A cosy dinner

Saturday night, we stayed at home for dinner again. A bottle of lager was chilling in our fridge; a new flavour, made from rice. I’d bought it on a whim on Friday. It had a crisp and light lager taste. Nice and bitter. We had a simple dinner planned out. Toasted sandwiches with cream cheese and roasted vegetables. I’d brushed a mixture of rice vinegar and sesame oil on the veggies. Then, before bunging them into the oven I’d sprinkled some sesame seeds over them. Now it was time to sit back with full glasses and plates, switch on the screen, and watch Yesterday. That’s Danny Boyle’s most recent movie, and definitely not a Trainspotting. It was a cosy Saturday night, with a monsoon storm blowing outside the windows. On a night like that it was good to see John Lennon live to be 78, and turn into the person you always wanted him to be.

The magnetic tree

Nirgundi, Indrani, Sambhaloo, and a large number of other names in many Indian languages refer to Vitex negundo. So the English name chaste tree seems quite superfluous. It is also inappropriate, considering the number of different pollinators which visit it. Chest tree might be a better name, because of its clinically proven efficacy against colds, flu, asthma, and pharyngitis.

I must have seen this plant many times, because it is supposed to be very common across Asia and eastern Africa, and invasive as far away as the USA. But when I carry a good camera I’m much more attentive. So this was the first time I had paid much attention to this cross between a tree and a shrub. Most were about two meters tall, although I’m told it can grow as high as seven meters. The numerous flowers on the hairy branches were tiny: a few millimeters long. I thought they were appropriate subjects for my fancy new macro lens. Some of these macros showed spider silk threaded through the plant. I took this as a sign that it was visited by such a large number of insects that their arachnid predators found it a good place to hide out in.

The number of butterflies I saw on the first shrub I stopped at was astounding. Many individuals from a variety of species fluttered around. It seems to be even more of a butterfly magnet than the Lantana. My macro lens is not very good for photographing active butterflies. Still, I managed to capture a glassy tiger (Parantica aglea), a somewhat battered grey pansy (Junonia atlites), one of a spectacular flock of the yellow-orange peacock pansies (Junonia almana), a common gull (Cepora nerissa), and a skipper which I can’t identify. There were also several species of wasps and bees, and at least two different kinds of blow flies.

I tried to find the geographical and temporal origins of this plant. Instead found myself looking at the fascinating literature on its invasive qualities. I suppose that the large variety of its pollinators is an essential quality for invasive plants. It makes it easier to find new pollinators in any new geography. I saw it growing on verges around roads in a high plateau in the Sahyadris. The rocky ground, with meager topsoil where it grew meant that it was hardy. It is also fast growing, another essential quality for an invader. It certainly out-competed Lantana camara in this landscape. The few bushes of Lantana I saw were stunted dwarves barely surviving between thickets of Vitex. Since Lantana is viciously competitive, and has taken over landscapes elsewhere, that’s quite an achievement.

Blue hairy

Walk along the Sahyadris in July and August, and you will find a variety of flowers growing everywhere: on the verges of roads, on the berms between paddy fields, and on rocky slopes. There’s a genus called Cyanotis (dew grasses) which are common, and in which the species are not easy to tell apart. I’d seen the Sahyadri dew grass (Cyanotis tuberosa) in Kaas plateau some years ago. This week I saw something that, after much dithering, I think is the common and widespread Cyanotis cristata (crested dew grass). In Marathi it is called nabhali, and the fact that it also has names in Telugu, Tamil, Mizo and Nepali attests to its wide distribution in India. The Kew listing shows a broader distribution: through south and south-east Asia, and in parts of Africa. IndiaBioDiversity lists it as flowering and fruiting in the months of July to October. In the pouring rain during my walks, I must have missed the fruits.

The plants clearly spreads quickly, and perhaps doesn’t need much water, because patches of gravelly ground next to roads had been taken over by these low shrubs which came up to my ankles. I suppose they are less than 30 cms tall. The flowers are small, about half a centimeter across, but highly visible because of their bright blue to purple colour, topped as they are by the contrasting bright pollen. I love the tangled crest of filaments which gives this species its name, although the feature is common to the genus.

In this second photo, the pale carpel sticks out, a long way away from the stamens. I think the rain must have disarranged it, because the pollen from the stamens can no longer be brushed off on the backs of the usual pollinators which dive into the carpel for nectar. I’m happy to have my new conveniently small water-resistant camera with such a lovely macro lens for the monsoon.

A village school

The village was small, with maybe two hundred families. But it had two schools. The elementary school seemed to be closed, but the “English School” was working. The villages in this part of Maharashtra are reasonably prosperous. Still, on a rainy day we saw girls, some in uniforms, trudging to school along the main road. A village as small as this requires no school bus. Nor are bicycles needed to get from home to the school. There are a number of cars in the village, but they don’t drop the children to school.

From outside we could see a long shed, a string of class rooms set out one after another. We are fascinated by schools in small places, and retain faith in the ability of education to transform society. The Family talks often of helping out in schools like this, perhaps when we are retired and have the time to put in a month’s work, pro bono publico, at any time we choose. But for the public to put in work within the government’s educational system is hard, so perhaps this is just a pipe dream.

In any case, The Family slipped in through the gate and talked to someone inside. They are understandably suspicious of random strangers who walk in, but allowed her to take photos. At a different time of the year the large grounds could easily hold hockey matches, if they still play such games. She didn’t find any of the teachers to chat with. They are probably kept quite busy.

The classroom doors were ajar, and The Family reported on the subjects being taught. She walked around the building and took a photo of a mural of Saraswati painted on the wall (featured). The heavy rain had not damaged it, so it could have been repainted just before the monsoon. The picture has her holding the vina and a rosary, but the other half of the symbolism, a book and a water vessel are missing. Strange omission for a school, I thought. At least they remembered to show the sky at dawn behind her.

Peekaboo!

I knelt and looked between the leaves of a plant. But from that angle, it was easy to see the giant African land snail in the featured photo. On the other hand, I completely missed the snail that appears in the lower photo: look near the middle of the bottom edge of the photo below. The shell is brown, with what looks like white spots. The body of the snail is black. The mushroom heads were about a centimeter across. The whole snail cannot be more than a millimeter long.

It was sheer luck that I got it. The better your camera’s lens, the more you can see! Does anyone know about microscopic snails? Any ID? I’m no good at this.

July’s books

My reading had become extremely sparse after the second lock down started in April. Finally, in July I decided to change things. I set aside every weekend for reading. The first book I finished was an interesting example of what is being called counter-Lovecraft. I can never manage to plod my way through any of Lovecraft’s writings, but this movement produces good things out of that turgid mess of racist text. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle was well-written, quick moving, and worked by itself as a horror story, without missing the more mundane horrors of a racist place. I’m ready for more LaValle.

Kazuo Ishiguro keeps getting better. Some people have compared Klara and the Sun to his earlier book Never Let Me Go. It is comparable in some ways: both are about constructed individuals who are meant to serve people. But this explores more ground in that clean uncluttered way that Ishiguro has. So much goes on under the surface. Ishiguro leaves you clues; you have to begin to read the boxes, to see how stressful certain situations become for Klara. The ending, specially, was beautifully constructed. If I’d skipped ahead I would have missed its emotional content.

The humanitarian cost of the first lockdown was explored by Vinod Kapri in a movie with the same title, 1232 Km: The Long Journey Home. He writes in the preface why the movie left him unsatisfied, and he felt that the story had to be written up. The result is a book unlike anything else that will be written. Very few journalists, perhaps no one else, did what Kapri managed: build trust with a group of migrant labourers who cycled home, and follow them in their journey. This is an unique document about how people do not panic in the face of dire adversity, but just do what they think they need to in order to live. Perhaps in the years to come the memory of the migrants’ return will be erased from mass memory, but a book like this gives one hope that it won’t be completely forgotten.

I chose a much lighter book next. I’d read a couple of short stories written by Marko Kloos, and found them good fun. When I found Hugo winner Jo Walton recommending this series of novels, I decided to pick the first of them. Terms of Enlistment falls in the little niche which calls itself Military-SF, and is not something I usually enjoy. But Walton is right. This builds a recognizable future to the present, one in which things go downhill for most, but others, like Musk and Bezos, fund hugely expensive space programs. I’m not sure I’ll read the rest of this series, but Kloos is an author I’ll take a look at now and then.

Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s early books read like the older generation of Bengali novels which must have influenced her parents. With Whereabouts she reinvents herself by writing in Italian. I don’t read that language, and had to read the translation (from her own book Dove mi trovo). The most fascinating aspect of the novel is the listless movement of a person without connections in a city. It feels more like a movie than a novel: a camera moving around some people, following their lives at a distance. The city is Italian, but nothing seems very Italian about the novel. I could recognize part of this distancing, that of a foreigner who knows they are never going to put down roots, that they will move on. But that’s not who the fictional narrator is. With all that, it is very much a book by Lahiri, and quite in keeping with the views she expresses about otherness in a recent interview.

Short, brilliant, dense with meaning waiting to unfold. Ghachar ghochar was written in Kannada by Vivek Shanbhag. I read the translation by Srinath Perur. It was a completely modern story about India in the twenty first century, but it reminded me of Turgenev’s nineteenth century novel Fathers and Sons, delightfully turned on its head. Every review I read compared it to yet another classic. The book moves easily through the narrator’s family history, ending in the location that it began. I read the six chapters-long book, with its allusions to off-scene violence, in a breathless two hour sitting, and have spent days unpacking it in my head. It is right up there with Ishiguro in my July’s reading list: the same clear prose, a similar disquieting flow in the story, the same density of ideas.

Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

Empty table thought

Good lunches should end with a memorable dessert. A crepe chocolate cake sounded passable but not exactly like the thing that memories are made of. Crepes with chocolate? Been there. Done that. Why not the pandan infused panna cotta instead? But when it appeared on the table it looked fabulous, and it tasted wonderful on the rainiest day in this record-breaking monsoon month of July. The sweetness of the chocolate infused the warmly comfortable flavours of the layered crepes. There was a light feel of a thing which was half air. And the balancing tartness of the raspberry sauce, presented as blood-red drops on the side, was exactly perfect. I’m happy to find this restaurant.

Earlier, when The Family had stepped out for a moment, I took a photo of a Negroni Sbagliato (Campari, prosecco, orange) that we’d ordered as an aperitif. The server suggested this off-menu drink, and it was perfect for the Thai food that the restaurant serves. Masking is a wonderful idea for the staff, since they are going to meet a large number of unmasked people every day. I’m all for it as the minimal safety measure that they can use. The other is to reduce contact with unmasked people as much as possible. However, it does tend to reduce them to, literally, faceless service providers. That’s not something I like.

A super spreader

Millipedes have two pairs of legs in each segment of their body, whereas centipedes have a pair per segment. That’s how you identify these harmless leaf litter-eating creatures from their more irritating family members. This yellow-striped dark leaf-mulcher, the Anoplodesmus saussurii, is a very efficient converter of leaf to soil, common across the tropics (being reported from Madagascar, Fiji, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil, USA, Martinique), and is said to have an Indian or Sri Lankan origin. Based on colour, it is sometimes mis-identified as the Harpaphe haydeniana, (which is found only in the Pacific coastal region of North America, from Alaska to California) or the Orthomorpha Weberi (which is rare, and has been found only in Bogor, in Java).

Darwin’s last work was his study of the transformation of a landscape by the action of earthworms. This was the founding study of what is now called bioturbation, the perturbing of soils by biological action. Mulching and home recycling of food waste uses earthworms, but gardens with their leaf litter, so useless to most animals, are turned over by millipedes. That’s why these yellow-striped dark leaf-mulchers are so common around gardens and urban areas, as well as in undisturbed ground. They are said to be extremely efficient at breaking down the detritus and recycling it into soil.

Anoplodesmus saussurii, a common millipede in the Western Ghats

I came across statements like this while looking at these papers: “The millipedes belong to class Diplopod, a highly diverse group of terrestrial organisms with over 12,000 described species and an estimated 80, 000 species yet to be described” or “The millipede fauna of India is only poorly known and the records and descriptions are widely scattered in the literature. Indian Fauna of Diplopoda is represented by 11 orders, 20 families, and about 120 genera and 500 species.” I realized that I’m unlikely to ever contribute to any of these counts. But then there is also the fact that “These ancient soil invertebrates have a significant impact on the soil due to burrowing, litter breakdown, and the mixing of organic and inorganic substances in their digestive system which are allocated to different soil layers.” I could study that at home, I thought.

Anoplodesmus saussurii: Length 21–33 mm, width 3,5–4,8 mm, body large and very broad. General colouration of adult individuals is shiny dark brown to black. Ventral part of collum and rounded short paraterga are bright yellow, and legs are light brown. The metaterga are smooth with a deep transverse groove. The male gonopods are of unique shape.

Peter Decker and Trudy Tertilt, in Nature in Singapore

I needed to build a small terrarium and populate it with these creatures. I found that you have to be careful while handling them. When disturbed they secrete cyanide; their bright colours warn predators that they are poisonous. You can easily collect tens of them in a spadeful of humus. After copulation (featured photo, three pairs) the female lays several hundreds of eggs. You could study the whole life cycle, and the rate at which these creatures degrade organic matter. I’m so glad to have found something to occupy me after I retire!

Litter and milli-machines

The sea continues to fall on our heads. It doesn’t feel like just raindrops, but then cryin’s not for me, as the song says. So I got my tiny new camera and went out to photograph the leaf litter in the garden. It’s supposed to be waterproof, and the lens is said to be good for macros. Just perfect for the monsoon, the rotting leaves, and the tiny things that scurry down below, rebuilding the world. These are the millimeter scale engines of the ecology.

The beetle on the wall was half a centimeter long. The lens is good. It does focus stacking, so I spent the morning picking up the basics of how to use that. Now I’ll have to figure out how to store the images. Having twenty or thirty nearly identical shots could fill up my disk rather quickly. I’ll have to delete more images. Once this house keeping is done, I can get to the more interesting subject of trying to identify the mushrooms and insects I saw. I’m an absolute novice, so I’ll be grateful for any help. If you can identify something down to species or genus, let me know.