In the monsoon, our housing society resembles a tropical wetland where a mass of concrete dwellings exists incidentally. A particularly heavy overnight spell of rain turns our gardens into swamps, our mossy pathways peppered with fallen leaves, walls covered with snails and droplets of water hanging from every surface.
But my mother no longer sees any of these. The world before her eyes is a solid mass of brown, grey or white, with faint movements whizzing in and out. So, Anu, as she likes to be called, turns to her own imagination (powered by years of reading murder mysteries) to picture how the world around her appears to be.
This is the second year that she is experiencing Mumbai’s monsoon with one sense absent, and there has now been enough time to brood over what she misses. The trauma of losing vision to a sudden infection, conversations with doctors across the country, an unsuccessful surgery and a depression arising from nine months spent cooped up at home did not afford her the luxury to reflect on some of the less urgent aspects of turning blind without warning.
It isn’t easy then to stand at the window and not be able to see how the rain drips off the Ashoka trees she had planted 40 years ago; how cyclonic winds bend the elastic trunks of our coconut trees at will, and tug at their fruits like loaded missiles on a giant catapult.
It’s the sounds now — the crash of coconuts and tadgolas forcibly dislodged from their stems onto the roofs of our neighbours’ cars, the echo of windows and doors banging helplessly in their frames, and, of raindrops meeting ground — that tell her the difference between routine drizzles and frequent storms.
My mother maintains a relationship of convenience with the rains. She is far too wary of the weather disturbing her commute to romance the rains. As long as she’s safe and dry and as long as it doesn’t pour when she leaves for work and returns home, the rains can be tolerated. When you spend the better part of 35 years shuttling between Andheri and Churchgate, your feelings towards the monsoon are less chai-and-pakodas and more please-don’t-let-the-trains-get-out-of-whack-today.
Inevitably, she has a July 25, 2006 story, too, the day the rains brought Mumbai to a standstill — of noticing by afternoon that this would be no ordinary rainy day, of sensibly staying back in the office for the night with her friends from All India Radio next door after finding Churchgate station so full of marooned commuters that it was simply scary to linger; of hesitantly setting out in a group into the drowned city the next day. When the car ferrying them finally stalled in the water at Khar station, she chose to join strangers in walking the final stretch home, surrounded by darkness. “We kept to the middle of the roads because we didn’t know where there would be a manhole open,” she told us later.
There were others who had walked longer distances, and others still who didn’t make it home that night. Yet, what makes the day truly frightening for our family in hindsight is the fact that in December that year, a single disorienting flash of light outside Andheri station would silence her right eye forever. It was glaucoma, she would learn from an ophthalmologist later that evening. From that point on, up until January last year, she battled just as ferociously to save her left eye from sinking much like the city does every monsoon, with its frail infrastructure unsuited to people with even the slightest of handicaps.
Anu’s biggest adjustment, as any person who has recently lost their vision will attest to, has been to accept dependence — on an ageing mother, a son who never seems to have enough time, and, on Sonal, who she has entrusted with the task of taking her to and from office Monday through Friday. Being led by the hand into and out of trains, up and down pavements and across a road, is especially bitter for a determined single mother who, up until last year, had been used to doing all the caring. Loss of sight has meant her daily walks in our building compound now depend on more than just the skies staying dry. On evenings, when my grandmother is simply too tired or her new-found walking partner is unavailable, my mother has to make do with pacing indoors. The days when she walked briskly for three-quarters of an hour without needing a hand on her shoulder are at an end.
There have been other changes, too. It has taken an enormous effort of will to begin reconciling to her disability and use voice-activated software to re-learn the computer and phone. In a year when she resumed work and her smile returned in earnest, it is only natural that on certain days, her situation becomes painfully acute — like the fact that she can no longer see my face. She compensates by running her hands across my chin when she knows that I am overdue for a shave.
It is on rained-out afternoons when the sounds of children running amok without their raincoats float over her audiobook that memories of standing under the downpour or of gazing at the beach from the kitchen window as a 20-something come crowding by. But when you know Anu, gloom, no matter how pervasive, never lasts long. One of her happier adventures of negotiating her way home on another rainy day in the ’90s had her directing a rookie BEST bus driver from Nariman Point to Versova, from the now-absent front seat near the wheel.
A year-and-a-half away from retiring, on overcast mornings, Anu now spends the time before she leaves for work trying to visualise just how wet it must be outside or how laden her trees must be with moisture. All the while, she yearns for the day when she will no longer need to rely on imagination alone.