Dreams die

[She said] “These cars don’t make any noise.” “Someday all cars won’t make noise,” he said.

Harold Robbins, in The Betsy

My cousin was a great car enthusiast even before he learnt his Ambassador, Buick, or Citroen. When he went missing from home once in early childhood, he was found standing by the nearest big road, looking at cars. Safely back home he reeled off a list of all the car makes he’d seen. A couple of years ago, driving on the highway, he said that we’d just passed another cousin’s car. There was a lot of skepticism in our car: “How could you recognize it? It is so dark”, “There are a hundred cars on the road like his, and we are going so fast”. But he was right. The other cousin reached the destination a few minutes after us. If I can’t recall from the hood ornament which car I’ve photographed, I just have to ask him. The featured photo is of the hood of a Dodge, from the late 1940s, if I remember right.

It’s just that when I die, I dont want to leave any enemies, and I figure the only way to do that is to outlive them all.

Harold Robbins, in The Carpetbaggers

The first internal combustion mechanism, fire pistons, may have been developed about 2000 years ago in Borneo or Sumatra, but it was only about two hundred years ago that it became a pillar on which trade and industry stood. Take the Pamban bridge. It was constructed in 1914 as part of an ambitious imperial scheme to connect India with erstwhile Ceylon. What drove it were dreams of trade: from Britain’s overseas factories in India to Sri Lanka, first, and then over the ocean to Singapore, Hong Kong, and east. Every phase of this dream involved internal combustion machines. A supercyclone ended the dream. But in the 21st century this dream of a world-girdling trade route has been recycled by China. And part of the route is exactly the same as the century-past-its-date-of-expiry dream of the British Empire.

An aircraft against the IBM building in Chicago

Every man has his price. For some it’s money, for some it’s women, for others glory. But the honest man you don’t have to buy – he winds up costing you nothing.

Harold Robbins in The Carpetbaggers

Walking on the streets of downtown Chicago, I looked up to see an airplane coming in to land. I could quickly grab this photo where the two icons of the world’s 20th century superpower are juxtaposed (the tower was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and is located at 330 North Wabash Av). The dream of world-spanning trade routes fulfilled. Another dream: an endless frontier. Alexander of Macedonia is said to have wept after he thought there was nothing in the world left to conquer, but his nightmare descendants of today want to place their cut-price mercenaries and miners on new worlds. I suppose rockets are also internal combustion devices, though they have to carry their own oxygen.

The reality of living was never greater than when you held death clutched tightly in your hands

Harold Robbins, in Stilletto

Trying to think of means of travel which do not involve burning fossil fuels, the first one that comes to mind is the bicycle (so green, in the middle of rice fields in the Sahyadris). That, roller skates, and pedi-scooters. Have I missed something? Yes, horse or bullock drawn vehicles (also dog, mule or rabbit drawn: thinking of Radagast in the movie version of Hobbit). Not electric vehicles, nor modern trains, because in those you just burn the fuel elsewhere. Unless you live in a country which generates electricity mostly in nuclear plants or through renewables (in other words, France) I doubt I have missed anything except walking.

Bebelplatz with bicycles

People are not like a business.

Harold Robbins in Never Leave Me

Which is not to say that modern day trains are a disaster. The German experiment with the 9 Euro tickets is a success, I read, since it is beginning to wean people off driving and flying. I’ve always traveled in Germany by train; it was a quick and cheap way to travel, and it got you into the heart of a town with lots of public transport options at the destination (or bike-tours, if you were a tourist). The cheap worked once if you took the pain of traveling off-peak, and that is the threshold that the 9 Euro ticket lowers dramatically. It is a great way of subsidizing (relatively) clean travel instead of air pollution. Of course, there is something to the experience of driving on an autobahn, especially if you are driving a beat-up Volkswagen which stalls if you push the speed to 150 Km per hour. I never missed roller-coaster rides in the days when I did that.

We had to be free of the fear so that we could think of tomorrow

Harold Robbins, in A Stone for Danny Fisher

China was once the world’s bicycle capital. In making a transition to a middle-class economy, it decided to pursue a relatively cleaner path by subsidizing electric scooters and high-speed railways. They are more polluting than bikes of course, but they are less polluting than a car or two in every home, and frequent air travel. I loved those trains while traveling in China. I also love the new electric buses on Indian roads, and the idea of slowly replacing the two-stroke engines on three-wheeler taxis (auto-rickshaws or autos to us, tuktuk to tourists) by electric-autos. The road to cleaner travel is hard. We all know those terrifying moments when a dream turns into a nightmare, you want to wake up, but you find it so hard. Who says it only happens in dreams?

Artworks from the Hemis Monastery: 3

A two-storeyed building runs around two sides of the inner courtyard of the Hemis Gompa. It is built in the traditional style. The supporting walls start as a sturdy wooden frame, and are then filled in with unfired clay blocks, plastered and painted. The roof rests on an elaborate carved wooden section which stands on this. The plastered panels contain paintings which tell stories.

These exposed panels probably weather fast at this altitude, with its high UV flux and annual extremes of temperature, and are probably repainted. I saw different panels are in different states of weathering. Even in a heavily weathered state, the iconography of Gautama Buddha in the panel on the right above is clear from the elongated ears. He is shown with his hands in the dharmachakra mudra, which indicates that he is shown teaching.

The Hemis gompa perhaps first became famous in the west after Nicholas Notovich, a Russian journalist, wrote a book in 1894 (titled La Vie inconnue de Jesus-Christ, The Hidden Life of Jesus Christ) claiming that he had visited this monastery in 1887 and studied two scrolls which gave an account of Jesus’ missing years. According to Notovich, the lost gospel was named “”Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men”, and described how Jesus spent time learning about Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, before returning to Galilee. In complete disbelief, Max Mueller wrote to the chief Lama of the monastery, who wrote back saying that no foreigner had visited in 15 years. This was corroborated by J. Archibald Douglas of Agra, who traveled to Hemis and spoke to the Lamas. Nevertheless, Notovich’s book sold very well, and went through eight impressions in one year.

Public religious art is always meant to instruct, and is an open book to those who grow up in the culture. When I see paintings of the Ramayana in south east Asia, I have no difficulty following the story, even though they seem to emphasize what are sometimes considered obscure bits of the epic in India. But when it comes to the stories of Vajrayana Buddhism I’m a little lost. The myth of the Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, is unfamiliar to me, even if you start with the story that the Buddha predicted “After my parinirvana, after ten and two years, in the land of Udiyana, a man called Padmasambhava, will come who will be better than me.” The stories of the Guru preaching to Dakinis, purifying the Himalayas, and his return in his various lives are not stories I know well enough to follow the story told in these panels. However, panels of his receiving alms and flying to the mountains are recognizable.

The colours in these paintings may have faded but they remain extremely attractive. They are painted on a dry wall, but there are several layers to the colours. The underpainting serves to intensify the colour of the outer layer, an effect that is easily visible in the paintings one sees inside shrines. As the outermost layer weathers, its effect on the underpainting gives a wonderful luminosity which one does not see otherwise.

Leh Palace

One of the few dates that I found about the history of Leh is that the Leh Palace was constructed in three years during the reign of Sengge, of the Namgyal dynasty. So the palace must have been built between 1616 and 1642 CE, and definitely predates the beginning of the construction of the Potala palace of Lhasa. The architects who built it were clearly already accomplished. The level floors of the palace built on a slope, the inward tilt of the massive outer walls for stability, and the use of mixed materials, dressed stone, dried clay blocks, and several different kinds of wood, speak of previous experiments and practice. The palace was in continuous use till it was sacked and destroyed during the Dogra invasion of 1834. The restoration started in this century and has been proceeding fitfully.

The palace dominates the modern city of Leh, visible from most of the center. It seems to straddle a large part of a peak behind the town. I was glad to see an exhibition on the restoration project inside the palace, in particular the architectural drawings which showed the structure as a whole. Without this you are lost: the palace has nine floors (you enter at the third level) and each floor has multiple rooms. A look at these drawings gave me an overall feel of the structure. I decided to climb up to the terrace on the seventh floor and then walk back down. This was the second visit for The Family (she’s been here once when I was still battling altitude sickness) so she decided to be more relaxed.

You have to park your car a little distance away. The walk to the palace is lined with cheerful women knitting scarves, socks and ear muffs which they sell to tourists, even in the height of summer. I find that women are much more natural when The Family takes their photos. I would never have got these friendly smiles and eyes meeting the camera. Each person in this cheerful bunch had an umbrella. There’s no rain here, but the sun is pretty fierce. These are really parasols.

The main entrance in impressive with its four huge columns and the carved heads of lions decorating the lintel over the ceremonial door. This is the singe-sgo (Lion gate, singhadwar in Sanskrit-derived languages). I realized at this point that the king who ordered this palace to be built was also named lion. Maybe this was an appropriate name for a king who took on the Mughal empire; although he could not win Kashmir from them, he did protect the frontier.

On the fourth floor I looked out of a window at a great view of the town of Leh. I’m sure the window is a restoration, but it is done by local craftsmen who follow traditional practice. I wonder about the glass though; I am aware of traditional paper to cover windows. Did 17th century Ladakh make glass. The silk route would certainly have brought many craftsmen here for two and a half millennia, so I’ll reserve my judgement. I climbed half a floor to an internal terrace outside the memorial to the Namgyals. Photography was forbidden inside the memorial, but I was happy to take a photo of the very decorative door outside that led to the fifth floor. From there, I passed further terraces with clearer view of the modern city.

There are terraces and courtyards at every level. The dressed stone was really impressive, with the sharp edges still intact. The ceremonial courtyard where the Namgyals had state banquets was warm and protected from winds by surrounding walls. Further up the view was better but the wind was pretty strong. I listened to the clear and calm sound of azaan reaching up there from the wood and plaster mosque which I’d seen in the market below.

The result of the sacking of the palace and its long abandonment is that the murals which once decorated the walls are not in good shape. There are parts of many of these artworks still visible, and work to preserve them is on. The conservation of the palace and the old city below it has barely begun. It attracts many students of architecture who spend a semester surveying and documenting these buildings. I would have been completely unaware of this effort if Niece Mbili had not done a semester project here. But being sensitized to it now, I could see people at work. New papers are being written by engineers on the techniques used in Leh. Historians have been reasearching Ladakh a little more than they used to before. Perhaps in a couple of decades the palace will be restored to something closer to how it might have looked in the centuries when it was in use.

Across the Himalayas

Home of clouds, the Himalayas have a very appropriate name. The mountains jut up into the sky above the weather, stopping even that huge global circulation which we ground-huggers see as the Indian Ocean monsoon. And what are the Himalayas but the immense, long drawn out collision of two continental plates. As the Indian plate sped northeast across the world, wheeling westwards, a ten million year collision raised these mountains and prised the Tibetan highland into the air from the mass of the Asian plate. About then, elsewhere, a plume of magma rose from the earth’s core and created the enormous African rift valley, setting into motion the changes that started a branch of apes to begin walking across the world. Now, a tube of aluminium filled with those same apes followed a high arc across the home of clouds.

Sitting in that crowded tube, I Iooked out over the shoulder of The Family at the monsoon cloudscape that passed below us. Abruptly I realized that some of the white was not the fluffiness of clouds. A closer look told me that we had left the lowlands behind and reached the high Himalayas. Below us was a rugged, folded landscape, where streams and earthquakes had carved valleys and raised peaks. This late in July the snow line lies above 5.5 Kms. So the peaks we saw were at least 6 Kms high. This is where weather stops.

In the next ten minutes we passed over heights that I would certainly never have reached on foot: a land of eternal snow. Few animals come this high. Among all the world’s migratory birds, only bar headed geese (Anser indicus) fly over these mountains. Coincidentally, we were flying parallel to one of their migration routes, the one they follow as they move between their wintering grounds north of Mumbai, and their summer breeding grounds in Ladakh’s Tso Moriri, west of Leh.

The landscape below us was amazing. Multiple glaciers flowed away from a huge snowfield. I wondered what it would be like to stand on one of those promontories below us and look down on the icefalls that I could see. The air inside the plane suddenly felt hot and stale as I imagined the bitter cold wind below, blowing loose snow over the ice fields. Sadly I was seeing these views as the last of the snow melts from these mountains. Even ten years ago, I would not have seen so much exposed brown below me.

And then we had crossed from one tectonic plate to another. Below us was another climatic zone, one where the monsoon did not reach. Wisps of cumulus floated over the bare brown land. From this height I could see many lakes dotted over the land, large and small. With the extremely low precipitation that this high desert gets, the lakes must be all fed by snow melt. As the earth heats up and the last snow melts, I wonder what will be the fate of the ecologies that depend on these lakes: the bar headed geese, the black necked cranes, snow pigeons, snow leopards, snow foxes, blue sheep, the cold-adapted vegetation of these lakes, and the many insects which live only here. Distance from the ground lets you think these thoughts.

Before I expected it, we begin our descent. Voices come over the PA giving the usual safety instructions. As we approach the ground I see the play of light and shadow over the bare desert which will be our home for the next one and a half weeks. I’m excited. I look at The Family, and she says, “Finally. I’ve been waiting to come here for years.” Below us we see a green valley, probably a sign of humans: the water from a stream used to grow the crops and trees that we like to have around us. We carry with us memories of ancestral landscapes and we try to reproduce them wherever we settle.

Before I have to put away my phone, I see us approach the town of Leh. Like every overgrown human settlement, this spills out from the valley where it was born, into its surroundings. Humans metastasize. That magma plume below the Afar depression which shattered the African continental plate 40 million years ago set into motion large changes on the surface of the planet.

Trees are not enough

While recovering from a very minor surgery in hospital, I looked out over the top of a Jamun (Syzygium cumini) tree. Jamun is one of the fastest growing trees of India. In about 6-8 years it grows to a height of about 10 meters, and it lives for about a 100 years. It begins to fruit when it is about 8 years old, and continues to yield a good crop until it is well over 60. I love this fruit, and look forward to the hot time of the year for it. The tree is hardy and grows well enough to be considered invasive in some parts of the world. If you are interested in carbon mitigation through planting trees, this should be a great choice. But how much carbon does it bind?

A decade old tree is about a meter in perimeter, which means that with a height of 10 meters, its volume is 10/(4π) meter3, which is about 0.8 meter3. Jamun is one of the denser woods, with a specific gravity of 0.7. This means that a 10 meter tall tree weighs about half a metric ton. About half the weight of the wood would be carbon (the rest is essentially hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen). Planting about twelve billion new jamun trees would be sufficient to capture the carbon that India emits in a year, for every year in the next decade or so.

Typically a jamun orchard will have a spacing of about 10 meters between trees. This means that one tree is usually planted in about 100 meter2 of area, which is about 10,000 every km2. India has an area of 3.2 million km2. So planting enough Jamun trees to capture the carbon that we emit would take about 12% of India’s land area. This is a little larger than the area of France. However, this will have to be well drained loamy soil, with sufficient water. That would be about one fifth of the agricultural land in the country.

It already sounds pretty hard. But then I found that an increase in tree cover by 2261 kilometer2 in two years was considered celebratory news. This, as you can see from the numbers above, is the area needed for about 0.02% (1 out of every 5000) of the trees one needs to plant! Maybe that means that planting enough trees to mitigate carbon emission is in the realm of pipe dreams. I’ve talked about a fast growing tree, because it would absorb carbon fast. If we take slower growing trees like teak or pine, then we would need to plant more of them to absorb carbon at the same rate.

Trees are good. Trees are healthy. Trees allow other vegetation to grow beneath it. Trees are needed to slowly suck the carbon out of the air. But today’s meditation convinces me that planting trees is no miracle cure to the climate change problem, no more than covering a pot while cooking is a solution. Pollution is a structural problem, and one needs structural changes for that. Making more efficient use of electricity is better. If I had another day in the hospital, I might have been able to calculate how much energy we can save my going off all social media altogether.

And since I’m joining in (against all good sense) to a challenge which asks us to show three photos, I must add that one should extend the title of this post and say that threes are not enough either.

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.


We crossed the last river bed on the way back from Bijrani range in Corbett. This was goodbye. We stopped to see a Woolly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus), our last addition to the trip’s list of birds. A family of chital (Axis axis) was grazing between the pebbles at the bottom of the stream. A healthy buck (the featured photo), a doe, and two fawns (photo below) ranged slowly over the stones, picking delicately at small shoots. Strange that they would venture here for such slim picking; they must find these leaves delicious.

Chital lie in a genus of their own, Axis, the last remnants of a five million years old twig on the tree of life. Fossil Axis are found from Iran eastwards to Southeast Asia. They are most closely related to the Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii, the swamp deer). Once these were common in the Dhikala range, north of this river. But when its homeland was inundated in the 1960s by the floodwaters gathered behind a dam in the neighbourhood, they went locally extinct. The Chital are now only found in India; a landscape with wild chital tells you definitely that it was taken in India. When they become extinct, a five million year old story will come to an end.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

A bristled grassbird

Another grassland, another grassbird. We noticed the bristled grassbird (Schoenicola striatus) in Dhikala range of Corbett NP because of its aerial display. It is named for its distinctive bristles above its beak, near the end of the gape line. It hasn’t come well in this compressed photo; you can see it only as a dark smudge just above the beak in front of the eyes. It was nesting season, and its aerial display was different enough from the skylarks’ that it caught attention. It touched down on a stalk of grass and turned its head to look all around as it sang. Then in a moment it had hopped down into the tall grasses in the patch and was gone.

The ground was reasonably wet because of the rains. Perhaps it had built a nest in the grass. It population has declined fast in recent years as wet grasslands are drained and given over to humans. This is the sad fate of most grasslands in our country. In my childhood trains used to chug through grasslands: Chital and Sambar would look up at its passing, while Nilgai bounded through, looking for Acacia to browse on. You would hear stories of yellow-green eyes staring at you from low in the grass. Perhaps a tiger, maybe a leopard. I hadn’t seen one, but enough people had for this not to be a tall tale. The word grassland was not part of the vocabulary. For the lack of a name, they were not set aside for conservation, and nearly disappeared. With them went the tigers, elephants, bustards, and lesser species, like this grassbird.

Now, perhaps with the renewed protection to Terai grasslands, following the success of Project Tiger, these species will find a haven. But this bird may be migratory: flying from its Terai nesting sites to the south and west in winter. Trying to find its true wintering grounds is a little confused by the limits of citizen science. The profusion of birders along the coast has resulted in a large number of sightings reported around the large cities in winters, but it is likely to be more common in the grasslands of Bengal and peninsular India, south of the Narmada, from where it is not reported equally often to eBird. The peninsular grasslands are hubs of human activity, and not protected. At the moment all that is properly established is that the population of Bristled grassbirds has crashed in recent years, and not yet stabilized. That earns it the status of vulnerable in the IUCN Red List, in the slippery upper slopes of the road to extinction.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

The tiger of summer

Burning days bring tigers out of hiding. This has been a record breaking summer. We traveled to the protected jungle of Jim Corbett National Park at this time because we knew that extreme heat simplifies the behaviour of tigers. In such adverse conditions a tiger would be concerned only with food, water, and rest. Humans like us had one more need: a connect with ancient times, with nature. Sure enough, as the morning became warmer, there was a movement in the grass, a striped orange, black, and white shape.

All the tigress wanted to do was to walk down-slope to the water. We spotted her as she came down a ridge through tall grass. The slim muscled body was powerful, rendering the steep downhill motion into a graceful slinky walk. I can imagine the fascination of our ancestors, the immense attractiveness of this predator, balancing the danger that it poses. The descriptors attached to tigers in the various Indian languages bring this ancestral memory to us.

A long slow walk, and an occasional look at distant chital. You could feel the calculation in its mind. Do I need food more than water right now? Instincts, you may call it, but not to the sense of self that every animal has. The pauses gave me photos. The featured photo is from such a moment of calculation, its face round like a pot, powerful jaws open, the yellow eyes looking at prey, until it gave in to a greater desire: water. It crossed the road in front of us and walked down another slope.

This tigress must have been incredibly uncomfortable. Tigers evolved in colder climates, and now, in the late anthropocene, as our world comes closer to its end, this one had been pushed to the end of its zone of comfort. She didn’t even walk to the water. She just plopped down in the soft mud and panted. There was a small recent wound in her shoulder. Had she got it in a hunt or in a boundary dispute with another tiger? Our driver, a certified guide, told us that she was twelve years old. She probably had three to four years of life left. The disputes would become more common, and she could even be evicted before her death from her prime territory: shade, food, and water all close by.

After about fifteen minutes, when she’d cooled a bit, she got up and sought water. Further off a mugger (Crocodylus palustris) and a gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) basked in the sun. Those aquatic predators would have engaged my attention on another day. Today my camera did not stray from the tigress. The larger biosphere reserve that Jim Corbett NP is part of will give tigers a route to higher altitudes and more suitable temperatures in coming years, as India warms.

This was her payoff. The hour-long trudge from the deep shade of the jungle, across the long grassland, into the edge of the water was finally done. She settled in like any contented mammal. I had the distinct feeling that a rubber duckie would have been as welcome here as in any bath tub; any excuse to stay in the water would do. She outlasted us in patience. Our morning’s allocated slot in the jungle was nearly over, and we had to leave. When we came back in the afternoon she’d left. There was no shade over the water, and it would have got too warm for her soon after we left.

The woodpecker and the (w)hole

Grasslands in the Terai are interspersed with deep jungles of mixed trees. This is where tigers come for shade and rest after a night out eating and drinking in the sea of grass. But you also find herds of chital, and lone sambar and barking deer moving through the undergrowth. If you are lucky you’ll see a mongoose or a pangolin. We drove slowly along paths under the towering trees and stopped when we heard a woodpecker’s call. Which one? Ahead of us, on a massive trunk sat a Grey-headed woodpecker (Picus canus), a lifer for me. Maybe. Because I’ve seen and photographed lots of birds before I started taking an interest in them. I confused myself for a while, “But it doesn’t have the red patch at the front of the head.” The Family was practical, “Must be the female.” It was. I admire pragmatism, especially in the heat of the field.

The lady inspected a hole in the tree, and its surroundings, like a finicky house hunter. I found later that this is one of the commoner woodpeckers in the world, once having lived in a swathe of land across Europe and Asia, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, where the climate is neither too hot, nor too cold. When I put my observation into eBird, it demanded verification. The species has been reported often from the Terai and the lower slopes of the Himalayas, but is still considered rare here. As the weather warms they’ll move north (there are already sightings in northern Finland and Norway, as far north as Tromsø) and up-slope, becoming rarer still in India.

As we watched a jeep with two young couples came to a halt next to us. “Tiger?” one of the women asked. “No,” The Family answered as I continued to take photos. “Then why stop?” she asked as the jeep sped off, leaving us enveloped in a cloud of dust. I was never happier about having discovered the many uses of N95 masks.

Later, looking at the photos I’d taken I saw that this tree was being strangled slowly by a fig. I can’t tell the difference between three of the commonest strangler figs in this region: Ficus beghalensis (banyan), Ficus virens (pilkhan) and the immense Ficus altissima. Parakeets and hornbills, of which there are several species here, eat their fruits. Their droppings contain viable seeds that take root in some of the other trees. As the host dies, there are more and more holes in its trunk, attracting Picus canus and several other species which are looking for nesting holes. This area was full of trees being strangled, and sure enough, I could hear the screech of parakeets flying high overhead. Eventually, one of the figs will win by growing faster, throwing its deadly shade over the the remaining, clearing trees from the space under it. A small grassland will nucleate under the tree and spread.

I’m happy that a generation ago, when the Beatles sat in an ashram not far from here and composed their eco-anthem, The continuing story of Bungalow Bill, someone had the foresight to start Project Tiger in these jungles. That has preserved this wonderful cycle between jungle and grassland for the rest of us to enjoy. The shade of these trees were filled with the clicking and chirping of insects, the trilling and the cackle of birds. I was glad I’d stopped here. I took off the mask and breathed the smell of the forest.