Umbrellas under the sky

The umbrellas are out, and the city weather is such that they only serve as accoutrement. Mumbai rains are more about tarpaulin sheets as awnings; water collected in little pools is muddy, dirty. Yet, there is something uplifting about grey skies and a downpour. I know this is a luxury only those who have homes and windows can afford. I know that newspaper pictures showing slum kids enjoying the rains are really about the water they rarely get to see. I know.

Back in the days, it was the mother of one such kid who sheltered me from sudden showers. I was walking to school, and had conveniently ‘forgotten’ to carry an umbrella. While raincoats were bad enough, umbrellas too conveyed a need for playing safe that my new teenage mind was naturally not inclined to. I stood beneath a tree as the downpour continued. She worked as a sweeper at the school. Hesitant at first (we are a casteist society), she finally asked, “Aaogi (will you come)?” Of course! In the seven-minute walk, she took care to cover me even as her sari was getting drenched. I still remember her face.

A painting by Leonid Afremov

I like faces under umbrellas – they look vulnerable, especially if the brolly is a foldable one. These became fashionable accessories, the two-fold and later the three-fold. Unfurling they looked as though a camel was getting up. Occasionally, they caused embarrassment when they refused to open up or the button got stuck.

My uncle once gifted me a fuschia-coloured one. It was a regular ‘ladies umbrella’, and it always seemed as though one was blushing. The flush of youth, the carefree gait as though one owned the damp roads that reflected light.

A scene from 'Shri 420'

Romance and umbrellas have a history. Two people sharing an umbrella signals proximity, and also the whole drama of wetness, hair dripping, faces aglow, and the low hum. This scene from ‘Shri 420’ epitomises it. Raj Kapoor and Nargis singing, “Pyaar hua iqrar hua, pyaar se phir kyon darta hai dil…(There is love, and an admission of it, yet why is the heart so afraid of it)” Perhaps because like the showers, there is no “manzil” (destination)?

Chaplin used the umbrella for other reasons

The large black umbrella is ubiquitous in the streets. They may come in different varieties, but the sturdy one with the curved handle stands for the person who has nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It was there is R.K.Laxman’s cartoons of the common man. And it is there in Chaplin, the tramp, the guy who does not think about winning or losing, and bumbles his way through life that is often slippery. And slip he does, rain or no rain. It also acts as a crutch, something to hold on to when things go a little wrong or one’s own resolve is a bit shaky.

The black stands out against the mélange of colours, not only of other umbrellas but also of the shades that dot the Indian landscape, from paan spit to dead flowers, to neon clothes, to kitschy posters.

Umbrella tree - street art

This piece of street art is not Indian, but such a fine tribute to the umbrellas that have been a part of my monsoons. Some were lost or got stolen as they stood propped up outside stores or in buckets…and some just closed themselves on me.

© Farzana Versey