Even as I write this piece, rain is pelting outside with confused intensity. Lashing from one direction for a few minutes, choosing a breather, wondering for a bit, and then continuing from another direction. The monsoons have been generous to Mumbai so far, even if the बृहन्मुंबई महानगरपालिका (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) would have you believe otherwise. Still plying excuses for it’s rationing of water supply.
The monsoon clouds visited Mumbai this year courteously ahead of schedule. The initial few introductory drizzles were performed with the etiquette of a classical vocalist offering the first stanza as a figurative obeisance to the lords before unleashing the full range. After the first few weeks, where intermittent rain and sunny skies created a steamy ambience, the wheather has been pleasantly cooler since July. Thanks much to the overcast conditions. Since then, Mumbai has witnessed thunderstorms with heavy rains and thunderstorm warnings with neither thunder nor storms. This year Mumbai also experienced window pane rattling winds, ripping off asbestos sheet roofs and the tarpaulin covers on it to protect from leakages. With Ganesh Chaturthi in sight now, the the rains have dwindled in frequency, staying true to custom yet again.
I have always had a love hate relationship with rains. Loved it if I was indoors or ambushed me on my way back home. Hated it if I happened to be caught in it on my way out and downright cursed at it if I happened to catch it enroute to an important engagement. My earliest recollection of such mixed emotions is certainly from my primary school days. Then, with my stiff plastic raincoat – always black in colour – envying my umbrella twirling peers and seniors, I hated rains when I caught it on my way to school. The Bata sandals, the short uniform ‘trousers’ and half-sleeve shirts where all comfortable attire to brave the rains. The uniform getting wet was rarely a concern either. The fabric and skin would dry out under the ceiling fans in the classroom. The only dreadful thought would be ‘How will I manage this wet raincoat until I reach home?’. There were never any hooks on walls or other designated places where wet raincoats could be dried out. My umbrella toting peers would coolly leave their wet umbrellas unfurled in a first-come-first-occupy open area in the rear of the class. And if your class wasn’t large enough to leave an open space you could still lean it unclasped against the desks. By the fourth period the umbrella would be just damp and by the 6th period it would be dried and enconsed snuggly within their canvas school bags, nestled among the books. For the geeks who had to protect their precious textbooks and notebooks at all cost, raincoat – the only weapon of choice – posed much trickier challenges.
The cheap plastic of the raincoat exuded traces of odor which were unmistakably toxic – well at least to kids who had a similar reaction to the odour of milk. When damp for extended periods of time the smell would transcend revolting to nauseating effortlessly. On some unfortunate days and in some unfortunate classrooms even the window sills would be covered by dripping raincoats draped over it and even though raincoats were designed to shield water, we learnt early, and on our own, that it was considered bad etiquette to be layering them. Now the damp raincoat has to be stuffed in the compartment under one’s desk. By the 6th period when the stuffy raincoat started announcing it’s location by reeking, all you could hope was that your desk partner was an empathizing soul, perhaps someone also burdened with the stigma of a cheap plastic raincoat.
As the periods passed and the final bell seemed imminent and the raincoats wallowed in it’s own distinctly musky odor I would pray for rain. Rain on the way back would wash away the stench in a few minutes, that’s true, but it’s also true that once outdoor, in the Mumbai monsoon, the smell of the city itself would dwarf everything else. However, if it didn’t rain, the options were limited. You could choose to fold the raincoat neatly and stuff it into it’s equally cheap plastic cover with it’s flimsy plastic button clasp. Skilled origamists, moms and certain dads were the only ones who possessed the skills required to fold this monster to fit snugly into it’s cover. Primary school kids stood no chance and as far as I can recall, no one even attempted such a feat ever. So the option of packing, which really is not even an option except that the parents refused to see it that way, was always ruled out first. The alternative was to sport it like my childhood comic character Phantom, in disguise, in the city. Some kids chose to do this, acting manly, draped in this dark plastic. and others would wear it with an unbuttoned open front trying to let in breeze to keep things ventilated. Another option was to drape it over one’s arm like a lady carrying a handbag or swing it by the hook of your index finger behind your shoulders.
Just like the unique festering smell of a damp cheap plastic raincoat even the tactile experience from it in sweltering conditions is ingrained in my memories. I still feel a shiver coming whenever my upper arm brushes wet plastic. The trip back home would be achieved in double quick time under such circumstances.
However, if the prayers from the sixth period were answered and raincoats were allowed to serve their purpose by the heavens then the trip would meander through every beckoning puddle until the toes resembled raisins by the time home was in sight. Once home the raincoat would be exiled to the bathroom and everything would be forgotten and forgiven, only for it to find it’s way back in my bag, crisply stuffed and snugly packed the following day.
23rd August, 2010, Mumbai.