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Living in a tarp house during the Mumbai monsoon

There is hardly a warning before it rains. The sky darkens and the wind thickens, but all of that sometimes happens in only a matter of seconds, allowing no time to prepare for the downpour.

When the first drops fall, there’s a scramble for damage control. A wife who is also a mother, and a sister who is also an aunt run from one of the tarp houses that line Khar railway station to the fence that separates them from the train tracks. Each races the rain, pulling family possessions off of the fence that acts as a clothesline and storage space, throwing worn bedsheets and children’s clothes over their shoulders and running back inside, too late.

The race has been won by the rain that is now sliding sideways. Water is coming into the house, as the house’s borders are not raised: they are defined only informally. Only those who live in the neighbouring tarp homes would know where the family’s space begins and ends. Mom lifts everything off of the ground and hangs things from the pole that holds up the tarp roof, filling pots and pans with family toiletries and stacking them on a stool. The young kids and elder sister duck underneath the tarp that stoops under the rainwater in its folds, running unprotected into the weather. Within moments, each carries a liter of water in his oversized shorts; her salwar hems. Rather than being weighed down, each becomes lighter.

Inside, Mom pushes the tarp upwards to release the water that is threatening to crumple the house. It pours from its pools off the edge and into the washbasin held up by her son on arms thinner than his mother’s braid. He immediately throws the water on his older sister. Then, running between passerby to the middle of the walkway, he beats his bare chest with the same thin arms, dancing in the same oversized shorts, grinning wider than the taupe-coloured blanket of the expansive sky.

The women waiting on the train platform hold their saris up to step over puddles. The sister doesn’t bother: she’s already wet, and throwing her soaked dupatta over her shoulder with a thwack, grabs her own container to retaliate.
Rain in Mumbai
The sky is merciless and the two take water from the tarp’s dip as quickly as it fills, throwing the rain at each other and unsuspecting stray dogs, confused and shivering with their tails between their legs.

The family baby is too young to remember any monsoon before this one. He can only stamp his feet in the puddles that come up to his knees, watching the only people he knows in the whole right in front of him, their animation and colours against the stillness and grey.

His family have all seen this rain before, played in it, run from it, burned with fever because of it, aimed their faces skyward and celebrated it. It is part of the weather, the seasons, the way the world works.

The only reason the littlest can see for this downpour is a bigger tarp, somewhere overhead.  His understanding of the monsoon is this: in the same way that his mother pulls at the tarp edge to allow the flood to pour over, some god or sky giant must be pulling at the edge of a tarp wide enough to cover the whole world; as far as he can see from two and a half feet above ground from his stance beside the station.

The endless grey platform and all of its people, covering their heads with newspapers. The baby flowers between the rails that appear to flounder in the rain, but thrive afterwards. The cloud backdrop that has hosted so many storms, so much fog, so many coral coloured dawns, so much promise.

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