
Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).
Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).
The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).
Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).
New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).
Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).
Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).
A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).
The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).
The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).
Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).
Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).
Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).
Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).
Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).
Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).
A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).
The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).
Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.
Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.
March 1, 2000
My father used to tell me about the monsoon in Bangladesh. He was born in Handiyal, a village in the north-central district of the country. Behind his parents' house was a river, the Padma, a part of the immense water system that crisscrosses Bangladesh. Big even during the sweltering dry months, the Padma would become an inland ocean at the height of the monsoon. My father would talk about the river swelling day after day as the rain drove down. He loved the monsoon, despite the inevitable annual floods, the misery, and the hardship.
Years later, when I was working in Bombay and my father was living in Ahmedabad, in the dry and dusty state of Gujarat, I would phone and tell him about the rain. "How lovely," he would say, and I could sense he was remembering all he had told me of the monsoon over his village.
Later still, I moved to Dubai, where I lived until just recently. It is a modern metropolis -- built on the edge of the great Arabian sand sea -- glittering with glazed glass and proud of its impeccably maintained highways. It scarcely ever rains here. On perhaps five days a year a few millimeters of rain will reluctantly descend. More frequent are the sandstorms, which clog drains that are tested no more than annually. This past year was my first full one in Dubai -- the first time in my life I have missed an entire monsoon.
By June in India, when the first wet squalls explode over Bombay, one has been anticipating the rain for a month and more.
By July, the massive, heavy cloud systems have settled immovably over the subcontinent, and they let fall torrents of rain, day after day. Indoors a patina of moisture coats everything, clothes will not dry, and head colds make one miserable. Outside, the city struggles with its everyday routines. Suburban trains do not run, their tracks submerged under feet of muddy water. City drains, routinely untended and choked with tons of garbage, refuse to do their work. Housing colonies turn into archipelagos. Mosquitoes assume fearsome proportions.
By August, the monsoon has dulled the world. Trees appear a uniform drab green, the sea stays gray and forbidding, and the city stinks. When, in September, the rains have at last weakened into ineffectual evening drizzles, one is relieved.
The monsoon season has, I discovered, a rhythm that the mind and body grow accustomed to. In Dubai last June, when the temperature reached 48° Celsius, I would catch myself glancing at the sky, wondering idly if there was a hint of interesting cloud. My rational self knew there could not be a monsoon here, but the subconscious would not be denied. Some mornings I would awake in my darkened, air-conditioned room and imagine rain drumming on the window. It was an illusion that persisted several seconds into wakefulness, and even after I rose I would resist drawing the curtain aside, preferring instead to retreat to the even darker bathroom. There I would sit, pretending there was a frog croaking outside. My father liked the frogs too. They were the heralds of the rain, the stewards of the monsoon. Their mutterings and complaints stayed with him -- first as a young man who had migrated from Bangladesh to Bengal, and later as a successful professional in Bombay. But in Dubai, I'd tell myself, there are no frogs, and there is no rain, and I'd lace my shoes and step outside into the pitiless heat of Arabia.
Late in July I noticed that the illusions persisted at work, too. With the window blinds down and the central air-conditioning humming along at a cool 22° Celsius, I occasionally caught myself wondering whether I'd find a cab that would be willing to drive me home in the rain. After all, it must be raining outside by now. At these times it took some courage to walk into the passageway between the office suites, face the window, stare at the Dubai skyline carelessly shimmering in the late evening sun, and remind myself that the monsoon lay on the other side of the Indian Ocean.
It grew worse. I began constructing an elaborate scheme to escape for three or four days. It was, I reasoned, a three-hour flight to Bombay. There I could hide out at a friend's apartment, preferably one with a balcony on which I might sit and watch and feel the rain, slowly drinking a beer and eating deliciously hot pakodas, those deep-fried savories whose soul comes to life only when it is raining hardest. I could wear shorts and an old shirt and rubber sandals and wade across the streets. I could jump and dodge to avoid being splashed by the big city buses that plough through the floods, never mind that I'd be soaked to the skin anyway. I could watch the tremendous waves that come out of the gray sea pound the bandstands and the breakwaters, while the sellers of bhuta -- the corn-on-the-cob smeared with a salty, spicy masala whose taste is unmistakably monsoon -- huddled under umbrellas. I could, I convinced myself, escape for just three days to Bombay and do all this.
I did nothing. The sounds of rain would still visit, sometimes surprising, always comforting, while outside Dubai still blazed with heat and light. August slipped into September and the body readjusted itself, the mind played along. As the Gulf's fall months began, the harsh absence of monsoon faded. I no longer looked for that high and lonely cloud in the sky. The time for rain was past and I wondered whether next year my longing would be the same.
Rahul Goswami is a journalist who writes for Orientation: Middle East.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.