The smell of wet earth: monsoon in Bangladesh

Most of us travel to escape the rain. The photographer GMB Akash sought it out on his home turf of Bangladesh, documenting both the joy and the difficulties brought by this year’s monsoon. On the basis that the best travel writing repays rereading, his images are combined here with a passage from Chasing The Monsoon by Alexander Frater, which was first published in 1990

At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started. Two hours fifty minutes later racing cumulus extinguished the sun and left everything washed in an inky violet light. At 4.50, announced by deafening ground-level thunderclaps, the monsoon finally rode into Cochin. The cloud-base blew through the trees like smoke; rain foamed on the hotel’s harbourside lawn and produced a bank of hanging mist as opaque as hill fog. In the coffee shop the waiters rushed to the windows, clapping and yelling, their customers forgotten. One, emerging from the kitchen bearing a  teapot destined for the conference room (where, it was rumoured, executives  of the Indian Spices Board sat in closed session), glimpsed the magniloquent spectacle outside, banged the teapot down on my table and ran to join them crying, “Ho! Ho! Ho!’

  Heaving a door open I stepped outside. Soaked to the skin within seconds, I felt a wonderful sense of flooding warmth and invigoration; it was, indubitably, a bit like being born again. Raindrops ran like coins on the flagstoned path and the air was filled with fusillades of crimson flowers from the flamboyant trees; they went arcing by like tracer and, raked by an especially mean burst, I can testify that flamboyant blossoms hitting you in the eye at 60 k.p.h. cause pain and temporary loss of vision. At Fort Cochin they were ringing the bells in St Francis Church. In the dark harbour small boats ran for home. Waves bursting over the scalloped sea wall were suffused, curiously, with pink light. The jetty, set under a small wooden gazebo, vanished beneath heavy surf. Orange tiles cladding the gazebo’s steeply pitched roof began to tremble until, like clay pigeons being sprung, they went whirling off into the murk one by one.

  Then, from the corner of an eye still watering from the flower strike, I witnessed an astonishing scene. Two straining waiters held the coffee shop door open while a party of men and women filed into the storm. The men wore button-down shirts and smart business suits, the women best-quality silk saris and high-heeled shoes; as they emerged, they opened their arms one by one and  lifted their faces to the rain.

  The Spices Board had come out to greet the monsoon.

  They made for the jetty, strolling, laughing out loud, calling, revolving slowly in a kind of dream-like gavotte. In the gazebo they stood knee-deep in seething water while the wind blew spiralling flumes of rain up over the peak of the disintegrating roof; the flumes united there in a fountainhead which, along with the tiles, kept getting snatched away. Buffeted by the gusts, unbalanced by the waves, the Spices Board executives clung to each other with water in their eyes and looks of sublime happiness on their faces. A young woman in a soaked and flapping gold-coloured sari laughed at me and clapped her hands. ’Paradise will be like this,’ she shouted.

Pictures © GMB Akash 2013. Text, extracted from Chasing The Monsoon by Alexander Frater, © Alexander Frater (Picador 2005/2011).

GMB Akash (born 1977), a graduate of the renowned South Asian Institute of Photography in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has had work featured in publications ranging from National Geographic to Vogue and won numerous prizes, including the Young Reporter’s Award from the Scope Photo Festival in Paris, a World Press Photo Award and first prize in the Travel Photographer of the Year competition. His 10-year project documenting the lives of those on the margins of society, from street children to prostitutes, was published as Survivors; 25 per cent of the price of each copy goes towards projects benefiting those he photographed. For more about his work, see his website and blog

Alexander Frater was born in Vanuatu in the South Pacific, where the first sounds he heard were of falling rain. He now lives in London*, though whenever time and money allow is likely to be found skulking deep in the hot, wet tropics. A former chief travel correspondent of The Observer, he has three times been named travel writer of the year in the British Press Awards. His latest book is The Balloon Factory: The story of the men who built Britain’s first flying machines (Picador).

*Alexander Frater died on January 1, 2020.

One response to “The smell of wet earth: monsoon in Bangladesh”

  1. Stephen McClarence avatar
    Stephen McClarence

    What a marvellous start to the site – and how good to read Chasing the Monsoon again. I last read it about 15 years ago, when my wife & I were staying in an old & rather rundown hotel in Shillong, in the Indian North Eastern State of Meghalaya. As I got to Frater’s account of staying at what turned out to be the same hotel & discovering rats in his “cavernous” room, with its “shadowy” dressing room, I looked up & suddenly realised he was writing about the very room we were in. We did a spot-check for rats before going to bed. They must have been having a night off.

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