Cloud’s own country
by Rajnish Wattas

Under a Cloud
by Binoo K. John. Penguin. Rs 250. Pages 162.

Monsoon cataract in Laitkynsew
Monsoon cataract in Laitkynsew

Every school child knows that Cherrapunji is the wettest place on earth. But in childhood, this is just a fact to be mugged up for exams; the real significance of this drama of nature soaks you only when you are old enough to appreciate the beauty of monsoon.

It is natural for travel writers, explorers and footloose wanders to want to visit this place, savour the experience; and then come home to recount their rain-drenched tales. Binoo K. John does that to shed some light on the clouded mysteries of Cherra (short for Cherrapunji) which gets as much rain in three months as the rest of the country gets in a whole year. He also takes, a "quick and curious walk down the lanes of Cherra’s chequered history — a story of nineteenth-century evangelists and proselytization, the beginnings of education, the fierce earthquake of 1897, and battles against the colonizers," as the blurb promises.

The book begins with the author boarding the train at Delhi for Guwahati on to Shillong — the capital of Meghalaya — and culminates in a bumpy ride in a rickety Sumo to Cherra, his base for further explorations in and around the place. Besides romancing the rains, there are plenty of details to absorb, such as meeting the local weatherman or rather the ‘rain man’ who diligently maintains daily records for the meteorology department, whose operations are archaic. But the central experience is of singing in the rain. "At night the music of the rain is likely to make you dream of floating in the clouds. If you have left the windows open the clouds come inside too, reassuring you of their friendliness, smothering you with a wet embrace`85You are right in the middle of the early morning rain, heavier and may be noisier than the rain that started at midnight and ushered you into the arms of sweet sleep."

A Khasi matriach
A Khasi matriach

A lesser-known fact is that it is not really Cherra that gets the heaviest annual rainfall, but a nearby village called Mawsynram, where the monsoon lasts a bit longer. But certainly the crown for receiving the heaviest daily rainfall goes to Cherra. The amount of rain that deluges the place in a single day can be gauged by the fact that when it rained for two days in August 2002 in Delhi, the city received 79 millimetres of rain and came to a standstill, whereas in Cherra, it had rained 593.2 millimetres.

The are plenty of quaint character sketches of locals and foot soldiers of the meteorology department manning this remote outpost, braving hardships for a paltry salary. These include Pintoo the ‘rain man’ of Mawsynram who is paid only Rs 120 a month for measuring the rainfall and recording it in a register.

Unfortunately, at times, because of these details the author digresses from the main story, which is that of the monsoons and its special relationship with Cherra. It is only towards the end that the reader is informed about the various scientific factors and heavenly whims that make the place God’s chosen spot for a downpour from above. One also wishes that a few illustrations – in addition to the amateurish pictures given in the book – had been added to help the reader understand better the phenomenon of monsoons in general and of rains in Cherra in particular. Such an approach has worked wonderfully in The Great Arc by John Kaye on the mapping of India. Also comparisons with the earlier classic on the monsoons by Alexander Frater, Chasing the Monsoons, and the stylistic touch of the great travel writers like Paul Theroux and Pico Iyer are inevitable.

Notwithstanding these limitations, with the scorching heat of the summer beating down in the northern plains, there can’t be a more cooling experience than getting Under a Cloud. The journey, "into the heart of the ‘drip-drip chorus’ of incessant rain in Cherrapunji and the nearby village of Mawsynram" will play haunting music in your heart.