What monsoon can do is give you sweetness in spite of the heavy wet. Even when it rains in Kerala, India, people still ride their colorful scooters, and some even carry a friend or a love along with them. If it is a woman behind the driver, she will sit sidesaddle, wrapped in her sari or churidar. One hand grips only the padded rim of the seat for support, the other holds a black umbrella covering herself and the driver. The thwap-thwap-thwap of raindrops the size of quarters and the scooter’s engine—the only sounds worth noticing on their damp course through the village streets.
This rain is never scary, though, even during monsoon. You can tell monsoon is near when you hear a sound like someone shaking a packet of seeds in the distance. A pause—and then the roar. You know it’s coming when the butterflies—fire skippers and bluebottles—fly in abundance over my grandmother’s cinnamon plants and suddenly vanish. A whole family of peacocks will gather up in a banyan tree, so still, as if posing for a seasonal portrait. Then the shaking sound begins.
If you could smell the wind from an ecstatic, teeny bat—if you could smell banana leaves drooping low and modest into the ruddy soil, if you could inhale clouds whirring so fast across the sky—that is what monsoon rain smells like.
Of the two monsoons that drench India each year, the Southwest monsoon, between May and August, is the heavier rain, while the Northeast monsoon in October is much more misty and light, feathering over people’s faces from sunrise to dusk—like the mist machines in the produce section of my neighborhood grocery back in New York, which inevitably turn on just when I happen to be examining asparagus shoots or selecting a container of raspberries.
Monsoons transform the countryside of the southwest coast of India into a blaze of fierce-green verdure twice a year. The heavier rains etch metallic rivers such as the Periyar and the Bharathappuzha even deeper and wider, flowing westward from the rugged Western Ghats, until they lose themselves in milky conversation with each other in the deep backwaters, then, finally, into the Arabian Sea. Coconut trees swoop and tangle low at water’s edge. From a distant bridge, the horizon is nothing but green stars.
Kill a black cobra and hang it in a tree so it will rain.
Rings around the moon mean rain.
Rain crow can tell of coming rain.
Cows lying down is a sign of rain.
If two doves sit in a frangipani tree, facing
the same direction, it will rain.
Swallow four seeds of a violet guava for rain.
Step on an ant and it rains.
Orange moon equals rain.
A dog eats grass? Means rain.
The rain is a constant companion during my stay with my grandmother in Kerala, this land of coconuts. Kerala, land of rain. I am in my first year of grad school, and although I’ve visited India before—I was eight years old the first time—this trip is my first abroad without my parents to navigate me through extreme weather conditions I simply hadn’t encountered in the States. Rain murmurs in my ears as I maneuver my way around the paths of the markets in Kottayam, the town where she lives. It trickles down my neck, repelling into beads on my waxy skin, freshly rubbed with mosquito repellent. In the space between my eyebrows, I am smudged with black: my painstakingly applied liquid bindi pools down the bridge of my nose and collects under my right eye.
Hot, fat raindrops drench my face even as I stand on our covered back porch. I spy three old women in saris stealing coconuts from my grandmother’s grove just outside the village—the men who work my grandmother’s land shoo them, but they just laugh, leaping gracefully like colorful birds scattering at the sight of a mongoose, up and over the cement wall edged with shards of bright and broken glass chips, without a single cut on their legs.
My eleven-year-old cousin Anjana and I sometimes watch MTV India on our grandmother’s brown velvet couch. The television sizzles off—one of the many random power outages in the village. “No Current!” Grandma calls them. As in, “We must wash the clothes in the morning before No Current.” “You finish the ice cream, or it will waste with No Current.” “There are too many babies in this town because of No Current.” We sit staring at the screen, the two of us—cousins who have only seen each other in pictures until just the week before. Anjana breaks the silence first.
“Sometimes, old ladies tie a frog to a fan. A small frog, yah? And then, they sing out loud that the frog is thirsty and needs water. All the family watches, even the maid. The frog is spinning, spinning from the ceiling, yah? Yuck, yah? Then, then—the next day there is rain!”
“What happens to the frog?” I ask.
“Nothing. I think the maid takes it down.”
Any squeamishness or misgivings I had about bugs vanished within seventy-two hours of stepping foot in Kerala. I’ve learned the small skitter of insects knocking against the mosquito netting over my bed is loudest when the lights are on, so I make it a point to write aerogrammes to my friends back home only in daylight, to spare the insistent tapping against the gauzy cloth. Each night, I tuck and retuck the edges of the netting into a tight fit around my cool mattress. I brush my teeth with my right hand. My left hand grabs at the air around me, trying to spare my skin before bed from the black mosquitoes already heavy and obvious with someone else’s blood. When I open my left hand, black asterisks cover my palm.
The next morning, my sister JoAnn and I beg our grandmother to let her driver take us to Vembenad Beach—anywhere from the house, damp and silent from the day’s power outage. On the half-hour drive there, we pass by pantsless toddlers cupping dragonflies in their hands, faces exquisite with joy from watching the flutter of blue wings against the gray sky of monsoon. The roofs of their families’ huts are made of empty rice sacks are tied together. In the early mornings and afternoons, when the rains fall heavy and sure with the scent of bats’ wings, I wonder how they keep dry.
When the rain stops, terrific smells—the kind that would make people at a food festival steam and sweat with envy—issue forth: curried eggs, thick steaks of broiled fish in coconut milk, chili chicken, payasam noodle puddings, and sweet honey bricks of halvas cooling on wooden tables. Although some of the residences are humble, people cook outdoors and neighbors find ways to share bounty with others less fortunate down the street. The kids playing outside here always look full, and everyone sleeps after the heavy noon meal. Whole households—distant aunts and uncles, maids, drivers, dogs, peacocks, and the family cow—lie down for a sweet afternoon nap and wait for the rain to subside so the evening meal can be prepared. Even if the family still feels a bit damp, they are sated and pleased, their round brown bellies full.
How the peacock grew his family: when a naughty boy mistook some oil for a rain puddle, his footprints became greasy little moons. And when those moons clustered and spun into an orbit of stars, like spilled sugar, they fanned out into a blue breast, and the breast begat milk, and the milk begat a cry—the bird’s famous shriek like someone gargling hot cream and cinnamon.
We arrive at the local resort where people can rent houseboats for the day or week. It’s the closest place in town that serves ice cream, and it is fortified by generators. A pair of male peacocks strolls near our car and pauses in front of us, a little too close. I’m used to birds scattering here at the first appearance of rain or people, but these birds stare straight at us and don’t move until my grandmother fans her handbag at them. Kerala’s famous coir houseboats line up along the edge of the resort, waiting for the next group of tourists to board before the rains start up again. I run out from our group, away from the restaurant. I stand on the silty beach, here at the southern tip of India, where the Indian Ocean begins a gentle whisk into the Arabian sea, while my four-foot-six-inch-tall grandmother shuffles the sand, trying to catch up with me. Aimee, Aimee, you stay here and—ayoo! More bites on your face. What shall I tell your father when I send you home like this? Let’s go inside and have your ice cream!
Cornetto Ice Cream Parlour Menu
Vemby Special Sundaes—49R
The Boat—three scoop ice cream,
strawberry crush, banana pieces, fruits
Ice Cream Sandwich—three slices ice cream, marble cake, caramel nuts, sauce, and jelly
The Apricot—vanilla, Spanish delight
ice cream, apricot sauce, apricot fruits, almond
The Pastry—vanilla and chocolate ice cream, pastry, sauce, carmelised nuts, grated dairy milk chocolate
Vembenand Beauty—three flavour ice cream, lychee fruits, marble cake and black current sauce
Miss Ghulbi—gulabjamoon, vanilla ice creams, carmelised nuts and sauce
Cream Channel—mix of butterscotch and vanilla ice creams, jelly, crispy nuts,
topped butterscotch sauce and dry fruits
Funcream—vanilla ice cream, jelly,
fresh fruits, vermicelli, chickoo, and nuts
Pistafalooda—pist syrup, fresh fruits, noodles, jelly, almond nuts, and vanilla scoop
Joker 2000—it is a funny man for kids with ear, nose and cap
I choose the Joker because I hardly feel like smiling, with dozens of mosquito bites dotting my face, arms, and legs. Last count with a Q-tip and calamine lotion: seventy-five teeny warm lumps. Grandma gives me a quizzical look, like she suddenly smells spoiled milk, when I give the waiter my order, but I look away onto the shoreline of swooping coconut trees, trying to be dignified, grown-up, in choosing my dessert. Here the coconut tree trunks curve and swerve in a wild cursive, palms all full and bursting like green hands spread wide open.
Grandma is right: the waiter returns with bowls of Miss Ghulbi and Pino Fantasy concoctions. He leaves and sprints back to our table with my Joker 2000 on a tiny blue saucer so small it could almost be a coaster. JoAnn looks at me half sympathetic and half embarrassed: this is what I summoned the family driver for? It is, of all the things on the sticky laminated menu, the only dish that comes premade from some factory in Madras. True to its description, it is a super-sweet concoction of pressed, solidified yogurtlike frozen cream, but pathetically shaped into the head of a man with glasses and baseball cap. Like Mr. Potato Head.
In this village where cold drinks are a novelty (refrigerators are used mainly for meats, and unreliable even then because of the frequent blackouts during monsoon), ice cream is nothing short of luxury. I savor every last cold bite, but I’m finished before JoAnn has had two bites of her Miss Ghulbi.
I try not to covet her tantalizing bowl of ice cream, the sugared nuts steaming in this humidity. In my disappointment, at least I forget all the mosquito bites swelling on my body, focusing instead on the screeching of peacocks in the distance and my grandmother clinking her spoon on her ceramic bowl, scraping the last remnants of pineapple.
Thankfully, Grandma offers to buy me something else, and suddenly I am eight years old again—quiet and smiling, all traces of my impatience with the heat, the mosquitoes, or the stares of villagers vanished. I am so grateful. I let her choose and order for me in Malayalam—the language of my father only when he is angry with me—and I don’t even frown when she shares a joke with the waiter where I am so obviously the punch line. JoAnn thinks I’m eating a Vembenad Beauty, as there are moist vanilla and chocolate cake slices layered into the ice cream, but then there are no lychee pieces, and instead, a kind of dark, fruity syrup, like a thinned jam, that blends so sweetly with the pure vanilla ice cream on my tongue.
The peacocks continue to trill-call in the distance. Rain begins to fall again. Lean, tanned boatmen use bamboo poles to steer large two-story houseboats along the backwaters of Vembenad Beach. A small splash of pole—and then quiet. The splash—and then quiet. Splash—and quiet. As a houseboat solemnly glides past our table, past our slice of beachfront ice-cream parlour, I think I catch the white flash of teeth from the brightest of smiles. I find myself smiling back at him, and my grandmother watches the whole scene as she scoops the last of her ice cream from the bright aluminum bowl.
I’m eight and I’ve just returned from my first trip to southern India to visit my grandparents. During that time, I’ve fallen completely in love with peacocks—Pavo cristatus, India’s national bird—in spite of hearing stray ones in my grandparents’ courtyard shriek like a cat being dragged over thumbtacks every morning. The bright and bold turquoise and jade feathers, and the memory of the peacock’s bright blue neck, curls over my shoulder as I listen to my new third-grade teacher in suburban Phoenix announce an animal drawing contest. We’ve just moved here from a small town in Iowa, where I was the only brown girl in class. And although my classmates stared hard at me when I first was introduced to everyone, even now I remember how happy I was to see kids of all shades in the room. My knees bounce at my desk when I hear the announcement of the schoolwide drawing contest. Of course I know what animal I’m going to draw.
She sends us off to the library to search for an animal, and I ask if I can just stay and get started on my drawing. She fumbles in her purse, and I see a pack of cigarettes. No, you may not. We all need to be on the same page, she says.
I scan the library shelves. There are no books on peacocks. My friends choose various dog breeds, small reptiles, lots of kittens. In my notebook, I write in careful cursive, peacocks are the national bird of india. Then the bell rings and summons us back to class.
My teacher walks up and down the aisles, checking our notebooks. When she stops at my desk, I hear a smoky sigh, and her long maroon nail taps on my notebook: two short taps. I have no idea what this means.
When we draw our animals on thick sheets of white construction paper, I fill the page with a sea of bright teal green and purple. I outline the dramatic eye of the peacock in black, like he’s wearing eyeliner. The rest of the page blooms with peacock feathers, dozens of violet eyes. I can see the drawing the kid next to me is working on—a mostly blank page with a single squiggle-line on it: a snake.
My teacher continues to stalk around the rows of our desks. Some of us misunderstood the assignment, she says. She reaches the front of the room, and clears her throat. Some of us will have to start over and draw American animals. We live in Ah-mer-i-kah! Now she looks right at me. My neck flushes. Anyone who is finished can bring your drawing up to my desk and start your math worksheets. Aimee—The class turns to look at me. Looks like you need a do-over!
I turn my drawing over and blink hard, trying not to let tears fall onto the white page. To this day I have no idea what she was talking about. “American animals” was not even part of the original assignment. Did she think peacocks couldn’t live in this country? I had seen them at the San Diego Zoo the summer before, and my father had told me they even block roads in Miami, where they can be seen strolling across lawns in the suburbs.
I pick up a new sheet of paper and slink back to my desk. I draw the most American thing I can think of: a bald eagle perched on a branch at the edge of a cliff, two eggs peeking up from the nest delicately balanced on the branch. I know the nest looks like a basket of Easter eggs, but I don’t care anymore. I just want to be done with the drawing so my classmates will stop staring. I color in the wings with the saddest sepia in my crayon box. Before I turn it in, I add an American flag—as big as the one hung outside the school—its pole poked into the tree’s branches. Nothing about it looks natural, especially since the flag itself is so much larger than the eagle.
When I got home that day, I parked myself on the couch and stared at the television. When my dad called me to dinner, I told him I wasn’t hungry. When he walked into the living room to ask me to come to the dinner table anyway, I said, Why do we need to have all these peacocks all over the house? Wooden peacocks, brass peacocks, a peacock calendar, a peacock painting—it’s so embarrassing! My dad said nothing, just walked out of the room, then called back, Your dinner will be cold.
The next day, all the peacocks in the house were gone. All the peacocks, except for our family calendar: twelve months of peacocks, in front of a waterfall, a museum, a wall of bougainvillea. The calendar remained, marking our time with its little squares, a new set of dramatic eyes looking back at me each month.
Weeks later, after announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance, my teacher announced the results of the drawing contest: my eagle drawing had won first place. It was displayed in the giant glass trophy case, right outside the principal’s office. I always hurried past it on my way to class.
I was a girl who loved to draw. I was a girl who loved color, who loved a fresh box of crayons, who always envied the girls who had the box of sixty-four colors, but made do with my off-brand box of twenty-four. I was a girl who loved to draw—and yet I don’t think I ever drew a bird again, not even a doodle while I was on the phone, until well into adulthood.
This is how I learned to ignore anything from India. The peacock feathers my grandfather had carefully collected for me on my last day in India grew dusty in the back of my closet, instead of sitting in a vase on my white dresser. This is how for years I pretended I hated the color blue.
But what the peacock can do is remind you of a home you will run away from and run to all your life. My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue. My favorite color is peacock blue.