Cities are like big dance halls. In them, stratification and unification, public and private, nature and culture, rural and urban, slum and skyscraper, the past and the future wind in and out by each other.
We thread our way through these many spaces and identities continuously, trying to define ourselves as separate from the crowd, while wanting also, to belong to it, a persistent dance of existence.
Having separates us from each other — the rich, the less rich, the poor and more poor distinguished by their access to nicer, allegedly more legal flats, food and cuisine, clothes and fashion, time-pass and entertainment. But, sometimes not having unites us, at least for a while.
Nature is sometimes the leveller and, in Bombay, that means the monsoon. Like lovers we wait anxiously, as one, for it to arrive, sweating and fantasising. But, like modern love, the monsoon has gotten increasingly capricious, unstable, unpredictable and the initial heady pleasure of its coming is followed by weeks of worrying about its frequency and intensity. It keeps texting heavy clouds but rarely appears as rain.
But, of course, the monsoon is not just an emotional involvement for us — it’s a very physical relationship because on it depends our water supply.
Various strata of people find themselves joined in a near-nostalgic commonality, thanks to the ongoing water cuts. Every morning when the two ladies who cook and clean at my place arrive, we confer about the water cut — what time did the water go at your place? Did it come last evening? This makes a nice change from discussing onion prices.
Around then, one of my work colleagues texts, saying, “Can I come to work late? I have to stand in line for my bucket of water.” The water conference repeats in office, perhaps involving one story about how it went mid-shampoo. It’s a whole new kind of water cooler gossip.
In this time of lack, you also realise how little you really need. You can actually bathe in half of what you normally use. You can be careful about reusing the same glass for water. I find it also makes me waste time less, because I must be dressed before the water goes, instead of lurking in shorts for another, and another “just 10 minutes”.
United in this not-having, you realise that some stark truths about having are centred around profligacy and waste. When we have plenty, we rarely remember we don’t need as much. We would rather waste the surplus than share it. That’s what human beings often do, I guess.
From time to time, nature disperses its bounty a bit more evenly, a bit more suggestively.
Monsoon evenings at this time are often like paintings. In the middle of last week a uniform cloud cover arched over the entire city. As the sun set behind it, it became a diffusion filter, distributing the light with beautiful, glamorous, movie-set even-ness, a golden equality. The entire city was bathed in that awe-inspiring light, straight out of a Turner painting. Strips of blue tarpaulin on rain-grey buildings rested in a saturated glow. It was serious beauty, not the perky chirpy prettiness of rainbows.
I shared pictures and people across the city remarked on how they too had been touched by that evening’s exquisite light.
Just before it set, the sun glowed a final ruby red and the clouds turned the world a deep rose pink for 45 seconds, making me stop mid-conversation with a gasp, before it submitted to the blue-grey-blue of night.
For a few minutes there, we were all united, by having. It was lovely.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com