This picture was taken from Hotel Marine Plaza in Mumbai, during a leisurely lunch on a rainy Thursday. The murky grey Arabian Sea, the yellow-black cabs dotting the landscape, the red dot of the traffic signal, the droplets on the gigantic glass pane–it was a perfect moment, begging the canvas of an Impressionist painter. Me being no Monet, my trusty camera had to suffice.
Two days after this, the rain changed from pretty to potent and created a monsoonal crisis once again. Roads were water-logged or flooded, local trains stopped, flights were canceled, and once again, cries of dismay and outrage about Mumbai’s inability to handle the rains rent the air–and airwaves.
It was inconvenient, of course, but safely cocooned in a hotel room with food and drink a phone call away, there was little to complain about. Yes, we had to delay our return by a day but we were safe, warm, dry and comfortable. Which is much more than can be said for many in the city that day. I couldn’t help thinking of Esther, who I had met during my previous visit.
Esther works with Fida and I met her while on a visit to Kisan Nagar slum where she lives and runs the project. We sat and talked for a while and then she showed me around. A typical slum: shanty huts built close together with just enough place between them for one person to pass through at a time. Some of the houses were pucca with brick walls, others a hotchpotch of tin sheets, blue tarpaulin, black plastic. The rent differs depending on what the house is made of as well as its location. In the narrow lanes, children played on the damp ground. Around them, lay neat piles of filth at regular intervals. The Corporation was cleaning the drains in preparation for the monsoons, she told me. At the back where the slum opened out a little, a slightly wider lane ran along its length. Here, women squatted, cooking, combing their hair, chatting. I felt relieved when we emerged from the narrower lanes onto this stretch, as if a bit of sky had suddenly been allowed to me.
Esther’s house was a pucca house in a relatively uncrowded area. It lay below ground level so we had to climb down two or three steps to enter it. I noticed that the larger canal of the drain passed right in front of it. She quickly sent her son, Sumit, to buy some Mirinda and opened a new box of glasses. (They were a gift someone had given her three years ago.) The house was small but clean with functional furniture: a bed in one corner, a chatai and a 21-inch flat-screen television. The kitchen was at the back and I could see the shiny metal of pots and pans on the corner shelf.
We got to talking about the rains and she told me that last year, her house was almost submerged. “There was water up to there,” she said pointing to somewhere near the ceiling. “The drain outside overflowed and the water came in.”
Everything was ruined, including her ration card. What about this year? She shrugged, smiled. “Dekhenge,” she said. We discussed the TV. It was new, she told me. I asked her if she could keep it at someone else’s house, perhaps someone who lived at a higher level. She said she had spoken to a friend. “It will be difficult to buy another one if this gets spoiled,” she agreed. The tone was practical, devoid of drama. When I left, she shook my hand warmly, asked me to visit again.
That day, as I stared at the relentless rain and watched pictures on the hotel TV (a 21-inch, flat-screen) of people marooned, stalls dislocated, slums awash, I thought of Esther. I wondered what had happened to her house. I wondered if she had been able to save her TV.