SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Rainswept glory

SEASONS

Rainswept glory

AS yet another scorching summer has drawn to a close in Mumbai, one hears the haunting cry of the pied crested cuckoo. This tiny bird migrates from distant lands and is said to herald the arrival of the monsoon in the city. It's a shy bird, hard to spot and its melancholy call always fills us with a sense of longing laced with regret; a craving for the first healing showers mixed with sadness that soon, one will not see the sun for days at a stretch.

Much of Mumbai is polluted, overcrowded and frenetic, yet the city has an aura of magic and irrepressible hope. It exudes a stark beauty and a pregnant sense of possibility, especially just before the rains when the gulmohur trees are in flamboyant bloom. The first hint of rain is the fragrance of fresh earth that tickles one's nostrils and in the old days when this happened, we would head for our favourite spot in the city — the erstwhile "Naaz" restaurant at Hanging Gardens. And though the open-air caf� no longer exists, there are strategic points from where one can view the seafront promenade — Marine Drive — a sweeping crescent below us.

From up here one can inhale deep lungfuls of the wind that bring with it the scent of a storm and watch as lightning stabs a dark sky sagging with black clouds and cower as thunder claps reverberate over the city.

Below, an angry sea vents its fury on the rocks and the breakers spray walls of water many metres high over the promenade. Occasionally a foolhardy fisherman (the kolis were the original inhabitants of Mumbai) ventures out in a fragile boat across the vast grey heaving expanse of the sea. Some bob bravely in the initial downpour but as the monsoon gathers momentum, the fishermen pull in their boats and use the time to mend their nets and patch up their crafts.

With the demise of "Naaz", we now welcome the monsoon with a snack and a cocktail at "Sea Lounge" at the Taj Mahal Palace and Towers that unravels in front of the iconic Gateway of India. Here one gets an uninterrupted view of the harbour bristling with ferries which transport people to Elephanta Caves, Alibag and other hot spots. During the monsoons the ferries stop plying and the Gateway looks a trifle forlorn without the seething crowds that normally sit around it, shooting the breeze when the weather is gentler.

Most Mumbaikars have a love-hate relationship with the rains. Romance does not die in the wet season; in fact it flourishes as couples huddle together under umbrellas or run for cover to bleak little dry spots; or take shelter in dimly lit but warm restaurants or take in a movie where Bollywood heroines drenched to the skin are the ultimate sex symbols. But the flip side is that the monsoons put an additional strain on the city's sagging infrastructure. Not only does one have to wade through slushy pot-holed streets pockmarked with overflowing garbage bins but when the roads get flooded, traffic slows down to a crawl and inside one's car or the bus, one has to breathe exhaust laden air.

The suburban rail network, generally sardine-packed and bursting at the seams, disgorges millions of commuters daily at various stations along the way.

In the rains it is stretched taut like an elastic band about to snap. Commuters who hang on to the floorboards, window sills and even squat on the roof of the jam-packed trains get soaked to the skin, stuck as they are like limpets to the carriages. It's a no exit situation. Yet the Mumbaikar, known for his/her grit and spirit, carries on, driven by hope and ambition to carve a better life.

New comers and migrants lured by the Bollywood dream come to this city which is home to tinsel town.

In the process they put up with great hardship; and end up sleeping on the pavements or in the city's ragged slums that cower in the shade of plate-glass high rises. Pavement dwellers are the ones who are probably the worse off in the monsoons; they shiver under flimsy tarpaulins even as lightning forks across the sky and the rain gods stamp and stomp up above them. Next morning everyone wakes up to rain-washed skies, sometimes the shade of faded denim, glistening greenery and a sense of renewed life and vigour. So what if you are living on the streets, there's water aplenty at this time of the year and the homeless joyously scrub themselves al fresco as fat warm drops course down their half naked bodies with a vengeance as the day starts with yet another downpour.

Mumbai has inexhaustible stores of energy, yet has a live and let live disposition which welcomes all comers. This hospitality comes at a price; today the city seems to be suffering from a kind of urban dementia which worsens in the monsoon.

At such times, one just needs to look at the ocean for reassurance that we are still somehow connected to nature and that it survives despite our best efforts to obliterate it. So we take a walk in the rain-washed city — admiring its colonial architecture that acquires a new dimension, a kind of soft focus look, through curtains of rain. Gothic Victoria Terminus (now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), the High Court buildings, Rajabai Tower and Mumbai University in front of which stretches the green expanse of Oval Maidan, Malabar Hill, Hanging Gardens and Kamla Nehru Park with its stunning views of Marine Drive — these figure prominently in the collective consciousness of the residents.

Doomsday prophets predict that Mumbai could become an unrivalled example of urban destitution.

In the monsoons, certain areas lead you to believe that the prophecy has already come to pass. But walk down wind-swept Marine Drive and nibble on a masala-slathered corn-on-the-cob; sip hot tea and bhajias at a wayside caf�; bite into some of the "rain mangoes" — the plump and luscious langda, kesar, and raja puri varieties and you'll be convinced that the worst case scenario will not happen. After all, Mumbai, like Bollywood, is prolific when it comes to the creation of happy endings!

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