All ready

“Feels like we are back in lockdown,” The Family said. Our cook tested positive for Covid a few days back. We are negative, but back to cooking for ourselves. I took a look at The Family’s morning’s prep. The leaves of Malabar spinach harvested from our balcony were cleaned and ready. They’ll go into a Bengali style mixed veggie with pumpkin, cauliflower, and a few other ingredients. Drumsticks and potato came to my mind, but The Family says we don’t have them right now, so she’ll just stick to two veggies. I knew what the tomato, garlic and curry leaves are for: she’s been planning to make ribs. Looks like a nice Sunday lunch is in store.

Eats shoots and leaves

Ramayana has a story which defines Hanuman (Semnopithecus entellus, Northern plains gray langur). When Lakshman is wounded in battle, Ram sends Hanuman off to fetch a rare herb from a distant mountain. The person was well-chosen. These langurs are herbivores who know the forests well. In the myth Hanuman is unable to locate the herb, but knowing that time is short brings the whole mountain back with him.

After breakfast I stood near a grove of bamboos and watched a small troop of the langurs quietly feeding. Herbivores need to eat a lot, and, left to themselves, will spend most of their time foraging and feeding. The larger they are, the more time they spend on food. I suppose that is why these langurs seem to be more even tempered than macaques; their larger body size forces them to spend one third of their waking time in feeding.

The monsoon settles in

Sometime in the late morning of yesterday I realized that we were going through the first spell of a proper monsoon rain. It had been raining continuously since the previous evening. The earlier part of June had passed in little fits and bursts of rain. That was typical early monsoon; it gives you time to turn the house upside down looking for the umbrella that you put away last September, and the raincoat that you bundled into a drawer. In our part of town July and early August see the maximum rain on average. So the monsoon this year looks like it is textbook weather.

Part of the textbook is this first long and bothersome spell of rain at the very end of June. I had a day full of meetings, which, fortunately, in our new normal, means that you can stay at home glued to the laptop screen. I was glad about that. Otherwise I would have had to make a waterproof bundle with a towel and a change of clothes and shoes to take to work. I kept looking out of the window to see how much the rain pools in the garden. In continuous low-intensity rain like this, water can become ankle high in the garden at high tide, and drain out almost completely when the tide is low. It’s a good proxy for how the trains function. Fortunately for commuters, high tide was not at rush hour.

In the evening, as I took macros of the bougainvillea still in flower on our wet balcony, The Family scrolled through the news and read out the day’s statistics to me. It had rained a steady couple of centimeters every hour. In five hours we’d got a 100 mm of rain, in eight, 165 mm. The day had been dreary, and I’d switched on all the lights at home to make the place look cheerful. A few notes of cheer had been added by the sparrows sheltering on my windowsill, and the pair of purple sunbirds which come to sit on the bougainvillea vines. Now I look out at the first morning of July, and find another dreary day, with the clouds looking all set for another tedious day of rain. I have a meeting today which I can’t do on zoom. Bother!

Door after door

Finally, we walked through endless empty corridors in Bikaner’s old fort, Junagarh. We’d seen the royal apartments and audience halls already; they make up the core of the complex. But every king added wings according to the needs of the moment. I suppose bureaucracy always multiplies (until it disappears), so new wings and rooms always come in handy. These empty rooms were beautifully painted over in later developments of the same styles of frescoes that we had seen earlier.

We exited Phool Mahal, and, instead of taking the stairs, took a turn into a narrow corridor overlooking the open courtyard below. That led us into a train of empty, but beautifully decorated, rooms. The frescoes were in good repair here. Probably tourists just take the quickest way out, preferring the outer corridors instead of wandering through the rooms. But we were not disappointed. The sonakin style frescoes in the first few rooms were very similar in style to Phool Mahal: the same golds and greens, for pictures of vases of flowers or bowls of fruit. The doors were painted in the same alternation of dark greens and reds, with gold highlights that we recognized as the Jangali Sunthari style.

But this colour scheme of the Sonakin style changed as we progressed. The golds and green disappeared and reds, yellows and blues took over. The lack of gold perhaps signified that these rooms were given over to officials and courtiers rather than the royal family. The reds and the blues began to look like western influence. The ceiling that you see here was a clear evolution of the Manovat style, looking quite English in its colour scheme.

This adaptation was also visible in the pictures on the walls. The unlabelled portrait is full face, quite unlike the early modern style, in which royal portraits were always in profile. The modelling of the face, the shadows, also shows a western influence. Of course, the appearance of photos mounted on the walls was the best clue to the increasing European influence.

We came to the end of the corridors and had to climb down a flight of stairs. These were more modern than the set we’d taken up from the innermost courtyard: wider and better spaced. Defending the staircase against enemies was not on the mind of the architect. Crossing an inner courtyard, we came to the armoury. I’ve never looked at the evolution of swords, daggers, axes, and various other cutting edge weapon designs from the Mughal era. But this armoury had some fascinating early firearms, mostly unrifled muzzle loaders. There was this fascinating piece, about three meters long. I suppose three men were needed to charge, steady and fire it. Was it ever a decisive piece in battle? But then Bikaner seldom entered battle, preferring to work its diplomatic corps more than its army.

The armoury was part of the Ganga Mahal, completed in 1937 CE by Ganga Singh. This was quite different in style from the remainder of the fort: being built almost entirely from the local red sandtone, and elaborately carved, rather than plastered and painted. The main hall was enormous, and we felt quite dwarfed in there. I walked along it admiring the beautifully reliefs of local fauna, birds as well as deer. This was the beginning of the style of stone-masonry that we saw in the other palaces in Bikaner. We’d reached the end of our walk. It was time for the museums. But that is a story I’ve already told.

The rain in Spain

Flying in to Madrid from Delhi a few years ago, our plane had taken a southerly course over the Mediterranean. It was morning when we came in over the Spanish coast somewhere in the province of Valencia. A half hour of flight remained, and most of it was over the countryside of Castilla-La Mancha.

The portholes of Dreamliners have complex optics, with a gel filled layers between the stressed outer layers and the innermost clear layer. All portholes on airliners create a bit of chromatic aberration, but I had the feeling that this was much worse than normal. It was very obvious in this photo, which I took just as we hit the coast of Spain. The best I could do was to avoid the edges of the porthole. Due to a Dreamliner’s larger portholes, this is not as hard a constraint as it can be on some other planes. There are a lot of breakwaters and docking areas in that port. I wonder which one it is.

We were to discover later that we had landed during one of the hottest summers that Spain had had in recent years. But even before we knew that, it was clear that we were flying over some pretty parched lands. This green low-land with its lakes was the last bit of green we saw in quite a long while. I took a lot of photos from the air, but seeing anything in them requires quite a lot of work. The photos that you see here required fiddly adjustment of contrast and brightness. Still learning!

The parched landscape around this town is more typical of the area we flew over. I found later that a large part of the flat country that we flew over has average annual rainfalls between 400 and 600 mm. No wonder the fields that you can see in the photo above look so dry. Eliza Doolittle should have fact-checked the sentence she was taught. The rain in Spain does not stay mainly in the plain. Not at all. Most of it is in the north or along the mountains. I wonder how quickly, and by how much, these patterns will change in the coming decades.

Out of the blue

A bonus! That’s what the sight of a reconstructed model of the World War 1 biplane, the De Haviland DH9, sitting in Bikaner’s Junagarh palace museum is. This shell of the war’s most widely produced, but problematically under-powered, bombers is said to have been put together from parts of two planes shot down in combat (but they could have been unused war surplus). The information board in front of this exhibit does not mention the reconstruction as ever having flown; nor is there any record that the aircraft bodies that were shipped here came with engines or armament. These disabled planes were what was called the Imperial Gift of 1920, in return for the 500 Bikaneri troops who served Britain on the western front in the World War 1.

Even so, it was an instructive display. The planes of that era had very little thrust. The DH9 engine developed only 170 kW of power. As a result, stable flight required a relatively large wing surface. The wingspan was almost 13 meters, giving a total wing area of for an empty weight of just over 1000 Kgs. Half a century later, the popular Cessna 210 had a wing surface which was about two and a half times smaller for almost the same weight, flying on an engine which gave 230 kW of power. Unlike the model on display, the real DH9 had wings covered in fabric, and the rigging required a special wire with an aerodynamic profile.

It is interesting that the Imperial War Museum and the Historic Aircraft Collection in UK own two working models of the DH9 which have links to this war gift. The full story is told at the website of the HAC by Guy Black, the person who did the restoration. In brief, the remnants of the aircrafts were found in a dump yard behind Junagarh, and several rarer parts of the aircraft could be salvaged for use in the two models. I learnt that flight-worthy reconstructions of historical planes have tremendous amount of replacements due to flight safety concerns. So the amount of salvageable material from the Bikaneri relics is considered substantial. I am well aware of the problem that museums of computers and information technology face in sourcing important historical equipment, since we all treat old equipment as disposable. It was fascinating to see this same story play out in another domain of engineering.

The gaze of the salesperson

When you look at a person from behind the viewfinder of your camera, you sometimes find an appraising gaze looking back at you. Such eyes belong to people who make a living by selling. I like long zooms for such photos, because you can see the initial appraisal still going on. The featured photo is of two auto drivers in Ujjain, a really ancient temple town. For about two thousand years the locals have made a living from the people who pass through. The best salesmen survive; others move away.

A colonial-era town in Myanmar may not have quite the same history of trade, but the calculation behind the cheerful call of the women trying to sell you a snack is clear. As you can see in this photos, their eyes appraise you, and the smile switches off the moment it is clear that you are not buying.

A walk through pre-Diwali street markets is always productive. In this photo, the young man, probably a recent arrival to Mumbai, is still trying to figure out whether a man with a camera is a likely target for a sales patter about fluffy toys. I wouldn’t have bought one, but I’m more excited by the neon pandas than the plush pikachu.

This photo of a man in Jodhpur’s market is one of my favourites. He’s pretty sure that I’m not part of this target demographic, but he’s still interested in figuring me out. I probably fall at some borderline between the various categories of tourists who visit the town.

In the jungle

Millimeters high jungles sprout in a tub where The Family had scattered a pinch of methi seeds. The monsoon is good for microgreens. These methi leaves (Trigonella foenum-graecum, fenugreek) will add flavour to our salad. And I can see evidence of animals in this jungle. We’ll have to harvest the leaves before these tiny herbivores eat up our salad.

An uncertain place

Watson’s Hotel, later called the Esplanade Building, was built between 1867 and 1869. It is the world’s oldest cast iron building. For years it looked like it would fall down at the slightest touch. Something is happening to it now, behind high barriers. I can see a scaffolding above the blue metal sheets. I hope it is repairs and renovation rather than demolition. It’s been a Grade II heritage structure for decades, but that did not apparently force anyone to keep repairing it.

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