Just Like That | Notes on our longing for rain, of civil debate, and of rakhi - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | Notes on our longing for rain, of civil debate, and of rakhi

Aug 13, 2022 05:38 PM IST

Of our love for dark clouds, darkened skies, and the rain; the need for sabhya samvad or civil debates; and the tradition of Raksha Bandhan.

After the intense heat of summer, the coming of the monsoons in India has a magical seduction. Suddenly, the sky darkens, dark black clouds appear, and then the first miraculous raindrop hits the parched earth. It was for such a moment that the poet Bihari (1595-1664 CE) wrote:

In more recent times, who can ever forget the song Zindagi bhar nahin bhoole gi woh barsaat ki raat, from the eponymous film Barsaat Ki Raat, where the ethereal Madhubala meets Bharat Bhushan, on a rain-filled night? (YouTube) PREMIUM
In more recent times, who can ever forget the song Zindagi bhar nahin bhoole gi woh barsaat ki raat, from the eponymous film Barsaat Ki Raat, where the ethereal Madhubala meets Bharat Bhushan, on a rain-filled night? (YouTube)

Lagey saawan maas bidesh piya

Mere ang pe boond pare sarsi

Shath kama ne jor kiyo sajani

Bandh toot gaye chaitya darsi

(The monsoons are here but my beloved is away

A raindrop touches my body suddenly

Cruel Kama wrought his spell, O friend

The strings of my garment snapped abruptly)

Such poetry is not only about the fulfilment of love, but also of biraha — pangs of separation from the beloved. In the West, a beautiful day has to be sunny. For us, a romantic day is when the clouds have hidden the sun, and there is the promise of rain. In the fifth century CE, Kalidasa, in his play Meghdoot, immortalised such a cloud by making him the bearer of the exiled Yaksha’s message to his wife, Alaka, in the Himalayas.

In more recent times, who can ever forget the song Zindagi bhar nahin bhoole gi woh barsaat ki raat, from the eponymous film Barsaat Ki Raat, where the ethereal Madhubala meets Bharat Bhushan, on a rain-filled night? Or, Raj Kapoor and Nargis, singing Pyaar hua ikrar hua, in the 1955 film Shri 420, the rain cascading around them as they share an umbrella.

The monsoons are also a time for steaming cups of tea and garam-garam pakodas and the whiff of bhutta (corn on the cob) being roasted on a makeshift fire along the roadside. The other day, as the sky darkened, I listened to raga Malhar. I wonder at the genius of our musical legacy. How can a raga so wonderfully correspond to the mood of the monsoons? As the dark clouds gather, I listened to the slow elaboration of the raga, and the skies came pouring down when the raga reached its drut or fast tempo. It was quite an unforgettable experience. The lines of this poem came to me:

Yun barasti hain tasawwur pe purani yaadein

Jaise barsaat mein rimjhim ka sama hota hai

(Like the drizzle in the monsoons

Old memories rain down on me)

Of sabhya samvad or civil discourse

I have often been struck by how discourse and dialogue were an institutional legacy of our civilisation. The three foundational texts of Hinduism — the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahmsutras, are all dialogues. There are no implacable certitudes, no injunctions for obeisance, no religious commands. On the other hand, there is an emphasis on resolving differences in views through civilised debate.

One such famous debate took place between Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) and his contemporary, also an outstanding scholar, Mandana Mishra. Shankara’s philosophy of Advaita (non-duality) was based on the jnana marga (the path of knowledge), while Mandana believed in karma kanda, the theory that following religious rituals in the prescribed manner is the correct path.

The two viewpoints were diametrically opposed. But Shankara went to Mandana Mishra’s home and invited him to a debate. The debate took place for weeks, with Mandana’s wife, Uma Bharti, as the umpire. In an age without instant media and the internet, all of India followed the debate by word of mouth. In the end, Adi Shankaracharya won, and Mandana Mishra became his disciple.

Alas, in today’s India, we seem to be forgetting our own legacy, and believe in black or white polarities, where anybody opposing you is an untouchable enemy. There was a time though when political leaders may have differed with each other on policies, but were able to articulate these with civility and respect for their democratic opponent. That was the time when Parliament saw outstanding debates, replete with wit and repartee, and in the spirit of a sabhya samvad (civil discourse).

Raksha Bandhan: An intrinsic cultural expression

In a globalised world that most people believe has become a homogenous village where everybody is a clone of the other, the truth is that cultures are still incredibly diversified, and often opaque to the foreign gaze. The differences in cultural behaviour often go unnoticed, but are substantive markers of where your roots are.

Rakhis on display.  (Shantanu Bhattacharya/HT)
Rakhis on display.  (Shantanu Bhattacharya/HT)

Festivals bring this out clearly, and India’s annual calendar is full of them. This week, we have the festival of Raksha Bandhan, where a sister conveys her love for her brother by tying a rakhi on his wrist, and brothers renew their pledge of love and protection for their sister. The festival is very popular, especially in north India, and siblings look forward to it with great anticipation.

Today, women are far less dependent on their brothers for support, but the festival has essentially a sentimental and emotional value, an occasion for the family to celebrate together and reiterate their bonds as a family.

Pavan K Varma is an author, diplomat and former parliamentarian

Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers

The views expressed are personal

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