Yesterday’s death

The day after Diwali is a good time to take stock. Did you really have so many sweets over the previous week that you now have to go on a diet? When do you tell the kids that there are some left-over firecrackers? Will anyone mind if you left the fairy lights up till Christmas?

I thought this is also a good time to spare a thought for the numerous moths which died by plunging into candles and diyas. Moths breed immediately after the end of the monsoon, and seem to undergo a huge culling on Diwali. I’m afraid the two in the featured photo are now mere memories.


Diwali shopping

Tomorrow is Diwali, and today will be the last day of shopping. In most years I would have refused to venture anywhere near a market in the week before that. But, as a street vendor told me on Sunday, “The market has no colour yet.” I finished my photo walk on Sunday afternoon, when the crowds were thin, and my shots were not continuously spoiled by people jogging your elbow. I walked from the shops selling Diwali lights, to the ones which sell flowers (plastic flowers!), past vendors selling bubble guns and coloured boxes, toys and sweets and even a street-side barber.

Now looking at the photos I see that I concentrated on the universal language of trade: customers trying to choose between options, trying to strike a bargain, or looking at merchandise which is beyond their price bracket, vendors who look desperate to sell, some who are doing good business, and a boy selling plush toys who wanted to have his photo taken. I made his day when I took his photo, and he made my day.

Happy Diwali to everyone.

Fire and smoke

One of the biggest festivals of India is the Durga Puja. One part of the festivities is a dance to the goddess performed with live coals in earthen pots. There was a time when only men were allowed to perform this. The times are changing. At least in one place in Mumbai this year the only dancers were women.

Monsoon is made of such things

The Indian Ocean monsoon is a massive planetary scale circulatory system which we are just beginning to understand. Much more easy to see are the things that happen at our scale. In the last decade or slightly more, there have been longer dry spells between heavier showers. Thirty centimeters of rain or more in a few hours is no longer rare. There’s an emergency of this kind every couple of years in Mumbai.

Storm coming in

If you face the open sea on the west of Mumbai you will see very often a storm coming in. You can take a photo, and then look at the satellite map to marvel at the scale of the storm cloud. Sometimes it covers hundred of kilometers. The new views that a phone can add enhance the sense of wonder that one feels about the monsoon. You are not alone. Across the country a million others are seeing this storm coming.

Roads full of water

When the storm passes and the sun comes out, there are pools of water which evaporate slowly. Above the clouds it is astronomical summer: the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. The humidity and heat can be hard. You long for the rain to cool you down.

Clouds rolling in

In the poem Meghdoot, an epic about love in the time of the monsoon, written one and a half thousand years ago, Kalidasa described the monsoon rain on these mountains as “painted streaks on a elephant’s hide”. Watching the clouds roll in over the hills, you understand that he wasn’t talking about water streaks, but the green that suddenly sprouts between rocks.

Clouds invade a dance floor

Low clouds roll relentlessly over the Sahyadris. When it invades a dance floor, it becomes a light which hangs over everything and at the same time hides everything. The dance floor is all music and light and warm moisture. I peer at The Family; we are walking on a cloud. What message does it bring?

Everything is bleak and gray

Sometimes, you think the monsoon is bleak. Roads are washed away. Dark clouds rob the world of colour. But it is warm rain that beats down on you. The hills are alive, really, and growing. When the sun comes out you see the electric green that will fade between the end of monsoon and the beginning of winter. That will be the season of festivals all over India.

Mean Streets

Negotiating the mean streets of Delhi you see sometimes the car “which is not itself mean, which is neither tarnished nor afraid.” That’s a rare sight. Significantly less rare are less-than-new luxury cars. If fleeting glimpses are anything to go by, then the Mercedes E class is becoming very popular on the roads. A quick search tells me that right now there are 270 used Mercedes E classes on sale in the Delhi region. Wonder if the car which I took a photo of has been put out to pasture yet.

Behind the scenes

This is a season of festivals in India. It started with Ganapati a couple of weeks back. Now the festival of Durga just got over. In one form or another Durga’s is a pan-Indian festival. A few more smaller festivals, and the season will end with Diwali. The Bengali version of Durga puja is a grand party. Like all grand events, it requires many hands to make sure it goes off satisfactorily. Drums and drummers are an important part of the ceremonies. The featured photo shows a couple of drummers waiting for their cue.

Durga puja food

Food is a large part of a festival. Crowds which come to see the puja and the associated amateur singing and plays stay on to eat. The crew in the photo above are making the rolls and wraps which are an important part of the meal.

Durga puja toys

Cheap little toys have been associated with these festivals for as long as I can remember. I used to beg uncles and aunts to buy me tops at such places when I was a pre-school child. I wonder if children still want these things. You see little families hawking them late into the night, so there must be buyers.

Durga puja ride

Fairground rides have become popular over the last decade or so. It must have become easier to hire out or assemble some of these rides. This one was waiting for customers even after midnight.

Durga puja balloons

You see sleepy children drifting in the wake of their parents at these pujas till the early hours of the morning. This balloon seller hopes to snare the attention of a few who are awake enough to buy one.

Do-not-Park Avenue

A funny thing happened on the way to Central Park. When I came to Park Avenue there was no traffic. A family went past me: the husband and wife running, their two children on skates. A man came past me and turned uptown on Park Avenue to run. By the time a bunch of bikers came up to me I was ready to take a photo. I waited for runners and bikers to go past the intersection before I crossed.

New York City: Park Avenue

While crossing I realized that I would hardly ever get a chance to take a photo of this kind of Park Avenue. That’s the one you see above. I found later that the avenue was closed to traffic all the way from Central Park to Brooklyn Bridge between 7 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon on three Saturdays of August. Parking was forbidden from 11 the previous night till 2 in the afternoon. I was lucky to be there without knowing about this. I guess if I’d read about it earlier I might have walked down to Brooklyn Bridge.

Last year in Mumbai we saw some streets given over to pedestrians and the public on several Sunday mornings. It was fun to see the same thing in New York.

That time of the year, again

It is the middle of an unusually dry monsoon in Mumbai. But when it rains it seems the traffic becomes even worse. Stuck in traffic last week I edged past the obstruction and noticed at the last minute what it was. As the featured photo shows, a huge image of Ganesha was being transported, wrapped up in plastic sheets to protect it from rain.

Gauri-ganesha visarjanNow the roads are full of images being taken from home to be immersed in the sea. A speciality of the Ganesha festival is that different people keep it for different durations: starting from a day up to eleven days. Over the years the management of traffic during the festival has improved. This year seems to be the best in recent memory. There were little slowdowns as we passed groups of people like the one shown here, but no blocks at all. This one was large, so it was clearly something a neighbourhood had got together for. The crowd with it was also of a corresponding magnitude.

Two thirds of the year are over. The eleven days of Ganesha will be followed by the festival of Durga, and then Diwali. Before you know it, December will be on us. January seems just like yesterday. Did the year really pass by?

Covering old ground

I stood in front of the National Museum of the American Indian. There was a busy little street market in progress behind Bowling Green. A line of very young school children came out of the museum. It took me a while to sift through the history of this building and appreciate the beautiful irony in the deliberate placement of this museum here. This building, 1 Bowling Green, was a US Customs house when it was built in 1902 by Cass Gilbert. Before that there was a structure here, built in 1790, called the Government House. Although it was meant to be the executive mansion for George Washington, he never used it, since the capital shifted to Washington DC before the building was completed. The choice of location was deliberate: the Dutch Fort Amsterdam stood here before the English captured it and converted it to Fort George. The Dutch had famously bought Manhattan before locating their first port in the Americas here. I followed this history in my mind slowly as I walked around the structure. This was old ground, reused ironically.

New York City: The Four Continents

Gilbert approached Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French to help sculpt two groups of figures representing the four continents to stand in front of the building. Saint-Gaudens declined and French made the four huge marble sculptures called Four Continents which I now saw. Much has been written about them, their iconography and prejudices (“subliminal racism”, as the brochure for an ongoing exhibition of the works of French calls it) have been analyzed in detail.

The featured photo, and the one above, represents America, although the woman who personifies the continent is based on an European model. She sits upright, holding a lit torch in her hand, foot on the head of Quetzalcoatl. A man in a warrior’s head-dress leans on her shoulder, while she protects a boy rolling the wheel of progress on her left. A sheaf of corn, cacti, and an eagle on her right complete this ensemble.

New York City: The Four Continents

The statue of Europe seemed to have some resemblance to old photos of Princess Diana. The photo above does not show the globe her left arm rests on. Nor does it show the old woman reading from a book behind her throne. What you can see are the Roman eagle, French’s version of the Elgin marbles on the throne, the crown, the armour and the cloak in Greek style. These are the two central figures.

New York City: The Four Continents

The exoticism that lurks on the edges of the statue of America finds full reign in that of Asia. The woman with her eyes closed rests her feet on skulls and holds a statue of the Buddha in her lap as she seems to meditate. A tiger (or leopard) sits on her right, and a cross peeps over her shoulder. There is no imaginative space here for the continental empire of the Mauryas, the two-millennium long continuity of the Chinese civilization, or the Mongol Empire which birthed the modern world.

New York City: The Four Continents

On Asia’s left are the huddled masses which the US once seemed to welcome: a boy, a man and a woman, possibly a family group. The meditating woman in the strange head-dress seems to be oblivious of them. It took me a while to notice the lotus flower in her right hand, with a snake twined around it. Sculpturally masterful, but overwhelming in its exoticism.

New York City: The Four Continents

At the other corner is the even more dubious figure of Africa: imagined as Sleeping Beauty, half nude in the problematic trope whose most civilized description is “natural”. Her left arm rests on a sleeping lion, a representation of the then-current idea of Africa as a “savage continent”. The broken shield with the sun and asp reflects the main theme on the other side. Sleeping Africa’s right arm rests on a weathered head of the Sphinx: a representation of the ancient civilization of Egypt. Nok, Aksum, Mali, Kongo, Zimbabwe, Benin, Songhai and Carthage are not remembered in this figure, an amnesia that is fairly common even today.

New York City: The Four Continents

French (1850-1931) was a popular and accomplished sculptor, and a man of his times. He argued that elements of the statues were added according to the emotional impact they would have. To the extent that our emotional response to art is learnt, his work was embedded in the culture of his times. He brought wonderful technical execution to this set of figures, almost baroque in the way they seem to move when viewed from different angles. The preservation of these artifacts coupled with the subtle irony of locating the National Museum of the American Indian inside this building is perhaps the most apt response that our times can have to the past.

The Bridges of Long Island

I flew into JFK last Sunday after many years. With the new automation at these airports, one passes through immigration much faster. I was out in no time and on the road to Long Island.

Driving from JFK to Long Island through its many parkways, the one thing I have always noticed is a succession of very low bridges. An article in New York Times written almost ten years ago details some of the hilarious and horrendous road accidents that these lead to.

I went back to that article and found the intriguing statement "Sometimes, this was by design, as in the case of some parkways on Long Island, where bridges were built too low for buses to pass under." Following this up, I came to Robert Moses, and the allegation that he built these bridges low deliberately to exclude the low-income black households living in Queens from accessing the beaches of Long Island. The reasoning given is that poorer people did not usually own cars, and would have to make a trip like this by bus. By keeping clearances under the bridges which are sometimes half of the standard, Moses is said to have planned to exclude buses from entering these areas.

The 40 year old Pulitzer Prize winning book by Robert Caro about Robert Moses called "The Power Broker" which brought together evidence that there was systematic racism in the city services designed by Moses has now become contentious. The low bridges of Long Island however, continue to be traps for trucks.