“The choking humidity makes amphibians of us all, in Bombay, breathing water in air; you learn to live with it, and you learn to like it, or you leave.” – Gregory David Roberts
Full disclosure: the quote above is from a novel that I’ve never read called Shantaram. Shantaram is a novel about an escaped convict from Australia who flees to the Bombay slums and opens a health clinic, learns the ways of his new Indian community, becomes a part of the Mumbai Mafia, and ends up gun running in Afghanistan. So, basically, this guy copied my life. My mother read this novel and found it horrifying if fascinating, and kept telling me things from the novel and then looking at me fearfully, and I decided it would not be a great read right before my US to India move because I really didn’t need MORE things to be worried about. So, no Shantaram for me. Maybe if we end up moving to a slum in 1978 I will read it to prepare.
But I do love this quote, because I think it’s fairly accurate based on my current experience of Mumbai in October. The monsoon season here in Maharashtra spans from June to September, with torrents of rain washing the dirty city (semi) clean. The humid air is briefly made fresh each day, only to blossom back into sticky soupy swelter when the rain abates. But that, at least, is better than October.
A week after I’d arrived, Mr. India and I went on a run in the tiny park around the corner from our house. Mr. India was doubtful, as the rain was still pouring down, but I love a run in the rain, and wanted to try it. Buying vegetables from a stall just outside the park’s gates, the vegetable seller muttered something to Mr. India over straggly carrots, plump potatoes, and a handful of sad green beans, mourning their lack of purchase. A few days later, as the day dawned hot and humid without a cloud in the sky, Mr. India looked out at the city and, already sweating, shook his head as he murmured “He was right.”
“The street seller, near the park. He said that would be the last rain. I think he’s right.”
It’s rained a few times since, but nothing with the strength and power of the monsoon storms, which leave the city shining and cooler in its midst. Instead, we have had days and nights of thickness, the air hanging heavy and coating us with sweat.
It wasn’t just my sense of clothing that changed when I moved here. As soon as I arrived I realized that Mr. India, who would happily show up to most events in a sweatshirt and sneakers, had taken to wearing his jeans neatly belted and tucked-in collared shirts when he had a meeting or planned to go out to a bar. Apparently that is the “look” for men here, and last night’s adventure at Three Wise Men, a packed bar filled with young people screaming out Bollywood tunes to excited audiences for the bar’s Bollywood karaoke night, revealed hosts of men in slacks and jeans with collared long-sleeve shirts. But now that the October heat is upon us, Mr. India isn’t up to it most of the time, nor do I blame him, so he has taken to wearing shorts in the heat unless he absolutely feels it necessary to be in full-length pants. I fully support this decision.
When meeting Indians for the first time in this, one of the hotter months of the year here in Mumbai, their faces twist in sympathy, perhaps seeing the massive beads of sweat pouring down my face, and they ask me, how are you holding up with the weather? Their tones convey a sense of dread, like I’m a Victorian lady about to collapse because of my weak nerves. I feel sometimes like I’m seen as an invalid here, a bit delicate and naive, applauded for any show of strength. I can’t say I hate it, because who doesn’t like praise and validation, it does amuse me, because in terms of the weather, I genuinely feel we are all in the same boat. It’s not as though the temperature is higher for me than it is for everyone else, is it?
That being said, perhaps heat and humidity do affect people differently. My father’s family lives in Puerto Rico and I’ve spent my life visiting them in the tropics. I can’t say that every moment walking in the Caribbean sun is pleasant, but I don’t MIND it, really, as long as I’m hydrated. My Russian Jewish mother, on the other hand, does find the heat oppressive, so much so that she’s put a ban on family trips to the Island between June and September, the hottest months. I’ve forced her to break this ban on more than one occasion, and champion that she is, she weathers it well, but not without complaint. On a travel forum I was reading once, a German girl asked for advice about where she should travel in India, given that she couldn’t stand heat, humidity or strong sun. The answer? No where.
Perhaps this is why Indians keep checking in with my about the weather, watching me closely to see if I betray these anti-heat tendencies. Because if you can’t stand the heat, you can’t stay in this kitchen. Maybe they worry that one day I will walk out the door and be unable to move through the putrid pudding of Mumbai’s air, defeated utterly by humidity, unable to cope. Well, luckily, I’m a strong swimmer, so if this is my transition from mammal to amphibian then I’m happy to accept my place as a small, compact tropical poison dart frog, a new world creature in an old world pond.
Still. I wont hate it when October ends.