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Dhonduram, the wizened old fisherman at Machchimaar Nagar in South Mumbai, understands the many moods of the sea far better than a weather satellite. For generations, his Koli family has read the message of the waves crashing against their fishing vessels, and known precisely when to pull up the neon blue fishing nests, bring the boats home to dock, and take a much needed break from their demanding, back breaking trade. This year was no different. Two days before the official shutdown of the waters surrounding Mumbai was announced, and the ferry boats stopped plying tourists to Elephanta Caves, Dhonduram quietly went about shutting shop in his humble shack on the edge of the sea. His family had interpreted the signs only too well themselves. His wife Shantabai, was relieved she wouldn’t have to wait for the turbulent sea to wash straight into the small home and sweep the steel utensils away without a warning. As always, her husband had accurately deduced exactly when the majestic, magnificent Mumbai Monsoon would unleash its mighty force on the metropolis.
Aahhh - the Monsoon!It was love at first sight for me. I fell for Mumbai and the rains on my arrival into the maddening megapolis which soon became my home. I was 10 years old. My father had been transferred to Mumbai from Delhi. He was overjoyed at coming back to the city of his ( and my mother’s) birth. As for me, I was leaving the Capital reluctantly. Delhi was where my friends were. And I would be leaving my comfortable colony life just as the plump, purple jaamuns would ripen and fall off the tree in our kitchen garden. I had cried throughout the train journey, all the way to Mumbai. But the moment, we stepped out of the crowded Bombay Central Station, and into the furious rains, I knew I was going to adore my new city. My tears mixed with raindrops, as we rushed to find a cab and begin our new life in India’s City of Dreams. Unlike most who dread the Monsoon, I have always made the most of the rains that whip Mumbai from June to as late as November ( global warming raises its ugly head!). The enchanting thing about the Monsoon is how dramatically it announces itself, and how spectacularly it departs. The Mumbai Monsoon doesn’t sneak into the city like a thief in the dead of the night. It makes sure you take note of its arrival by putting on an impressive show. The sky darkens ominously with clouds so bloated, they resemble an army of powerful ‘Rakshasas’’ marching aggressively across the firmament, accompanied by a deafening drum roll of thunder and an impressive show of fire power, as forked lightning cracks open the sky and crackles as it finds its targets on earth. There is nothing ‘pretty’ or gentle about our Monsoon. And try as I might, I cannot romanticise it, like our great poet ‘Kalidasa’ whose epic ‘Meghdoot’ remains the most evocative tribute to the romance of rain.
My Monsoon is a creature of fury, as it rages on through four soggy months, often without a respite. Sheets and sheets of harsh, sharp, pelting rain pour over poor Mumbai. The sea churns, rumbles and crashes over daunting obstacles , uncaring of who or what it destroys. Gigantic waves hit unwary strollers ( and sometimes drag a few away). Waves that are so awe inspiring, Mumbaikars foolishly gaze at the spectacle, as if in a trance, oblivious to the danger to their own lives.For there is something hypnotic about the Mumbai Monsoon as countless tourists from the Middle East will confirm. Families from the Emirates arrive in droves and check into seaside hotels along the famous Queen’s Necklace, just to soak in the atmosphere... and basically, just to soak! A few I have spoken to insist the rains hold such a special attraction for them because they don’t get any! How does one explain ‘rain’ to a child who has never experienced it, an Arab asked me, as he patiently waited for the first showers on Marine Drive. His wife, fussing over theïr brood of kids, said, “We are desert people.... our children love getting wet in Mumbai! Look – no raincoats, no umbrellas. We are here to get drenched!” Well...that’s perfectly understandable. It’s like the Indian fascination for snow!
It’s true, the incessant rain does make one hungry. Perhaps it’s psychological. Lethargy makes ones thoughts turn to food. Mumbaikars have come up with Monsoon menus that are pretty irresistible. Even street food acquires a twist with roasted corn ( bhuttas) being briskly sold along the many beaches. Our ‘cutting chai’’(peculiar to Mumbai) sees an impressive jump in sales, as motorists stop off for a quick cuppa before heading home. I am not a pakora (we call them bhajiyas in Mumbai) fan, but diehards insist there is nothing to beat piping hot pakoras with steaming tea, while watching the rains from a dry haven. But even the most ardent admirers of the Mumbai Monsoon will agree, it’s not always as alluring as it appears. Mumbai does experience pretty nightmarish situations when the tides are high, and our tempers even higher. Life comes to a virtual standstill as diligent Mumbaikars brave waist- high waters on flooded streets and railway tracks, attempting( and often failing) to reach their workplaces. This is the Monsoon God testing us – will Mumbaikars have it in them to cope without breaking down? Bringing the city down to its knees, begging for mercy, the Rain God finally relents and moves on. But not before creating havoc and devastation. Finally, it’s Narali Purnima – the night of a glorious full moon, which signals the end of the dramatic Monsoon. Once again. Dhonduram and his wife make an offering of coconuts to an insatiable sea. There are prayers and celebrations at the Machchimar Nagar, as fisher folk get their trawlers ready to brave the oceans once more. There is hope in their hearts and a prayer on their lips, that the sea will yield a bounty.Dhonduram looks up at the sky and seeks celestial blessings as he sails out optimistically.... the skies are clear, and the sea, calm....till the next Monsoon... and the next.