Sanika Phawde (She/They) is an writer-illustrator, educator, cartoonist and reportage artist born and raised in Thane (Near Mumbai), India and currently working between New York City and Boston. Through autobiographical comics, visual essays, drawings on location, gouache paintings and illustrated interviews with members of her local community, her work captures and communicates instances of emotional connection and intimacy, queer immigrant culture and conversations people have over meals. Sanika has worked with clients such as Spotify, Simply Gum, Ole and Steen, Uber India, The New Yorker, Food & Wine Magazine among others. Their work has been awarded and recognized and featured by the One Club for Creativity, D&AD (Design and Art Direction), VICE, PRINT Mag, Creative Boom, American Illustration, Boston Globe, The Nation, The Society of Illustrators, and the Comics Beat among others. Sanika has exhibited work in group shows at Rendez-vous Carnet Du Voyage (Clermont-Ferrand, France), Jamestown Arts Centre, Pao Arts Center (Boston), Woods-Gerry Gallery (Providence), SVA Gramercy gallery and the SVA Chelsea gallery, City Hall (Jersey City) and Secrets Risograph show in Hamburg, among others, and has been invited to exhibit her work at numerous book fairs.
Growing up, I only think about the seasons as hot, wet or foggy. By the creek in Thane East (almost Mumbai) of the 2000s, every day is as long as the next, and if you like the heat and humidity the weather is always nice. Except for the months when it floods. But even that can be charming. If you are someone whose dogs, chickens, goats or house didn’t wash away in the flood. Or if you are someone who didn’t find a cobra or a gharial washed into your home from the creek. Or if you are someone who doesn’t live on street level, you can always find pleasure in the radio.
Especially in 2004, the radio is always on. At home, in auto rickshaws, at the grocer’s, in the hair salon. People blast their pocket radios in local trains, sometimes getting into volume wars with other radio-carrying commuters, all packed into the train without doors, barely not spilling out, like a surplus of bombil in the basket of a Koli fisherwoman ignoring the dogs that swipe at her ankles as she walks to her spot in the fish market. Even the cobbler and florist who share a blue tarp against the downpour, as they fix shoes and sell garlands on the sidewalk under my apartment building, are also sharing a transistor radio and falling in love. Characters in TV shows listen to the radio in the rain. Bollywood makes multiple movies about Mumbaikars falling in love with their favorite radio jockeys. From June to August even the rival RJs are in agreement, “Mumbai Monsoons are for the lovers (and fried food and strong chai).”
When everything is covered in dense opaque sheets of ever-falling rain, you can covertly hold someone’s hand while watching the Arabian Sea crash against the city walls at Marine Drive. If you are feeling brave, maybe even let the sides of your hips touch when you sit next to each other. Wet (everyone in Mumbai is wet in the monsoon) and watching, as wave after wave decapitates itself over the wall—named “The Queen’s Necklace” by the British—sending its head rolling into the street beyond and stroking the pavement passionately on its way back into the Arabian sea. Aftercare, maybe. Each lash spraying foam and mist into your face even from across the wide road, decimating visibility on the streets. Dousing cars, baptizing pedestrians.
Waves so tall they break on the heads of the Victorian lampposts the British left behind. Rain so loud it buzzes, a swarm of bees inside your ears. The sea rises a little more with each violent wave. Some days the waves are at street level, hurling back at us all the things we threw in the year before. TV news anchors list them: empty packets of chips, Bisleri bottles, a wheelchair, a body. Even this is romantic. In the same way that mischief is romantic. How cheeky to see our secrets and shame flung back at us. You would be a fool to stand on the wall then. Lest you get smacked in the face by a forgotten armoire, or your own broken heart.
It doesn’t rain for hours in the monsoon; it rains for days. It rains for weeks. We are not scared of floods. We are used to them, and proud of it. You can spot a recent transplant to the city by their choice of footwear. Are they wearing heels? Leather? Sneakers? They must be from Delhi. Everyone in Mumbai and the surrounding suburbs knows: rubber or plastic open-toed sandals are your only option. You need to let the floodwater flow in and out of your footwear easily. Anything else will trap your feet in rainwater (with god knows how much rat urine in it) for the whole work day, and make you sick. And your shoes must be rubber or plastic so they dry quickly when you get indoors.
This is before I learn to fear the floods.We haven’t had the big one yet.
In Marathi the word for fish bones is the same as thorns. I eat fish with my eyes closed. Like a cat, they say. I am sick of swallowing thorns. Or worse, getting them stuck in my throat. Feeling them tear the inner lining. Or choking, and having to ask an adult for help. I can feel sharp points of the thorns hiding inside the meat against my tongue better if I cut out all visible distractions, like my brother watching Pokémon, or my grandmother praising my sister for finishing all the food on her plate. The remedies for getting fish thorns stuck in your throat are eating rice, drinking water or looking up at the ceiling. We immediately give up hope for expelling the pain. Our best chance is to swallow it whole and bury it deep inside our bodies.
Grandma is simultaneously frying bombil and stirring a chicken curry over the gas stove. Shravan or Sawan, meaning monsoon, is the long month of vegetarianism and personal sacrifices when Hindus like my grandmother fast and abstain from their vices and pleasures (like meat). Out of gratitude to Lord Shiva for consuming all the poison that came out of the Kshir Sagar, the Ocean of milk, and surrounded the world in poisonous fumes. At least according to the stories Grandma tells us at night after she turns off the lights. When we are all lying in a bed encased in an adult size fort of mosquito nets that sometimes catch lizards who lose their grip on Grandma’s ceiling. We are parallelly arranged like drying bombil as she sings “Bhimarupi Maharudra” for a nightmare-free night. Which is also code for “Stop talking. Close your eyes and fall asleep already.”
But today is Gatari, the day of the full moon night. Before Shravanstarts. The day we indulge in all the vices we will miss during Shravan, and enjoy excesses like eating two different kinds of meat—chicken and fish—and a Koli food fair down by the Thane creek, with dancing and folk songs and a marching band and many shellfish stalls and hidden hooch, and some local men day-drinking and, according to legend, falling into gutters by nighttime. (Gutter > Gatar > Gatari, see?)
We don’t eat fish in the monsoon because my grandmother says fishing is dangerous in the monsoons and eating fish is unsafe. The sea is hurling its guts out into itself, tossing up mounds of mud and grime from its bed. The fish you can catch easily have been dead and floating in the water for god only knows how long. It is also the mating period for a lot of commonly eaten fish species. So hunting them during this time would destroy both our food source and the livelihoods and culture of Kolis living off of the sea.
Today is July 20, 2005. Shravan isn’t here yet but it’s been drizzling. In less than a week, the rain will come. Stronger than I have ever seen before in nine years of my life. It will make history. And force the city to rip out its insides—its ancient drainage system—and replace them slowly, over years. 850 people will die. Dozens will go missing. My mother will not come home from work that night. She will ask her friend to drop her off in his car as close to home as he can, because the local trains aren’t running. (The only other time I saw the Mumbai trains stilled was during the terrorist attack in seventh grade). She will get stuck on the drive home in a tiny Hyundai Santro with three other people, two heavily pregnant. And the radio. Until even that goes quiet. Then, they will wait in the car all night, bumper to bumper with the others, all windows cracked slightly. Watching the water rise against their windshield all night, afraid of falling asleep, till it finally starts to recede the next morning. She will walk in the door the next day and barely mention it.
I won’t be scared. I am not an adult. And children don’t think that much about the world ending in 2005. Our teachers will tell us to go home early. But then they will look out the window, at the water engulfing their cars so that only the shiny tops are visible, and decide we are safer staying put in our classrooms. A long line all the way down the corridor to use the school’s only landline telephone. Some teachers swearing at their Nokias, because rain is bringing down the phone lines. Around 7pm, children who live nearby will wade home chest-deep with parents who’ve come to collect them. I will play tic tac toe for four hours with a girl I have a crush on. Her parents are stuck in the flood too. Finally we will pile into a van packed with kids from our district. We will ooh and aah at the water level from the tiny windows. Finally the worry and fear will set in. Jokes about the van being our home now. One child will start crying.I will be relieved it isn’t me. My siblings and I will finally get home at midnight to my grandmother, who will appear unfazed.
There is something very funny about moving back in with your parents after graduating college while being treated for a chronic injury that might end your career before it starts, while also going through the worst breakup of your life.
My father has finally moved back to India—for real this time. My parents and I are sharing our one-bedroom apartment again. We haven’t done this in more than fifteen years.The living room doubles as my room. We are still figuring out our roommate dynamic. I try to cry about my breakup in secret but get yelled at for hogging the bathroom, so now every room in the house is a chamber of mourning, for a person they haven’t even heard of. Because good Desi girls only date when they are down to get married.
We haven’t left the house in three days because the water level outside is four feet high and climbing, according to local TV. But the same TV program also regularly broadcasts astonishingly inaccurate information about what is happening in Kashmir, so who knows what the truth is. I will be wading outside today with my parents to go see my grandmother in her house across the street (like I used to every day when I was a kid), to talk to her, try to get her to eat something, and to oil and braid her hair (like she used to when I was kid).
We take the elevator down, but the watchman uncle tells us it is a terrible idea to exit the building right now so we turn back. Bone-dry in our monsoon armor. It is a privilege to live in a building.
Somehow the milkman’s boys have still been delivering milk every morning at 6am, even in the flood. How are they doing this? The milkman doesn’t actually have any sons. His store is called Vidyarthee Doodh (Student Milk). He hires students who live in the Kopri chawl to deliver milk in the morning and helps them pay for college. The student milkboy who delivers to our building is also a DJ, with a large rhinestone earring in his left ear. I finally ask him how he has been getting around. He tells me his friend has a really tall Honda Activa. It helps keep the bags of buffalo milk out of the water.
The next day we try again. On our waddle to Grandma’s house (which takes twenty minutes now instead of the usual five), we see a long black snake swimming across the street. Thick as my wrist, with large shiny scales. We stop talking, hold hands, stand still, wait for it to pass and count to ten in our heads. Then we get the fuck out of there. But very very slowly and as quietly as possible, as if we haven’t noticed it. So that we don’t make too many waves and agitate it into attacking us. Snake sighting protocol that has been passed down from my grandfather’s father and drilled into us since we were children: assume all snakes are poisonous and respect them as such. Once you are safely away and have eyes on the snake, let the neighbors know.
I tell my grandmother about the snake as soon as I see her.
She is actually talking and opening her eyes today.
“Did you see a mongoose?”
“No, we saw a snake.”
“If you see a mongoose, and say his name three times, and make a wish. It will come true. It happened to me once. Just outside this building.”
“How did you know its name?”
“I just said Mongoose! Mongoose! Mongoose! And then I made a wish.”
“What did you wish for?”
“All that I can’t remember now. Probably something for your father. Maybe I will become a mongoose after I die.”
“Will you grant wishes?”
“We will see.”