Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bombay Monsoon

I am at Juhu Beach, watching nature’s canvas in progress. Shades of grey seem the only colours available on the palette. All elements between the sky and the sea have been touched by the hue. Each looks splendid. Perhaps the Englishman’s idea of grey is gloomy. In Bombay grey means glorious.
My arriving in Juhu had been impromptu. The day was meant to be tightly scheduled, nonetheless, it began with the cancellation of consecutive appointments as soon as I arrived at VT Station in pouring rain. It was merely 9 am and all I had on my agenda then was reaching Andheri by 6 pm. Sheets of rain were pounding down and I needed to think quick where I could dash-off to escape the onslaught. A café and steaming hot coffee seemed a cosy thought but moments later that option was dismissed. Despite the grievances Bombay is magical in the monsoons. This was a day to be spent outdoors. I tucked my soaring dupatta and pulled out the rainproof. No heed was paid to squelching shoes. I hadn’t walked in such fabulous rain in years.
Though renamed the overly-political CST, VT Station remains eponymous for most, and is truly a stately symbol of Bombay, its Victorian-Gothic style blended with Indian overtones being an illustration of remarkable architecture. Around it there are a clutch of period buildings consistently charming locals as well as outsiders like me. The GPO, for example, is an Indo-Saracenic gem, another stunner is the Bombay MC, and a little ahead the Flora Fountain is lyrical. Further on at the busy Regal Circle aka Wellington Fountain aka SP Mukherjee Chowk (phew!) there are postcard-perfect Gothic-Revivalist edifice surrounding the roundabout: police HQ, Prince of Wales Museum, Hotel Majestic, Waterloo Mansions et al. Rain-washed, these appeared even more compelling.
South Bombay is a sort of borough you can never tire of walking through. Its architecture lends grandeur and an air of calm, despite the incessant rush of black-yellow taxis, the blazing red BEST buses or the sea of humanity that today was domed under umbrellas. There’s an attractive labyrinth of streets here and drifting in and out of these I got to Ballard Estate, in Fort, by noon and head for Café Britannia, one of the few surviving Irani restaurants, another integral of Bombay’s heritage and each a legend in itself. Everything here, the chequered red-white tablecloths and even the peeling paint on the walls, is a constant. Thankfully, so are their flavours. This is one of the few places that serve vegetarian dhansak, an apt comfort food, which combined with ice cream soda, made for much-required mid-way fuel for me.
I followed the former Mint Road (now Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg) strolling past the AD 1829 government mint, the biggest in the country, Horniman Circle and Asiatic Society to reach the Gateway of India and its iconic neighbour the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel, two outstanding landmarks of Maximum City. The Arabian Sea looked terrific here and firmed my plans of walking as far as I could along its shores. Thankfully the streets had not become water channels I would have to kayak through. Giving Colaba Causeway a miss, I took Madame Cama Road to hit the Marine Drive promenade at Nariman Point. The rain had thinned and it seemed dusk had arrived at high noon over the Bombay skyline. In the foreground the sea was smashing against the embankment. The irresistible panorama had brought the crowds out, who were doing pretty much what I was: relishing the rain, some with bhuttas (grilled corn) in hand. It reaffirmed there being two kinds of people in the world: those who detest the rain and those who celebrate the rain. The aye-sayers for the latter were in majority today.
On Marine Drive, traffic moved at respectable speed and Bollywood stared down mutely from billboards and lampposts. I sat savouring the seascape before opting for a cab ride that took me past Chowpatti and its set of revellers; a marooned Haji Ali Dargah; and Worli, where bystanders were trying to get recklessly close to the sea spray.
Juhu beach held childhood memories and I got-off here. By now hunger pangs had become fierce. Rainy days often do that. I fumbled towards the sea, trying peeking through the unrelenting rain curtain to pick an eatery. As if in answer to the grumbles of my stomach, the aroma of freshly steamed idlis and that distinct tempering of sambhar galloped up to me. Nothing could have been more welcoming, and Jughead-like I was pulled by the wafts. I gobbled up a couple of platefuls. It was a sin not having more than one. These were fluffy, melt-in-the-mouth idlis accompanied by recipe-right sambhar and excellent coconut chutney. It couldn’t get more perfect than that by the sea on a wet afternoon. If life is a beach, this was the beach!
As I watch the skies getting greyer and the waves hammering higher, I’m reminded of my favourite soccer quote: The world, it plays football; Brazil it plays something different. I can say something parallel for a city whose season has engrossed me: India, it experiences the monsoon; Bombay it experiences something else. The Brazilian forecast went haywire at FIFA World Cup 2010. But the monsoon, it kept its date with Bombay.
I did reach Andheri on time. And no sooner than had I entered that my hosts began apologising for the inclement weather and all caution I should have taken to counter this dreadful day. They continued with their rumblings on the mess of the monsoons. Once their grouses ebbed, someone enquired what I had done in the prior hours. “Not too much,” I said. “I was just taking a walk in the rain.”
Connectivity: Bombay is extremely well connected. Besides daily flights from all metros, some convenient trains are: Chennai Express (Chennai); Coimbatore Express (Bangalore); Mumbai Rajdhani (Delhi)
Accommodation: Hotel Marine Plaza and InterContinental-Marine Drive (South Bombay); Novotel Hotel (Juhu)

Published in The New Indian Express, July 2010

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