Cabbages and kings

In the evening we walked around the Gateway of India. When I walk here, I sometimes think of the enormous expense of that last hurrah of the British empire, the Delhi Durbar of 1911, in which George V and his consort Mary proclaimed their claim as the emperor of India. The ceremony was held in Delhi, but the king visited Mumbai. The whole seafront was realigned, and the gateway was built to commemorate that visit. Less than half a century later, the last British troops in India left for a voyage home from this point. I got a nice light on the harbour, along with the shadow of the Taj Mahal hotel on the gateway. The rise of Indian traders was the shadow that grew to engulf and expel the empire. Mumbai was the epicenter of that struggle. a fact that is written in its geography, if only one looks. I’m glad I caught those two pigeons right above the gate.

“That’s not what you think about all day,” I’m sure The Family will remind me. No, of course, not. I also take the time to look at tiny moths which I can’t identify. Like this beauty, a little over a centimeter long, hanging from the ceiling. The end of the abdomen seems to end in coremata, a organ involved in excreting male pheromones. They are common across many lepidoptera species, and not of much help in identification. The shape of the snout and the way it holds its antennae back along its abdomen could mean that it belongs to the family Crambidae. Whatever it is, it does look good.

Green jewel bug

A bright green spot flew in front of me and landed on a tree which gives a characteristic redolence to this time of transition between sharad and hemant, the night-blooming jasmine (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, parijat in Hindi and Odia, shiuli in Bengali, xewali in Assamese). When it landed I could see that the shiny green spot was a green jewel bug (Chrysocoris stollii, aka the lychee shield bug). I haven’t identified any of the other 450 jewel bugs, so I can’t be certain. But this had characteristic markings, and the colour, of what I was told was the C. stollii.

Of course one can do better these days, I realized as soon as I wrote that sentence. A little search with the help of google mamu told me quickly that the markings on the back were not of the C. pulchellus or C. patricius. I’m glad I did that check, because I found that in 2017 I’d posted misidentified photos; those smaller bugs were probably C. patricius. I’m also pretty certain now that this is not the C. purpureus, since that should be purple, as its name suggests. Could it be the C. hahn? The pictures I came across are confused, and I can’t figure out whether this is different. But let me go with C. stollii, for now, especially since it is supposed to be the most abundant of jewel bugs in India.

So what do I know about it? It is a bug, not a beetle, although the green shield could mislead you. If you look carefully, you’ll see that there is no mid-line parting on its shield; a beetle will have a divided back. You can also try to distinguish them by counting the number of segments on legs and antennae. Since it drinks sap from plants, it is considered a pest. My fund of knowledge runs out pretty fast. I must look for more bugs, this is a season for insects anyway.

Happy Dusshera

I stepped out to buy a loaf of bread on Saturday and found a parking apron taken up by a trio busy stringing marigolds into streamers. Of course, the time-keeper in my head told me, “Tomorrow is dusshera.” It wasn’t very easy to track this year, with no lights, no festivities, no night-long dances. But it was hard to forget too, with all the sighing and complaining from friends and family about missing everything this year. I didn’t actually, I’m a happy bear these days. I’m a day or two late, but a happy dusshera to you.

But while lost in uffish contemplation of these photos snapped off quickly with my phone, a monstrous jabberwock raised its head. Do you recognize a subtle bit of structural racism here? Let me explain. A phone camera is no longer the simple light catching device that a camera was forty years ago. The image is mediated by software, and the huge improvement in this decade has been due to the addition of AI to the mix. That tweaks the exposure and colour according to optimizations it has been trained to use. Many of these improvements involve recognizing and enhancing faces. Just check your photos from five years back, and you’ll see how much better faces look in recent photos. I say usually, because it depends on the skin colour.

The AI is trained on data sets selected by Google, and these are largely biased to lighter skin colours. See, for example, a photo taken three years ago, by a six year old phone, in Madrid’s Atocha station. I have taken a random face from the shadows and inset it to show how well the AI has captured that. All I did was to increase the overall illumination in the inset. See the subtlety with which the details and shadows are rendered. Compare that to the inset face (with the same tweak for overall illumination) visible in the photo above that: the AI has rendered the bamboo framework in the background better than the face. This comparison shows that it is not light or darkness that makes a difference; it is algorithmic bias. It took me a bit of work on the featured photo to make the face visible. It is because of this bias that a DSLR or a good bridge camera still remains superior to a smart phone for street photography in India and most of the world.

Outdoor, indoor

The seasons keep changing. Varsha, sharad, hemant… How gender imbalanced! Four seasons give names to men: Sharad, Hemant, Shishir, Vasant. One to women, Varsha. And no one names their babies Grishma. Anyway, the pandemic which started in vasant has now lasted till the change between sharad and hemant.

This is the time of the year when this night-flying butterfly makes an appearance. Like all its cousins, the moths, it is lured indoor by our lights. You would have a hard time telling this wet-season morph outdoor at its normal perch among rotting leaves on the ground. The dry season morph is equally invisible among fallen dry leaves. I suppose it is the humidity during pupation that determines which morph emerges from the chrysalis.

But mostly this is a time when moths fill your house. In recent times in Mumbai I’ve been seeing a lot of the underwing moths, their drab upper wings closing over bright orange hind wings as they come to rest. But here are three beauties which I haven’t been able to identify. They are all small, between half a centimeter and half an inch! The photos show their sizes relative to each other accurately. You need magnifying glasses or a macro lens to examine them, but it pays off.

Help!

I need somebody

Help! Not just anybody

Lennon-McCartney

The pandemic broke the world and told us what is really important. A few days of panic as the familiar world and its patterns dissolved. Packaged food disappeared before The Family and I could react. Our household help was suddenly unavailable. The routines of work were gone. We were adrift!

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

Pink Floyd

Afterwards, in those long and unending hours there were only two of us in the house, rattling around in these four rooms. Wasn’t this our dream once? Let the world disappear, as long as I still have you? Without thinking of it, we moved back into a mode that we had forgotten in these decades. But now it was so much more pleasant. Then we were still adjusting to each other, still not entirely comfortable replacing me with we. It was different now.

But we didn’t know ourselves. The Family found that she liked cooking. And I discovered that I didn’t mind helping around the house; that doing mindless things helped me to reach inner peace. We cooked, and cleaned, and the uncertain days of the pandemic became a preview of our life in retirement. And when we sat together to eat, it was time to talk and talk. Unlike those early days when the purpose of talking was to tell the other of our life before them, now we could say “Remember this? Remember when? Whatever happened to?”

April, come she will

When streams are ripe and swelled with rain

May, she will stay

Resting in my arms again

Paul Simon

We cleaned and chopped and cooked. Spring onions lasted well into summer. We ate lychees after years, because there was little else available. Some lunches were just a small salad, a fruit, an egg, and toast. Other lunches were elaborate, a dal, two freshly cooked veggies, some chicken, and fruit. We only had soup for dinner. Except when we uncorked a bottle of wine, and brought out the precious few munchies and packets of nuts we had left over. I had the time to devil an egg, and The Family learnt to make a Bengali style veggie which is normally served during durga puja. And then, when we could finally begin to get fish, we would sometimes have a beer and a fried fish. I discovered how acid could liven a flat tomato sauce, and invented new ways of making liver. And we dressed up on our birthdays.

There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be

It’s easy

Lennon-McCartney

The pandemic passed like bad novels and movies. Julie and Julia? Love in the time of cholera? The hundred foot journey? The incredible lightness of being? No reservations? Lunchbox? For us, life was nothing dramatic. Just finding a recipe. Inventing something new. Praising each others’ food. Dressing up for dinner. Small and simple things which became treats, new discoveries.

Hazy days

The heat and haze this October is really something else altogether. As we drove back along Marine Drive just before lunch, The Family looked out across the white and almost featureless vista on our right and said “The Anthropause is really over. Look at that smog.” She might be right about the Anthropause, but it is not yet smog that we see from the moment we wake up. It is a haze of moisture that hangs over the city right now.

October is always hot and humid in Mumbai, but this year is something else. The day before yesterday, I opened the box of detergent before I started the washing machine and found that it the soap had turned into a sticky mass. Washing powder is deliquescent, like any soap, and it sticks a little during the monsoon. I’ve never seen it turn into a solid sticky mass ever before, and certainly not a month after the monsoon has gone.

This haze signals a very warm sea. Up, at the very north of the world, arctic ice has not yet started to form. Alarms have begun to sound about the possibility of disastrous flooding from increased glacial melting in the Himalayas, a possibility that would need international collaboration in a region now fraught with confrontation. The unprecedented levels of warming this year go from global to something that I can see in my box of detergent.

Round the web

I stop at this spot in the garden once a day. I’m sure to see some butterflies here at any time. Yesterday I saw this strange spider web. A spider web has radial threads which aren’t sticky; these are the first threads that the spider lays down to make sure that the web will be stable. Once these anchors are in place, it moves crosswise along them laying down the sticky spiral thread. If you look carefully, you can see the fine lines of this spider’s radial and spiral architecture in the featured photo. But the spider was doing something weird here. While it moved spirally along the web, it seemed to lay down a much thicker spiral.

I haven’t seen anything like this before. I read later that when a spider wishes to move, sometimes she eats up the old web. Could she have been doing that? Maybe she lays down something to soften the thread before eating it? Videos on YouTube (a great reference site for the amateur naturalist) show that the dismantling of a web is very straightforward; the spider doesn’t have to season the silk before eating it. Nor was this the process of wrapping prey in silk. Could it be an invader trying to attack the original inhabitant? As I watched, I saw only one thing moving. I cursed myself for not carrying a magnifying lens with me. I went back again today to look. The web had disappeared. Maybe it was an invasion that I had seen.

Fernweh

There is a word in German which expresses my feelings today, after I woke up early in the morning to the intense humidity and heat of late October in Mumbai. The word is fernweh, and Duden describes it as (in translation) a longing for far away, for distant countries. I long to be in the Himalayas. This is the time of the year when we used to do this in other years. New birds are arriving there now, you see a Siberian rubythroat (Luscinia calliope) in the featured photo.

But its not just the wildlife I miss. I also long for a drive along new highways, stopping at a roadside dhaba, admiring the local artwork on doors and sides of passing trucks, watching overloaded tractors treating a highway as just another country road, children in buses waving at us as we pull past them. I miss being away from home, having forgotten the discomforts of traveling in the months that our horizons have shrunk to, um, the horizon.

I miss looking out of the window of a plane at unexpected sights, at peaks that I will never climb. It’s been three years since I caught sight of Chomolungma. I pine to take a flight to the Himalayas, perhaps drive up to the Kanchenjunga massif, or just spend a couple of hours walking through a high pass, a chilling breeze insinuating itself through my jacket and gloves. I miss the feeling of cold hands welcoming a warm glass of tea in a windy shack up in the mountains.

I also miss the unfriendly look that old men and women in small villages reserve for plainsmen who dress and behave differently. That is balanced by the welcome given by monks, and the casual indifference of the young, busy, as everywhere, with their own lives.

But today what I miss most of all is biting cold, the gusts of wind freezing your face, making you hunch your shoulders, puff yourself up like these snow pigeons (Columba leuconota). My ears can remember that cold wind blowing up a narrow valley as I stood next to a little shrine called Tiger’s Nest (there are several which bear this name) high up in the Arunachal mountains, and saw a tree full of these birds. I remember my fingers freezing as I took off my gloves to work my camera. Mumbai is wonderful, but it is even better when you come back to it, and rediscover the pleasure of a shower that does not freeze you.

Competition and mutualism

In the last days of September I wrote about the strange flowers of a century plant (Agave americana). I’ve been visiting it regularly since then, looking at how the flowering progressed week by week from the bottom of the stalk to the top. While the flowers dropped off the bottom of the stock, parasites found a place on it. White woolly aphids began gathering on it, tended by their guardian ants. This was interesting, since the century plant is a recent import, and neither the aphids, nor the plants would have adapted to each other. So this species of aphids must be generalist feeders, attacking plants opportunistically. And this plant would have no specific defense mechanism against the pests.

This was also obvious from the rate at which the aphid colony grew. In a week and a half I saw them grow into a mass of white covering the remnants of the cymes of fallen flowers. The mutualism of aphids and ants is very interesting, with ants providing protection and cleaning services to these aphids blooms. It seems that the honeydew secreted by aphids often limits their growth, but the ants harvest this excretion, full of sugars and essential amino acids, while fending off aphid predators. They also build retreats for the aphids (I must look for these aphid pens). At the same time, there are predators which seem to have developed many kinds of tricks to fool ants into leaving them alone. How many years have gone into making these webs of life? Aphids seem to have evolved about 280 million years ago, and ants around 100 million years ago. Ants evolved around the same time as flowering plants and moths, and butterflies evolved around 55 million years ago. The mutualistic and antagonistic relationships between them cannot be older of course, but there seem to be no clear indication of how old these relations are. It is such an unsatisfactory state of affairs!

This infestation had bloomed very quickly. Before the flowers had fallen off, the first aphids had begun to climb into the stem of this plant; you can see the first aphids arriving on the stem of this cyme, shepherded by ants. I’d discovered earlier that the flowering of the century plant depletes the leaves of stored moisture. This means that there is a huge flow of sap through the flowering stalk. This is the reason the sap feeding aphids flock to this plant. How did they find the plant? By smell perhaps? That would explain why they arrived only after the first flowers began to drop off; sap must have oozed out of the breaks and attracted these parasites. What a wonderfully complex ecology is revealed in the single flowering of a plant in a garden! The world is full of questions.

Make up your mind!

My cousin and his wife came over for dinner on Sunday. Now that the monsoon is over, and we can keep our windows and doors open, we’ve begun to invite one couple home every week. If we do infect each other, then a week gives us enough time to watch for symptoms. For most of us it is the first in-person meeting with anyone outside our homes in six months, and there is a lot to talk about.

This couple had traveled to Jaipur in early March, in the same days when a super-spreading event involving infected tourists began the national panic. My guess is that COVID-19 had been spreading already below the radar for at least a month before this. In any case, they’d picked up a piece of Jaipur blue pottery for us. Yesterday I took a couple of photos with this new prop. Neither The Family nor I could choose a favourite. Please help.