It takes a village to assemble a hamburger

Friday mornings are hectic in lock down. The Family and I are in our separate meetings all morning. There is no time to plan and put together a wholesome meal. So we’ve decided to either order out for lunch, or do a quick lunch that only requires assembly. This Friday we had hamburgers and a salad. Later, when I thought about it, the “quick meal” was such a misnomer. There was such a long chain behind even such a simple thing.

The patties were made by a Bohra couple who’ve risen to new business opportunities out of home, and delivered to us by the husband. The bun was a multigrain bun which we ordered from a small Parsi bakery chain (how it has grown over a decade from a stand alone shop in Colaba!) which has been delivering through an internet startup. I’m sure that behind both these objects was a desperately cobbled-together chain of supplies.

The vegetables came from a farmer in Nashik, who, along with many others, have taken to direct marketing after the collapse of the vegetable exchange which powered Mumbai until March. The mustard (oh! the mustard!) was Bengali kasundi delivered by everyone’s least favourite internet behemoth, and probably has been stocked in one of their warehouses for ages. Fortunately, this has long shelf life. Good cheese has not been available in Mumbai for weeks now, so we had to do without it.

Normally we wouldn’t even notice the web of commerce which brings things across the world. But the Anthropause has disrupted so much of our daily lives, that we now think about every meal. One thing is certain, online marketing has bloomed in this new economic ecosystem, and it is no longer only the large aggregators who gain from it.

African tulips

Spothadea campanulata! What a mouthful. The alternative to that is the long name African tulip tree, or the more mellifluous rudra palash. I can see two of them from my balcony, each tree about 12 meters high, as close as I can estimate. They have been in flower all the months that I’ve been shut in, and now the flowers are denser than ever. I saw some little insects buzzing around the flowers, and tried to look at them more closely with my camera (see below). They are too small to resolve, but I got a larger visitor in the background of one of my photos (see above).

These exotics (apparently originally from the cloud forests of central Africa) grow easily in India. I’m fascinated by the flowers, and I’m happy that our gardener decided to plant them outside our balcony. I’ve not heard of them escaping and forming ecological threats. In fact, in some parts of the world they seem to serve as hosts to most native species of butterflies and moths, even though they are exotic.That seems to be true of India as well. But, as I looked for more information, it turned out that in some of the islands of the south Pacific, such as Tahiti, they are considered to be dangerous pests. There are many studies of the conditions under which they spread, and how to stop them. Perhaps it is the higher temperatures in India which keeps them from spreading.

Birds of a feather

I neglected my fitness regime to lean out of a window at sunset and enjoy the golden light. At this time of the day the skies are dominated by two combative gangs: the parakeets and the crows. Fifteen parakeets sat on one tree, or is it sixteen? Sixteen crows were in another. When I saw them, I remembered reading something about how intelligence and complex social structures evolve together. I hadn’t read about birds and their cognitive abilities much, except for tidbits about how crows can recognize human faces, songbirds can learn from others, and that pigeons can follow roads. So I looked up what is known of the brains of birds and was surprised out of my neocortex. Apparently birds have incredibly complex brains, which are organized completely differently from ours. An article gave a nice analogy, mammalian brains are organized like a club sandwich, in layers, but birds’ brains are organized like a pepperoni pizza, with different bits sitting next to each other. Most surprising of all, apparently the language learning part of our brains is functionally similar to that of parrots and songbirds, who also learn from hearing each other.

But the biggest surprise of all was a paper published just a couple of months ago. It seems that someone has measured brain to body ratios in a large sample of birds, and from fossils of avian and non-avian dinosaurs. The complex brains of birds began evolving when their bodies they became smaller than those of their saurian ancestors, but their brains did not change in size. After that some have evolved larger brains by growing big in both body and brain sizes, but with more rapid growth in brains. Of these, it seems that parrots and crows have the largest brain to body ratios, and they are right in the same ballpark as us. We’ve all heard about the fabulous ability of parrots to memorize phrases and say them back to us. I didn’t know that they rank with the crows in their ability to recognize human faces, and tell them apart. It’s more than I can do with parakeets. There are even claims that they can recognize that their companions can reason just like them.

There is a crow which sits on my window as I sip my tea in the morning and read the newspaper. Sometimes I’ve caught it craning its neck as if it was trying to read the paper. Maybe it was!

Along the Grand Canal

I exhumed a set of photos from almost fifteeen years back and began to remember that trip to Venice. I was at a loose end for a day, and I took a train down to the Santa Lucia station in Venice. I had a restaurant in mind for lunch near the Arsenale, and a nice way to get there would be to take a water bus, vaporetto, to Piazza San Marco, and then walk. I like this ride down the Grand Canal for the things that you see on the way, like the elegant facade of a palazzo that you see in the featured photo.

Its not unusual to pass tourists laden down with prints that they have just bought from a museum shop. I was happy to get this shot of the pair of tourists ignoring the graffiti that they were walking past. I guess all of us do that most of the time; just that there’s no one to take our photos.

Look at that grand door leading down to the canal. I like the general air of decrepitude that envelops Venice. It’s almost as if it wears its magnificent past on its sleeve, daring tourists to snigger at its present. I won’t do that, I like its attitude just as much as all the others who come back to it again and again.

The bus reached its destination soon enough. I liked the view of the Basilica of San Marco from the terminus jetty. You get a much grander view of the Basilica from the Piazza that Napoleon called “a jewel box”, but I liked this quieter view. The sky was overcast, and the light was dead, but good enough to show off the domes of this Chiesa d’Oro, the Church of Gold.

Let me close off this little tour down memory lane with the last tourist photo I took here, before walking past the Basilica into the little streets to look (successfully) for the restaurant I remembered. This is a view that many visitors take: of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore from behind the jetty for gondolas.

June showers

In June the monsoon was fickle. It started with two days of good rains but then petered out. The days were hot and muggy for a while, but the last few nights of June we had thunder and lightning, and finally, some rain. On the last day of June I went out to receive a delivery and was astounded by the clear skies left by the night’s shower. I don’t remember seeing a sky so blue in the heart of the city.

There was a cool breeze which made the humidity bearable. I walked towards a hedge full of flowers. At this time of the year these hedges are full of mosquitoes. I was trying to get a couple of quick photos, but I got bitten. Anyway, I was happy to get a shot of these flowers hanging over leaves cupping rainwater which reflected the sky.

Since I’d got bitten already, I pushed through the hedge to take a look at the small field beyond. Usually this serves as a practice field for the younger children learning to play football. It has been deserted for more than three months now. On some days I can see a family come down, and the parents let the children run around for a while. It was deserted now, and the low goal post was already rusted with rain. I wonder how many years it will take for the banyan tree to claim this whole field.

I pushed back out through a different gap in the hedge. A different place, and a different flower. This is a typical monsoon scene: flowers holding drops of rain from the last shower. I hope July rains are better.

The language of roads

Looking through my photo archives for June, a decade back, I realized that I passed through Nice. I’d taken a lot of photos that clutter up tourist’s hard disk. But among them I came across this photo of the road seen as a black board. When we walk or drive we read the road in more senses than one: not just watching and reacting to traffic and pedestrians, but also to signs, many of which are written on to the surface of the roads. But looking at them from top makes everything look different. Are these markings a language? Like language they are arbitrary signs to which we give meaning. A dashed line means something different from a continuous line. Some combinations of dashed and continuous lines are allowed, some not; these are rules of grammar, and they can be different in different countries. Interesting, where your mind can wander if there are no warning signs to prevent it from meandering.

A summer memory

A single photo brought back a memory of a leisurely summer afternoon in Germany almost exactly a decade ago. This was at the house of a friend since my university days. I spent many pleasant days at his place, a home away from home. There were leisurely Christmas days, hectic weddings, and then long, warm, pleasant afternoons in the garden. Cakes, kuchen, are something special in Germany, and my friend’s mother had a special touch. This is one of the many cakes I remember trying not to eat all of. It was perhaps the only one I took a photo of before I bit into a slice.

Karela brought me back

Sometimes friends ask me why I gave up on working in Europe and moved back to India. I find that if you tell the unvarnished truth, they laugh and give up. But it is true that I missed karela (Momordica charantia, aka bitter gourd), that warty bitter veggie that you see in the middle of the featured photo. There are relatively few domesticated plants, and like them, this one has been a great traveler: right across the world’s tropics. The bitter taste is a warning of toxicity of course, as some people who tried raw gourd smoothies in recent times found out the hard way. Across the world I see that it is most often fried. I remember from my childhood another preparation where it is boiled and mashed into rice and formed into balls (I can imagine a kombini in Japan stocking this as a quick lunchtime meal). It was always an addition, not the pride of the table, but its bitter taste runs like a glowing thread in my memories.

How did this bitter, warty fruit travel? Where was it first domesticated? Traditionally, the variety of gourds in India has been used to argue that gourds (family Cucurbitaceae) was domesticated in India. This has been borne out, and deeply nuanced, by a carefully sampled genetic analysis, published in 2008, which showed that modern gourds originated about 70 million years ago, during the Cretaceous, on the continental plate which was the progenitor of the continent of Asia, north of what was then the Tethys Ocean. 40-60 million years ago, during the Paleocene and Eocene, the family spread to proto-Africa and proto-South America, and was already established there before Madagascar and India began to separate out into their modern positions. About 30 million years ago, during the Oligocene, the family crossed the Atlantic again, into proto-South America, and across the Indian plate into the proto-Southeast Asia. This last branch included the genus Momordica. Around 10 million years ago, in the middle Miocene, there were repeated crossings from South America to Africa, and the ancestors of Oceania. A paper from 2010 drilled deeper into genus Momordica and verified that it had an African origin, being carried from there to India and Southeast Asia sometime around 15 million years ago. This deep history is consistent with the traditional human history of the karela being domesticated in India, and spreading across the tropics through trade in the last 10,000 years, and eventually calling me back to India.

Failing batteries at El Transparente

Two years ago, I decided to take one day of my last weekend in Madrid to go off to see Toledo. I kept my camera on a little stool overnight to charge. After reaching Toledo I realized that my camera was not fully charged; perhaps the stool was a bit wobbly or the plug a little loose. I was carrying a phone which was then reputed to have one of the best cameras going, so I decided to draw out the battery life on my camera as far as I could, but it gave up when I needed it most.

Behind the high altar is one of the most outrageous pieces of rococo art that you can hope to see. A tall hole was cut into the top of the immense back wall of the cathedral to let a beam of light illuminate the pastry cake of an altarpiece. This ridiculously direct approach was then disguised in a wonderfully playful way by decorating the simple architectural idea with swirls of sculptures and paintings of angels, saints, and high panjandrums of the church. The effect is not only stunning, but also, because of the natural chiaroscuro, requires finicky photography. Just as I took the first photo (featured) my camera batteries gave up. The AIs behind phone cameras were already good enough to do nearly as well (photo above), but I did not have a zoom attachment on my phone to get close to some of the details that Narcisco Tome and his four sons had put together between 1729 and 1732 CE. That gives me another reason to go back, and I think I will spend a night in Toledo the next time around. I want to see this piece in the morning when the sun is at the right elevation.