India is famous for a multitude of icons, from Bengal tigers to Asian elephants, from Gandhi to the Taj Mahal, from the sari to Bollywood. Its weather, too, is legendary and as spectacular in its own way as the blizzards of North America and the sandstorms of Arabia. I’m writing, of course, about the monsoon, that seasonal shift of wind that changes everything on the sub-continent.
Here in Mumbai, we start thinking about the monsoon come late spring when the skies start crackling with light and thunder, and the rains come on, sometimes as a light pitter patter of drops, other times in heavy downpour. What’s often perceived as a negative — as a glass half-empty — might be perceived as a glass half-full. Its earthy smell is mnemonic. Its sounds are an inspiration to Indian composers who interpret what they hear in classical Hindustani ragas. Who would want to miss the monsoon!
From June through September, the rains are the story of the day — not every day, of course, but most days, especially in July and August. So what to do? We turn to five experts working at The Chedi Mumbai on how to manage the monsoon in Mumbai.
Some people wait for night to gaze at the stars. Others wait, binoculars at the ready, for seasonal migrations of favourite birds. Me, I wait for the monsoon every year and for the magic it brings to Mumbai’s trees — its flame trees. In India, we call this variety of the tree a gulmohar. Elsewhere people know this variety as the royal poinciana or the flamboyant tree. It’s not native to Mumbai. I believe its origins are African, but its effect here, on the verge of the monsoon, is as wondrous and as uplifting as the foliage in New England, the blooming of the cherry blossoms in Kyoto, or fresh snow on the firs of the Alps. It’s something to see, and reason enough, perhaps, for a dedicated trip to Mumbai. When the trees are blazing in scarlet, the colours are made all the more brilliant by the grey weather. There are places in Mumbai where I’ll go just to look — to see the beautiful umbrella shape of the canopy, for the colours, of course, of the five spoon-shaped petals, one slightly larger and streaked in yellow and white. Even when they’ve fallen, and lay scattered on the road, they are still resplendent.
— Somnath Gharge is the hotel’s security manager
When I was a little girl, nothing excited me so much as the coming of the monsoon. It wasn’t so much for puddles to splash, or the tea we’d drink, or the special foods my mother made, but for the shopping we’d do. For me, and for so many Mumbaikars, shopping for a new umbrella is a rite of passage. Even if we didn’t need a new umbrella, we wanted one. My father always chose a single-colour. My mother chose florals. I wanted fans on mine, cartoons, anything fun, but it had to be pink. You never stop wanting an umbrella. Vendors set up shop everywhere, especially by local train stations by the Colaba Causeway (South Mumbai) and Dadar Market (Central Mumbai). You can buy upscale models in the 153-year-old Ebrahim Currim & Sons store at Princess Street (South Mumbai), a landmark all its own, and bursting with umbrellas on the edge of the monsoon. They say they were the first business In Mumbai to import umbrellas. You can spend a lot of money for an upscale umbrella, or you might just do what Mumbaikars do, buy one for INR 100 – 350 (US $1.50 – $5) that may only last a season, or a good hard rain. And if one good rain is all you get, you’ll be lucky. Because then you’ll have a chance to go out and get another. Try pink!
— Vinita Iyer is an executive secretary at the hotel
‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ is an adage that’s especially apt when it comes to the monsoon in Mumbai. In the same way that people in snow country want nothing so much as more snow in winter — for the likes of skiing and snow-showing — I’m keen on nothing so much as more water during the monsoon. If it’s going to rain, let it pour! One of the more spectacular manifestations of the rainy season is two hours from Mumbai at the Karla Bhaja Caves, a collection of 22 rock-cut caves that go back 2,000 years. Firstly, there’s the colour. With parched days giving way to rain, the countryside comes alive with greenery that doesn’t seem touched so much by the hand of nature as by magic! These mountains of the Western Ghats, known as the Benevolent Mountains, beckon trekkers with lush greenery and cascading water. There is an especially gorgeous waterfall just beside the Karla Bhaja caves, and another just a short climb away near the Bushi Dam. It’s a 20-minute climb up to the Karla Caves, but worth every step for marvels made all the more glorious and perhaps melancholy with the monsoon.
— Giulio D’Alberto is the hotel’s general manager
Food for Water
Sometimes the delights of the monsoon are not so much a matter of seeing something beautiful or shopping, but falling back on age-old indulgences peculiar to a season. When the rains come, I want nothing so much as cutting chai and vada pav and samosas and pakoras. You can have all of these things on either side of the monsoon, of course, but cool weather adds a dimension of enjoyment that can’t be had in the heat and the humidity. So what’s with the cutting? If you’re a Mumbaikar, you know. If you’re not, it’s simply this: a half measure of a full chai. You don’t want a full chai on a cool day. You want a half measure so you can indulge more frequently. Why two cups when you might have four? As a complement to the cutting, I can’t resist samosa and vada pav. They’re snacks, and they’re not going to lower my blood pressure, but you need a guilty pleasure to counter the wet. As for the pakora, again, it’s not going to help in my quest for 100 years of good living, not with the power plunge into oil that really makes these taste so good. But it’s wet outside, and cooler than usual, so why not a treat.
— Praksh Chavan is the hotel’s commis chef
In the same way that an oasis is made even more beautiful by its stark surroundings, Powai Lake in Mumbai is made even more beautiful by encroaching development, and by the rain, too. Today, a lake that was formed as a reservoir by the British in the late 1700s, is a neighbour to the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. A wall of skyscrapers stands by part of the lake. But a promenade follows the shoreline a good ways, and I find myself heading there when we have the monsoon. I go for the birds, for the Jacanas, Coot, Ibis, Tern, Moorhen, Kingfishers, Cormorants, Rose-ringed Parakeets and Purple-rumped sunbirds. And I go, too, for the possibility of more charismatic wildlife. Crocodiles sometimes sun themselves on the lake’s small islands. Sanjay Gandhi National Park borders the lake, and every now and then there’s the possibility of a leopard coming down to the water. I’ve never seen a leopard by Powai, but I keep looking, especially when it rains.
— Jithu Mahalingam is assistant manager of human resources at the hotel
Text by Jim Sullivan for GHM Journeys and photographs courtesy of The Chedi Mumbai
Featured image: The lush, scenic beauty of the countryside outside Mumbai is all the more compelling during the monsoon.