Mumbai Chills

It was the beginning of December when a friend asked me, “When does winter start in Mumbai?” My friend has just moved to this city and is yet to decipher its moods and whims. Having spent most of his life in Delhi – we try not to hold that against him – his notion of winter is quite different from what seasoned residents of this city, like myself, have come to learn.

Winter in Mumbai, I gently explained to him, is not a physical experience. It is a state of mind. He looked perplexed so I patted him on the back and left it at that. Mumbai winters do not lend themselves well to explanation; in order to be understood, they have to be lived – as I have done, for more than a decade.

The promise of employment brought me to Mumbai from Kolkata in 2010. The City of Joy offered scant jobs, so the City of Dreams is where I laid roots. The two metropolises differ in many ways, not least being their conception of wintertime. Kolkata cannot, of course, lay claim to frigid winters. There is none of the bravado of the bone-chilling cold that descends on North India. Instead, the weather is mild and pleasant as the mercury does not so much plummet as bow bashfully through the turn of the year. There is a nip in the air that tingles more than it stings, and the crisp sunlight coaxes you into spending hours rummaging through temporary bookstalls in open grounds. (Kolkata winters, for me, are synonymous with the Book Fair.) Mumbai, as I was to discover, doesn’t really go in for all that.

In my first winter in this city, I devoted an entire weekend to retrieving my woollens, vests, and jackets from their naphthalene-laden refuge and spreading them out on my bed. We had followed this hibernal ritual of airing out winterwear – necessary to dispel their musty fug before they could be worn – every year at home. So, having performed my part of the tradition, I looked forward to the morning when I would wake up to a chill wafting in from the open window – the morning that would hearken the onset of winter. As it turned out, the chills refused to waft but the mosquitoes did so gladly. Open windows played no further role in my vigil for winter’s arrival.

As the days turned into weeks, the sweaters and mufflers continued to lie bereft on my bed. There were occasions when walking down a street I would feel a rush of cold air and my heart would leap, only to discover it emanated from the exuberant air-conditioning of a shop whose proprietor seemed to be yearning for winter as much as me. Finally, it was sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when I was sitting in the back of a cab winding its way through the serpentine J.J. Flyover, that it struck me with the ferocity of the late afternoon sunshine: this was it. This t-shirt-drenching, heatstroke-threatening weather, was winter.

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This epiphany should have left me broken and desolate but fortunately, it triggered something more profound – a moment of rare insight into the soul of this city. Mumbai, after all, is a land of do-ers, of go-getters. Its identity is rooted in the lore that it values enterprise above all else. The city can be aloof and distant, with little patience for prayers and pleas. But if you are willing to put in the effort, its rewards are yours to claim. As the saying goes, Mumbai helps those who help themselves. It is no different with its winters.

It was naïve, I realised, to just sit and wait for winter to arrive. This city demands action; there are no free lunches here. If you want winter, you have to work for it. The first order of business then, is to disregard reality and imagine that it is getting colder. This form of mental misdirection may be difficult for some people but to me, it is child’s play. Last year, I quit my job after convincing myself that I could make a living as a writer. I can fool myself into believing anything.

For the ruse to work, you have to commit. Wear a sweater when you’re stepping out, no matter how hot and humid a day it is. (You will perspire in buckets so remember to keep sipping water to avoid dehydration). Wear a suit to work. Whenever you can, stand directly below the air-conditioning vent. Take hot water showers in the middle of the sweltering afternoons. Drink nothing but hot chocolate, multiple times during the day. It will not be smooth sailing at first but if you stick to it, you will eventually succeed. The signs of winter will begin to manifest.

There will be days when the city’s AQI will hit dizzying heights and the horizon will be rendered invisible by a grey wall of haze. To your eyes, it will invoke the romance of a wintry fog. When your windows are caked in the dust spewed by the ubiquitous construction sites, all you will see are the chilly signs of mist. When served bottled orange juice chockfull of preservatives, you will wax eloquent about the tangy freshness that only winter can bring.

And then, one morning, you will wake up to discover that though the temperature has not wavered and the chills may never waft, it has happened. Winter has come. Against all odds, you have wrought a change of seasons through sheer force of will. From that day on, you will start telling your friends, winter in Mumbai is not a physical experience. It is a state of mind.

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Featured image: Yogesh Rahamatkar / Unsplash