Monsoon in Bombay (05.19.1988)
The only event in the Bombay weather is the monsoon.
The first rain comes early this year, in the middle of May. I can smell it coming, over the sea. I say to the watchmen in my building, “It’s going to rain.”
“Now?” they ask, surprised.
Now. I know that smell.
It used to be like this when I was a child: For four days there was thunder. All of us looked at the pale gray sky. Animals and men drew long breaths, felt dry and humid at the same time. Winds came up suddenly, stirred the sleeping dust, and carried it away in little whirlpools.
The summer had been hotter, longer than anyone could remember, although they said the same thing at the end of last summer and every summer before that. It’s what you say at the cusp.
It was the time of the year at which the season of cricket, that game of hot long summer days, was poised to give way to soccer, hopscotch, and marbles. We swatted the bat desultory, bored of the waiting.
Day by day the tension grew in the sky. At times everything would be covered in the false black. Birds would fly rapidly; we would think they were flying in advance of the storm, so we came out in old clothes to the compound.
As we waited, we grew irritable and hit each other, fooled around, played tricks on the weak and the stupid. We let the air out of tires, wrote obscene doggerel on the walls of the girls’ school.
The grandmothers said, “It is coming…. for sure.”
And yet it would not.
Farmers and governments grew alarmed. The papers were full of dire predictions. Grass wilted in the playing fields of the girls’ school, forbidden to us, so we made it a point to sneak in and play hockey and trample the carefully tended flower bushes.
The sea lay supine, exhausted, needing rain to lubricate, replenish herself. We went to the shallows and fished with our palms, catching the minute sea creatures left behind in the suddenly created lakes when the sea retreated from the rocks. The city and the building ran out of water. There was nothing with which to wash bodies or the clothes the bodies had made dirty.
There was barely enough to drink; tankers came from the interior, and all the servants lined up with buckets, paying exorbitant rates for the brackish water and then splashing half of it into the thirsty ground, earning them outraged shouts from their mistresses.
At night the exhausted people dreamt of rivers and waterfalls; in the cinemas they watched the song sequences for the shots of snow in Kashmir and saris wet in manufactured rain, watching the falling, flowing water, silently, greedily. They bought and fell asleep to the recorded sounds of oceans and running brooks, clear water over mountain rocks.
Then one day you knew. You saw it coming over the sea. There was a powerful wind and at first just a shower of dust, a huge hell of a lot of dust, all the dust of the world up and in through the open windows of the buildings. If you were downstairs, you had to stop your games and cover your mouth and your eyes. It entered your hair and your nose and you were sick of summer, you had been sweating all day and you could not stand summer for one more second.
The clouds passed by overhead at great speed, carrying urgent dispatches from someone unknown to us to somebody whom we could never talk to. The sky was blue-black, like the poison-filled neck of Shiva.
Then the first drop, so light you might have imagined it.
It might have been an air conditioner leaking. The leaves and branches were in a fine frenzy. Windows slammed open and shut, and there was the sound of breaking glass.
The birds knew. They were gyrating wildly in the sky, desperate to get to their nests, to the crannies and crevices of the buildings. All at once, the next few drops, and everybody knew. Servants and wives rushed to the windows to take in the laundry.
A massive crack in the sky and then another huge roar from the earth, from hundreds of thousands of children all over the city as the torrent fell upon them. All-day long you have been sweating, all day long your body has been ready to receive it and has sensed it like the cows and the crows, and now the first rain is upon you.
Your parents have warned you about it, screamed at you about it: Never bathe in the first rain! It is black with the dust and pollution of the atmosphere and you will get sick but you don’t care.
All the children of the world are out dancing in the streets and the parking lots and the gullies, and for once the cars are stilled by the mighty juvenile throng, with the invincible force of the monsoon at their backs.
Big drops of water are coming down very close together, walls of water, worlds of water. And you are in the middle of it and nothing can be seen except the water.
There is lightning and all is daylight again, but only for an instant. You raise your face to the water and wash the summer off. It enters your eyes and nose and mouth and carries away all sin and sorrow with it.
When the rain finally stops, the air is suddenly sweetened. The trees and the shrubs and the weeds have dispensed fragrance into the air.
Hundreds of long brown earthworms are crawling out of the softened ground. The parents will open the windows and the rain-sweetened air will come in and you will sleep well tonight.
And if the first rain is early, you will sleep especially well tonight,
Because you still have fifteen days left until the beginning of school.