Clouded Leopards

Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) are shy nocturnal creatures which spend days sleeping on branches of trees. In retrospect I realize that we were really lucky with wildlife sightings in Tripura. We saw two of these rare beasts in the Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary. Its habitat must have once ranged right from the central Himalayan range eastwards to Taiwan, across most of south eastern Asia and southern China. Now the population is fragmented; but a patchwork of forests and reserves from the Chittagong hills in Bangladesh, across Tripura and Mizoram, and into Myanmar holds a small number of these threatened animals classed as “vulnerable” by IUCN.

We spotted one sprawled across a sturdy branch near the bottom of the forest canopy above us. The grey pelt with the patches of darker fur give it its name. After a long unsuccessful wait to see its face we moved on, but luckily within a few hundred meters we saw another individual sleeping with its face towards us. We must have made some noise, because it raised its face a little, yawned, and then lay back down again. A list of sightings in the wikipedia page talk about a cluster of photos, apparently the first of this animal, taken in the early years of this decade, right about when we saw these animals. That makes me think that there must have been changes in land use just around then. The black topped road that allowed us to see these two magnificent cats probably were the first signs of human encroachment on their territory. It is sad to realize now that travelers like us are signs of the very destruction that we would like to prevent.

Day of lost species

November 30 is designated the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. I think I will use this time to refresh my memories of Phayre’s leaf monkey (Trachypithecus Phayrei, also called the spectacled langur). We saw a family group of six or seven (this included a juvenile) in Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary, sitting on a tree, munching away at leaves. At first we thought they were the familiar rhesus monkey, but when we looked at them we realized they were quite different. They are smaller, and the white fur around the eyes, the spectacles, is as distinctive as the moustache. The group size and behaviour was typical. When the juveniles are 4-5 years old they leave the group. Individuals can live up to an age of abbout 20 years.

Leaf monkeys developed in Southeast Asia about three million years ago and have radiated into about twenty living species, mostly threatened. The case of the Indian population of Phayre’s leaf monkey is typical. They are well protected in a few isolated sanctuaries, there are some international efforts at conservation, but the protected areas are small and well-separated from each other. As a result the populations are now quite inbred. The situation is not much better over the rest of its range: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and southern China. Much of this region is densely populated, and forest land is being lost fairly rapidly.

The spectacled langur is classed as “endangered” by IUCN. If habitat loss continues, it will inevitably slide to “critical” and then to “extinct”. I have encountered many beautiful and strange species since 2005, when I started to visit wildlife reserves around India. Sadly, a large fraction of them are threatened.

Sweet and sour curry

I find the Cantonese version of sweet and sour sauces a little too sweet. This is not the fault of Chinese immigrants in India; the version you get in Guangzhou today is quite as sweet. The version you get in Shanghai is slightly different, but, if anything, it is sweeter. While I was making liver some months ago, I decided I would try an Indian twist on this. I’d already marinated the liver in a paste of ginger, garlic, and an extremely sour tamarind, because I wanted a change of taste. While cooking the liver, on a whim I reached across to where The Family had cubed some overripe papaya, and tossed some into the pot. The Family looked on bemused, “Do you know what you are doing?” she asked. “Of course I didn’t; I’d thrown sweet overripe papaya into liver. It was an invention worth running with. The next time it was overripe pear. Then The Family took over and did one version with tamarind and honeydew melon.

Sour tastes abound in the Indian kitchen. Apart from tamarind, we also have a jar full of dried kokum. The mouth puckering sourness of amla also can be seen in our kitchen now and then. Sugar was invented in India, and sweet and sour chutneys are common, as are candied sour fruits. But I don’t know of any Indian dishes which use the common souring agents with fresh fruit to make a sweet and sour curry. The somewhat stodgy taste of liver could do with a bit of life. So our sweet and sour liver, Indian style, is now a regular addition to our family kitchen. I can also imagine that unripe jackfruit can be curried this way; its something that I will definitely try next season.

Is this a rediscovery? Are there regional Indian sweet and sour curries that you know of? Let me know.

Kapadvanj

As we begin to plan our winter travel in the middle of a patchwork of restrictions and uncertainty, I came to photos of a Winter Solstice trip to a little known attraction in Gujarat. The small town of Kapadvanj, 65 Kms due east of Ahmedabad, was once an important link in the textile trade out of Cambay port, and specialized in mirror-work embroidered cloth. During its period of prosperity, the Dawoodi Bohra community built wonderful wooden buildings. Although most of them were converted to hybrid material over the centuries, a few still stand. We spent two days in this place, entranced by the exuberance of the local architecture.

Kapadvanj is a town of verticals; small plots were built over as prosperity increased, and the only way to go was up. Most buildings are now three or four floors high. The exteriors are idiosyncratic mixtures of styles: beautiful traditional woodwork coexists with intricately carved pseudo-Corinthian capitals. Inside, the layout is a vertical development of the traditional internal courtyard surrounded by corridors leading to rooms. The courtyard becomes a tall atrium, lined with galleries connecting rooms across the opening. Steep wooden stairs connect floors. Most families left for Mumbai in the 19th century CE, and maintain their holdings sporadically. I saw beautifully painted facades, cheek by jowl with others which have fallen into near ruin (the earthquake of 2001 did its bit for entropy). Sometime, I should go back to look at the place more closely.

Tools

When I look at my old photos I find that the digital camera completely changed how I work. If you are an amateur photographer you’ll find this familiar. In the days of film, you took few shots, since each was relatively expensive, and you had to change rolls every 36th shot. Digital cameras changed things quickly. I see that within months I’d started to take photos of things I wouldn’t have thought of as photo-worthy before, and in less than a year I’d begun taking multiple shots of the same thing, trying out angles, framing, aperture, exposure. As a result, my technique changed quite rapidly. And with that came new subjects and new ways of looking at things. With film I used to take more photos of places and people, but with digital I started taking more macros and nature. And this changed my holidays; suddenly I was interested in wildlife and mountains, forests and birds.

So do tools change you? Children with IPads certainly spend less time outdoors, and (on average) have more difficulty with weight than those without. Teenagers on TikTok seem to have slightly different interests than those on Instagram. Adults spend more time on their phones than is good for them. The first pandemic after the completion of the Human Genome Project has seen three vaccines within a year with about thirty more in trial. These are unthinkable changes, on par with the way tool use changed hominins. Every piece of technology is social engineering.

The painted doors of Bhutan

Earth colours against stark white strike you as you approach any Bhutanese Dzong. The brightness of local red earth is the dominant colour, with touches of yellow ocher, contrasting with the pigment from ground black earth. After weeks of travel, separated by a year, I didn’t tire of photographing the same repeated motifs, painstakingly done by hand.

Bhutan is in the middle of large changes. When I traveled through, the monarchy had just imposed democracy on the country. One year I traveled just after a “practice” election, the next, just after a real election. During the monarchy giverning power seemed to be in the hands of bureaucrats, although, in some way that was not clear to me, dzongs played a role. Now the balance of power has shifted.

The old elite was educated in India, traveled to India frequently, reminisced about their times in Kolkata and Mumbai. The businessmen that we met were less enchanted. They were modernists in their country, and set themselves apart from the monks and the bureaucrats in every small way that they could. Even a decade back, when I traveled, the distance between the people in towns and villages was growing. The dynamics will have accelerated by now. It will be interesting to go back to see what has changed. The wooden doors have to be renewed every decade or so, and new artisans come to paint them. How fast will their tools and pigments evolve?

Very slow changes

Ice reflects 80% of the sun’s light back to space. Ocean waters absorb 90% of the light. As a result, when arctic ice melts, the amount of heat absorbed in the ocean increases by 450% (that is 100 X 90/20). I looked at photos I’d taken of Greenland as I flew over it on June 8, 2006, and I could actually see that. Ice is the brightest thing you can see from an aircraft flying 11 kilometers up in the air, at the edge of space. And sea water is the darkest.

A long non-stop flight to LAX can be boring. I’d wandered over to the galley, and poured myself a glass of water. The window shade was open, and I looked out, and saw icebergs being birthed. Rushing back with my camera, I captured a sequence of photos which I still look at now and then. I’d wanted to go back to those frozen northern lands, but never took the time to work that into my schedule. Now I wonder whether I will ever do it, while they remain frozen.

An article in Moscow Times first alerted me that this year was a disaster in more senses than I had realized. A portion of the Arctic Ocean called the Laptev sea usually freezes early, and causes icing to start over the rest of the ocean. This year it is terribly delayed, due to the exceptionally hot summer. The weather changes from year to year, so how exceptional is this? If you look at the record of ice formation in the thirty years from 1980 and 2010, then this year is an extreme outlier; it hasn’t happened so late in any other year.

Why am I worried about my future travel plans? It is because the loss of sea ice is a runaway process. If the ice becomes patchy, and uncovers more water, then the oceans absorb 450% more heat from the sun in summer, and stay warmer into winter. This causes less ice to form in the following year, so exposing a larger surface of the sea in the next summer. And so it goes. Maybe in four or five years I will find myself able to travel to Iceland or Greenland. And by then the winters could just be more balmy. Of course, it is not only my collection of photos which will suffer.

The limits of us

I had taken this photo of the youngest niece when she was six months old and sitting in a baby bathtub. She’s fifteen now, and growing into a very personable adult. I looked into her eyes in this photo and had the disconcerting feel that her glance has not changed. I know it is not possible; she did not have control over her head movements then, and her eyes probably did not focus. But somewhere in that glance is evidence of the mind that she has. I’m sure many of you have similar experiences with people you love.

My first thought is that it is a matter of personality. But I read that a personality takes time to develop. Instead, what I think I’m seeing is her temperament; that is the word that experts use for the mental orientation that develops into personality. That probing curiosity, that skeptical openness to new things, am I reading too much into that glance of a six month old? I’ve been with her on too many of her explorations to mistake that. That look in her eyes has not changed.

A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them

The Astonishing Hypothesis, by Francis Crick (1994)

The most believable models of the early development of the brain take us to the very limits of what we now know. Behaviour that we know and recognize is the surface; behind it are layers of processes no one really comprehends. At the bottom of it all is the neuro-chemistry which scientists are beginning to get a handle on. How does the genetics of neurotrasmitter densities map on to temperament? No one knows. This is why the astonishing hypothesis still remains a hypothesis; even after a quarter century of astonishing progress. Part of the problem may be that the question is not precise enough. These are wonderful questions, and they take us right to the limits of understanding who we are. It is a pity that the subject was born so late, I’ll not be alive when it is able to satisfy my curiosity.

The last picture show

When I finally liberated myself from film, fifteen years ago, I started carrying my new digital camera in my pocket everywhere, having told myself that I would continuously take photos of everyday life. The two years when I did this gave me a bunch of photos which are very interesting to look back at. The pandemic seems to be another blow to movie halls. In the late 1980s the easy availability of video killed off a whole bunch of movie halls. Some came back this century as multiplexes. Now the post-pandemic streaming services are another blow. I wonder when, if, movie halls will make a come back now.

The intimacy of movie halls makes them ideal sites for superspreading. That’s something we always knew; remember the times when it seemed like everyone in the hall was coughing? The post movie crush in the lobby and roads outside are another place where distancing is impossible. What will masking, distancing, evolve into five years from now? I don’t think five years will be sufficient for vaccines to reach everyone in the world, not if the rich nations (the US, EU, Canada) continue to oppose a temporary waiver of global intellectual property rights on SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

Diwali eats

In recent years I’ve resigned myself to putting on a little weight between the end of monsoon, when the Ganapati festival kicks off a season of festivals, and January, when the last of the indulgent feasts are done. Unless you are particularly unsocial, you cannot fend off the many invitations to parties from family and friends, or the boxes of goodies presented to you by neighbours and colleagues. Of course, social customs need you to reciprocate. This seasonal increase in weight across India must be sufficient to make the earth wobble a bit in its orbit.

I wonder how long ago Indians started stuffing themselves with sweets during the seasons of sharad and hemant. In my childhood I remember that push carts full of neon coloured lumps of sugar, molded into animal shapes, would make an appearance on the streets during Diwali. As a child these took up more processing space in my brain than all the crowded mithai shops around town. There would be a permanent space for laddus on the dining table, sadly with a strict count of how many had disappeared when adults were not keeping an eye on the box. This was also the time when several coconut based sweets were made at home. So I guess the tradition stretches back at least to the late 19th century.

I found it easier to trace this history in my own memory than by searching on the net, because of the confusion between history and mythology that is now rife in writing on this subject. I could not find mention of these festivals in the writings of late medieval or early modern travelers, although that could just be because they were not perceptive enough. I must really start to read more memoirs from early colonial times to see whether they mention these customs. So, for the moment I’m happy with these photos of the last of the chakli and laddu.