A memory from India:
From the window of my small flat in north Bombay, I watch as clouds the color of steel gather over the Arabian Sea. The monsoon rains are late and in the meantime, May has been sweltering. I’m supposed to be somewhere, but instead I’m sitting shirtless at my cracked plastic chair by the window, the noisy ceiling fan cooling the sweat on my back. The pregnant clouds are hanging low above my neighborhood. It’s time for me to make a move.
I walk downstairs to the narrow alley, which slants down from the butcher’s open storefront. The men inside wave, one with a cleaver, and smile and I wish them asalaam aleiqum. The smell of raw meat hangs in the heavy air. Street cats sit on the storefront and watch the butchers with great interest.
At the alley corner there is a small grotto perched waist high on a red concrete base. Inside an oval window draped with a jasmine garland, a white-skinned statuette of the Virgin Mary holds a baby Jesus. ”PRAY FOR US,” implores the plaque on the bottom. Here the wives of fishermen sell the morning catch from baskets they carry on their heads. On days that I sleep in, the smell of fish coming up from this intersection is my alarm clock.
The clouds are multiplying. I move quickly through of the labyrinth of alleyways, past corrugated iron walls and creeping vegetation. Looking up at the sky, I can see the top of my neighborhood’s most distinctive landmark behind me: a massive, bright red chainlink fence enclosing one of the bigger bungalows, making its front garden look like a military compound or a tiger cage. Next door, a ladder leads up from the street to a rooftop, its rungs wrapped in barbed wire.
I turn down another alley and come out at the Khar Danda traffic circle. Here, taxi cabs and huge cows park themselves between the banyan tree in the middle of the circle and the shrine on the side of the road. A friend dubbed this place Cow Island. As I pass it, the skies open up.
This first rain of the season comes down in warm, heavy sheets, smacking the pavement like dull applause. I’m already soaked by the time I duck into the nearest shop, which is just a few feet away. A group of young men in collared shirts and skinny pants are dancing in the middle of the street, ecstatic as they throw their arms up against the downpour. The roads have already started to flood by the time I turn to ask the man behind the counter if he has any umbrellas. He sells me a small black one; I ask him if the price must have gone up in the last ten minutes. There is no waiting out this storm, so I open the umbrella and step outside.
The main road is a series of deep puddles; the sidewalk isn’t any more promising. It takes long strides to get over and around the deepest ones. I skirt the part of the sidewalk usually favored by the cows as a toilet. People stand in their windows to watch the rain pour down. A young man and woman rush past, smiling and laughing as they tent newspaper over their heads.
The rain is warm but it has broken the heat. Despite having lived in Bombay for almost three years, I’ve always made a quiet exit right before the monsoons hit, only to return once they’re over. I walk quickly, happy to be caught in my first real storm and thankful for my umbrella. As I cast a glance behind me to see what the banyan tree looks like wet, I’m shocked to find a short man underneath my umbrella.
I had no idea he was there. I’m not sure how long he’s been beside me, but he has to jog to keep up. He stares straight ahead, even when I look directly at him, and seems very focused on getting to where he’s going. He could be my age or a bit younger. With his mustache, polyester button-down, and skinny frame, I make the assumption that he’s from the slum in Khar Danda. Maybe he’s making his way home from the bus stop.
We keep up a good pace; he still hasn’t looked at me. I adjust the umbrella to make sure that we both are covered as fully as possible. As cars pass by, they break the steady sound of the rain falling.
We’re coming up on the intersection where I need to turn. I tell my companion in mangled Hindi that I’m going to the left. ”Thik hai, bhai” – ok, older brother — and a waggle of the head; he runs straight ahead.
I smile and make my turn. I look back; he does not.