Saturday, June 7, 2008

Cataracts and Hurricanoes

We hurry back to Mumbai, but the monsoon beats us to it. The temperature’s still in the thirties, but the pavements are glossy with standing water, and the air feels like wet felt. We find Monu again - omnibus rejoicing. He commandeers the luggage trolley, grinning. “Rains come!” he says, needlessly: we’re already holding our trousers up, clear of the puddled tarmac. We pick our way across the car-park, like curtseying ladies, marvelling at the pewter clouds, as if we hadn’t lived under Manchester’s cardboard skies for twelve years. Mumbai’s a different city, wet, but love not being love which alters, etc., etc., it’s still home.

It’s like Postman Pat’s Rainy Day, without Mrs Goggins or Jess. “It had rained and rained for days and days, and it seemed that it would never stop.” Greendale comes to the sub-continent.
On the way home, through pebbled windows, we admire the washed trees, which turn out to be green-leaved, after all, underneath the dust veneer. Not all of them make it through the storm, though. The pavement’s littered with split branches, and even whole trunks. It seems whimsical of nature, to say the least, to have them survive the long months of drought, only to fell them at the first drop of saving rain.

As the Reverend Timms remarked cheerily, “It rains on the just, and on the unjust!” It has to be said, it’s difficult, here in Powai, to sort out the righteous from the sinners. We can – and do – all get wet, it’s just that some of us have less access to getting dry again any time soon. I see the niftiest solution, this afternoon: a man – hatless, sockless, pretty well everything-less, except for his loincloth. Not an option immediately available to half of the population, but the man in his skin won’t still be waiting for the rain to evaporate off his shirt, this time tomorrow.

At the entrance to Inorbit Mall, a dripping attendant, in a floor-length mac, opens cars and taxis, to escort shoppers inside, under his rainbow umbrella. Sweepers draw endless figures of eight, criss-crossing the marble floors, inside and out, again and again, banishing wet footprints, again and again.

The “small, small shops” are open for business, but there’s no-one buying. Each shop’s about twelve foot wide, and the whole of the front opens up, by way of entrance, so it’s not a question of “Mind the step and close the door behind you.” Over the ironmonger’s shop, the blue plastic awning bellies with rain, so the ironmonger pokes it gently with a stick, and the water cascades onto the beaten earth. The pavements will dissolve before the weekend’s out. At the Great Punjab, our favourite street restaurant, the owner puts sandbags like stepping-stones, from the road to his front step, to enable his customers to dine with vaguely dry feet. Despite his forethought, we are the only takers. Is it the weather, we ask, putting people off? But no, three new TV shows start tonight. In the time it takes us to eat our rice and dahl, they’ve sent out twenty orders of takeaway, to be eaten off knees in homes across Powai, in front of the small screen. East and West are closer than we think.

Pavement life’s reduced to the diehards. On Barbers’ Row, we see one solitary barber, brandishing his razor, squatting – hopefully on a tarpaulin of some sort – to shave a customer, under a makeshift awning. The paan-wallah sleeps, curled under a golfing-umbrella. I wonder how rose-petal paste and betel nuts fare in the damp? A forlorn sherbert-seller rigs a sheet of plastic, in the overhanging branch of a tree, his lemons already running with water. Monu wouldn’t let me buy juice from this stall, in May. “Just photo, no drink! – No wash glass. Dirty waters.” Maybe his glasses will benefit from the extra rinse, now. A bareheaded man stands behind a barrow-load of wet bananas, his face the picture of karmic resignation. After the first minute or so, you can’t get any wetter, so there’s no point trying to keep any bits dry. The rain’s warm, anyway. “’It’ll be wet letters, and wet everything,’ said Pat.” Quite.

Post-deluge, everywhere has that newly-shriven look of the scrubbed schoolboy, but eight months’ accumulated detritus is a big ask for a single shower of rain, however diluvial. Slurries of waste lap at every kerb; the “Clean Up Mumbai” trucks are bulging. Rag-pickers still sift through rubbish-heaps with a poking stick. Their only concession to the monsoon, wearing plastic bags on their heads, like chefs’ hats, or draping their shoulders in a bin-bag cloak, like oriental super-heroes.

On the balconies of the high-rise flats, washing hangs limply to dry. Is this absent-minded or aspirational? In either case, you’d have not to be in a hurry for your white jeans, I think. I can only applaud the optimism. Most of the beggars, who conduct their fishbowl lives on the pavement, have upped sticks – literally – and gone back to the villages. The rare few remaining can’t be bothered to work the traffic, huddling further into the meagre shelter of the flyover. It’s going to be a long haul.

We’re in Haiko, busily buying tomatoes and lentils, when the clouds unzip, and pour forth. Monu’s parked only ten yards from the door, but the rain’s a whiteout, and we can’t see him, let alone reach him. Mr Roland ducks back into the shop to buy an umbrella. Would you believe it – how prescient of Haiko - there’s an umbrella section right by the till. Only a million to choose from. Sadly, I’m on trolley-guarding duty, so our new model’s maroon with a tartan trim. Yes, I know. Still, between now and when the rain eases off, in about September, we’ll have plenty of time to sample the entire waterproof catalogue of available umbrellas, so I’m unperturbed. We heave the dripping bags into the back of the car, and squelch in ourselves. Monu slams the boot shut, laughing. “Nice, nice weather. I like rain.” This is just as well, four months is a long time to be crabby. “Will it rain every day?” I ask. “All, all day, rains!” he smiles. I like rain, too, but mostly from the smug warm-and-dry-inside perspective. Currently, it’s fascinating. Give me ‘til Tuesday of next week, and ask me again.