At first we laugh.
“Umbrellas in May!”
“In the middle of Kathri (scissors), the month when the sun cuts through people’s bodies like shears?”
What we need is a reverse umbrella to catch the drops of moisture falling off our bodies.
April was the cruelest month in terms of temperature. May turned out to be worse. At every street corner, people set up stalls with home remedies for beating the heat. Lime water. Coconut water. Banana stem water. And the extract of fruit juices and wheatgrass. Like coolants topping up automobile systems we could not help ourselves from stopping by the roadside and drinking potions laced with raw ice.
And then suddenly the rain. The first spell of rain takes us by surprise.
Coping with rain
“What’s that weapon of mass weather protection that man is carrying?”
Only in neighbouring Kerala do both men and women carry long-handled umbrellas in black, rain or shine, as though in continual readiness for a funeral. Some 10 million umbrellas are sold every year in Kerala. A quick trawl through the list of favourite brands will show you how advanced the Keralite is when it comes to choosing umbrellas. There’s Popy from Alappuzha, which caters to the designer crowd. There’s Sun, a 125-year-old manufacturer, that offers ladies umbrellas with UV protection. As the name suggests, its appeal is not just to the “fairer sex” but also to the obsession that Keralites have for preserving their delicate skins against the sun. The third brand is John’s a 70-year-old company, which comes with enough tricks up its wooden handles to qualify for a James Bond film with inputs by the intrepid Q. They should have named it John’s Q.
Tamils are more resilient when it comes to rain. They wear plastic sheets, gunny bags, paper hats, aluminium pans used for boiling tea, a scooped out tender coconut shell. Or they swiftly whip up a striped or checked lungi and fold it over their heads. Or, as I once saw a tiny woman do – snuggle under the terylene-sheathed armpit of a traffic policeman, who was stretching out his left arm at a traffic signal. He smiled and let her remain there till the lights changed.
That is to say: We Chennaivasis don’t prepare for disasters. We innovate.
Rain, no deterrent
By the second day, the first spell of rain had already soaked up the earth. It was the day of reckoning for the state’s various political parties and their leaders, who have been slogging it out through heat and humidity despite a falling away of the party faithful. Some of the more faithful, or maybe just those who have been corralled by the headhunters to stand and wave as their local gods drive by in their air conditioned chariots, have actually dropped dead in the heat of the moment. It’s the modern version of being blessed by death under the juggernaut of democracy, we console ourselves. It’s difficult not to be cynical by the need to believe in the promises being held out of a better deal, a better life.
Yet, such is the desire for change, that come voting day in Tamil Nadu, people are always willing and ready to vote, no matter what the outcome. Everyone is out there in his or her voting day best. No one has an umbrella. We welcomed the rain on voting day saying, “It’s a good sign!” adding the name of the candidate who we hope will win.
By day three, and after a night of ceaseless rain and thunder, we stand outside our doors thinking of that night last December when the deluge from three reservoirs swept through the city leaving a trail of disaster. Suddenly we talk of those who found themselves trapped by a wall of water in their own homes. We talk of the homes by the river’s edge that were swept away leaving families uprooted from their communities, being forced to re-locate on higher ground. We remember the promises of change to shore up the riverbanks and de-silt them, to deepen the existing reservoirs, to create more effective drainage systems.
What we are offered instead is rescue teams standing by with boats. There are rumours of a cyclone, or its smaller sister, a depression building up in the Bay of Bengal. We still do not believe that any such disaster is waiting to hit us. Not just because we are in the trough between knowing which political faction will be in charge, once the results have been counted and declared. But because the last time, we had our very own Ramanan, the rainman, keeping us informed to the best of his satellite-inspired abilities of what we could expect from the rain gods. He told us not to panic.
Now that he has retired, there is only silence.
And the sudden drumbeat of the rain in May.