Post-Delhi Durbar architecture

Architectural styles adapt very fluidly to weather and techniques. This adaptability is so abundantly clear when you compare the architecture of 19th and early-20th century Mumbai to contemporary fashions in England. The Gothic Revival in its late Victorian guise transmuted into the iconic Indo-Saracenic style buildings of Mumbai. I think of this as F.W. Stevens using the medieval sources of inspiration of George Barry, transplanted to India, rather than the details of his style. The sea-front around the Gateway of India was realigned for the visit of George V of England. The buildings in the immediate neighbourhood were built in the 1910s and 20s, and were influenced by the Edwardian style, in the same way that Stevens adapted Barry. The detail that you see in the featured photo marries the Edwardian spirit to an update of the late Maratha style of construction from a century earlier. Notice also the flat terrace, a very Indian feature.

The exuberance of the sea front disappears in the row just behind it. On good days you may call this row harmonized . On bad days you might call it industrially repetitive. I walk through this road now and then with my take-away latte, admiring the solidity of the buildings. To me it appears to be an Edwardian reworking of the basic Victorian style, but quick and commercial. Floors of Gothic arches alternate with the classical. Symmetry is a driving motive. The decorative elements of the Edwardian style are entirely missing. The houses in the row are distinguished mainly by their colour. Notice the top floor; the unadorned cornices for some protection against the rain, and the simple sloping roof, are the only nods to the local weather. I am glad that this style covers only two roads. A city full of these houses would be oppressive.

I need your help

On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.

The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

We’ve had liquid dinners since last March. Stop smiling. It’s not that. A large bowl of soup has been our dinner on most nights for a year. But a couple of days ago I asked The Family, “Why not some roasted veggies instead?” I’d not done something like this for a few decades. So, like the newbie that I now was, I looked up cooking times. If you set the oven at the usual 200 Celsius, then there is a group of veggies that takes 30 to 45 minutes: squash, carrots, onions and potatoes. Probably all roots. (Also corn. I don’t consider corn a vegetable; I think of it as a grain.) Then there is the other group that takes 20 to 30 minutes: Shimla mirch (bell peppers), cauliflower and broccoli, pumpkins and squashes, green beans and tomato. Basically most other things. I suppose the reasonable thing would have been to put the first group in the oven, and then after ten minutes bung in the rest. But I refuse to be reasonable in the kitchen. I decided that the roots will be cut smaller than the rest, and everything will go in and come out together.

While in uffish thought I stood, The Family with eyes of flame had found the herbs. “Not that song again”, I muttered. “No peas” she ordered. I fussed with the oven as she tossed the veggies with rice bran oil (her current favourite) and the herbs. I arranged them in the baking tray with the stipulated care to keep the pieces separate from each other. In twenty minutes everything was done. The Family had exhumed two pavs from the fridge, and heated them on a tava; nice to have some bread with roasted veggies. The onions and carrots were nicely caramelised. The beetroot and tomatoes were passable, but could have improved in another five minutes. The beans and bell peppers were wonderful. We have to do something different with the baingan; it was a little bitter. “Not bad for a first attempt”, The Family told me patronisingly. “Just you wait,” I thought, “I’ll have my response ready when you do the fish next week.”

But the thought of a liquid with dinner wouldn’t leave me. So I dug up a bottle of Smirnoff vodka so old that if it had been a wine it would have soured by now. There was about one shot remaining. Chill a beer mug. Drop a spoonful of honey from mustard flowers (same vintage as the vodka) into the glass. Watch as if hypnotized by the sight of the honey oozing to the bottom. Recover. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Add the vodka, give it a good stir. There was no ice in the fridge, so fill the mug with chilled water. Bung in a bag of Earl Grey. Nice aromatic drink, which gets more flavourful as you slowly sip it and the water warms. The Family said that some crushed mint leaves would be a good addition. I agreed, but was too lazy to pick them from the balcony, and clean and crush them. Still, a nice pairing with the roasted veggies.


Decades ago I stood in front of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on show in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna (the featured image is a detail taken from Wikimedia Commons). So, when The Family decided to stream Helen Mirren’s movie The Woman in Gold, I jumped to the conclusion that I knew the sad ending of the story. I had not known that this was piece of art that the Nazis had stolen. George Clooney’s movie Monuments Men had told the story of a platoon of soldiers tasked by the US president Franklin Roosevelt to recover the stolen artworks before Hitler’s orders to destroy them could be carried out. Herman Goering had set up a clearing house for stolen art in the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris. An older movie with Burt Lancaster, The Train, had told the story of how the French resistance had delayed a train full of stolen art from leaving Paris just before it was liberated by the Allies. After watching Mirren’s film, we talked of corrupt governments and stolen art, still residing in museums in Berlin, London, Paris, New York, as well as the 21st century theft of Iraqi heritage.

Anthony Hopkins and others in the Merchant-Ivory film Remains of the Day

Other movies led to other thoughts. Watching Anthony Hopkins as the butler imagined by Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day, I asked myself about the economics of the Nazi era. There is a whole Wikipedia page on the businesses that collaborated in the Holocaust. Goering, Hitler, von Ribbentrop, are recorded as having looted art, and in a government that allows looting of one kind, surely other kinds of theft must have happened. The Nazi era is still under academic investigation, and the wealth of material available today is stunning.

In 1946 the Journal of Business of the University of Chicago carried an article by Arthur Schweitzer which concluded, “In terms of status and privileges, public property of state and party occupied the first place; German big business and hereditary farms as well as quisling owners composed the group of preferred private owners. German small business and non-quisling owners suffered under extensive and deliberate discrimination.” This basic view has held up remarkably well over the last seventy five years.

Further nuance has been added. Germa Bel of the University of Barcelona argued in a paper published in 2009 that the “Nazi regime transferred public ownership and public services to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in the Western capitalist countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s. Privatization in Nazi Germany was also unique in transferring to private hands the delivery of public services previously provided by government.” The paper comes to the following conclusion “Ideological motivations do not explain Nazi privatization. However, political motivations were important. The Nazi government may have used privatization as a tool to improve its relationship with big industrialists and to increase support among this group for its policies. Privatization was also likely used to foster more widespread political support for the party. Finally, financial motivations played a central role in Nazi privatization.”

In Anne Frank House it is hard to tear yourself away from her hiding place

This adds a whole new layer of our understanding of the corruption in that government. It wasn’t just stealing art, or gold teeth from cadavers; the Nazis were stealing from the German people, taking from the general populace, and feeding part of the stream of money into the hands of “preferred private owners” in order to cement their hold on political power. The world war and the Holocaust were so reprehensible that it is hard to look away to see this other aspect which was equally part of the Nazi corruption of government.

Another Egyptian goose

When I hear about Egyptian geese I think of the species Alopochen aegyptiaca, native of the Nile and sub-Saharan Africa, and considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians. I saw them for the first time when we visited Kenya a couple of years ago. The featured photo was taken on the banks of the Mara river. The coloured patch around its eye makes it instantly recognizable, although the rest of the colouring varies a little. But now, in a paper which will appear in April in the paywalled Journal of Archaeological Science, Anthony Romilio of U Queensland has identified another extinct goose from ancient Egyptian paintings.

The panel in the picture above is part of a larger painting which was originally on the north wall of the chapel tomb of Itet, wife to King Sneferu’s vizier, Nefermaat, and likely to have been the king’s daughter-in-law. The original is now in Cairo Museum, and a fascimile can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. A description in the website of the Met says ” The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.” It is this level of detail in the paintings from the tomb which set Romilio thinking about the species. A series of measurements convinced him that it is not a living species. The red breasted goose, Branta ruficollis, seems to be the closest in appearance, but it has not been spotted south of the Mediterranean, nor have remains ever been identified in ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.

“Artistic licence could account for the differences with modern geese, but artworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals,” Romilio is quoted as saying in a press release from UQ. It is interesting that the Sahara was a lush landscape about 10,000 years ago when Nile-dwelling humans began to move into this landscape. The process of desertification began at about the time of the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms, in around 3100 BCE. Romilio has worked on reconstructing taxa of extinct animals of ancient Egypt from ancient Egyptian artwork, and is an author of a book on this subject.

Tall woody flowering cactus

Four days after I first noticed the flowers on this tall cactus that I pass every day, I managed to take a decent photo. A day to remember to put my camera in my backpack. The next day I saw that the flowers were in bad light, and I tried to figure out the best time to take the photos. The third day I realized that I had figured wrong. The fourth day was when I got the light reasonably fine. Just goes to show that there’s a big difference between looking and seeing.

Early exposure to a cactus-mad uncle did not help me to identify this one. About all I can tell is that it is not of the genus Rhipsalis, the only Old World genus. It is about 6 to 7 meters tall, and very woody at the base. I think the plant is less than thirty years old, but not much less. This is the first year that I’ve noticed it flowering, so I wouldn’t know whether it flowers once a year, or more often or less. If you look around the base of the tree, you can see green spiny masses beginning to grow well away from the main stem. These are the plantlets sent out by the parent plant as it reproduces vegetatively. I suppose the gardeners are trying to make up their minds about whether they should let this cactus run loose on this patch, or keep it to an individual tree. I suppose that depends partly on how long these trees last.

Part of the reason why I never noticed it flowering in earlier years is that the flowers and fruits are confined to the top of the plant. At eye level and lower the stems are a mixture of succulent green and woody tissue. Cacti are plants in which the stems are photosynthetic. In the photo above you can see that the lower stems are slowly turning woody. They show the typical areole, the small knob from which spines (and also flowers and new stems) emerge. What’s interesting in this plant is that the areole looks like a dry scab, and is not the hairy organ that you see in many other cacti. The habit of the plant, that is to say that it grows as a tree, and the appearance of the areole allows me to rule out many genera of cacti in the identification. The fact that the plant thrives in wet and humid Mumbai should provide useful clues to a better educated person.

I had to wait for the noonday sun to light up the flowers right at the top of the plant. Interestingly they don’t grow right out of the areole, but are borne on a stem that grows out from it. The small yellow flowers were too high up for me to look at them carefully; I don’t even now how many petals they have. It seemed to me that this had a radial symmetry, although I could not count the number of petals. Most cactus flowers are perfect, a botanical term which means that it contains both pistil and stamen. A wonderful description of the flowers of cacti is given in a web page from U Texas, Austin: “Imagine partially inflating a cylindrical toy balloon, then painting on dots to represent the leaf, sepal, petal, stamen and carpel primordia. Once all dots have been painted on with carpel dots at the closed end of the balloon, imagine placing your finger on the end of the balloon then blowing it up further: the balloon will become a hollow cylinder with the stamen dots on the inside next to your finger, the petal and sepal dots at the end and the leaf dots on the outside.”

It was only after I zoomed in with my camera did I realize that the rounded knobs that I’d initially taken for buds were actually the developed fruits of the tree. You can see the complex branching of the flower-bearing stems, and the three-lobed fruits, presumably developing from fused ovaries. That also explained why, when I zoomed in to the flowers, they looked like they had three clusters of petals, with spaces between them. Each cluster seemed to have three petals (or tepals, which is a more correct word for cacti). This is consistent with counts of petals in several other families of plants in the same order, the Caryophyllales.

My morning’s search for the name of this cactus species led me into these strange pathways. At the end of it I’m left in this very unsatisfactory state: the tree is a cactus (family Cactaceae) from the Americas. Can anyone help me with a better identification?


The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream—
The Champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream

The Indian Serenade, by P. B. Shelley

White for death, white for purity. An ancient Indian custom mingled with the beautiful scent of the Champa to make it a flower of funerals. Indian gardens were full of fragrant white flowers. The rest are used in religion, and not specifically connected with death. Why was the Champa so closely associated with deaths and funerals? Was it because it was a late arrival to India, and was therefore not able to make it into the list of sacred flowers which could be used in auspicious ceremonies? Death is more accommodating. I’ve not been able to trace the journey of this group of plants from its native Central America to South and South-Eastern Asia. Presumably that happened in one of the early and undocumented globalization events, like the spread of rice or wheat across the human world.

When Indian cultural influence spread across Asia in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the association of the champas with death also became part of the pan-Asian cultural background. It is too beautiful a flower to live with death forever, and in the last few centuries has spread into a generalized cultural space. I guess my photos are part of that spread.

Winter light

What passed for winter, the season called shishir, is nearly over. The sea remains cool, but the days are longer. The sun gets enough time to warm up the sea breeze. Still, the light is mild, and oranges are in season. In the afternoons, when the sun streams into the room I work in, I can sit and enjoy an orange with my tea (in shades of Leonard Cohen!) and then take a photo of the emptiness and harmony.

Again I was distracted and opened up my copy of Achaya’s book on Indian food. Oranges were first mentioned by Charaka, who lived in the 2nd century BCE. He called it nagaranga. The traveller Xuan Zang, in his memoirs of his travel through India in mid-7th century CE, mentions them as growing everywhere, but does not use the Chinese word for the fruit. In Shah Jahan’s time (17th century CE) grafting was applied to oranges and mangos in Bengal. Presumably it was already widely available when the Portuguese came to India. ArcGIS adds that the origin of this fruit is in the southeastern foothills of the Himalayas, but misses the reference in Charaka.

Second wave

Bad news came in over the weekend. Cases are up in Mumbai, and in several smaller towns. Kerala, which had beaten back the pandemic in its early days, has been going through enormous pains in recent weeks. This week, overall, cases are up in India by about a third. We seem to be at the beginning of a second wave. Friends around Mumbai have been discussing the inevitability of such a thing ever since the local trains were opened to the general public. I have been playing the devil’s advocate (what an appropriate phrase at this time) with the argument that if livelihoods are to be safeguarded, we have no choice but to let people move around. An increase of cases today inevitably leads to the conclusion that the policy changes made two or three weeks ago are at the root of the problem. Governments agree, and sometimes have gone the whole hog again, imposing full lockdowns in some towns.

My early training predisposes me to seek answers in an engineering discipline that is called Systems Design and Control Theory. One of the things that we learnt was that you could try to control a system by using its output to influence its input. This is called feedback. There is a theorem which says that feedback with delays leads to oscillations. Every teenager who has tried to form a rock band knows about the screech of feedback which badly placed mics and speakers can lead to. Others can more easily relate to the frustrating experience of making sure that the water in the shower is a comfortable temperature as an experience of oscillations due to delayed feedback.

Why should this lead to second and third waves of epidemics? The argument goes something like this. When it becomes clear that there is an epidemic, governments put various restrictions in place. But these are temporary, and when the number of cases decreases they are removed. Clearly there is a feedback. The delay comes from two sources: it takes time to realize that there is a consistent rise (or fall) in the number of cases, and it takes time for committees to make decisions.

Fortunately, the theorem assures us that we are not doomed to be tossed about forever by waves of the pandemic. If there is friction in the system then that damps out the successive waves. Where does this friction come from? One is the brutal calculus that the most susceptible are the earliest victims of the epidemic, so successive waves of disease, eventually, find better prepared immune systems. The second source is our personal learning and initiative. When we realize that there is danger, we personally take precautions. And we learn what are the most important, and best, measures. The third is the most enlightened reason of all: medical practice evolves, so that treatments and vaccines become available.

Human behaviour is unpredictable. There are no theorems which guarantee how I will act. Still, when studying a large enough body of people, there are general principles which seem to govern how such collections will respond to circumstances. There are limits to such predictions. Different countries, even different cities, have had a their second and third waves of COVID-19 at different times.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.