How Mumbai Stopped Romanticising the Rain and Started Dreading It

POV

How Mumbai Stopped Romanticising the Rain and Started Dreading It

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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istful Instagram posts welcoming the first showers of the monsoon season with #petrichor are a lie — Mumbai hates the rains. It always has. It’s a loosely guarded secret, and to the rest of the world Mumbai remains smugly vain about the romantic images of the foam lashing Marine Drive in July. Mumbai doesn’t tell the world about the potentially leptospirosis-infested muck it needs to wade through later to get back to suburban homes from Marine Drive.

So, much as Mumbai hates its sweaty, sultry summers, it hates the mucky monsoon even more. The rich hate it for the potholes that their BMWs have to suffer, and the poor hate it for their leaky roofs and flooded lanes. The great Mumbai middle-class hates it for the delayed trains, traffic snarls, and perennially damp clothes on the washline. But Mumbai gamely infuses the monsoon with nostalgia each year, with bhutta and bhajia-induced romance, and the indomitable “spirit of Mumbai”, which raises its hoary head at least once every season when the rains pound the city into submission.

Ever since the early 1980s, when MRF ads in the papers checked the rain-readiness of Mumbaikars through monsoon forecast dates, people of Mumbai have looked at the sky in trepidation, as May blends into June. Or, if one wades through archives left behind by the Brits, even as far back as the 1760s, when the first settlers looked up fearfully at the “putridness in the air” and dreaded the onset of a host of tropical diseases. The city grew in importance in more ways than one since, but has remained vulnerable to climate risks due to its flood-prone location. It hasn’t helped that massive reclamation, right since the time we were a loosely bound cluster of seven islands, has made us even more vulnerable to the monsoon that makes ferocious landfall in the city first and then turns gentle as it wanders inland over the Sahyadris.

Monsoon nostalgia remains the selling point for a host of consumables, Bollywood songs, and real estate projects that promise a view of a rain-soaked coastal skyline. This short-term nostalgia, which reaches into just a half-century of public memory, forgets that the Mumbai region was once a jumble of verdant hills, lakes, forests, and mangroves, not just a concrete jungle. Every year, we forget that the areas that flood the first and flood the most are marshes and low-lying wetlands that we wrested from nature for our urban needs. When Kurla drowns, we forget that it is the Mithi River asserting its right to existence once again.

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You could be walking along one of the main streets in South Mumbai and be impaled by metal sheets flying off an art fixture.

Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The short-lived joy that accompanies the drop in temperatures is greeted with cups of chai and the uncorking of liquor, but a true-blue Mumbaikar can always sniff the air in the morning and tell from the drizzle that there’s going to be heavy downpour that day and wisely keeps her kid back from school. She also knows that the Met Department forecasts are not to be relied upon, or if at all, to be sure that the exact opposite of the prediction for the 24 hours is going to come true. Ever since the city was shaken to the depths of its soul on July 26, 2005, every Mumbaikar has also been tracking the number of high tides from June to September and the exact height of each. Rain, she knows, is not something to be taken lightly ever again.

For a city that lives just 10 to 15 metres above sea level, Mumbai has never been daunted by the fact that it continues to hover in the top few of the most vulnerable coastal cities in the world, forever threatened by rising sea levels, cyclonic flooding, and tropical wind damage. The rich and poor alike huddle just a tad tighter into their cocoons in the four months of the monsoon and hope for the best. While nature has been kind in most part, man hasn’t. Haphazard planning and ineptly managed infrastructure have been making a mockery of monsoon magic for the Mumbaikar every subsequent year. Come June, you could be walking on the street and be felled by a falling tree. You could be walking along one of the main streets in South Mumbai and be impaled by metal sheets flying off an art fixture. In a downpour, you could be feeling your way along a flooded lane and get sucked down an open manhole. Or you could be stuck inside a jammed SUV and drown. The possibilities are increasing every year. Every year, the Mumbaikar is a little more fearful than fond of the monsoon.

While nature has been kind in most part, man hasn’t.

Truth be told, the city doesn’t really need all that rain anyway. Nikhil Anand’s well-researched book Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of citizenship in Mumbai rightly points out that Mumbai draws 90 per cent of its water from the adjoining Shahapur taluka by controlling five dams on the Tansa, Bhatsa, and Vaitarna rivers. The dams store and collect water in the monsoon and direct it through pipes into the city. The city is more dependent on rains in Shahapur district than on rains within the city, a realisation that should go some way toward stripping the monsoon of its revered aura.

As Mumbai continues to grow, and the city’s infrastructure becomes increasingly choked, the monsoon magic wears off with each passing year. And yet, every year, tots in anganwadis across Mumbai chant the native, ancient yearning for the life-giving monsoon, “Ye re ye re pausa.” Yep. Bring it on.

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