Flying barefoot past Everest

A voice on the PA told us that Everest was visible on the port side of the plane. The lady at the window was gracious enough to lean back to let me snake my phone past her to the thick slab of smudged plastic which passes for a porthole at these heights. Far away, peeking over the horizon, its peak a couple of kilometers below us, the snow glittered on the highest mountain in the world. Today there were no streaks of cirrostratus clouds over its peak; climbers would have a lovely view. Its always a pleasure to see its symmetric bulk from a plane, even though the sky above it is infinitely higher.

The flight had been getting a bit boring till then. I’d spent my time trying to figure out all the reasons why it might be dangerous to fly barefoot. Migratory birds pecking at your feet? Frostbite? Loss of aerodynamic viability? None of the above was more likely.

I looked out of the window again. Four of the world’s fourteen peaks taller than 8 Kms were clustered close along the flight path we were on. East to west they are Makalu, Lhotse, Everest/Sagarmatha, Cho Oyu. We were past all of them by now. The layer of clouds below us seemed like altocumulus; from the ground it would probably be a mackerel sky. Our path would veer south soon heading to lowlands, missing a view of Kanchenjunga. It’s not an accident that the eight-thousanders are clustered together: irregularities in the motions of continental plates guarantees it.

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Capped langurs

Capped langurs (Trachypithecus plieatus) are found in a narrow geography: Assam and eastwards to Myanmar, and northwards to Bhutan and a small part of Tibet. In Manas NP we mostly saw them in upper branches of trees, munching on leaves. Their diet is mostly leaves, with a little variety provided by seasonal flowers and fruits. Once I saw two bands tried to claim the same tree. After some hissing and chattering one group gave way. Unfortunately, I was taking a video of something else while this conflict was on. There are multiple subspecies, but north of the Brahmaputra and west of Jia Bhoroloi, where we were, is the domain of Trachypithecus pileatus tenebricus. A description of tenebricus that I read was very accurate for the individuals we saw: “hairs radiating from the forehead to form a shaggy cap.”

They looked really confident in the trees, where they spend most of their time foraging. As our jeep moved along a path in the jungle, I saw a band of about ten jump from the canopy on one side of the path to the other. The forest department makes sure that the paths are narrow enough for the monkeys to cross. Although this is one of the commonest monkeys in this region, their numbers have fallen enough that they are already classed as vulnerable. You don’t want to cut up a population into even smaller pieces by putting uncrossable barriers in their way.

I took this photo after the conflict between two bands that I mentioned earlier. The mother and young are alert to danger. The young take about half a year to begin to let go of mamma’s apron strings. I guessed that the little one here was younger than that. It would have gestated for 200 days or so, and, was likely conceived the previous May, at the end of a short mating season which lasts through April and May. There is another mating season which lasts from September to January, but a child conceived in those months would have not been clinging to the mother so closely. Females take care of absent mothers’ young, which perhaps explains the lack of annual pregnancies. You can learn a lot about a pack by just sitting and staring at them.

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Gold and feathers

Sunset on Bhigwan’s lake was a quiet time. Fishermen and farmers were on the way home from work. Herdsmen had brought their cattle to water for a last time in the day. Distant sounds of traffic had quietened. We’d heard calls of birds all day. That was completely gone as the light turned to gold. This was a good time for bird photography on the water. An Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii) stopped looking for fish as soon as I’d clicked the featured photo and stalked to the hollow of the trunk and laid its head on its shoulder, preparing to sleep.

We’d been on open water most of the afternoon. Now, as we drifted close to the shore, I started noticing a completely different set of birds. There was a common redshank (Tringa totanus), its mottled and streaky feathers quite distinctive. I didn’t want the Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus) in the photo, but the boat was drifting slowly and there was no quick way of getting it out of the way, except by changing focus.

There were reeds near the shore. I’d seen Garganeys (Spatula querquedula) all day, dabbling in the open waters. The white streaks on the head are quite distinctive. But none had come close enough for a photo. I took one now through the reeds. Behind it were Grey-headed swamphen (Porphyrio poliocephalus, formerly known as the Indian subspecies of Purple swamphens). I would get photos of them later.

At this time of the day, the colour of the water depends very strongly on which direction you look at. As I turned my gaze westwards I saw a Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) seated atop a mooring post sunk into the water. Behind it you can see one of the small villages dotted along the edge of the lake.

And finally, looking due west, on a sea of gold, a Brown-headed gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) had stopped its incessant daily flights, patrolling the water to keep it free of fish. Now it rested gently in the shallows. Later it would paddle closer to the shore and go to sleep on a sandbank. It was time for us to turn back too.

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Street food again

After two years in repeated lock downs and extensive work from home, the crowds are back near the stock market. The traffic is back to being as chaotic as it was in the beginning of 2020. The street food vendors are not yet doing as well as they used to, but people are back. The vendor in the featured photo has been known for the freshness of his chana-sheng (roasted chickpeas and peanuts). He continued to sit here through most of the last two years, and is still at it with a smile.

Although it is burning hot, no one is going home any longer. Colourful umbrellas protect most vendors as they serve out food. The man on the left serves idli and vada. I stopped to take a photo and was tempted to try it out; the sambar smelt good. I tore myself away and looked at the next guy. He had a large pot of buttermilk, chhaas. Salt and chili flakes can be added to taste. The neighbourhood was conscious of my phone camera by now. People smiled at me and advised me on what was good. I wouldn’t get any other candid street scenes. But I’ve kept track of the recommendations. When it comes to street food, it pays to listen to locals.

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When I looked up to where The Family was pointing I could not spot a bird at all. Then I realized that it wasn’t a leaf next to the berries on the bare tree, it was a Golden-fronted leafbird (Chloropsis aurifrons). This wasn’t my first view of the bird, but I’d always thought that this family is called leafbirds only because of their colour. I realized now that there is another possible interpretation of the name. I was seeing a male. The golden front (forehead) is in deep shadow so you can’t really see its colour, but the black bib with the blue patch in it, fringed with more gold becomes an identifier once you put it together with the fact that we saw it in Manas NP. It is a common bird, not of conservation concern (yet), since it is found all over peninsular India, the lower slopes of the Himalayas into Nepal and Bhutan, and eastwards on the Asian mainland into Vietnam.

Green-pigeons and a green pigeon

Orders, families, genus, species: nested labels for life forms that we learn in school. Birds in the genus Treron are called green-pigeons. I tell them by the green or yellow chest feathers. But let’s step back. The order Columbiformes contains a single family Columbidae in which all doves (subfamily Clavarinae and Columbinae) and pigeons (part of subfamily Raphinae) are placed. Several of the Raphinae have green feathers on their wings or tails. But of these, only genus Treron have yellow or green chest feathers. The one I know best is the state bird of Maharashtra, the Yellow-footed green-pigeon (Treron phoenicopterus). It was one of the first birds I saw in Manas NP in Assam, far across the country. You can see it in the featured photo. Unfortunately its feet are in shadow, so the bright yellow looks gray in the photo.

The other Treron I got a photo of was the Pin-tailed green-pigeon (Treron apicauda). Its tail comes to a pointed end, as you might expect. Its feet are decidedly pink. We came across it pretty late in the evening, when the light was not great. Teasing out the colours of the feathers was hard. I’m happy I got enough for the identification in the photo. A better photo in good light is something I look forward to. For now I’m satisfied with this lifer.

For me this Green Imperial Pigeon (Ducula aenea), the state bird of Tripura, was the high point of pigeonry, but also my greatest disappointment. It is something I’ve sighed over before. Although you can see it along the west coast, south of Mumbai, along the east coast, and then through Odisha, Bengal, Jharkhand, and Bihar, into Assam and the north-east, I have seldom seen it. I was very excited to see it finally on our third day in Manas. The tail was green right to its tip, so I know it wasn’t the confounding Mountain Imperial Pigeon. But taking the photo was hard. I could only photograph it from almost directly below it. If I moved further to get it jewel-bright green wings and tail it would be obscured by the neighbouring branches. I shot off a rapid series of photos, and found that in the last ones it looks down, notices us and pushes off the branch into flight. I’ll have to wait longer for better photos.

Diwan-i-aam Bikaner

Karan Singh’s darbar was reputedly held in this hall. Once the darbar hall would have opened into the courtyard in front of it through enormous arches. But now perspex sheets cut off the courtyard from the covered throne hall. We walked in from a side entrance to view the place where the emperor and his courtiers gave public audience, the Diwan-i-Aam.

Above the throne was an immense carved wooden ceiling. A hand drawn fan of red velvet hung over it just behind the throne. Red seemed to be a recurrent theme: the wooden throne had red velvet cushions, and the carpet around the it was a deeper shade of red. I didn’t think the naked LED bulbs were part of the original decor. Someone should find lampshades which were used here. But the doors behind, which led to private gardens, were beautifully decorated.

More than the doors, the eye was drawn to the painted ceilings and walls. I would see more examples all through the palace, but these were special. You can see them in the photos above, and also in the featured photo. Karan Singh reigned in the middle of the first half of the 17th century, but the redecoration of this Diwan-i-Aam continued till the end of the 19th century. I believe that most of the decorations we see now come from this later period.

Two sub-Himalyan wildflowers and a stranger

From the plains the Manas National Park begins to rise as it crosses the border with Bhutan. In late March the forest was full of the graceful flowers of Clerodendrum wallichii. It has lots of fanciful names, but the one I like most is Nutan bleeding heart. Is that a reference to the film star Nutan, active in the 60s and 70s? I forgot to ask for the local Bodo name of the flower. A little further south the Khasi call it Horrandieng, and their neighbours, the Garo, call it Bolungre. Although Assam and the north-east are home to it, I’ve seen the flower escaped from gardens and growing wild in the Sahyadris. You know it is not local because in Maharashtra it is called Clerodendron. I suppose it is one of the flowers that now grow in temperate gardens.

In one spot I saw this Euphorbia cactus. I don’t think it is native. There are no cacti in this humid jungle. I suppose at some time there might have been a forest guard outpost here. The guards are local recruits, and treat their outpost as their home. To many of them the notion of protected biosphere means prevention of poaching, and perhaps, at a stretch, foraging. The notion that planting a garden, or releasing smuggled exotics into the wild is quite as undesirable has not yet been widely understood.

Among the flowers that I could not recognize were these tiny whites growing on vines in some spots. They seemed to prefer shade, but that is all I could tell. When you take a jeep through a jungle there is much that you can miss. Most drivers are tuned to large animals. A few have concentrated on the category of visitors who want to watch birds. I haven’t yet found a driver who will point out flowers and trees and fungi. And no one notices insects.

Living on water

Behind Ujani Dam is a huge shallow lake, named after the biggest town on its shores: Bhigwan. It is a birder’s paradise, especially in winter, when migrants flock here. All year round there are cormorants, ospreys and fisherfolk. I kept one eye on the fisherfolk as we boated over the surface looking at the visiting birds. The lone man whom you see in the featured photo sits on a raft which is simply a large slab of styrofoam. His fishing line and his simple paddle, two steel dinner plates nailed to a pole, show that his is a small operation.

There are more elaborate operations. This boat is one of them. It was piled with fishing nets and three people were deploying them across the lake. The boat listed heavily to one side as two men played out the net, and a third laid it down. We’d seen the same trio the previous evening, laying down traps for shrimp and crabs (photo below). Theirs was a big operation. I suppose people claim parts of the lake for their own. I wonder whether this leads to conflict, and whether there are rules and adjudicators for these rights. The lake is a commons, and there must be some governance over it.

[Analytic philosophy explores a world in which] people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus, not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party.

The Borders of Analytic Philosophy, Iris Murdoch

Then there are the operations in-between. I saw a few couples working together: a family at work feeding themselves and earning a living. Here the woman rows while the man plays out a net. We’d seen a farmer couple the previous evening returning home from a day in the field, the man rowing a boat loaded with fodder as the woman sat at the stern.

But, as Iris Murdoch says, not everything is so clear. I saw a man beating the water with a pole, while a boy sat at the horsehead bow that all these boats have. Why? There were coots swimming around him. Was it happenstance, or were the two connected?

Seeking shade in summer’s heat

May is a month when there’s no lack of light. It is the height of summer, when you wait eagerly for the quenching rain. The sky is flash burnt to a white like a nuclear explosion. Even the inside of the house is bright and hot. You can withdraw from this world by drawing thick curtains across windows, switching on the air conditioning, and living by artificial light. Or you can take the less comfortable, but more satisfying route of drawing a curtain of green across your balcony to filter the light and allow the sea breeze to pass through your house. This year we succeeded in creating the second route.

Behind the filtering curtain of Bougainvilleas the light is mild and the shadows are subtle. I could take flower macros in this light, there would be no danger of blowing out details or losing them in black. The erect stigma of Hibiscus always draws my eyes. Sitting on the balcony I wondered why erections are feminine for this species. Could it be a device to avoid self-pollination? The stamens and the pollen sacs are always placed well behind the fivefold stigma. Focus bracketing gives interesting effects when you photograph a bud about to open. The delicious play of light and shadow on the stigma is perhaps better captured in the featured photo.

The delicacy of white Bougainvillea always gives me pause. The true flowers of the plant are always white of course. It is only the bracts, not flowers at all, which are different colours. But the paper thin bracts are beautiful. Here I focused on the flower, so instead of the texture of the bracts, you see them as abstract areas of light and shadow. I see this as a monochrome photo, rendered in shades of green, from dark to light.

One bunch of the flowers on this pink Bougainvillea was curled just so that I could focus both on the open flower and the texture of the bracts. Looking through the viewfinder, I lose myself in the minutely detailed texture of the bracts, the surface like paper, but with a network of veins. The light shows how the bracts curve in space. On a flat surface of a photo, it is only light and shade that tells you of the shape of things in three dimensions. Without shade a photo would be just flat patterns. I’m happy with our shady balcony this year.

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