Mumbai’s monsoon has a pleasing yet destructive quality. While enjoying the sense of calm it brings, one is also forced to reckon with nature, and its effect on a city that is still ill-prepared in the wake of fury.
A city is shaped by its weather – the mood that hangs over a city brought on by the weather. A city is painted in the shades of its weather. When the monsoon arrives every year in June, the city assumes its mercurial quality, its ability to enchant, excite and charm.
It may be a cliché, however, the images that come to mind are those of hot chai and bhajiyas – a favourite deep-fried snack where vegetables such as large chillies, onions, spinach, potatoes, cauliflower, capsicum covered in batter enhance rain-soaked evenings.
The monsoon holds special meaning. Its coming signals freshness, triggers imagination, and is testimony to the fact that perhaps, God has a hand in creating the perfect setting for a brand new beginning. In Mumbai, the monsoon blurs the horizon where sea and sky become white-washed – an eternity blurring the city. Familiar city images are those of couples walking hand-in-hand on Marine Drive, tucking into chatpata, lemony roasted kernels of golden corn on the cob, the wild, towering waves lashing against the seafront, Gothic marvels like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus suddenly made bright and luminous by the rain, and memories of contemporary Hindi film hits such as Wake Up Sid where Ranbir Kapoor finally finds his lady love Konkona Sen Sharma right where he expects her, getting drenched in the city’s first monsoon.
Throngs of people venture out to take in the rainy season, traversing and navigating the roads on motorcycles, discovering the city bit by bit in its new unravelled charm. A sense of freedom is unleashed with people basking in a kind of new-found glory, enjoying nature’s bounties and the city’s furious, unsteadying sea breezes to the hilt.
It was predicted that this year’s monsoon would arrive a few days earlier, and its arrival has instilled into the air a buoyancy that only a city like Mumbai can adopt from a climatic change. On July 3, the contraindications of Mumbai’s romantic monsoons and torrential nature revealed themselves again, as once more, on early Tuesday disaster struck. The Gokhale overbridge at Andheri station collapsed, fortunately, before the day had started for most people.
In a city with infrastructure that is tenuous, the monsoons have often spelt terror. On July 26, 2005, Mumbai recorded around 944 mm of rainfall, its highest ever, revealing the holes and gaps in a city that several news reports and world indexes have averred to be one that is decaying. Tragedy after tragedy has struck as news stories stream in year on year detailing the extent of disruption ranging from flight cancellations to suspension of train services to road blocks to crumbling walls and collapsing bridges.
“In Mumbai the rains continue for long spells in comparison to cities like Delhi and Kolkata. They are overpowering and bring a modern, cosmopolitan city to a standstill. The monsoons in Mumbai reveal a socialist idea and the sheer helplessness of people. I saw a BMW abandoned in the middle of the road last year. In that sense, the monsoons are a kind of leveller. The rain clouds thus have an overpowering effect on a magnanimous, big city such as Mumbai,” says independent writer-director Dibya Chatterjee who came to Mumbai around four years ago from Kolkata, shifting residence to the brimming city of ruthless dreams. He adds, “Because I don’t have a nine to five job, I have had it better. The romanticism and mysticism of the monsoon… helps you think from a different perspective. Snowfall is still a very fictitious concept in (most of) India. The monsoon is very real.”
For someone growing up in the city, the monsoon, which often announces its arrival with much pomp and circumstance, might mean a day off from school, running along Chowpatty beach playing ball, and eating street food like gola and Frankie, which one has been warned against in a season where people are more infection-prone.
The BMC officials may even claim that Mumbai is well-prepared for any possible natural onslaught this season with effective dewatering systems in place. However, ground realities are heaps of garbage outside major local railways stations such Bandra (East), and on main roads that connect to localities such as Lokhandwala in Kandivli among other prime locations across the city, deluges across neighbourhoods (for instance Khar and Dadar), and pavements that double as makeshift homes and tea stalls or parking spaces for two-wheelers.
Found and lost
“We lived in Bombay and we lived in Mumbai and sometimes, I lived in both of them at the same time,” writes New-York based award winning writer Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. In saying so, perhaps he was trying to allude to a duality the city has come to be known for. One manifestation of it is the many faces of Mumbai’s monsoon. From June to September every year, a calm follows the storm and then the calm again – and citizens, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and for good or for bad, those married to the city have to accept it in all its fury and all the inconveniences it brings.
Says a police sub inspector who did not wish to be named, “I’m not very fond of the monsoon. Often after a rain shower, a lot of dust can be found flying everywhere. It should rain less in the metros and more where there are farms because that is where the rain is most needed. I’m a sportsperson and many times, when it rains, it’s impossible to go and play outside. However, one loves to play football in the monsoons! This year, at the police station, so far there have been incidents reported where trees have fallen on cars and people have come claiming insurance. In my area of jurisdiction itself part of a commercial building crumbled a few weeks ago, when the monsoon had just set in.”
Says Ajay Kumar, a former manager at a popular cafe chain across the city, who moved to Mumbai from Delhi for seven months last year, “In the North we are not very habituated to the rains. I like Mumbai’s monsoons. The monsoon here starts soon after summer when it’s very hot. Therefore, people enjoy it with that much more gusto. In the north, for example in Shimla, it’s not celebrated the way it is in Mumbai. When it rained, we would go to Marine Drive and have a lot of fun, play sports, get drenched in the rains.”