Chasing the Monsoon – Alexander Frater (1990)

Chasing the MonsoonThis is non-fiction and presumably categorized into “Travel writing”, but it could be arguable to also include it in “Science” as its focus is on the world of meteorology as much as the world of geography, “Memoir” as there is quite a bit of that in here, and then possibly “Sociology” as there is some of that as well. I would also add “Humor” although understated throughout, and it’s done with impeccable class and respect.

Frater is an experienced UK journalist who is assigned to follow the path of the annual Monsoon as it arrives and then travels up through India to the Himalayas. It’s an ambitious goal and Frater handles it admirably as fraught with unpredictable elements as it is.

Frater grew up in a missionary family on a South Pacific island and had happy childhood memories of heavy seasonal rain. His father and grandfather had been avid amateur meteorologists and studying the weather had been important for life on a small island in the middle of the ocean, and so it was for a mixture of reasons that he decided to follow the monsoon.

Source: myindiapictures.com

Source: myindiapictures.com

I learned a lot about the weather in India in this read. I knew that there was a monsoon and a rainy season, but I had no idea that the monsoon was so predictable as to when it arrived (usually around a certain day in June each year). I also didn’t know that there were two “arms” of the monsoon that affected India – the eastern arm and the western arm – and that there is a huge amount of interest in when the monsoon arrives as it has an enormous impact on industry, city life, agriculture, and every other possible aspect.

For the higher-income people, the arrival of the monsoon presages a party atmosphere. For others, it means increased difficulty in finding a dry spot to live and sleep. Transportation and roads are affected, and in recent years (keeping in mind that this was published in 1990), the changing weather patterns have made the monsoon arrival date less predictable which makes everything a touch more complicated in India’s widespread anticipation and preparations for this weather event. In his travels across India, Frater was trying to keep slightly ahead of the monsoon as it traveled north, and as this was before widespread internet availability, there is an element of anticipation through this book as well.

This was a reread – always a gamble, I think, as one is never sure of the same glorious experience as one’s first read – and this was just as enjoyable the second time around, and in fact, this time of reading was enhanced by my being able to supplement the reading with websites and images of monsoon along the way which certainly added a new dimension to the experience.

Frater is a good writer. He’s very respectful of those who help him meet his goals, and so there is no sign of the “superiority of the traveler” which sometimes creeps into travel journalism.  He seems to have the philosophy of “everyone has a story” and so although this book revolves around the monsoon season, there are numerous friendly (and not so friendly!) interactions along the way. He also does well in describing his frustration at the levels of bureaucracy which can really test one’s patience. For example, Frater really wanted to visit Cherrapunji which is the wettest place on earth, according to records. However, when he was applying for his permit to travel there, there were so many layers of government to pass through and it took so long that Frater actually went back to England whilst he was waiting for that visa. It was going to take that long to get it through the system.

There’s also a little history included in this, as Frater learns about the impact of the monsoon in India’s Raj days and then travels to see what still remains of those times. There isn’t much mention of the days of the Raj (apart from occasional Indian royal households), but that’s ok. It doesn’t claim to be a history book in any way so what extra you do get is like icing on the cake.

India is such a huge and complex country that I think it is a challenge for any travel writer to write about “everything”. Frater has taken the subject of the monsoon as a lens through which to focus his writing, and, by looking at India and its multifaceted society through this lens, has created a very readable and fond look at a complicated meteorological event in a complicated country.

An excellent read.

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