Quintessential 20th century Bombay? I suppose it is a toss up between the red double-decker buses and the Irani cafés. Which is a good reason to try them in black and white. Generations of students in the late years of the century remember the aura of faded elegance: marble-topped tables, black laquered bent-wood chairs, mirrored walls and high ceilings. Earlier generations memoirized elegant afternoon meetings for tea and cake in these bright rooms. Very few have lasted into the 21st century. When I took my first digital camera into the streets of Mumbai, these were naturally the places I took it to.
Iranis were the second wave of Zoroastrian immigrants to India. They settled in the thriving cosmopolitan port cities of Mumbai and Karachi in the early 20th century. The Iranian ghavehkhane, after transplantation copied the Viennese style, and became Irani cafés. The Iranian chai shirin, sweetened strong tea, infused with cardamom or rose, gave rise to the Irani tea. Iran has a tradition of adding hot water to a strong brew according to taste. In old Irani cafés you could order a khara chai which was stronger, not having the splash of water usually added before serving. And finally, the Irani chai always came to you in a glass.
In my years as a student I would love the berry pulao served up at these places, always accompanied by a shockingly sweet pink raspberry drink made only by Duke. On days when you felt you couldn’t take it, you could replace the drink with the equally shocking Duke’s ginger. At other times there was the bun maska, a small currant bun with generous amounts of butter, or the brun maska, a fresh baked crusty bun with butter. There was the ever-dependable caramel custard, and a whole selection of cakes and biscuits, which you still get from a couple of the Iranis around Metro which are valiantly keeping the 21st century at bay. I must remember to keep them in business today.
Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Arthur Conan Doyle put these words into the mouth of his creature, Sherlock Holmes. This principle is very hard to use in the real world. Take the example of the caterpillar in the featured photo (black and white version below). Which butterfly does it develop into? I suppose it does not grow into a moth, but maybe it could. It is estimated that there could be about 10,000 species of moths in India, and about 1,500 species of butterflies. So a caterpillar is 6 times more likely to grow into a moth. Butterfly or moth, from this picture, and the internet, it would take half a lifetime to eliminate all the lepidopterans that this caterpillar would not grow into, and so figure out which is the only it could be. The problem of how to eliminate a very large number of hypotheses seems to have inflamed the imagination of several philosophers of science. In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig gave one answer to this problem: use aesthetic judgement to narrow the field. That way lies danger. I don’t have to explain how difficult it would be to apply this method to the question of the caterpillar.
Conan Doyle’s conceit was to transpose logic from the realm of simple problems into the “real” world. It usually doesn’t work, of course. That’s why great detectives are found in works of fiction, and not in the evening news on TV. Much better to reduce the problem: from colour to black and white. In the realm of formal logic, Leibniz had a simpler formulation: a statement must be either true or false. This led in various ways to the ferment in mathematics at the beginning of the last century. Famous names enter into the debate: David Hilbert, Leopold Kronecker, Hermann Weyl, Ernst Zermelo, Bertrand Russel, Kurt Gödel. In this exploration of black and white I don’t intend to go there. I just wanted to point out the spikes on the back of the butterfly; so much more eye-catching in the B&W version, don’t you think?
Six months passed after I got my first digital camera before I thought of going out to just capture photos of unknown people on the road. I’d done several photo walks before that. But I’d concentrated on getting photos of places while avoiding photographing strangers. I have photos of Rome, the Italian Tyrole, Malmoe, Duesseldorf, Hamburg, all looking strangely deserted. The only people who appear in my photos from those months are friends and family. Why did I change my subject abruptly? I don’t remember for certain, but I remember coming back to India after six months in Europe, and being delighted with the number of people on the road. The photos you see here were taken days after I returned.
I remember watching a street vendor selling white shirts. The heap of white cloth acted as a reflector, lighting up the faces of the vendor and his customer. This was the first of the street shots from that day. The banana man in the featured photo was the second. I had some trouble getting him. I was shooting from far away, and people kept passing in front of him. Looking at the photos that didn’t work out, I remember trying again and again.
This photo was even harder. I was shooting close to the stock exchange around midday, just when this guy with the fruit plates was doing roaring business. It was my first shoot, and I was trying very hard not to be noticed taking a photo. I had to stand there are time my shutter release to find a small gap between people. This was not all. The man was much darker than most of the others there, and I had to find the right exposure for him. Between fiddling with exposure and looking for a gap, this photo took time. I learnt later that it it better to go close. After some time the subjects forget about you. But if they don’t, they interact with you, giving you even more interesting photos. I leave you with the example below, coincidentally taken a decade later.
Myanmar’s Inle lake is a place which fascinated me because of the life lived on water. Houses float on water, you need to take a boat to get to a neighbour’s place, children seem to take boats to school, there are floating farms, and the staple food is a lot of fish and rice. A odd thing is that traditional handicrafts include silverwork; the silver was brought from nearby mines. The silversmiths have now expanded into other kinds of jewellery.
Unfortunately we were there in an extremely rainy week. As a result, I spent a lot of time indoors, and part of it was in a jeweller’s workshop. My eyes snagged on the pearls. I’d never paid attention to pearls before, but in this watery light I could understand why painters had spent effort on getting the light on pearls. It was truly fascinating to watch how they react to changes of light: glowing yellow in filtered sunlight, changing to blue in shadow.
I had no idea that the pearls had to be separated from the mother with a tiny knife: a caesarean section! I learnt that pearls are cysts formed in the inner surface of an oyster or mussel shell, formed in response to irritants. The material of the pearl and the inner surface of the shell, the mother of pearl, are very similar. They are layers of a mineral (largely calcite and aragonite) alternating with very thin organic layers, containing the cells and genes required to secrete the next layer outwards. The concentric shells of mineral, each between half and a third of a micrometer thick, refract and diffuse incident light to give that characteristic sheen that people love. Pearls and the mother of pearl are great reasons to shoot close ups.
Painted rickshaws are common in many parts of eastern India. On recent trips I’ve spent time photographing them in various places: first in Tripura, then in Assam, and most recently, last week, in the outskirts of Kolkata. A folk tradition of art is very alive in this part of the country, and artists make some money decorating things, the most visible of them being this common mode of transport. Interestingly, rickshaws in Kolkata are as bland as the taxis you see in Mumbai. You see these beautiful pieces of folk art as soon as you cross the boundary of the city. I wonder whether it is municipal rules which prevent this style from diffusing into the city. These paintings seem to be of two kinds. One is a panel which is painted and fixed on to the back of the rickshaw. The other is painted directly on to the side of the rickshaw.
The paintings are stylized. The sunsets, the covered boats, snow covered peaks, the calligraphic stylization of flying birds; these are motifs which appear again and again. Interestingly, I saw only one religious theme, and that was a picture of Kali. I hadn’t realized that parrots are a favourite of folk painters, perhaps that is a recent development. One may call the style a modern vernacular, so different from the Kalighat style of the 19th century, and the Shantiniketan modernists of the mid- and late-20th century. I suppose this vernacular must have developed in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and was the background from which the Bengal school rose in the early 20th century. It is wonderful to see that this folk tradition remains alive even now. Perhaps it will throw up new formal movements in the future.
The eerily empty Park Street in Kolkata heralded the imminent end of the year 401 of the modern era. Usually this street is crowded with party goers in the evenings of the ten days between Newtonmas and Perihelion day. Not this year. We ducked into an old favourite of a coffee shop, nearly a hundred years old now, but still filled with young people. This year the wait for a table was only two minutes, not two hours. The Family’s face was glowing, she’d heard a lot about the street at this time of the year, and she was happy to be there.
The long nights of this season seem to be made for fairy lights, and in this pandemic year people have put a little extra into them. We decided to come home for the new year. The new year? There are so many different calendars in India, that the arbitrariness of choosing a date to begin a year is obvious. Is there really a special date to celebrate as we roll along around our star? It turns out that there are two such dates: one when we are closest to the sun (perihelion), and another when we are furthest (aphelion). If we want to choose something close to the new year in the common calendar, then Perihelion day, January 4, today, it must be. A different new year’s day deserves a different era to go with it. In the 16th century of the common era, Nicolaus Copernicus first realized that the earth goes around the sun. And then, in the early years of the next century, Johannes Kepler realized that the path of the earth was not a circle, but an ellipse. It is because of the ellipticity that there are special points in the orbit, a perihelion and an aphelion. So this discovery should mark the beginning of the modern era of a rational calendar.
Welcome to the year 402 of the modern era. The last of Kepler’s laws was published that many years ago. The start of the fifth century was traumatic for many, filled with losses. I seem to have spent mine in the safety of my kitchen, judging from my favourite photos of the year. But this is a new year, with new hopes of accommodating this virus without harm to ourselves through a vaccine. This is a year to celebrate careful study of the world around us, and to act on this understanding for the preservation of our place in the world around us. So a happy new year, 402 ME. ☀
I woke up to a gloomy day. it started raining as I made my morning’s tea. Cyclone Burevi had passed well south of us a week ago. I pulled up the satellite images and saw that this was a big cloud mass which had moved in from the south west. There go my plans of spending a night watching the Geminid meteor showers. Depression has multiple meanings! I opened a folder of photos from the middle of a monsoon more than a decade past, and came across a set of street photos I’d taken on an Independence Day. In the featured photo a group of labourers spends their day off chatting. I liked the closed wooden door behind them, and the way they had arranged themselves.
It was a holiday. Most shops were closed. Some had the old style wooden shutters, others had the metal rolling shutters which double as space for advertisements. This was clearly an amateur effort, a little cluttered, but in keeping with the surroundings. I think I like the wooden doors more.
Not all businesses have to close even on a holiday. This pair with a fruits and juices cart was getting some punters. The man with the push cart was also going off to work. He seemed to be a regular customer, greeting the juicewallah in passing. I’d found an open space two floors above the street for these photos. It allowed me to look around without intruding on the life of the street.
When I came down to the street I found this cat sitting in a corner where it thought it was not under surveillance. Friends! had wound up a few years back, but Phoebe’s song Smelly Cat came to mind.
No one cares whether you wear slippers or shoes when you work from home. That was part of our 2020 vision. Slowly we are all learning that no one cares whether you work from home, or work from anywhere, as long as your work gets done. I decided to check out the possibilities last week. After eight months confined to our home, The Family and I decided on a few days away. My criterion was good wifi and open spaces; she wanted lovely views and good service. We found a place which satisfied us both, and spent three days away from home. The highway towards Nashik is little used now, and I could finish a meeting on the road. We drove off the highway at Igatpuri, and stopped by the lake behind Bhavali Dam (featured image). I lost connectivity there, but my meeting was over. If we travel while working we’ll have to have maps of mobile coverage (Google, I need this layer on your maps, if you are listening).
Getting away, working in a resort outside towns, was a pleasure. The sight of a red veined darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii) sitting on the car antenna in the morning, relaxed me as I eased into work. The pandemic is not over, but hotels and resorts are adapting to changed circumstances. Open air dining, in-room dining, good wifi, isolation, many places are able to turn these pre-existing facilities to their advantage. Several districts and towns, especially those which have avoided the pandemic, restrict visitors quite strongly. Bhandardara town, our home for the work week, was of this kind, but we were happy to stay in our private cottage high above town and meet only the staff at the resort. Many other people had reasoned like us. The place was full, even though it was the middle of the week. We could wave a distant hello to people in nearby cottages while we sat in the small garden and worked.
Is this part of the future of work? It has been a long time coming, but I believe that this new category of a break, WFA (work from away) is finally here to stay. What else can you call it? Awaycation? Workation?