Waiting for the monsoon

Bombay, August. The rains are late. Vahni Capildeo explores the heat-struck city on the Indian Ocean

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

August. A sweltering England. I pack a pair of floral Wellington boots and fly to Bombay.

“Come to visit during the monsoon,” my friend invited me. The monsoon is the time of joy and fertility, celebrated in song. You can see its Krishna-blue storm-of-love skies and green leafbursts in miniature paintings. But with climate change, the monsoon stays dangerously absent. The heat is cruel, not belonging to any season. A born Trinidadian, I head for the sea.

Low tide at Worli Bay. The sea has withdrawn from the causeway to Haji Ali’s Dargah, the tomb of a fifteenth-century Sufi saint who died on pilgrimage, his coffin miraculously washed back here. By some unspoken understanding, the stallholders selling offerings (flowers, lengths of cloth, scarlet and yellow strings) occupy the left side of the path. Beggars, well spaced, occupy the right side, crying out to responsive pilgrims for charity.

Who could see this as chaos? It is formality. Head covered by a pale blue cloth, I walk almost a kilometre along the narrow strip of the sea’s parting. I am conscious of time passing: the returning tide will give Haji Ali back his islet.

The bright bulk of the tomb exerts a soothing influence. “I’ve arrived!” No. There is no feeling of arrival. Before you realise you are there, you feel at rest. Crossing the hot-skinned pale marble, not ready yet for the shrine, I join the women in Indian clothes of styles from throughout the subcontinent. Impossibly surefooted, these travellers are taking their children out on to the dark rocks where the sea breaks. Leather-sandalled men run seawards along mossy ridges, laughing, enjoying the closeness of the water. Wavelets race in at angles matching the cut of the coastline. Beyond that the width of the Arabian Sea opens out. I sit, I do not know for how long.

Meantime, out of sight, within the shrine, the Sufi priest takes his sacred broom to the pilgrims, performing a benediction which looks very much as if he is beating cobwebs off their heads. And why not? More laughter ripples, between pilgrims and priest: the shared comedy of being human, the good fortune of being able to intervene in some blessed way. Smearing ash, sprinkling water, waving fire: all can be part of the housework of renewal. Perhaps we need the sense of renewal as part of a survival kit, in this world where the monsoon holds back, technology intervenes, and the clouds, as the journalist observes, are being encouraged to rain.

The monsoon continues terribly absent. People who can afford to remain indoors take siestas. Outdoors, there is much public sleeping. A clerkly-looking young man — white shirt, black trousers — slumbers on a bench. An ample dog snoozes in the identical posture on another bench. Tucked into the shrubbery planted on the road divider, someone takes a nap, legs stretched out in front, sitting upright except for the drowsy head.

In the heat of such a day, I practise crossing roads. Each driver calculates to a hair’s breadth how swiftly their vehicle can manoeuvre, in what space and at what angles. There is no such thing as a straight line of traffic. The best strategy for a pedestrian, as the slowest moving object, is to step out and keep going. Then all the other traffic just flows around. A collision only becomes more likely if you waver, second-guessing yourself or trying to give way. That confuses the drivers, whose rapid calculations, based on your body language, allow them to accelerate into the few centimetres of space where you should not be.

Downhill, to Pali Market. Traditional Indian hospitality is all give and no take. Comforting the guest’s unspoken needs, this hospitality cannot, must not, be repaid. What gift is delicate enough to acknowledge that easily hurt tenderness? Perhaps crimson, deeply fragrant roses from the flower-seller’s stall: something beautiful for the house, brought with love, to be received lovingly. The man, sitting in shade, takes out a villainously wet, blackened little blade. With one long motion beginning at the crown of the flower, his gently determined thumbs press each rose further open, fingers peeling the curling outer petals, blade stripping the stalk of thorns and leaves. He works with the un-self-consciousness of second nature, like a top-level sportsman. This is a practised skill. Then the length of his arms dances. A complex knot of white twine, a galaxy of ribbon and starry cellophane: the bouquet is ready.

And we go out for a night walk, and the rains come. Feet can be washed later; we paddle along, finding traces of the Portuguese. European houses perhaps a century old are pointed out like ancient monuments — this, in a country of ancient things that are not monuments, because they are still in use. The colonial residences are prim and formidable, like wedding cakes that have drawn up their skirts. They do indeed seem worn out, without humanity’s almost endless capacity for improvising, or for waiting.

Yet the daily bread, brun, is Portuguese, imported and now a tradition. We are out in the rain in the night looking for brun from an ancient family bakery. This crispy roll is unique to Bombay. At last! My friend turns to me with excitement. I taste Saturday morning. Butter can melt in my mouth. For I am looking at a batch of hops bread, the crispy roll unique to also-partly-Portuguese Trinidad . . .