Books that detail a character’s life, making a dramatic shift from one stage to another, tend to give the chapter of childhood a very memorable end. The one that stands out very vividly in my mind is Maggie and Tom’s tragedy in The Mill on the Floss: the sudden adulthood imposed on a tomboyish, rebellious young girl and a boy forced to grow into a man overnight. What I’m going to share with you now is a very delicious description of summer rain on the Nebraska prairie; it doesn’t mark a transition per se, but it appears at the end of the first book, ‘The Shimerdas’, in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. It isn’t tragic or dramatic, but in its own way draws out the difference between childish innocence and responsibilities enforced before time. But read it now for the thrill of a rainstorm on the prairie, and for the number of times you’ve struggled to express the delights of the invigorating, sudden showers of summer.
“One night there was a beautiful electric storm, though not enough rain fell to damage the grain. The men went down to the barn immediately after supper, and when the dishes were washed, Ántonia and I climbed up on the slanting roof of the chicken-house to watch the clouds. The thunder was loud and metallic, like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a moment. Half the sky was checkered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard.”
I shall perhaps never experience a rainstorm on the prairie, but in the yellow twilight today, as yellowish-grey clouds worked with a will to scorn the glowering eye of the sun, I was transported back to an afternoon on the South Downs. We started off in pleasant sunshine, looking at the crosses planted on the top of Beachy Head, the most notorious suicide spot in East Sussex. The drop down the chalk cliffs was sheer and we had to struggle to keep our balance in the strong wind. We walked on the rising and dipping grassy slopes, no shelter in sight but a disused lighthouse (closed off then). All of a sudden, the placid blue of the sea turned steely grey very rapidly, a mass of clouds gathered overhead, and the rain came pouring down, stinging and cold. We saw it form a swirling cylinder far away over the sea, then sweep around us in gusts. But English weather is famed for its capriciousness, and the mists disappeared as quickly as they had gathered, leaving the sun to dry us off.
It was the first time I had experienced rain out in the open. Away from the stifling crowds of a city with muddy water pouring out of drains, carrying unsightly debris that you’d rather not identify, rain is an entirely different experience in the hills. Brown houses dot the landscape in the distance, and their very sparseness makes them even more inviting. There is nothing between you and the rain and the arching rainbow; on the ground, the hills slope away to civilisation on one side, and drop down to the English Channel on the other.
But what do we have here today? The wind rushes and roars through the box-like space created by the buildings of our apartment complex. Streetlights twinkle from amidst dancing branches and the fragrance of moist mud wafts on the breeze even before the rain has begun to fall properly. Lightning rends the sky apart and as the rain begins to drip from the eaves, transformers blow up in spectacular Diwali-like displays. Unsurprisingly, the town is plunged into darkness.
I shouldn’t be complaining; any rain is welcome, even if I don’t wax eloquent about it any longer as my college-going self used to on this blog. Those who have been with me since my early years here are probably acquainted with my mad, impulsive description of about every rain shower in Vizag. I always think of rain as something to be revelled in and shared, no matter how large the distance. But I can’t write poetry or make music or dance, and the sheer joy of a rain-laden wind blowing into my face and my clothes and my hair demands some sort of expression. Thank goodness for prose and for the gifts of a writer on the prairie.