Of Monsoons and Mornings
The feeling of Mumbai can totally shift from morning to evening. My very first memory of the city was when I arrived at three in the morning. My office had arranged for a car to come pick me up from the airport and take me to a hotel for the night. I sat in the back seat in a mixture of awe and exhaustion as we made our way through mostly empty streets. But as we got further into the city the roads came alive with bustling vegetable markets. Entire bridges were narrowed to one lane in the wee hours of the morning as Maharashtra's methi (fenugreek) growers sold their bulk crops to local shopkeepers in the shoulders. While most of the city slept, part of the city was busy preparing for the day ahead.
At 11:30 pm on the second night of Shavuot, the monsoon broke. I had spent the latter part of the afternoon at the beach, reading my book and watching the fisherchildren splash in the high tide. I could feel it coming on - the voluminous clouds, the heaving air, the denseness of the sky as it darkened over the Bay of Mahim. It felt different. As I made my way home for Yontif dinner, the call to prayer rang out, and as I passed the mosque, throngs of Muslims shuffled past on their way to namaaz. The crowds felt alive. The air felt electric.
I had friends over for dinner. As the last one was leaving we heard the thunder. We rushed to open the windows, but were greeted with the same hot, humid late-summer air. I decided to walk him home, in hopes that the rain would come. And just as we passed Jimmy Boy's Bakery I felt the first drops. Only a few, and very light - teasing us with what was to come. We headed up to his fourth floor terrace, looking out over the rooftops of Matunga further south, and east over Dharavi out to Sion in the distance.
It started raining more heavily, soaking through our clothes. I took off my glasses and marvelled at how we were literally experiencing the shift of the seasons. In Canada the shifts are more subtle - a warm breeze here and there, an early snowfall, a few orange leaves, the first few buds of the cherry blossoms. But here in Mumbai it's as if everybody is sitting and building up through the dense summer heat, waiting for this one moment. And then the monsoon broke, the first rains fell, and everything shifted. The whole city felt release simultaneously, and we were perched on a rooftop overlooking it all.
I walked home alone. The rain was dying down but the streetlights reflected on the pavement. A whole new life was growing at midnight. I passed my compound and headed to LJ Road. Three security guards were crouched on the steps, all guarding the same ATM. Clumps of migrant labourers were sprawled out asleep on the sidewalk. Taxis drove past, and rats meandered amongst the cracks in the pavement. Midnight in Mahim felt fresh and secretive and safe and alive all at the same time. As I looped up Sitladevi Temple Road back towards my house, the sidewalk had already begun to dry up. The summer heat was sinking back in, and the sprinkle of rain that remained softened. The moment had passed, and I climbed the stairs back to my apartment.
So many of my associations of Mumbai are tied to the seasons - in the winter when the water in the shower just won't get hot enough, and in the summer when the cold shower washes away the hot stickiness; How comfortable I feel in the dry coolness of my darkened apartment on Erev Shabbat, how alive I feel standing at the open door of the Mumbai Local as it speeds over Kings Circle; The hectic buzz in the markets leading up to festival time, the disorientation of the monsoon mist from a mountain fort. Mumbai is a place with no nature, but where every aspect of peoples' lives is so deeply rooted in nature and reactions to it.
As I'm slowly getting ready to leave, I've been revisiting some of the places I visited earlier on. A few weeks ago, I took some American friends for a stroll through the early morning vegetable markets around Dadar Station. I thought back to my very first hour in Mumbai and how that very same market seemed so foreign to me. We visited Dhobi Ghat, which I had visited on my own the very first time I had gone out to adventure in the city. The laundrymen washing clothes in the open cisterns seemed far less exotic to me now. Perhaps this city has made me cynical. Perhaps I've grown too used to poverty to marvel at the underworkings of the city anymore.
I spent the last few hours of Shavuot back at the beach, in my usual plastic chair on the edge of the koliwada. The sea seemed heavy, like the rains had replenished all that had evaporated over the year. It reminded me of how the sea looked the morning after Dussehra, when it was full of all the idols that had been immersed and discarded, before they had washed up on the shore to be refurbished for next year.
There's a particular dog on the beach, mostly black with some brown patches. He barks incessantly at outsiders as they pass, whether they're ragpickers scouring for treasures or Mumbaikars out walking their own dogs. He seems to like only the local residents of the fishing village, who pat him and let their children toss sand at him. Today I saw him try to bite a man who walked past, catching the edge of the man's pants which were far too big. The man yelled and a local fisherman tried to call the dog away. I sit at that beach for hours every week, but the dog has never tried to bark at me. I wonder why he doesn't seem bothered. Does he think that I belong there?
I spent the last week in Odessa, attending a seminar for all of the people in my fellowship who are serving Jewish communities all around the world. There were 15 of us, most finishing up their first year, while I'm finishing up my second. We spoke about how the year went, and how we're wrapping up and transitioning on. We compared tales and tribulations from the communities we've been working in, and grew our own understandings of global Jewish community-building. And then I got on a plane (and then another plane) and headed right back to Mumbai, where I still have another two months before I need to finish transitioning on.
There's a word for the smell that accompanies the first rains - petrichor. I've only ever encountered this word in India, while scrolling through instastories following the onset of the monsoon. Petra is greek for stone, and ichor is the fluid that flows through the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. While the term was officially coined by scientists in 1964, the idea of the scent of rain has been discussed in both science and literature for far longer.
And while the romanticism of it can easily be picked up by Indian teenagers for the sake of their social media followings, I think there's something inherent about our need and connection to rain. Rain washes away the old and renews us for the future. Our ancestors relied on rain for survival. Jews have a special prayer to provide for rain and all elements of the weather at the proper time. Shavuot, which took place this past weekend, is one of three annual harvest festivals, where we practice gratitude for the things we have and for our abilities to sustain ourselves.
Shavuot morning I led a session for the local Reform congregation. We sang Modeh Ani, the morning prayer thanking G-d for a new day, and then went in a circle, sharing what we are grateful for. This Shavuot and this monsoon I'm grateful for the opportunity I've had to spend such an amazing two years in Mumbai. I'm grateful that I have two more months to spend in this city. And I'm grateful for the monsoon, and the renewal that it brings for me and for everyone, from the laundrymen at Dhobi Ghat, to the fisherchildren in Mahim Bay, to my peers in Jewish communities all over the world.