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.

A forgotten story of Poland in India

While watching Crab Plovers and Great Knots in tidal flats outside Jamnagar, I noticed this cluster of buildings across the water, which make up a school. It turns out to have a forgotten history. Polish children interned in USSR during World War II were allowed to leave in 1942, provided some country took them in. The Jamsaheb Digvijay Singhji of Jamnagar opened up his seaside resort as a refuge for the children. That is the red-tiled building that you see in the featured photo. That’s the bare bone of the story. The children stayed here till 1946. During this time many were reunited with their families. Of those who had lost their families, several chose to remain in India.

Scanning old newspapers I pieced together the story of a British refusal to let the refugee ship dock in India (paralleling the Canadian response to refugees on Komagata Maru). On the intervention of the Jamsaheb, the ship finally docked in Rosi, a port which belonged to the kingdom of Jamnagar. The cultural sensitivity of the times has also been recorded: schooling in Polish, providing Polish food, and the freedom to raise the flag of Poland. Jamnagar was the first kingdom to accept Polish refugees, and others across the world followed. It is interesting to read about this at a time when there is a spreading belief that the post-war international order, including the rights of refuge, were put in place by the wartime Allies, largely the old imperial powers. This is false. Parts of the new world order are informed by values which belong to the wider and more diverse world which was emerging at that time.

Morning in Paris

There are those days when just before I wake up in the morning I think I’m in Paris. I imagine walking out of the massive grey door of my apartment on to the gently sloping road in the fifth.

I imagine walking down to the corner cafe for a petit noir to begin the day, then on to the Alimentation run by an Algerian family to get a bagful of cherries and some peaches for breakfast.

I imagine crossing the street into the Luxembourg garden, to find a chair under a shady tree, open a copy of Notre Dame or Monte Cristo or Dangerous Liaisons, as I eat the fruits.

Ludicrous monsoon sky

This annoys me. Just look at that ludicrous sky, a splash of colour that any child with a messy paintbox can scrawl on to paper. I just had to take a photo to vent about it. Look at that wash of yellow at the bottom: what an inept attempt to show the blaze of the setting sun. If this was entered in a competition where I was a judge, I would sentence it to a hanging.

Others found themselves looking at different parts of this artist’s work. Here is a view someone drew my attention to: east across the Oval to the clock tower of the University with the concrete shell of the stock exchange looming behind it. At least this part looks like a competent watercolour, not the random splash of the sunset.

But then there is this view that another person pointed out, looking northwest at the city’s skyline. Again, the same amateurish dribbles of contrasting colours, and a very ham-fisted attempt at balancing them out by putting a red building on the right and blue buildings on the left and across the bottom. Really! I’m looking forward to the normal grey of smoke and car fumes to damp down the lurid imagination of this artist with the large canvas.

A partial eclipse

Once again I’d not paid attention to the news that I would be in the path of a partial solar eclipse. When this happened to me in December I realized two things: first, that without filters photos of the sun are no good, and second, that you can’t use your phone for the landscape because it is too smart to be fooled by bad light. So this time, I set my camera on manual, fixed the aperture and exposure (1/60 of a second and f6.3, if you want to know), so that as the moon passed over the sun, I would be able to record how the landscape darkened.

The eclipse was partial over Mumbai,with a maximum of about 60%. It started at 10:09 AM and was supposed to end at 1:27 PM. As you can see from the time lapse animation above, it got pretty dark at its maximum. Unfortunately, clouds obscured the sun before the eclipse ended, so I just got the first half of the eclipse.

One hundred days of parakeets

Between a post-travel quarantine and the lockdown, I’ve not left the gates of our housing complex for a hundred days today. Sitting at home, I think I’ve got more tuned to the natural world. I’ve noticed the seasons passing: vasant and grishma are over, and now we are in varsha (think of it as spring, hot season, and monsoon). On the 99th day I leaned out the window in the evening to catch the watery golden light of sunset filtering through monsoon clouds.

The air was full of the chattering and scolding of rose ringed parakeets. I looked at the canopy of trees just below me: such a variety of greens there. The parakeets seem to avoid the gul mohar tree for some reason. They would have been spectacular otherwise; imagine their green against the red of those flowers.

Why was this parakeet rubbing its beak along the bare branch it was sitting on? Was it cleaning its beak? I looked for other parakeets sitting down. There were many. Yes, and many of them seemed to be rubbing their beaks along bare branches, quite vigorously.

Could this be a search for food? Unlikely, I thought. There was enough other food available for them to be wasting the last minutes of daylight looking for insects under the bark of trees. It turns out that their beaks grow all through life, and have to be rubbed down constantly to prevent them from becoming too large. I hadn’t noticed this behaviour before,

I had to go and pare down my ever-growing stomach. But before that I tried to take a few photos of the birds launching off from their perches. It turned out not to be so easy. They seem to have planned out a route through branches and leaves before letting go of the perch: they twist and turn very fast, before coming to horizontal flight. The light was fading, and I’ll leave this exercise for the next hundred days.

Fresh catch

Many years ago, on our first visit to Chilika lake, we stopped at a small and unremarkable looking eatery on a side road. Our guide and driver was clearly looking forward to the meal. One of the three tables was occupied, and we parked ourselves on one under a tree in the little yard. The lobster and crab were the freshest I’d ever had, and cooked lightly and with a delicate touch. I went back on every visit to Odisha which took me near Chilika, and it remained wonderful. The single soft-spoken owner-cook-waiter was later joined by a couple of assistants to wait on tables, but the kitchen remained the exclusive domain of the old man.

In early March, on my last trip before the lockdown, I passed near Chilika again. This is a huge lake, with a surface area of over a thousand square kilometers. This time I was on the end near Berhampur, not Puri. But I was told that there was a Chilika dhaba nearby. Late in the evening we dropped off the highway and detoured into something quite different. This was one of the large productions which cater to busloads of tourists.

Fortunately, in rural Odisha, freshness is a fetish, as a result of which I’ve seldom had bad food on the roadside. The dhaba was out of lobster, but crab and two varieties of fish were available. We decided to share one of each thing on offer. The ingredients were as fresh as I’d expected; they can’t be otherwise next to one of the biggest fishing grounds in this part of India. Although the cooking was uninspired, the freshness of the crab was good enough to keep us plodding through the meal. I resolved to go back to the other dhaba as soon as possible. Now this is a promise to oneself which seems hard to keep.

On the way out I passed this large image of Kali painted on one wall. I find the simplification of this image wonderful. In Odisha it is enough to draw the eyes to signify Kali, time, the goddess of death. Every other piece of this image is dispensable. The dhaba had emptied out, and it was time to hit the road again. Kali stared at us as we climbed into the car.

Just before the monsoon

This week the monsoon arrived in Mumbai, with two days of gloomy skies and frequent rains. You can feel its arrival: the unsettled weather before it, the thunder showers at night, then the persistent westerlies and a choppy sea. I went for a walk in the garden in the early afternoon. That’s when most people are at home, and the overhead light is usually terrible for photos. But I had spots in mind, where the sun would filter down through trees, and throw a beautiful dappled light on the handiwork of the gardeners. I was not disappointed. These days full of warmth and light will decrease over the next couple of months, so I was happy to catch the photo that you see here.

Life changing events

We tried many things. We took mint leaves and whipped them into chutneys. That works to preserve the freshness, but there are times when you want leaves and not mush. We washed and dried them thoroughly before putting them into an airtight box lined with soft absorbent cloth. Even so, the mint leaves start getting black after a couple of days in the fridge. So The Family sent out an SOS to the family. There were lots of suggestions including the whole process of washing, drying and then stripping the leaves from the stem before putting it in a cloth lined airtight box. Too much work, The Family muttered. Indeed. When you buy mint for ten days, this can be too much. Eventually Pycnonotus called to say “Stick the stems in a jar of water.” That changed our lives. Now the sprigs of mint stay in a glass of water, and even sprout new leaves between forays to buy vegetables.

This gives us time to concentrate on the really important things, like weeding the pots in our balcony. Can you believe that pots need weeding. There was a fallow pot which I’d been stuffing leaves into. I saw that a whole lot of tiny plants had begun to sprout in them. I called The Family to check that they weren’t any of her microgreens. No, I have to clean it out. There was also an interesting mushroom growing in there. I guess I’ll have to turn the earth over to expose the main body of the fungus and dry it out.