June 10, 2010

A few years ago, when it had rained like hell in the afternoon, I left office early to beat the traffic and flooding and ended up in a most memorable but not very pleasant situation.

Yesterdat was a sort of sequel to that day.

When I saw the rain pelting down at 4.15 p.m., I again decided to leave early. As I drove through the downpour to the chidren’s daycare, I began to wonder whether it had been a wise decision. Then I saw the traffic backed up ahead of an underpass. Great – if this was what it looked like now, what would it look like when all the office traffic came pouring out?

It took me 15 minutes to crawl along till I came up against the root cause: the underpass was flooded. In fact, it was not an underpass so much as a river. On the other side of the road, a couple of vehicles roared past, raising a huge tidal wave of muddy rain water. At the entry to the underpass, various small cars had stopped and drivers stood around shaking their heads skeptically. I could see a Maruti Omni and a Canter lorry floating in the middle. In front of me was a large truck. He waited several minutes before wading in and roaring through.

Now what should I do? Trucks are high enough, they can get through. And if they get stuck, they can go to Plan B. But what would I do if I got stuck? My beautiful trousers, new socks, and formal black shoes would be wrecked as I stood around and pleaded with hangers-on to push my car through. And then I’d be stranded. Amit was busy in an office meeting and would be of no help whatsoever. How on earth would I get home and what would I do with the car?

But there was nothing to be gained by just standing there. Every minute, more vehicles were getting added to the never-ending queue of vehicles stretching behind us. And the water was not going to abate any time soon; there might even be more rain yet.

And the girls would get impatient. They’d need access to food and toilets.

I crawled to the edge of the water and got into first gear. There was a technique to driving through water, which my parents had taught me years – decades – ago. You had to keep one foot lightly on the brake to close the brake shoe and prevent water from getting into the brakes. This also had the effect of increasing the revs, preventing water from entering via the exhaust.

I took a deep breath,floored the accelerator and released the clutch. We raced through the initial stretch of water. Then, the depth of water increased and my car slowed down. Damn. I shifted my left foot to the brake and we almost stopped. Damn – that wasn’t what I wanted. I floored the accelerator again, and put my left foot back on the clutch. That increased the revs and hopefully prevented water from entering the exhaust. In any case, in another few seconds we made it through and then I had to brake sharply to avoid ramming the car in front of me, who had stalled after getting out of the river.

I was shaking with relief – as if I’d just driven through a ring of fire. The kids were firing questions about my sudden change in driving technique, which I tried my best to answer while still thinking of what would have happened if I hadn’t made it. In the rear view, I saw another car, a Maruti Omni, stall in the middle.

Having emerged from the flooded underpass, I saw the backup of vehicles on the other side of the road stretching for hundreds of metres. It was not even 5.30! It was going to be a very long evening for a very large number of people.

Beyond the underpass, there was no traffic on my side of the road at all. But at one busstop I saw a vast number of people waiting hopelessly. It was sad… the buses, which might actually have got through the water without any trouble, were completely stuck in the jam with no hope of getting through.

As for me, I made it home in record time after that… but there are no guarantees.

Monsoon Magic

June 30, 2006
The monsoon is playing games with us. It’s hanging around, up there in the grey skies, hanging around and threatening us, promising a deluge of biblical proportions, but sending down just a few drops at a time, a gentle reminder of what it could do, as gentle as a tear drop and no more.

And still, every day, a month after the proclaimed “arrival” of the monsoon, heavy, ominous, grey thunderclouds drift over the city. The sun has been vanquished from the heavens and in its place are the implacable layers of monsoon clouds. Their bulging bottoms lower to the earth till they seem to be almost within touching distance; yet their lofty white heads stretch languidly into the heavens, beyond reach of any mortal being. In a leisurely fashion they drift across the sky, pushed along by the merry breeze, as cool and grey as the clouds themselves. 

Every day, it seems as though it must rain; those bathtubs of the gods must surely empty themselves on us today. But no – they drift along in the breeze, going their own lazy way, making space for occasional glimpses of blue sky and brief spells of welcome sunshine before being replaced by yet another blanket of warm, grey clouds.

Monsoon. Monsum in Deutsch. Mausam in Hindi. The season of rain, in any language. You love it, you hate it and you have to admit life wouldn’t be the same without it. It’s going to mess up the city roads and drainage; it’s going to catch you unawares and give you a solid drenching; it’s going to cause floods and loss of life and property and crop and livestock; it’s going to create mud slicks and traffic jams of gigantic proportions; it might even bring a mighty city like Mumbai to a standstill, keep its people away from home overnight, shut down all public transport and ground aircrafts.

But, even though we love to hate it, wrathful as it is, we also love the blasted creature. This is the respite from the summer heat that we all have been waiting for. This is the season of leisure and rejuvenation. Forests regain their greenery, reservoirs are refilled, the parched earth gets a new lease on life and humanity waits, humbled again by the power of nature.

Despite the disasters that inevitably accompany the monsoon each year, the rains signify so much to us.

Adventure: Even going to the neighborhood grocery store becomes a major undertaking as you negotiate overflowing drains, rivers gushing down the streets, stranded vehicles and ever newer potholes and uncovered manholes.

Romance: Bollywood caught on early and has made the most of it. How many movies can you think of featuring a damsel in a sexy, wet sari? How many songs of the “Ek ladki bheegi-bhagi-si” genre? But it’s not just the movies – how many memories do you have of luxurious, warm, wonderful hours spent with a special someone, watching the rain over a cup of something hot?

Joy: Think of children sailing boats in lakes that used to be the back yard; or returning from school a sodden, grinning mess of mud and water; or darting out from under a protective umbrella to splash and prance in gay abandon in the freshness of a sudden downpour. Think of dogs, chasing each other, laughing and rolling in the mud.

Beauty: Standing at the verandah door, or maybe at the window of some tall building watching it come down in sheets, blankets, curtains. Not mere buckets or tubs, but entire oceans of water descending from nowhere – dismal though it might be, there is an indisputable beauty in the sight.

Camaraderie: Who hasn’t been caught unprepared in a sudden monsoon shower? Whether you’re tackling a flooded road or cowering under a tree or temporary shelter of some kind, it’s an experience guaranteed to build instant camaraderie with your fellows in misfortune.

And there’s something spiritual about it too. The benevolence of the rain gods, or their wrath – whichever way you look at it, when the monsoons arrive, the gods are implicated in one form or another. Surely nothing short of the Almighty could be responsible for a phenomenon as incredible as the monsoon?

Almost Drowned

October 26, 2005

It rained hard that afternoon. I watched the rain coming down in sheets, and thought that it would probably stop by the time we left office (ITPL) at 5.30 to catch our shuttles home.

It did. Except for heavy traffic on the roads, the journey home was uneventful. Three of us got off and crossed the Ring Road to Ashwini Layout, near Koramangala. As we went down the narrow lane, we met a flood. My colleague also met his roomie, who was on a bike. He authoritatively told us that the drain was overflowing and flooding all the low-lying areas. The only way I could enter National Games Village would be through the gate that was on the Vivek Nagar side. And for that I would have to go into Koramangala 6th block, skirt around the National Dairy Board and the National Games Stadium and then head for the far gate. Not a pleasant prospect. I opened my umbrella (it was still raining lightly), and set off determinedly.

The going seemed good as long as I followed his advice. I took some inner roads and kept myself fairly clean and dry. But when I exited these safe bylines and encountered the main road, I could see that the water-logging was for a very short stretch, close to the National Games Stadium intersection. I decided to take the narrow, muddy, high footpath that seemed to offer a chance of making it to the stadium entrance to National Games Village.

This muddy path was at an elevation, because several months ago, some “civic” body had started to excavate a drain at the side of the road. The mud had then been piled up on the edge of the road, and there it stayed ever since. When the rains turned the rest of the road to slush, the mud offered a highway through, albeit a rather unpleasant one. But this time this muddy embankment had itself got washed away in parts. In some places, people had placed blocks of stone that you could step over and this I proceeded to do, whenever the path broke down. At last, I was only a few steps from the turning to National Games Village. Almost home and dry.

Almost. But not quite.

At the corner, I saw a man slip and disappear into the mud up to his waist. I stopped, watching fearfully. He was too far away for me to do anything but watch. He scrambled up, out of the drain, onto terra firma. That could happen to me, I thought. I better watch my step.

But I knew this path – I walked it every day, twice a day. To the left of the mud, road. To the right of the mud, uncovered drain. Still, better be careful, I thought.

My next step forward had to be straight into the muddy water – there was no more path and no more stones. I tested the water gingerly. Yes, there was ground under there, and it would hold. I took my next step. The ground gave and suddenly I was up to my chest in water. In a second, from Nike shoes, to Sony Ericsson cell phone, to IBM laptop to Levis jeans and pretty pink Allen Solly top – everything was full of mud.

I screamed. I could see myself becoming another statistic:

15 People and an IBM Laptop Washed Away in Open Drains in Separate Incidents

I got a helping hand – someone pulled me. I put a knee up on the road. I was kneeling, then standing. Dripping wet, but out of the drain. I was pushed roughly but kindly to the centre of the road and exhorted not to venture to the side again. Not that I was inclined to, anyway.

As I walked the rest of the way home, I was struck by two things:

  • I was now so wet, I didn’t need the umbrella anymore.

  • I still had to use the umbrella in the hope that my precious IBM laptop was not yet completely useless.

I reached home, stripped and put myself and everything that had been on me, even my shoes, straight into a bucketful of hot water. But not my laptop, of course, which I took out and inspected carefully. It seemed to be dry, much to my surprise and relief, and when I turned it on, it worked. I could not say the same for my cell phone, which had been in my pocket. Its display was blank, and a red light was flashing. I opened its battery compartment and found water under the battery and sim card. I kept it out to air, but I don’t have high hopes for its chances of recovery.

But the important thing was that I was safe and dry and so was my precious laptop. And I had learnt two very important lessons:

  • Don’t carry your cell phone in your pocket.

  • Walk in the centre of the road: it’s safer.

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