x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

My rain prayers have changed with the passage of time

Hari Chand Aneja explains why he no longer prays for the rains he once did, decades ago.

'Raj sobbed throughout the night yesterday," my mother whispered to my father. "She has developed the 'pithh' (red rash) on her back again. My three-year-old daughter did not sleep a wink," she said. Every year when the merciless summer beat down on Punjab in British India, my younger sister would develop red blotches on her back and my mother would shed silent tears as she saw Raj whimper.

My father would summon Hukam Chand, the "hakim" (local doctor). He would examine my small sister's red-dotted back, sigh, shake his head and proclaim: "It's the heat". He would urge us to sprinkle some turmeric on it. But Raj would not let anyone touch her sores. She thought her problem was far worse than the remedies.

"I guess we just have to wait for the rains," my mother would proclaim with resignation.

Outside our house, hot winds blew through the bazaars like a river of fire. "Rabba, rabba mee vasaa, kakdia, kharbuje laga," (God, please let it rain, let cucumbers and mash-melons grow), echoed the lyrical chant in the streets.

I was 10 years old in 1931, but had learnt this mantra by heart. Every year in the months of June and July, the temperature touched 46°C to 48°C, scorching the dusty streets of Tandalianwala town (in undivided Punjab, now in Pakistan). I stepped out of my house only to run specific errands. There would be "havans" (community prayers) every evening. After prayers, spicy boiled chickpeas would be distributed. We chanted, "Rabba, rabba, kali etthan, kali rodd; mee vasade joron-jor" (God, the bricks and stones have baked black due to the heat, please bestow torrential rains on us)."

Every night when I was alone, I would pray that Raj's rash would disappear and she would smile again. It broke my heart to see my sister so wretched.

Gradually, grey clouds would float by in the azure skies. We would breathe a sigh of relief for we knew our prayers would be answered soon. Within a few days, the skies would be overcast. Then suddenly one day it would drizzle. Our hearts would turn into fountains of joy. The drizzles would turn into a downpour. The dusty streets transformed into gushing streams of waters, gurgling away joyously.

The men would take their shirts off and allow themselves to be drenched by the rains. Some of them would sing and dance, rejoicing in the manna from the heavens. The celebrations would go on until late in the evening. Then the men would assemble at the "dhabha" - or local restaurant - to drink piping hot tea and eat "pakoras" (fried snacks).

The small towns and villages of Punjab were very conservative in the 1930s and women did not join the men in the rain dances or merrymaking. Women formed groups to enjoy the rains on their "chabbaras" (rooftops) or the "veddhas" (open space within the villa).

Far away from the celebrations, the dehydrated fields drank deeply of the rain waters. The earth turned soft. The waters flowed through the cracks in the soft mud, levelling the surface. The thirst of the earth would be quenched. And in a few days, the red rash on Raj's back would disappear. She would smile again. My prayers would be answered.

Eighty-two years later, I prayed again. This time my prayers were different. Now I prayed that the rains should cease, seeing the devastation caused by the flash floods and rains in the north Indian state Uttaranchal earlier this year. And I prayed for improved weather forecasting and coordination between government departments in India, so that many lives might be saved.


Hari Chand Aneja is a nonagenarian former corporate executive who now keeps busy with charity work