I had left the bomb blasts of Bangladesh and come into the cyclones of Chennai. In two days I skirted India’s eastern coast by train. Chennai is a coastal city in the country’s southernmost state, Tamil Nadu. Somehow, I had forgotten about the other monsoon that India gets. The south gets a summer monsoon that comes from the south-west and a winter one which comes from the north-east. I wasn’t mentally or materially prepared at all for the torrential drenching I would encounter, the streets that would become rivers in a matter of minutes, the problems associated with getting from one place to another or just trying to dry my laundry.
But all of this is part of the rhythm of this place. For ages, this is the wind that has blown. And so the people have also adapted to this. The farmers who grow rice in the country and the housewives who always have an eye to the sky so they can rescue the clothes drying on the line up on the roof. During these monsoons, blue sky and bright sun can become dark brooding clouds in a few minutes. When this happens, one has only a few minutes to strategize their next move. The sky changes, the winds kick-up in swirling gusts, the air becomes charged and the crows start making a run for cover.
I had just gotten a couple of books from a shop just down the street from my hotel. The shop keeper had brought out a couple more that he thought I might like and I was perusing when I looked over my shoulder – I felt a new presence. It was water pouring from the sky in such force it was bouncing off the ground and raining upwards again. In such a circumstance, I normally would just cozy-in somewhere undercover, wait it off, hold onto a warm glass of chai. But I remembered something that was going to disrupt any idea I had of staying dry.
On seeing the sun this morning, laundry became a focal point of the day’s activities – one never knows when the next offering of dry, warm sky will be. And so with many other like-minded folks on rooftops far and wide, we hung our pants, shirts, socks, and saris. In two moments, I thanked the bookseller, rubbed my fists together and pointed up to the top of the building and then to the rain coming down. He understood and in two steps, I was on the sidewalk taking a half-moment to psyche up for the mad dash back to my hotel.
Street vendors were frantically pulling tarps out to blanket over piles of their books, fruits, clothes, and wares. All around me people were scurrying about. Everyone was running for cover with either a fearful grimace that contorted their faces or with one which seemingly recognized the cosmic joke that all of this was. I thought of the scene just outside of an ant hole in the garden after the sprinklers come on. That’s us right now!
I leaped off the curb and made the forty yard dash to my hotel. In these first few moments that the rain falls, people are frantic to stay dry. It’s the kind of rain that is so thick, it can soak you in no time at all. Everyone is running, hunched over, holding whatever object is convenient over their heads, high-stepping to keep the sandals on their feet on. On my way, I am dodging and spinning around parked rickshaws and possible tackles from people on moving scooters who are also scurrying – at high speed – and whose only vision is from the squint in their eyes, the scrunched faces apparently keeping them somewhat drier than a relaxed face. I am also trying to keep my sandals on.
I arrive at my guest house and am sprinting up five flights of stairs to the rooftop where my nearly dry clothes are no longer nearly dry. The rain is crashing down and I am trying to expediently untie my clothes from the lines. Now I am the one squinting, rain streaking down my forehead to my brow. I collect everything, pack it under my arm and dash back in for cover. I’ve made it.
Then I look down at the clothes I am wearing; I wonder what clothes I was trying to save from getting wet! The absurdity of all of this – Ha!