The longing first comes at last light, not in the high heat of noon.
This is the hour when windows are closed to keep deadly mosquitoes at bay, the hour when breeze must be compromised in service of safety. So it is to live in the plains, where summer’s scorch and winged assassins, together, wake one again and again through the night. But it is not night – not yet. Now, it is the liminal time described as “crepuscular”, a word that evokes the nature of moths, and other creatures and beings of the in-between. The day’s torpor still clinging to one’s skin, the heat’s strain on the mind, and a parchedness that has less to do with water and more to do with unspoken feeling, and that is how one feels too: in-between.
There is a reason why this longing comes at this hour, and not sooner. Something about dusk, its changing colours, feels reminiscent of cloud cover. This longing, the longing for summer rain, is stark when it feels like the longed for may be near, may be almost – almost – here.
Summer rain that arrives preceded by a moody sky, stirring anticipation before it. Summer rain that arrives with an orchestra – the sounds of strings of rain drops falling on many surfaces. Rain on tin roofs, on umbrella vinyl, on window glass, on dense foliage, on hot tar, on hardened soil, on other water. Some of these sounds are almost silent. Each is surely distinct, depending on proximity or buffering, yet there is only one sound in my memory. I can hear it now, in my head.
There is a particular way the body responds when rain is percolating in the atmosphere, a pleasurable tension. Sultriness of air, sultriness of body.
And then there is the scent. Scent of water on dry earth. An awakening scent, roused from earth made wet after a long time without such touch. The English word for it is “petrichor”, coined only in 1964 by the mineralogist Dick Thomas, a word borrowed from the Greek – “ichor” for the mythical fluid that flows in divine veins, which animates “petr” for stone. Before this, it was known as “argillaceous odour”; those who studied it knew the chemicals that release it are within the baked and waiting clay, not the giving rain. But this other, newer word, accorded ancient gravitas and the allure of poetry, is beautiful; and because of its beauty so many more of us understand: what rises to us with first rain is the fragrance of coming together, of mingling.
A spell of summer rain is not always a summer storm, yet when it finally arrives the ferocity of the heart’s response elevates its impact. It is a celebration – and the hope is to be caught in it, in a sense. To not have it take place when one is occupied, or out of sight of a window through which the swirl of trees in the draught can be observed, or within an edifice built to keep the elements out in more than necessary ways.
In Tamil Nadu, the start of the period of deepest summer, known as agni-nakshatram (translating literally to “fire-star”), was traditionally marked by a downpour, after which the heat would intensify. That summer rain could be experienced as Nature offering a respite and a caveat at once. Climate change has altered these patterns, this gracious concord made between heat and succour.
In recent years, there is not always this announcement, or at least not one shared consistently throughout the region. Sometimes now, the weather turns torrid without a word, and the windows and the heart are not first washed ceremonially by the first rain of a fresh year, as per the old calendars.
They are not the same, the heavy monsoonal showers that will come in a few months. They lack the decadence and desirousness of that epigrammatic burst of summer rain, those torrents that say – I know you’ve waited, and will wait again, but here for now – be gratified, be quenched.