There is a kind of orderly chaos in this city when it rains. Cars slow down and their windshield wipers start up. Klaxons, in high and low pitch, fill the air. Traffic signals stop working. A policeman stands hidden inside a yellow raincoat with a peaked hood, directing the traffic with sharp jerks of his yellow arms. A wet dog creeps along the road, wanting to look to the left, right and ahead all at once, as dogs do, trying to find a dry spot for itself within the crowded bus shelter. Commuters huddled in the bus shelter shift slightly, like shards rearranging themselves inside a kaleidoscope, and the dog is welcomed into this space.
A security guard paces stiffly in gumboots and baseball cap. Umbrellas mushroom. Children laugh. Car wipers wipe. Trees sway. Water levels rise.
Taxis cut swathes of brown silk in the water, for they must propel themselves across the knee-deep stream before the water can get inside the engine. Young men in tee-shirts, with their trousers rolled up above their knees and handkerchiefs and plastic bags wrapped around their heads, stand in idle, vaguely watchful groups, waiting for a car to stall, sputter, and then give up. And then they spring into action, these roadside knights, sloshing knee-deep into the muddy water to take their positions behind and alongside the vehicle, adjust their body angles for their centres of gravity, perhaps rub water out of an eye with a wet wrist—and then, with a one, two, three, they give a huge push, never mind if it fails the first time, they don't laugh, they're businesslike, then push again, in synchronized motion, heaving and hoing the vehicle into a gentle sway,! shudder, and away! It is only then that they will smile and laugh and cheer, these road gangs of the rains, and no, they won't mind if you speed off with just a hasty wave of your free hand as you enter the stream of traffic once again.
Men and women wear umbrellas like hats, limbs, extensions of their bodies. Everything: the Amul Butter billboard, the pollution index flashing red numbers, the black and white faces gazing impassively from the Benetton display window, the magnolia trees bent over and heavy with their waxy-petalled white flowers, everything wears the fresh, open-faced look that things wear after it has rained after months of waiting. Plastic bags are scrunched up and tied around foreheads. Saree pleats are bunched up and twisted out of the way of the rising water. Dupattas are wrapped like scarves around ears and braids. Important papers are slipped into plastic covers. The wind pulls a yellow umbrella out of a child's hand and rolls it halfway down the road.
A young man sits on the railing at the bus stop, a white kerchief wrapped around his forehead. A little boy jumps up and down, twisting and turning, as he holds the handlebars of his father's scooter. Behind the father, the mother sits, harried, her saree palla pulled across her forehead. Street children selling flowers at the traffic signals stand giggling under blue plastic sheets. There are great bunches of yellow roses, violet orchids, blood-red carnations in their hands. The boy selling the afternoon newspaper holds a plastic sheet over his bundle of newsprint; the girl selling the women's glossies doesn't have to worry, for her copies of Bride and Interiors are protected in their individual plastic sheaths.
It is the first spell of rain of the year. Already it feels as if the sun has disappeared forever. Only the clouds hang heavily low over the city, bending lower and lower, as if trying to enter their homes through the windows. Sirrup-sirrup-drip-drup goes the rainwater ceaselessly, falling with a plop onto open-faced leaves, fragrant soil, shivering puddles. Plink-plonk, it falls on glass windowpanes. Shuck-shuck, it says gently as it falls on car windshields.
Pigeons sidestep and flap into crannies, churring and whirring in mild confusion. Great striated snails roll across the muddy paths. Crows, glistening and black, raise a plaintive caw from inside the dark branches of thick trees. A huge dark kite sits on the tennis court wall, watchful and angry. Cats slink along, wet and baleful, and roll up under staircases.
They say that some Arab sheikhs book entire floors at the city's luxury hotels, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Oberoi, and bring their families over to gaze at the monsoon as it rolls in from the Arabian Sea. Outside the Taj, the little boats, white and blue, bob restlessly at the jetty, while the large ships out at sea are almost completely covered by the grey sheets of rain.
Rain food stalls mushroom suddenly on the pavements: hot and crunchy chana jor garam, spicy bhuttas sprinkled with chat masala, and chai-pakoras as always. At home, it is hot khichri without vegetables on some days, and khichoori on other days, with vegetables and tejpatta.
When the rain slows down, there is a pearly grey glow on everything—asphalt, pavement, gutter, tree, streetlamp, billboard, human figures standing huddled under bus shelters. It hasn't stopped entirely yet, though it has slowed down, letting other sounds take over, rather like a train whistle slowing into a chuff-chuff as the station draws near and then sighing into silence while the buzz of passengers, coolies, chaiwallas and hawkers begins. Drip, falls the raindrop from the branch onto the leaf below. Drip, it falls again, rolling down the waxy arrow of leaf and falling off the tip to the leaf below. Drip.
The drizzle gives its own lustre to everything. It is as if a thin film of sweat covers us all, our foreheads, cheeks, lips, and then rolls down our necks and down our backs, rolls off us into the road and the drains and trickles into the soil, searching for the sea.
Across the dilapidated tennis court behind the house, huge white waves roll in and break with a loud crash on the black rocks. A frond of white spray rises from the sea like foaming milk.
Inside the house, listening to the rain as it falls is like trying to make sense of a ceaseless whisper: what is it saying? When it is heavy, it sounds like pooris frying in hot oil. But when it slows down and the wind starts up, whistling through the crevices in the walls, it is as if there is a person standing right there outside the window, whistling, even if you are on the fourth floor and you know there can be no one there.
About the author:
Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta lives and works in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Green Tricycle, Muse Apprentice Guild, Gowanus and Post-Careerist. She likes dogs and cats, and people who like dogs and cats. She doesn't like bios.