In a city defined by economic disparity, everyone from shanty-dwelling labourers to chawl housewives and professionals in high-rises can think of just one mammoth event as the rain clouds advance towards Mumbai: the monsoon.
Some love it for its romance, others wait in desperation for a relief from the summer heat and perspiration, and those left exposed to its fury cannot help but abhor it. But by the end of May, all Mumbaiites must brace themselves for the rains.
In the slums of Dharavi, a jewellery-maker has to buy a new tarpaulin for his leaky roof every June, even though he earns less than half his usual income in the monsoon months.
A fashion designer in Khar must bring out a bucket to collect droplets from a damp ceiling in her private studio. The Patils, like many others in their Mazgaon chawl, save up for getting a coat of tar painted on their terrace annually.
These travails notwithstanding, they can all declare one thing for certain: “We love the rains.” True, the city’s numberless street-dwellers and homeless families don’t share the sentiment.
But one look at a playful street child will tell you that even the poorest do not need much to buy a moment of happiness: a puddle, a cool wet breeze and a little splash.
The Patils | Mazgaon Tadwadi
Boot camp season
The old walls and porous terrace of Mazgaon Tadwadi’s BIT Chawl No 3 do not offer the best protection from four months of the Mumbai monsoon. But for the Patil family on the second floor, there is no better season for toughening up to life.
“I always send my children out to get drenched in the first rains – that’s how they learn to adapt to weather changes,” says housewife Kanchan Patil, 36, matter-of-factly. Her daughters could not agree more.
Eleven-year-old Tanvi, a Class 6 student at Byculla’s St Agnes School, is an aspiring athlete for whom monsoons are synonymous with intense physical drills at her athletics classes.
“We are taught to run in the rain to build muscle strength,” she says. When she’s not in school or her classes, Tanvi is out with the chawl boys playing football, a monsoon-special sport in the puddle-ridden open ground in front of the building.
This ground is the heart of the chawl’s Maharashtrian culture, the place where Patil’s seven-year-old daughter Sneha practices climbing to the top of eight-tier human pyramids before the dahi handi festival in August.
“In the rains, she learns how not to let her feet slip while climbing high,” says Patil, who has her own monsoon challenges to conquer in her 180-square-feet home indoors.
Despite repeated repair work, the ceiling in her kitchen has been leaking for years. The family also owns a room on the chawl’s top floor, which seeps water from the walls and ceiling despite the damar (tar) treatment and tarpaulin sheets placed on the roof every May. “My ageing father-in-law lives there alone, and often doesn’t tell us if the room gets very wet,” says Patil.
But chawl life comes with its own advantages, and Patil is not blind to them. Unlike summer, there is no water shortage in the building in this season. During spells of heavy rain, working parents can rely on neighbours to bring all the chawl children safely home from school. “After the heat, this is one season that everyone can enjoy together,” she says.
The Rahejas | Bandra (West)
A time for romance
During a wet Mumbai monsoon nearly 25 years ago, Vijay Raheja took his future wife Renu on their first date by the seaside. Now, well-settled with two daughters and a cat in their ground floor flat in Khar (West), the rains remain the most romantic time of the year for this duo.
“This is the season for enjoying coffee or a drink in beautiful garden restaurants, going for long drives in the rain and at times, making an impromptu trip to Lonavala,” says Vijay, 49, a finance and real estate consultant.
The Raheja’s home is secure and dry, so the only preparations the family makes before the rains is arranging for a monsoon-friendly wardrobe and stocking up on enough umbrellas to replace ones that might get lost.
“In the rains we avoid dupattas and clothes that run colour,” says Renu, 47, a fashion designer who buys and designs casual western clothes and light capris for herself and her girls for the season. The rains are also a time when the family cat, Dumbo, demands the maximum attention.
“I trim his nails before the monsoon to prevent them from bringing muck indoors, but when it pours, he keeps knocking things down while looking for a safe, dry hideout,” says elder daughter Punya, 22, a business development manager and part-time dance instructor who also places dry boxes under the awning just outside the house to provide a haven for stray cats.
A health-conscious family, the Rahejas do everything to make sure nobody falls ill in the monsoon. “We avoid eating all street food, especially uncooked food,” says Renu, who also prefers staying away from salads and raw vegetables.
“Leafy foods often have insects in this season, so we actually prefer fried foods, ” Renu says.
Arun and Pinky Dantani | Dharavi
Better than summer
To reach the Dantani family home in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, you have to negotiate the vast labyrinth of Dharavi’s Transit Camp area, locate Block 2, and scout for row ‘P’, room number seven.
On an afternoon following a heavy downpour, the trek seems tedious. The roads leading to the maze are layered with muck, the narrow slum lanes are lined with brimming, putrid, open drains, and the half-dry aluminium roofs over the huddle of single-storey huts continue to drip for hours.
“It’s a season of problems, but the rains are still the best time of the year,” says Arun Dantani, 28, perched on the lone sofa-cum-bed in his 125-square-feet home. Pinky, his wife of three years, grins shyly in agreement as she stands by his side. The entire Dantani family – including Arun’s father, three brothers, their wives and a total of nine children – is in the business of making imitation jewellery, and the two rooms they own are both the workplace and home.
“In the monsoon, business slows down, our income falls to half the usual and expenses shoot up,” explains Arun, who just finished securing a new tarpaulin cover on the roof to prevent leakages.
Budgeting for the monsoon has to begin months in advance. Umbrellas must be mended, and at times new ones are bought. The children almost always need new shoes, and a plastic curtain has to be hung at the door if the family wants a dry floor to sleep on. “The medical bills are the toughest,” says Pinky, 23, who nursed her husband and niece through malaria last year and is constantly worried her two-year-old daughter might catch a cold.
But none of this stops Pinky and Arun from enjoying an occasional shower in the rains with the children. “We are fortunate that ours is the only block in the slum that doesn’t flood,” says Arun. “But even if it did,” adds Pinky, “we would still love the rains, because it’s not summer.”
Jiva and Mohini Chauhan | Mahim
Nothing but trouble
We hate the rains.” Jiva Chauhan’s creased brown face is expressionless, but his voice betrays a hint of anger. This middle-aged tokri-maker lives on the pavement opposite Mahim (West) station, and speaks for the entire community of Rajasthani Chauhans who earn their bread by weaving bamboo baskets on Tulsi Pipe Road.
The tribe of 20 families migrated to the big city from their village near Mount Abu three decades ago. But even today, after years of rough street life, they are still never quite prepared for the fury of the monsoons. “We have no option but to sleep on a wet footpath, often with rain falling on us all night,” says Chauhan, whose only solace is that bamboo sticks, the source of his livelihood, do not get spoilt when wet.
For now, Chauhan and his wife Mohini have propped a sheet of black tarpaulin over their heads, but there is no guessing how long it will remain as a shelter. “When the BMC van arrives, we have to hide the sheets or they will just tear them off,” says Mohini. By making and selling five tokris each, Jiva, Mohini and their 20-year-old son earn close to Rs 300 on a good day. This is the cost of a new tarpaulin sheet.
“With no roof, we cannot even cook when it rains,” says Chauhan, who is tired of asking the police and civic officials to give him community rooms in a slum.
When the road gets flooded during a heavy downpour, the family can only haul their belongings onto the wall behind them, and wait. “During the rain on July 26 (of 2005), we stood for two days waiting for the water to recede,” says Mohini.
Monsoon diseases are another big scare. “Our daughter caught pneumonia last year, and we had to pay the municipal hospital bills,” she says.