Ranjona Banerji: Missing the magic of Mumbai monsoons
It does feel a bit like you’re in a magical place. You look up and you see hills covered in clouds, some of them below the peaks, resting as it were. Every morning in this monsoon season, I will most likely wake up to the image that accompanies the column.
And yet what I long for with Himalayan rain falling all around me is the monsoon in Mumbai. Half the people I know will start screaming with rage. Overflowing drains, shoes caked in muck, trains running late, giant potholes, huge traffic jams, a damp, dank smell that stays for three months... yes, I know the monsoon in Mumbai means all those things. And I know that they are horrible and one way or another, everyone who lives in the city will experience some or all of it.
Every morning in this monsoon season, I will most likely wake up to this image. And yet what I long for is the monsoon in Mumbai
Of course, yes, the monsoon is much awaited in all of India, especially this year, especially after the way India has suffered this summer with drought and death. Closer to my new home, the last two years were horrendous here in the hills, 2015 being one of the worst in recent time. Not enough monsoon rain and not enough winter rain and an area that was once third wettest in India heard the ‘drought’ word being used. Forest fires, dry river beds, tankers doing double duty — that has been the story of the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. So the past week of rain has been blessed and a blessing. And downright beautiful, as the picture shows.
But still I miss those clichéd and iconic Mumbai scenes. Sheets of rain walking across the Arabian Sea into the bay. Waves clashing and crashing on to Marine Drive.
Dark grey choppy waters with bobbing boats hanging on to their moorings at the Gateway of India. The expanse of grey skies and angry grey seas rolling in too close for comfort at Juhu beach. The utter romance of raindrops caught by a streetlight at night.
There is a relentlessness about Mumbai’s monsoon that makes it all the more majestic and seductive. That is why people sometimes foolishly endanger themselves by getting too close to those walls of water collapsing on Marine Drive. Remember the 1970s and 1980s, when Arabs would arrive to look at the rain? That was monsoon tourism long before Goa pretended to have invented it. There was a popular, if apocryphal, story in those days about a sheikh meeting one of the owners in the lift of the Oberoi. The sheikh asked if he could buy the hotel. The owner apparently, replied, without batting an eyelid and referencing a popular ad of the time, “Share my five-star? Not a chance!”
Some of the best views of the approaching monsoon were from that hotel. And across the bay, before the municipal corporation decided that destroying a Mumbai icon was essential activity, there was Cafe Naaz, which catered to the Mumbai that had substantially smaller wallets than an Arab sheikh.
Some people in some parts of the world drink cold beer when it’s hot. Mumbaiwallahs can also drink cold beer when it’s raining. They also jump under waterfalls when it’s raining because the monsoon is the best time to venture out of Mumbai to the hills around. That’s when the hills look their most beautiful and, for some odd reason, you have to eat corn and strawberries in the hill station of Mahabaleshwar, hopefully not together, although anything is possible.
Indian corn is hardly available anymore but admit it, that American stuff is delicious and although there are constant attempts to make Marine Drive corn-free (also tree-free), there are enough vendors all over the city. If limey-chilli corn on the cob is not your thing, then walking in the rain eating peanuts boiled in their shells is as good, if not better.
The last time I walked in the Mumbai rain, I must admit, was three years ago, in waist-deep water close to my old home off Linking Road. I had to douse myself in antiseptic liquid. You may think I’m crazy but I laughed through the whole thing.
So Mumbai, stop whining and enjoy your special monsoon. You’ll miss it when it’s gone. Even I do and take another look at what I live with.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona