Walking in the Rain

September 1, 2008

I hadn’t had an afternoon off for a while; I was supposed to get one every weekend, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So this weekend, I was determined to get away, at least for a couple of hours. Saturday didn’t work out for various complicated reasons, so it had to be Sunday.

Lunch at Eden Park is not really conducive to anything other than an afternoon snooze, but I made a Herculean effort after getting home and left before the sleep managed to ensnare me. Ostensibly, my goal was to buy a large number of ring folders so I could spend the next several weeks filing away my papers methodically and systematically, as the income tax audit had revealed that they were anything but. But that was more of an excuse than a just cause for leaving the house; the real reason, of course, was, as always, just to get a break from home and kids for a bit.

It’s just as well that I had decided that hell and high water would not deter me, because high water was descending soon enough and hell pretty much described the state of the roads as the water level rose.
Umbrella in one hand and ring folders in the other, I trudged through the downpour, without much hope of staying dry for long. I was thinking of a previous and most memorable experience of walking in the rain. That was in Ladakh.

One day, we spent about 8 hours and 15 km in a steady downpour. I would hardly describe it as beautiful; and Amit was not in good spirits, so I had a task on my hands just keeping him going; but looking back, I have to admit it was one hell of an experience. (Of course, it was a terrible year in Ladakh, with unprecedented floods, and our trek ended with Amit’s father sending out the Army and the CBI to search for us… but that’s another story, and a very long one.)

And there were other memories – of rain and slush and mud mixed with dung, calf-deep and black as night and more slippery than an oiled eel; of solitude and companionship and nights alone in my tent at high altitudes and cold places; of nights spent awake and shivering and hoping the rain would not find a leak in my tent, and knowing that even if I stayed dry, others in neighbouring tents would not be so lucky; of wet shoes and cold feet and a fresh set of warm and dry socks and a cozy sleeping bag that has somehow avoided getting soaked; and so much more.

Repeatedly, over the course of many wet treks, I came to realize how important it is to keep one’s feet and crotch dry. And how much effort one is willing to expend towards this end. And, most importantly, how life becomes so much easier and less worrying once you give up on this and resign yourself to even these all-important regions of your body being cold and wet.

Sure enough, in the brief Bangalore downpour, my shoes were soon soaked through and I stopped stepping carefully to avoid the fast-flowing streams by the edges of the road. My jeans were wet at the bottom and I could feel the dampness inching up, so I stopped worrying about the passing vehicles splashing me. My upper body was still dry, thanks to the variety of bags I had saddled and draped around me and the umbrella held low over my head. But by far the more important function of the umbrella was to hide my face from the masses of people crowding under bus stops or squeezing flat against walls in an effort to stay dry – if they had seen the broad grin plastered on my face, they might have thought that I was completely crazy.

As I turned into the apartment complex, just for a moment a complete calm descended on the universe. There was no traffic on the road, not another person in sight, the trees and buildings were absolutely still and even the dogs and birds were in hiding, so there was no movement at all except the steady falling of the rain, and no sound other than that of the falling rain. Just for a moment, I felt that wonderful sense of alone-ness and calm that’s normally so impossible to find in the city and that repeatedly lures me to the remoter parts of the Himalayas. Now, with the twins, I wonder when – or whether – I’ll ever have a chance to find those quiet places again.

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?

On Childhood

October 30, 2005

Oh, the happy days of childhood.

Now, I am not one of those who believe that childhood was a period of unbridled bliss. I remember perfectly well the terrors and tears and finding out the hard way what was right and what was not, what would work and what would not, and who would tolerate you and who would not.

But then, it had its moments.

Most of those moments, the magical moments of childhood, were, in my case, spent in the garden. In those days we were in Chandigarh, and we lived in a sprawling (as I remember it) house with a rambling, overgrown garden at the back and a smaller, neater lawn in front. Apart from the flower bed of blood red poppies, the charms of the front lawn were lost on me. It was the back garden that I loved to wander it. Now that was a real garden – the sort you could get lost in.

It was lined with fruit trees on three sides (the house being on the fourth). Off-hand, I can remember guava (delicious when eaten under-ripe and often un-washed but sprinkled with black salt), mango (a huge spreading tree, lovely to sit in, under or behind), loquat (the only time I saw this tree or ate this fruit), lemon (or something like it), fig (I never liked the looks of this fruit but the tree was easy to climb), litchi (guaranteed to make you sticky in no time when the fruit was ripe), and chickoo (or sapota, which nobody else in the family would go near). There was also a gnarled old frangipani tree in the front, near the gate, with lovely, fragrant flowers, and a grape vine that climbed over the garage wall. A creeper near the front door had grown so old and thick and strong that you could sit in it like a swing. And there was a huge peepal tree near the kitchen door, which eventually had to be cut down because its roots were wreaking havoc under the walls of the building.

The cutting down of this tree was an event in itself. For several days after a truckload of men had come and sawn it down, the bole of the tree lay outside the kitchen door, roots sticking up in any which way. After they had cleared this away, I bravely decided to plant a loquat seed in the same place. Several days after planting the seed, nothing had happened. I think, in my impatience, I was expecting a full-fledged, fruit bearing loquat tree to be evident by then, which it clearly wasn’t. I dug up the seed, and found that it was, in fact, in the process of sending out a shoot, or something like that. I covered it up again, but nothing ever came of it.

At the back of the back garden was a hedge with a barbed wire fence behind it. It was not a very impenetrable hedge and we (my sister and I) used to slip through it with impunity. Of course, we had good reason: it was the only barrier separating us from the Rose Garden.

The Rose Garden was exciting for two reasons. One, it extended the boundaries of our little kingdom manifold, quite apart from opening up a vista of roses. Two, and more importantly, it contained the Ice Cream Stall. On innumerable occasions, having begged a few rupees from our parents, we raced down the garden, through the hedge and across the Rose Garden, straight to the ice cream stall with its tantalizing deep freeze of goodies.

Ice cream and fruit trees apart, I specially remember the April thunderstorms of childhood; nothing in adult life quite rivals the awe and thrill that these would generate in me. First, the wind would roar and howl, banging windows and doors shut and, as often as not, breaking a pane or two of glass. My mother would rush around trying to close everything before the wind got to it. There was quite a lot to close: windows in four bedrooms, a study, living, room, dining room, pantry, and kitchen; two sets of French windows; front and back door. Then, the clothes hung out to dry had to be whipped off the line before they became grey with dust and sopping wet with the rain that would soon follow.

Meanwhile, trees bent and swayed drunkenly, threatening to come crashing down. Dust and leaves were whipped up, whirled around and deposited everywhere. After a few minutes, new elements would be added to the action. There would be crashing thunder and lightening, and the sky would grow dark, cool and ominous. Then suddenly, a hush. Quiet. Stillness. Nature was taking a deep breath, waiting, waiting to unleash a torrent of rain with yet more thunder, lightning and gale force winds.

Amidst all this high drama, I would wander out of the house and roam among the flying leaves and moaning trees in the back garden. Usually, I was holding an endless conversation with my imaginary companions. And when the rain came down, in sheets and blankets, sometimes accompanied by hail, my imaginary friends and I would get thoroughly wet in no time at all and enjoy every moment of it.

That’s why I say that, at times, childhood was a wonderful experience. Nowadays, when it rains, I grumble about the mud and slush and the lousy drainage, am happy that my washed clothes are safe and dry in my tiny covered verandah, don’t have to worry about the windows, which are all closed, or the doors which are wooden. I stand in the covered verandah, warm and dry, holding a cup of something hot, and admire the rain from a safe distance. My imaginary friends have gone to distant places and the garden of my childhood years is nothing more than a happy memory.

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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