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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Monsoon Days–Love In Fractious Times

The monsoon in India is always long awaited- a final reprieve from the incessant, savage heat of summer. Beginning in early March, temperatures begin to rise.  In Delhi the stones and bricks on verandahs heat to oven temperatures, do not cool at night, and outside offers no escape from the furnace inside.

Before air conditioning sleep was fitful and only possible in the hour or two before dawn.  Work was impossible in all but the vast offices of high government officials, freshened by desert coolers, straw ticks down which water trickled and through which air was blown by industrial fans. For the rest, work was possible only in the early morning, but most workers who got only a few hours sleep shortly before offices opened came late, worked indifferently, and went home early.

In late May dust storms came– thick dusty winds with scattered rains – welcomed because for a few minutes the temperature dropped and with this first sign of the unsettled weather which presages the monsoon, there was a short release from the oppressive heat and the bad tempers, irritability, and sleeplessness caused by it.  The dust storms passed, skies became again unremittingly clear and hot, and there was time, still, until the first real rains.

Image result for Images North India dust storms. Size: 182 x 110. Source: www.financialexpress.com

In Bombay and the South the hot months before the monsoon were insufferable, not so much from the excessive heat but from the thick, close, enveloping humidity. Temperatures of 95F with humidity levels over 90 percent made  every foray a soaked, sodden, desperate affair.  The combination of heat and humidity was debilitating, enervating, and depressing.

In rural areas the heat was particularly brutal because of little shade, unventilated huts, and scarce water.  In the hottest days before the monsoon, nothing moved in the villages.  Men lay on charpoys under the few shade trees on the plain, dozed fitfully; and dogs, chickens, and field animals were still.

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The rains were particularly heavy in 196_, the year that Evans Chandler moved to Bombay.  For anyone coming from Europe, the Asian monsoon was something unimaginable – days on end of pounding, incessant rain, gutters overflowing, streets which became rivers of water overflowing curbs and purling past open drains, everything soaked and drenched with no respite or refuge; but that year a combination of a particularly torrid temperatures on the Tibetan plateau, unusually warm waters in the Arabian sea, and tropical depressions to the East, made the monsoon unprecedented.

Bombay was awash in water.  The ground floors of buildings along Breach Candy and the seafront were inundated, travel was impossible on any of the major roads along the sea and on those up and down the Malabar Hills.  The rains were so heavy and constant that cars were swept to the sea by waters pouring down from above. Pedestrian traffic was nil in the low lying areas of the city.

Image result for images torrential rains monsoon bombay

Evans had moved to Bombay and settled into his penthouse flat on Peddar Road in early January, so he, like everyone in the city, enjoyed the relatively cool winter, were uncomfortable as temperatures and humidity rose, and by the end of May looked skyward for signs of relief.  He, like everyone else, was unprepared for the intensity of the once in a lifetime deluge.  Although the cooler temperatures of the monsoon were welcome, the overflowing sewers, the rot, the rats, and the mold were not. 

To escape, he took the train to Poona at 2000’ altitude on the Deccan plateau, always cooler and drier than Bombay; but even though there was wet weather, Poona was always cool enough for a sweater and never inundated.  At first he stayed in a government rest house – a dak bungalow on the outskirts of the city reserved for traveling government officials and foreign aid workers which had clean accommodations, good food, and a view of the wide Deccan plains.

Image result for images poona in monsoon

Later he stayed at the home of wealthy Gujaratis who rarely left their Bombay Marine Drive mansion and spent only a few weeks of the winter months in Poona.  Their home was a large, old Victorian, airy bungalow with long, wide verandahs, old teak and mahogany staircases, Mallard four-poster beds, and brass planters filled with sweet verbena.  He was attended by the servants kept on retainer for the family visit - a cook, bearer, dhobi, chowkidar, mali, and driver of a 1932 English Humber who maintained it and kept it in perfect condition and polished to a high gloss.

In never rains hard on the Deccan, for its altitude and location just above the mountains that rise above Bombay prevent the downpours in Bombay generated by the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and strong onshore monsoon winds. Poona was the only reminder the Anglo Indians had of England, and so quickly left for the city once the rains started. It was their smaller, less romantic version of the British colonial decampment to the hill stations at the foothills of the Himalayas.  Poona was not Musoorie, Manali, or Dehra Dun – British redoubts of clubs, snooker, English food, and cricket – but enough for wilted, discouraged, and wet refugees from Bombay.

It was during one of these Deccan interludes that Evans met Chitra Banerjee, a young Indian doctor who in a bilateral agreement between the Indian states of West Bengal and Maharashtra had been sent to Poona to intern at the Provincial Hospital there.  He had met her at an outlying health clinic where they both had business – he to provide technical advice on malnutrition, an increasingly prevalent problem in the district; and she to assist in the outpatient surgery.  Thanks to her schooling in England and her wealthy and modern Calcutta industrialist family, she –even at 28 – was not married and under no pressure to do so. They were quite happy to have a certified, foreign-trained doctor in the family who was sure to take her residency in Calcutta and join the faculty of the medical college there.

Image result for imges beautiful indian women bollywood stars

Under other circumstances in the period of the late 60s, meeting and eventually living with an Indian woman would have been difficult.  Despite the eroticism of Indian sculptures and miniatures; despite the powerful sexual nature of deity and divine, India was  still very traditional and conservative.   

Chitra however had lived with an English boy in London, an heir to the Northumberland fortune and peerage who was not expected to ‘go dark’ when it came to women; but she had been from an early age untethered from  binding aristocratic legacies and Hindu traditionalism and was free to love and live with whomever she chose, and his branch of the family, having been the Indian colonial service, returned, unlike many, without prejudice and quite favorable to Indian women.

The affair ended amicably when Chitra returned to India for her post-graduate education and career; but it was no coincidence that she had become Evans Chandler’s lover.  It wasn’t so much that she was only interested in Englishmen, white men, or white wealthy men; but that one happy experience tends to lead to others like it.

Chitra missed the coastal monsoon.  Calcutta like Bombay was inundated every year, but never unpleasantly so.  Monsoon was always a happy time, more so than during the dry season or the winter. Some ethnologists have suggested that it is because of the nature of the monsoon, a meteorological event of mythical proportions.  Imagine, they said, an earlier, more primitive India where people saw clear, bright, blue skies for nine months of the year – not a cloud, not even a suggestion of rain – and then out of nowhere that same sky became dense with clouds and within days opened up with the torrent of rain which lasted for three months and then, as magically as it appeared, disappeared. The blue cloudless skies would return until the rains came again. 

Or perhaps it was just the frustratingly unpleasant and unremitting and unrelieved heat and humidity before the rains that made monsoon so miraculous – anything would be a delight after the penitential torture of the hot season.

In any case, Chitra and Evans took the Deccan Queen down through the ghats to Bombay, booked a room at the Taj Mahal, the elegant Victorian hotel on the Arabian Sea by the Gateway of India, walked along Marine Drive in gumboots and umbrellas, ate bhel puri from night vendors on Chowpatty Beach, and returned drenched and happy to their suite.

Image result for images train from poona to bombay

It was the monsoon that did it.  Had it not been for the rains, their affair might have been one quite common and ordinary  in the world of international sexual commerce; but because of the monsoon – new, unexplained, and insistent to him; memorable and reminiscent of Calcutta childhood for her - the relationship had value added to the already special mix of serendipity and place.

That year it rained and rained.  Reservoirs, tanks, rivers, and cisterns overflowed.  The Ganges had never been higher, spilling over and inundating town and city along the riverbank.  Bangladesh, low-lying, downstream and close to the Gangetic delta of Chittagong and below, was underwater.  Tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and forced to flee inland; although this year inland was little refuge.

The rains kept falling and the water table was soon at ground level.  Bombay like Dhaka was awash in rainwater and raw sewage.  Longtime residents of the city had seen nothing like it; and when the rains finally stopped they saw a foul-smelling, rat-infested city clogged with mud and debris.  It took weeks for drains to be unclogged, byways to be cleared of detritus, mosquitoes killed by spraying, and cars hauled out of culverts and from underpasses.

Image result for images chittagong underwater monsoon

Despite the mud and the flies, the again incessant heat, the stagnating pools of rainwater, and the unchecked filth and pests, Evans and Chitra were slow to return to Poona.  The monsoon was an event – an unduplicable one; and this monsoon was a once in decades one.  

They sensed that their encounter would be as temporary, unusual, and never to be repeated as the monsoon of 196_;and so they committed to memory, to be respooled, replayed, and rewound again and again to be made permanent and unforgettable.

The weather in India has always been a character in fiction as well as history.  Climate is never just an environmental backdrop against which events take place.  It is a character, a protagonist, a player in all dramas; and although heat is what characterizes India and is most often recalled, it is the monsoon which changes life from desultory to dramatic; from ordinary to romantic.

Evans and Chitra kept up with each other; but they both knew their interlude, so conditioned by the monsoon of ‘__, could never be repeated; nor should it be,  Love without the pounding, incessant, torrential rains would have been an ordinary affair.

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