Waterworld

India's monsoon season is an ecstatic release after weeks of furnace heat. But along with the bounty comes hardship and sometimes death. Photographs Mike Goldwater. Introduction by Peter Popham
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Why is the phrase "Indian Summer" used, one wonders, to describe something as mellow as a warm British autumn? The real Indian summer is a supernatural torture so refined that only a Hindu deity could have thought it up.

The torture begins way back in April, when overnight it becomes too hot to walk anywhere, unless you care to rise before dawn. The bacchanalia of the festival of Holi has gone, and the wedding shamianas (marquees) in parks and gardens are put away. Now the five-star hotels are empty of foreigners, and the Indian elite start packing their bags for the annual flight to London. And, as the English season gets under way, so the Indian one - concerts, garden parties, diplomatic beanos, weddings and more weddings, music in the parks - withers and dies.

Full summer arrives, perhaps, as this year, a month early. The temperature is up in the 40s, well over 100F, day after day. Green parakeets scream in the trees, and the hawk sparrow, aptly called the brain fever bird, howls all night like a falsetto wolf. The pie-dogs hug the shadows and the taxi wallahs sprawl on bulging string beds like oversize fish, but the malis (gardeners), sweepers and others condemned to work outdoors creep about their duties like sleepwalkers.

One day the skies fill with black clouds, and a weird hush falls. The temperature plummets, the parched earth yearns skywards. But this is the worst torment: no rain, but only a storm of wind, whipping up tons of dust and dumping them on the city. When the rain finally comes - weeks late, as the heat was weeks early - the joy is instant and ecstatic. There is no more blessed sight than these teeming sheets of water. India yields a great sigh of relief - relief from the heat torture, but also because the crop is safe and famine delayed for another season.

Twenty-four hours later comes the backlash: flooded roads, crippled traffic, power cuts, small cars floating in the streets, malarial mosquitoes, rats rushing up from the sewers. But the relief persists.

King's Circle, Bombay

"Even though the growing pool of water in the streets is filthy, children are soon playing there as though they were in a swimming pool. Mike Goldwater says: "Trucks were driving through, and some of the children were clinging to the backs of them. It was all a game to them: the trucks were just like big toys. Other people were wading in, trying to find the drains so they could unblock them, but once the place becomes covered in water, it's quite hard to find them." But the floods bring danger: every year people are drowned.

Marine Drive, Bombay

This famous city boulevard runs along the shoreline of the Arabian Sea. In the late afternoons Bombay's middle class comes here to promenade, take in the sea air and people-watch. There are also traders, selling food and drink. And, of course, the street people. But when the monsoon rains hit, everyone runs for cover. This father tried to shelter his daughter under a sheet of plastic and a palm tree, but stood little chance of keeping her dry - the downpour started at 5.30 in the afternoon and continued until 9 at night.

Street scene, Bombay

"This street is still partly flooded, but at around 8am the caretaker, who knows where the drains are, starts to unblock them. He brushes away the rubbish or pokes it down into the drain. Three hours later the water level is finally going down. Meanwhile, the locals weave their way past the deep puddles. Photographer Mike Goldwater says: "The draining system isn't sufficiently sophisticated for the number of people, and the population generates a great deal of rubbish which doesn't get cleared away. The system works in affluent areas but not in poor ones - a bit like London."

Cherrapunji

This village is on a plateau, about 5,000ft above sea level in the tiny state of Meghalaya, in the north east of India, close to the Bangladeshi border. It's one of the wettest place on earth. "I saw these women washing their clothes," says Goldwater. "There was a lot of water flowing down in a stream, right at the back of the women's houses - very convenient. You soak the clothes, pound them, rinse, pound them, then squeeze them out. It might take five minutes to do one garment. The stream ran down to a waterfall which was shrouded in mist, so you couldn't see beyond the edge of the cliff. I got the sense that nature was in command and we were at its mercy."

The Narmada Dam

After a four-year stay, the Supreme Court of India has given the go-ahead for construction of this vast dam to continue. When the reservoir behind it fills, 12,000 tribal people will lose their homes. This is a prayer ceremony on the banks of the river, below the soon-to-be-flooded village of Jalsindi. "I found it very moving," admits Goldwater. "About 200 people put candles in the river, and said they won't move when the waters rise. It's a King Canute approach: they hope the local government will have to change its policy. But it probably won't work, even though Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize winner, is campaigning for them. While visiting the dam I heard of this 500-year-old temple nearby which had been submerged by the reservoir for five years. Recently, when the water levels dropped, the villagers returned to clean it up," says Goldwater. "It was a terrible trek through the mud. We got to where we could see the temple, and my guide shouted across this silent lake. It was eerie. Finally, the boat came and we got in. But all that was visible of the temple was the dome. If I'd got there a day earlier, I would have seen a lot more. There were some protest flags sticking out of its roof and a couple of the guys in the boat got out to adjust them."

Mapusa

"I was always on the phone to the various meteorological offices n Goa, Poona, even Bangalore, trying to find people who would tell me when the rains were due," explains Goldwater. On this day he went to Mapusa, an inland market town with Portuguese colonial architecture. "The rain wasn't cold, so if you got wet it wasn't uncomfortable, but it was continuous and heavy," he recalls. The children are in school uniforms and, unlike the kids playing in the water in Bombay, they didn't want to get drenched.

Guwahati, Assam

Like many people in Assam's tranquil capital, this temple sadhu (holy man) does not have access to running water, so when it falls from the sky he collects it to drink and to wash with. "Sadhus are on the path to spiritual enlightenment through self-denial," Goldwater explains. "I took these picture after the temple had been closed to the public for three days. It was full of pilgrims, and a couple of hundred sadhus. A lot of them were asking for alms and people were giving them food. One of the sadhus had hair which, when he stretched it out, was 15ft long. He put his begging bowl beside it; I took a picture and he charged me 50 rupees. But as soon as it started to rain, he curled up his hair and rushed off to find shelter - he just didn't want to get his hair wet." n

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