The rain of Sohra is medicinal and other stories

 Cherrapunji residents have a multitude of names for rains, each celebrating its qualities

I love everything about Sohra or Cherrapunji—which we still fondly call the wettest place on earth—for it was there that I was born and raised, my mother had taught me to talk, and I walked its paths as a child. But most of all I love its pure, wild rain which has baptised me with its holy waters, again and again, linking my soul forever to its cloud-tending wind and its cherubic mists hanging from summer trees in sanctified woods. I never tire of reading poems and writings on the Sohra rain:

This is the famed rain,

making a fool of sorry umbrellas!

Zooming in like swarms of fighter planes!

Bouncing back metres high to the sky!

Now it sprints with the wind!

Now it turns waltzing round!

Now it’s a million whips for the gale to lash at pretty legs!

And now, it’s a violent downpour to whitewash the ditches and the roads till at last the fog comes cloaking all

It is because of this multifariousness and its divergent nature that the Khasis have many names for the rain: slap (rain), lapbah (heavy rain), lapsan (immense rain), lap-theh-ktang (pouring rain, or literally, pouring-from-the-bamboo-tube rain), lap-lai-miet (three-night rain), lap-hynriew-miet (six-night rain), lap-khyndai-miet (nine-night-rain), lapphria (hail-rain), lap-erïong (dark-wind rain/black storm), u kyllang (stormy rain), lapiwtung (smelly rain, because it continues for many days, causing clothes to stink), lappraw (light rain), lap-boi-ksi (louse-swarming rain, because it looks like lice when it settles on hair and clothes), lap-ñiup-ñiup (soft, flaky rain, very light drizzle), lapshiliang (partial rain), laplynnong (rain confined to certain locales), lapkynriang (slanting rain), lapmynsaw (rain of danger) and lap-bam-briew (human-devouring-rain).

These names are not merely synonyms but refer to various kinds of rain or point to its varying qualities and ferocity. If you read the statistical handbooks, you will know that Sohra gets an average of more than 750 inches (1 inch= 25mm) of rain per year, and often as much as 29 inches in a single day. All this rain normally falls between April to mid-September, although, in some years, it can continue right up to the first week of October. But this is hardly the complete picture. We often get the first rain of the year as early as January. This early rain, however, is intermittent and does not become fierce till about April.

You can see how incorrect the claim of the book, Where the Rain Is Born: Writings about Kerala, is. Kerala is not the birthplace of rain in India. While it gets its first rain in June, we get it in January or February. The rain, coming from the hills and driving through the land with a fury, would scare people, especially at night, for no one could be sure when it would switch to the terrible Sohra erïong, the dark tempest. When the tempest blows, trees collapse as forests swing violently to and fro; hills growl; the night groans; and the overhanging rocks tumble down the precipices, making people in Sohra and the adjoining areas feel faint-hearted, as the rain rolls down in cascading waterfalls to wreak even greater havoc in the plains of river Surma in present-day Bangladesh. This is the season of darkness for weeks on end when

The sun too is not there that rises or sets;

Only now and then would it peep from the cloud that is dense,

At the sea frothing white and the gleeful waterfalls

Many of my friends do not share my enthusiasm. Why should I feel so much pride for the relentless rain? Had it not, according to Nigel Jenkins, author of Through the Green Door, dismayed even the “webfooted Welsh” missionaries and driven “many a demented Company (British East India Company)wallah to suicide”? But how do I make people, who are scared of getting their feet wet, understand that we used to jump for joy when it rained. We would tear off our clothes and rush out with bars of soap to bathe naked in the downpour? And bathing we would sing:

Ther ther lapbah lapsan,

Ban dup pait ka maw ka dieng,

Ban dup tat u kba u khaw.

(Strike, strike big rain, great rain,

That the stone the wood would break,

That the rice the paddy would be cheap.)

or this song:

Ah, ah, ah, ba la ther u lap Sohra!

Syngit ki jaiñ ngi pynjyndong,

Shong kali kulai tom tom.

(Ah, ah, ah, that the rain of Sohra has bombarded!

We tighten our clothes and make them short,

We ride on horse-drawn carts.)

We had never seen these horse-drawn carts, for the British who rode them had been long gone, but that never stopped us from singing about them. At times, we would dash naked to the playground near our house, where rainwater had gathered in deep pools among the tall grasses, to roll on the ground and engage in fierce fights called kynshait um (water splashing). That was one of the most enjoyable games I ever played, particularly pleasing because there were no losers. Our parents never chided us since the water was always clean— there being no mud in Sohra, only pure sand and pebbles. A very popular saying still floating around in the area is, “Utslap Sohra u long dawai” (The rain of Sohra is medicinal).

Rain time was story time. Mother would choose a dark pre-monsoon April night to tell us about famous places in Sohra, behind every one of which is a tragic tale. It was amidst the blinding flashes of lightning and the ear-splitting crashes of thunder that mother told us about Likai and how her horrible fate had endowed the waterfall with the unhappy name, kshaid noh ka likai, literally meaning, “the plunge of ka likai falls”. If it hadn’t been for the rains, I doubt if mother would have had the time or the inclination to tell us all those stories.

This writeup was first published in An 8 million-year-old mysterious date with monsoon, published by Centre for Science and Environment-Down To Earth in 2016. 

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