June 17, 2009
Waiting for the rains is one of the most painful moments in a Mumbaikar’s life. Covered in sweat, burnt by the dazzling sun and constantly looking skywards, the Mumbaikar goes about daily chores praying for that redeeming magical moment.
The wait has become increasingly torturous over the years. At one time, we just blamed the rain gods for any delay. Now, even the most devout believers have figured out the nuances of the global warming debate and are less inclined to spend time and resources on pujas and yagnas.
That is the pre-monsoon scenario. When the possibility of it raining seems dim. When the memory of floods and the weeks without sun seem distant and vague. As soon as the impossible happens, when the clouds actually burst open, the mood changes.
From the initial euphoria over the collective natural air-conditioning that the monsoons usually bring, the complaints start to trickle in and eventually become a flood of their own.
Loud howls of protest rent traffic jammed roads and highways. Complaints about the inefficiency of the city’s authorities are punctuated by dark philosophical pronouncements about global weather change.
Everybody starts cursing – after having savored the initial celebration.
Did the city always respond to the monsoons in this dual-faced way? Not really. It couldn’t have. Like many fishing villages everywhere, those who live at the edges of waterways – on the sea, in creeks and along water bodies – Mumbai’s residents too related to the monsoon in a manner that saw it as organically connected to the water systems in which it is embedded.
The seven islands converged, sometimes by force, but always incrementally over a period of time, without actually removing the city’s watery foundations. This allowed the rains, even if temporarily inconvenient, to be accommodated into the landscape. The city had wells providing water, way into the 20th Century.
Several of the lakes that were developed, in Thane, Kalyan and around the national park, were part of efforts that always saw the monsoons as a blessing that brought in water which needed to be stored and contained.
The Koliwadas of Mumbai, guardians of the city’s waterways, were dignified habitats that saw fishing as a modern-day urban occupation well until the 1960’s and ’70’s. They still exist, but shorn of civic dignity, and with a more embattled life as a fishing community.
What went wrong? Why did the city that once mostly celebrated the monsoons turn into a paranoid nervous wreck waiting for it with anticipation and dread?
Or more precisely, what did the city do to transform itself from a monsoon-friendly, flood-tolerant city, into a death-trap in which the sea becomes a monster snapping at its heals and when lakes and rivers rise ominously, threatening to engulf it?
Several of the answers to these questions will be revealed this month in a brilliantly conceived multi-media exhibition in which the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) at Kala Ghoda will transform itself into a temporary university specialising in the art, science and technology of the monsoons.
Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha, the force and brains behind the exhibition, aptly titled ‘SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary’ invite the residents of Mumbai to come and re-think the monsoons in a manner that is unique and quite simply an eye-opener.
They assert that Mumbai is an estuary – a geographical terrain that lets the sea in and integrates its rhythms into the vast urban system that constitutes it.
One that includes a colonial city, glitzy suburbs, fishing villages, towns, rivers, lakes, a forest and several habitats that defy definition. When the city forgets this, when it drives wedges in its own physical self, that’s when the problem starts.
Of course, that’s a very inadequate summary of what they are saying. The exhibition, that starts in a couple of weeks, will reveal a lot more.