Monsoon and Misal

This post was originally published on N-Zine [Link].

A heavy downpour in Monsoon always brings back old memories.

We stayed in Tata Power’s housing colony on Khandala Ghat on Bombay Pune road in the fifties. I spent first eight years of my life there. A part of the colony, and my house faced big hills in the front, a highway in between the house, and hills and a deep valley behind the house. The ghat or the highway moved through tall trees and bushes. The trees covered the ghat fully, teak, mango trees and bushes of Karavand kept the green cover. The jungle had a lot of wild life then and children were warned not to venture near the bushes around sunset and thereafter.

For us, the children, monsoon was very welcome because it brought cool weather; the summer was unbearable. The high temperatures during the day heated the hills which gave away the heat at night. The result of was high temperatures at night too and there was no respite.

We stayed in a typical ‘angrezon ke zamane ka’ bungalow which had an asbestos roof; it was at a height of fourteen feet in the living room and bedroom. But it was placed at a height of ten feet in the dining area and veranda. The veranda was very long; it covered almost the entire width of the house and was perhaps thirty feet long and eight feet wide. It opened on the valley side of the house. Sitting there and watching the hills and the valley was one of the greatest pleasures, but it was not easy – the rain rarely came alone. It brought with it the gusty winds. You got wet even if you stood there for a while as a result. The trees swung from side to side and the wind passing through the trees and fence made a sound that can neither be described as a hiss nor a whistle. It was a peculiar combination of the two. The rain hit the asbestos roof and there was incessant noise as a result. It sounded like ‘Tasha’ to us, and when the rain subsided, water droplet falling from the trees which hovered above the roof made the same noise at a slower pace and softly. As a child I always thought that it rained nowhere as heavily as it did over our house. That Cherapunjee had a higher rainfall than Saimaal [the place where Tatas had set up the colony on the highway] was a fact I never believed for several years.

The monsoon also brought waterfalls everywhere. Some were big waterfalls and some very thin, but both occasionally lost in the mist that they created; and also among the clouds that descended on the hills. Dark hills and waterfalls looked similar to the ‘highlighted’ hair of ladies.

My mother always warned me not to venture out of home. A lot of poisonous snakes, cobra and Russell’s viper, were spotted during the monsoon. And like young boys, I rarely followed the diktat of my mother. I had on an occasion or two ran for my life when I found the green snakes on Guava trees. Like mothers do, she gave me a hug first and then a hard spank! My father would explain that those green snakes were not poisonous; and he was never in favour of killing snakes. My mother could never understand him. As for her, they endangered safety of her children and were not welcome around.

The area around but outside our house became soft and muddy, having absorbed a lot of water. That was an invitation to play with a hard stick, often a thick wire. You hit in the ground with it. If it did not ‘stand’ you lost the game. It is really amazing how children can use anything to develop a game. In those days radio was a novelty, other gadgets like TV had not reached India, and children’s ingenuity and imagination was constantly in demand.

Sometimes it would rain incessantly for a few days and it felt nice to discover the Sun. It was then that my father would take us out in the jeep to Khandala or Lonavala. The Bombay Pune road was not very wide then and the trucks moved in the first gear lugging huge load. They made a sound ‘waaaoon, waaaoon’ as they climbed the ghat. The narrow road required a vehicle coming down to move aside and allow the trucks to climb without losing momentum. The local farmers and adivaasis made a ‘raincoat’ of a bamboo and dried teak leaves; it was placed over their head so that their hands were free to work in fields. Some of them could be seen walking down the highway as we moved.

The highway moved zig zag through hills as it climbed. At a particular point it had a near thirty degree gradient [or perhaps more!] with three hair pin bends. There was a small temple of ‘Shingroba’ where truckers offered, actually threw, some coins in the hope that the Lord will protect them in that hazardous journey. The local priest handed over small pieces of coconut as ‘prasad.’ All this happened while the truck moved on, it never stopped. When rich people moving in big cars threw money, we realised that it was the horse racing season at Pune. The poor sought blessing for their safety and the rich sought luck and bountiful money!

The overloaded trucks, with their cargo covered with tarpaulin and secured by ropes made from coconut, sometimes skidded or had an accident with failed breaks. When an accident took place, the truckers or police would often request my father, who was a doctor, to help them and he always obliged. But not everybody was so lucky. Accidents caused deaths often and I do not remember ever having climbed the ghat without shouting ‘look, there’ to point out an accident.

At Khandala, my father would often sit with his New Zealander friend at ‘El Taj’ which is now taken over by Kamath’s. I do not remember what they drank or ate, but I guess they preferred kheema filled samosas. On the one side of El Taj is deep valley and on the other side the highway and the road to Khandala Station. We took the highway to return home. Just ahead of El Taj, somebody started making bhajias [pakoras]; he must have been a poor man then because the shop was actually a small hut. He followed it with Batata Vada. Eating bhajias, especially Kanda Bhajias [Onion Pakoras] in monsoon with a cup of spicy, ginger-added, masala tea in hand, is the dream of every ‘Marathi manoos.’ The man in the hut must have made good money because he built a better structure there later.

As we moved away from Khandala, now on our way back home, we would see Rajmachee point where we rarely stopped. You take a left turn there and start climbing down when you see a one-storey house with a large garden. I often told visitors that it was my bungalow and my father assured me jokingly that he would buy it for me when I grew up. This bungalow was often painted in white and pink. It overlooked the valley. It overlooked the railway track too. It was a great sight to see a train moving like a millipede and vanishing in to the tunnel. Sometimes the valley threw rain water over the train. As we climbed down we came to what was originally a ‘reversing bridge.’ ‘Amrutanjan’ Balm had put a neon sign there. As our jeep moved under its arch my father would blow horn to my delight; I enjoyed it and I have continued to do it whenever I pass under that bridge.

Modern vehicles move quickly now and gone are the days when ghat was climbed at slow speed. In the jeep, with open windows, there were no air conditioners then, we felt the change in temperature as we climbed the ghat, and the smell of the jungle, the greenery.

The ‘‘waaaoon’ sound of trucks is now replaced by a ‘swooshhhh’ of cars buzzing past. The tarpaulin covered trucks are things of past and now we see huge trucks with containers. The greenery is not as thick, I do not smell it in my air conditioned car with closed windows. The El Taj, once a prominent landmark is now buried under the fly-over bridge of the super express highway and the bhajiawalla has pulled down shutters. The train still moves like a millipede into the tunnel but I do not have the craving to travel by it unlike in the past. ‘My’ bungalow in white and pink still stands there, but my father has passed away whose promise of buying used to thrill me, although neither he nor I could ever afford to buy it. The farmers are wearing plastic raincoats now or carry folding umbrellas. The super express highway takes a different route and you do not bow before the Lord, at the temple of Shingroba. Prosperity and fast life, signified by super express highway travel, has taken us away from Him and the Nature.

Remembering monsoon in the ghats is like eating a spicy Puneri ‘misal.’ Nobody can experience the pleasure, the pain and nobody can ever understand why we eat it in spite of the tears! Unless, of course, you have lived in the ghats!