City of the Seven Islands

 “What the four seasons of the year mean to the European, the one season of the monsoon means to the Indian. It is preceded by desolation; it brings with it hopes of spring; it has the fullness of summer and the fulfillment of autumn all in one.”

Khushwant Singh:  I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale

The rain during the Monsoon Season is something to experience. In her novel, The Cosmopolitans (about the work of art as fundamental to human existence), Anjum Hasan says of them:

“The monsoons were the real thing; they dissolved things to the bone.”

If caught out in the Monsoon, under the weight of those falling Indian heavens you certainly feel as though your flesh is being dissolved. And even if under shelter, you are aware of the deluge wearing away at anything in its path: the roof above you, the walls around you and the floor beneath you. Evidence is all around Mumbai, in its mossy, stained buildings, in its rusting structures, and in its pitted and pocked streets.

Nature and its lush vegetation inexorably wear away the city, rotting and decomposing it. As if in some actual concrete jungle, buildings are worn down, subsiding into the muddy floor whilst alongside others spring up, new and modern. New, that is, until the Monsoons get at them. That rain falls with such a force that it rises again from the jungle city floor in huge blankets of spray and mist. The moisture insinuates itself everywhere. Another Indian author, Anita Desai, in her collection of 3 novellas linked by the passion for art, The Artist of Disappearance, describes it like this:

“Everything in the house turned damp; the blue fur of mildew crept furtively over any object left standing for the briefest length of time: shoes, bags, boxes, it consumed them all. The sheets on the bed were clammy when he got between them at night, and the darkness rang with the strident cacophony of the big tree crickets that had been waiting for this, their season.”

Cocooned in a world of falling water, vision and hearing are indistinct, misty and muffled. Moving through Mumbai is like moving through a half-remembered dream. I visited Mumbai in mid-August  last year on a business trip. The factory where I work had recently purchased a screen-printing machine and the manufacturing company offered a free training course. The catch was that it was in India. To be honest, I was loath to go, and made every excuse not to. As a result of growing up in Durban which has the largest Indian community in the world outside of India, the culture and country held no real interest for me. In fact, my boss had to insist before I finally agreed to go. And man, I am so happy that he did insist!

Arriving at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai at about 4am on a Sunday morning I was grim! But moving through what is generally known as Terminal 2, my spirits rapidly began to lift, this despite being herded along by the omnipresent armed soldiers. They are everywhere but in particular in the airport.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lifting of my spirits was because the T2 is home to India’s largest public art programme, Jaya He. The businessman in me fell away and the artist came to the fore, and suddenly the trip became so much more than I had imagined! India welcomed me with this amazing collection of examples of its artistic heritage. Jaya He takes the form of a 3.2 km multi-storey Art Wall, and is illuminated by skylights, housing over 5000 pieces of artwork and artifacts from every region & corner of India. In the arrivals corridor passengers pass a series of especially commissioned artworks that map the city as a layered narrative, unfolding page by page. The art all works together to welcome travellers, and to infuse them with India: culturally, aesthetically, historically and socially. Visitors are made immediately aware that they are in the heart of the South Asian subcontinent. It is quite incredible, and perfectly housed in the white, honey-combed architecture of the terminal, Its genius loci (the spirit of the place) is unlike anything I have experienced in buildings of this sort. You know what I mean, those type of places specifically designed for shovelling as many people (like cattle) through them as quickly as possible.

 

 

 

After a couple of hours spent clearing immigration (it is an extremely slow process and there were so many people) we walked out into Mumbai and its Monsoon. Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) is on India’s west coast and is the world’s most populous city. In parts of the city there are more than 1 million people per square mile! The densely-populated metropolis (21 million people) is built along the coastline on a series of islands and much of it is a result of multiple land reclamation projects. This is of course a serious problem (depending on the severity of the rain) during the Monsoons. In fact, heavy Monsoon rains brought Mumbai to a halt for days only a week after I left. In just 3 hours Mumbai suburbs recorded 86mm of rain, just 2mm short of what was recorded over the previous 24 hours.  That is immense! More than 1,200 people died across India, Bangladesh and Nepal as a result of the flooding, with a further 40 million affected. I can only imagine what it must have been like because as we drove through the city that day I had never experienced rain like that before. And this is from a boy from sub-tropical coastal Africa where we have our very own versions of extreme rains! I was there for 7 days and in that entire time the rain rarely stopped, and when it did it was never for more than a couple of minutes. In fact, on the day I was to leave the intensity of the rain had increased (I would never have thought it possible) to such an extent that my flight was almost cancelled.

I was located in northern Mumbai, in the industrial suburb of Vasai, near the factory I was receiving training at. As a result I didn’t do the touristy thing: one, because it certainly was not tourist season in India (duh, it was Monsoon season!), and two, my accommodation was in a working class/industrial area. This made all the difference! I generally tried to walk to the factory from my accommodation, timing it between deluges. The locals were fascinated by me and often asked to have their photo taken with me. I was equally interested, but in the buildings instead, ruin porn being a fetish of mine. Ruin porn is part of a recent photographic movement, and refers specifically to the capture of images of urban decay and decline in the post-industrial zones of the world. Ruins photography aestheticizes the abandonment and decline of cities generally.

In environments such as that my vivid imagination takes over and I see ghosts  everywhere. Mumbai is full of ghosts and their stories. Portuguese and British colonizers roam alongside Muslim and Hindu kings, all moving through damp, mossy buildings and streets. Plump, happy stray dogs, pigs and cows scavenge on the verges of those same muddy streets. All edges and harsh architectural lines are softened and blurred by verdant foliage as it works with the rain to break down, consume and reclaim all in its path.

As an animal rights activist and vegetarian, I was particularly pleased to see the respect that the Indians show animals. The stray animals, and there are loads of them, all seem to be very well fed and healthy. Many of the locals are vegetarians too, and therefore the food, and the sheer variety of it, was quite amazing to me. Living in South Africa I have found that the South African Indian food here is way too spicy and generally unpleasantly hot for my tastes. Like runny nose and burning orifices HOT!  In India this was not the case. The food is spicy, make no mistake, but not flamethrower hot! I was really spoiled for choice, a situation I am so not used to living as a vegetarian. Every street has at least a couple of street vendors or a restaurant. A favourite of mine were vada pavs (fried potato and chutney stuffed into a fluffy bun). I also loved the mushroom masala served with cheese naan bread. Man, my mouth is watering just writing about it!

On the last day we had some time to kill before heading to the airport as we were only boarding at 3 in the morning. The bus driver stopped off in South Mumbai to allow us to see some of the sights, notably the Gateway of India. This 26 meter high triumphal arch is an historical monument. It was built in 1924, during the British rule to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Mumbai (then Bombay). Despite its colonial heritage it is embraced by the locals who have taken proud ownership of it. Perhaps something African countries like my own can learn from? The Gateway faces the Arabian Sea and is flanked by Mumbai’s other attraction, Marine Drive, a road running parallel to the sea. Marine Drive is also known as the Queen’s Necklace because, if viewed at night from an elevated point the street lights resemble a string of pearls in a necklace.

To get there you have to cross the Bandra–Worli Sea Link which is a cable-stayed bridge.  It links Bandra in the Western Suburbs of Mumbai with Worli in South Mumbai. The 5.6 kilometres long bridge spans the sea and is an incredible feat of engineering. I cannot believe it has not appeared in any big Hollywood movies. It is certainly up there with the likes of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Crossing it in our colourfully decorated bus, the sea on either side of us and the rain thundering down, I felt like I was in a Bond movie.

I would definitely love to return and spend some time exploring that Chowpatty (Chau-pati) Beach/Marine Drive area in particular. It is seriously spicey Bohemian not affected, posing, Western hipster Bohemian! While waiting for some of my fellow travellers as they purchased sari dresses for their wives in a back alley some way from Marine Drive , I got the opportunity to chat to some local hairdressers. I found the people, the architecture and just the whole vibe extremely appealing. What an art scene one could create there, that is, if one doesn’t already exist!

Back on our bus heading to the airport that night, I reflected on my experiences, and masala sprung to mind! Masala is a good word to describe India – ground spices aimed at heating the body. India is a sensory explosion! Just travelling on the roads is an adventure! Indian drivers live with a hand on their hooters. The continuous hooting is something that takes a while to adjust to and as my room was across from a highway I did not sleep much. But saying that, the Indians are really good drivers and although the sheer volume of traffic is frightening, it flows effeciently. Coming from South Africa where the drivers are terrible (my personal experiences backed up by traffic statistics) it was awe-inspiring to watch those drivers operate. Lots of soldiers and policemen all over the place too, which is understandable because India has a long enmity with its neighbour Pakistan. It is also pretty close to Afghanistan and the whole ISIS threat. Despite this, I never really felt unsafe or threatened. I guess living in Africa kind of immunises you against that. Coming from country that is a bad neighbourhood (very few sissies here) within an entire continent that is a bad neighbourhood will do that to you.

Anyway, so, on the bucket list: return to India! And quite honestly, I would choose to go during the Monsoon season again. There was something impossibly romantic and otherwordly about the country in its gowns of slivery water.