Three of November’s books

After a hiatus, I started reading madly in November, fueled by a series of recommendations. Sometime in the last week I read a sentence which sticks to my mind: maybe there are only a few plots, but there are many stories to tell. Of the books that I read in November, the ones that stand out seem to have the same theme but tell three completely different stories.

Being alone doesn’t mean you have to be miserable

Yoko Ogawa

I’d picked up Yoko Ogawa’s book, called The Memory Police in a translation by Stephen Snyder, when it was published two years ago, during a meeting, but I drifted away before getting more than a few pages into it. Now I read it in a sustained burst. It was called 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na Kesshō) in the original Japanese, meaning Graceful/secret/soft crystallization. The beautiful but claustrophobic story is a reworking of Anne Frank in an imaginary island. The Memory Police enforces forgetting on its population: stamps, roses, birds, perfumes. The few people who don’t forget are rounded up and “disappeared”. In this setting a novelist hides her editor, a man who does not forget in a little secret space she builds in her house. You cannot help reading it as an allegory of what some have called a wave of fascism around the world. But, like Anne Frank’s diary, the power of this novel comes from more than its circumstances. As the islanders’ memories dissolve, it is interesting to think about the story in terms of its Japanese title.

I went through school with a lot of irony.

Michael Ondaatje on being an immigrant in an English school

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is the first book of his that I have read in a long time. The narrator in a young man who seems to be trying to reconstructing his memories of growing up in London after the war when his parents left him and his sister in the care of people who seem to be a little dodgy. The term warlight refers to the chiaroscuro of wartime blackouts: small things seen in clear light, the larger things obscure. The result is a sharp description of a boy’s teenage years, growing up on the margins of criminality, the danger of violence, the discovery of sex and love, but with the larger story coming into dim view only later. It is a beautiful book, and would have been so even without the twist that the Booker committee likes to have in its longlist selection.

Don’t write about fairies. They don’t like it.

Susanna Clarke on the long hiatus between her books

Sixteen years passed between the publication of Susanna Clarke’s first two books. I had my eyes on Piranesi for a while, but came to it immediately after I saw several etchings of imaginary prisons made by Giovanni Battista Piranesi after 1745, when he recovered from an illness. Interestingly, Susanna Clarke wrote this story of a man documenting an endless house during an illness. The man exists in a state of innocence, a “Child of the House that is the World”, exploring the halls and vestibules of the middle level of the house. The sea fills the lower levels and tides come and go. The upper level has clouds, and rain water flows down from them. The middle level has birds and enigmatic statues. But this is a book by Clarke, and mysteries soon appear, and eventually other worlds. Interestingly, each person is introduced with a characteristic smell. Clarke is a very clever writer, and you begin to see her concerns again in this book: gender, slavery, modernity, and, as in the other two books, memory and its distortions.

Deenanath grass

Bright pink flowers are not something you would normally associate with a grass, but I’d been seeing fields of such a grass all the days that we’d driven around Tadoba. These chest-high flowers were just a bit too far away for me to get good photos. Until the last morning. Seconds before sunrise I got the shot that you see as the featured photo. The other photo was taken a minute later, when the sun had cleared the horizon.

I found that it is called Deenanath grass. That’s an odd name. It means the lord of the poor, or the saviour of the poor. Why such a name? It is used as animal feed in Ethiopia (where it is called Desho grass), but I could not find any references to its use by Indian farmers. In any case, it is a very literary construction, and I find it hard to imagine that the deen, the destitute, would think it up. Wouldn’t they just call it red grass, or something like that? There are more oddities. It has two Latin binomials: Cenchrus pedicellatus as well as Pennisetum pedicellatum.

It is a winter flowering grass, and like other winter flowering grasses like rice, wheat, and oats, possibly uses C3 photosynthesis. The Kew garden listing for this grass records its range as very wide: from the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic, across tropical Africa, to Madagascar, India and Indo-China. The dense thickets that I saw led me to look a bit further into its habits. It is a perennial, and its roots form dense mats which prevent soil erosion. Perhaps that is the origin of the name. It can be used to prevent topsoil from blowing off. There were cycles of failure of the Indian monsoon in the 18th and 19th centuries CE, and earlier in the medieval and early modern eras. Could it be that during these hard times it was discovered that fields could be made productive by mixing this grass with crops? That is a technique used today in Ethiopia. Perhaps some historical digging into 19th century Indian records is called for.

December 24, 2011

Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.

We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.

It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.

We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.

On meeting a Gaur at dinner

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Ogden Nash

There is silence, broken only by the sound of a strong man eating

P.G. Wodehouse

The Gaur (Bos gaurus) didn’t look at me as I fiddled with my camera. Should I correct for the fact that the light was not perfect? Which do you prefer, the photo out of the box, or the one which is corrected?

The common lime

Late in the morning I found a nice spot in the hotel in Tadoba from which to do some butterfly photography. Since these flighty creatures are more active at this time, it helps to have a bright day. A common lime (Papilio demoleus) flitted along a straggly row of periwinkles at the edge of the road. In the mornings it prefers to fly low. The butterflies lay their eggs on citrus trees, and the caterpillars are considered to be great pests since they can munch their way through substantial amounts of leaves. Tadoba is close to Nagpur, which is a center of orange trade. So there could have been citrus trees in the neighbourhood. In any case, in there parts of India ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), another host plant for the caterpillars, is also common.

What I find interesting about this butterfly is that it is highly invasive, being found across the world. In the 21st century it managed to reach the Dominican Republic, and is currently spreading fast across the Americas. It has no natural toxins, and is an easy mark for predators. The caterpilar is also parasitized by several wasps, whose larvae eat it from the inside while it is alive. How does it manage to spread in spite of these natural barriers to growth? The answer seems to be that it breeds fast. In the region around Nagpur there are eight or nine generations in a year. In cooler places they may pupate through winter.

Later I found a potter wasp’s nest in the hotel. These wasps belong to the subfamily Eumeninae, and are parasitic. They catch larvae of beetles or spiders, paralyses them, and brings them to their mud nests. There they lay eggs inside the paralysed animal, so that their larvae can feed on them as they grow. I wonder what fraction of wasps have evolved such parasitic lifestyles.

Celebrating the margins

At the edges of festivals I find interesting human stories, the sort that I like to capture in photos. The last couple of years have not exactly been productive times for street photography, so I’ve rescued some photos from the dark depths of a hard disk. The featured photo is from the end of the Ganapati festival. Families from a fishing village gather at the shore of the sea to watch large images of the god being brought for immersion in the waters at the end of the festival. The children had created a viewing platform to watch from. I backed up against the crowd-control barrier at the edge of the sea to take this photo.

Around every religious place you find commerce in the necessities. Outside a Durga puja, I found this young man trying to sell flowers to visitors. I hung around across the road, sensing that a teenager at a repetative job would give me a good shot at some point. It wasn’t long before he started showing signs of boredom. I got my shot.

There are families who hop from one Durga puja to another, eating dinner at food stalls around them. I like to hang around these stalls, and not only because I like a snack. You can see interesting stories build and resolve at food stalls and the nearby tables. Festivals are times when families eat much more than they would normally do. Late one night I found this sleepy child apparently abandoned by his family at a table piled with the remnants of a feast on the go. The father came back soon with another fizzy drink for the child.

Diwali is a private time, spent with families. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities for a camera roving the streets. Instead I spend time at the pre-Diwali markets. Families are out buying lights and decorations for the home. The strange forms of these long stems of artificial lotuses created an interesting forest for shoppers looking for something new and different, and salesmen trying to convince them that they have found exactly what they are looking for.

East-Indian sausages

East-Indians are a less known community centered around Mumbai. If you haven’t heard of them before, you might be tempeted to think that they are smaller in number than the Parsis. But, in fact, there are six times as many East Indians in Mumbai as there are Parsis across the world. The East Indians were the original inhabitants of Mumbai. They are Marathi speaking fishermen, the Koli, of Thane, and Vasai who converted to Christianity after the arrival of the Portuguese, and with whom they had extensive dealings. This was at the time that the Portuguese used Vasai as their second most important port in India. I was quite puzzled by this name for the inhabitants of the western part of India, until I realized that I had to think like the confused Portuguese. For them this was India to the east, whereas Central and South America were India to the west.

The gratuitious featured photo shows two Indian Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris canidia) which I photographed in the ruins of the Vasai Fort. It is a place worth visiting. East Indians live in the villages around it, still farming and fishing as their ancestors did.

Their method of making sausage yields a wonderful product. Salt-cured shoulder of ham and bits of the neck are chopped fine and mixed with the a mixture of ginger and garlic, turmeric and cumin. A little red chili is added, but the much less than the fiery heat of the Goan chourico. The mixture is pickled for a night in toddy vinegar, yielding a fresh and mildly sour taste. I wolfed down a plateful with toast, pausing only at the last sausage to take a photo. It really is that good.

Serene Saturday

Sometime the jungle is peaceful and quiet. The trail broke out from thickets into an open meadow. It was early morning. A golden sun. A small herd of chital (Axis axis, also called spotted deer) grazed in front of us. A sambar (Rusa unicolor) walked through the herd. Chital are easily spooked, but this herd did not mind us. Sambars are alert. It looked up at us briefly and went back to breakfast.

The scene before me was a very clear illustration of how these two species of deer manage to live in the same forest without conflict. The chital is largely a grazer, the sambar a browser. The chital is an under-rated ecosystem engineer. Its grazing keeps small plants from growing too high and smothering jungle seedlings before they can reach their full growth. They also keep the spaces under trees clear. A jungle looks very different from a garden gone wild because of these grazers.

This difference between the two kinds of deer is also reflected in their sizes. The small chital cannot possibly reach the lower canopy. I waited for the sambar to flick out its long tongue, as it does when it wants to reach a leaf too high even for its long neck. But this canopy hung low enough that it could just use its lips.

The little group fed peacefully. No smell or sound of a predator bothered them that morning. On a stump nearby I saw a black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus). It is as dark as a crow, as intelligent and aggressive, and an incredibly good mimic. It is hard to get a good photo of a drongo because of its colour. I was lucky here. It sat in full sunlight for this portrait before it rushed off to its next appointment.

Street fighters

While walking around a village near Tadoba, looking at birds, I was stopped in my tracks. Quite literally. The road was blocked by two bucks having quite a rumble. They pushed each other across the road as the rest of the herd spread out quickly to the sides looking for food, leaving these two to sort out their differences.

The brindled goat was clearly stronger. It pushed the younger one right across the road, but the agile white stippled youth recovered by jumping high and bringing his skull down on the other’s with a loud thump. All this was useless. The goatherd came along and broke up the fight soon enough. Some day I’ll have to find their wild ancestors, the Bezoars of the Caucasus. I want to see how these fights end. Does the loser run away, or stay and fight another day?

Mystery tour magic

Where am I? Not a question I normally get to ask, but the featured photo raised exactly that question. Germany? Switzerland? Austria? Bratwurst and umbrellas, could be Bavaria. This day’s photos were sandwiched between some from Regensburg and others from Paris. Bavaria, most certainly. But I had lost all memories of that day. I was definitely going from Regensburg to Paris, and I had stopped for a day somewhere. Other clues?

These two photos did not jog my memory. Nice early 20th century figures, and the windows behind them also look like they are from that time. Most of the large cities in this area were heavily bombed in the world war. These were lucky survivors. The writing on the medallion below one of the figures was a clue. I could search for Schaeffler Eck, but that would definitely give too many hits.

This clinched it. I was in Munich. These lions stand outside the Residenz Museum. At the bottom of the photo you can see a hand reaching up to touch the bottom of the shield. That is a local legend about how touching the lions brings you luck. That little segment at the bottom of the shield is brighter than the rest of the metal because it has been polished by the hands of many Muernchners and tourists. The lion, or at least its photo, turned out to be lucky for me.

Then this door had to belong to the Frauenkirche, now used as the cathedral of Munich. The church was first built in the 12th century CE just outside the city walls. This unusually plain late-Gothic brick building dates from a 16th century rebuilding. It was one of the buildings heavily damaged in the wartime bombings, and its reconstruction was completed only in 1994. Now my memory was back. I’d taken this photo, walked around to the new town hall to see the famous clock strike the hour, walked around the center, and then walked back near the church to find a pleasant place for some beer and a bratwuerst, before going on to catch the evening train to Paris.

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