Weekend shooting

Looking back at this day over the years, I realized that we were hardly ever home in this month. If I had a time machine, I could dial it back precisely thirteen years, and go back to that lucky day when I discovered that the perfect way to spend a morning is to go out on the range in Thimphu and practice some archery.

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This is a very popular team sport in Bhutan, and after this first encounter with it, I saw it in many places. It turns out that sledging the opposite team has now become high art, and is an important part of the game.

Fontainhas, Panjim

If you choose your time well then you will arrive at the Church Square of Panaji when the bustling market is on. My first visit was not timed well at all. I saw a large empty plaza, with one end taken up by imposing steps that lead up to the church of Immaculate Conception.

I’d arrived at the hottest part of the day, in the humid weather at the end of the monsoon. I climbed those steps slowly, keeping to the edges, seeking little bits of shadow. Eventually, when I got to the top, I realized that with the sun vertically overhead it was not possible to find shade. The ornate doors of the church were closed, and I felt like a bit of a fool as I walked back down. I have been back to the square at better times, but I bear a little grudge against that church and I haven’t tried to go back inside.

But if you bear right and walk along Rua Emidio Garcia with the aim of losing yourself in the side streets, you’ll come to a picturesque enclave called Fontainhas. The lovely bungalows here are often called Portuguese style, but that is quite wrong. Perhaps the arches and tiles have been borrowed from the Portuguese, but the thick walls and bright colours are typical of houses in peninsular India.

These pleasantly curving roads lined with low buildings and trees had only a few restaurants when I first walked through them a dozen years ago. Since then, every time I visit, the number of restaurants has increased, many houses have turned into hotels, or home stays, and the pleasant little shops which mainly provided meeting places for the locals have filled up with upmarket kitsch for tourists. It brings more money into the locality, but drains off, slightly, the uniqueness which I’d found so charming when I took these photos.

As I wandered I came across this statue of Abbe Faria, a central figure in Alexandre Dumas’ door-stopper of a novel called The Count of Monte Cristo. The real Abbe Faria (1756-1891 CE) is no less fascinating. He was a Brahmin Catholic (this is Goa!) who left Goa for Lisbon, then traveled to Rome to study to become a priest. He was invited to preach a sermon in the Sistine Chapel in the presence of the Pope, and later to the court in Lisbon. Back in Goa, he developed his theories of hypnotism, was part of the Pinto revolution against Portugal, escaped to Paris, where, strangely, he became part of the counter-revolutionary royalist conspiracy. He was imprisoned for many years in the Chateau D’If (the part of his life fictionalized by Dumas) before he returned to Paris, obtained a position as a professor of Philosophy, and became briefly famous for his work on hypnotism. If anyone knows of a detailed biography of the real person, please do let me know.

I spotted this lovely window and wall on that first walk, and then traced it out on another walk many years later. The colour of the wall aged well. I wouldn’t mind going back there again to see whether it needs another coat of paint now. That line of hooks on the wall mystified me. I wonder whether there was a forgotten function to it, or whether it marked a ghost window: a place where a window had been before it was walled up.

Strolls through Fountainhas will always lead you to interesting things. Like this house, which had a pay phone. The person who made a little business out of it was clearly loathe to lose any customers. I hestitated in front of the sign. Should I ring the bell, ask for change, and take a photo or two of this astute businessman? But it was time for lunch, and I wandered off.

Raga Bhairavi

I woke early in the morning and watched the sun light change from pink to gold. Two grey hornbills called. I looked out at their favourite tree, but they were gone. This was the time of Raga Bhairavi: two film songs from the last century, one from 1955, the other from 1998, and then a long piece by Bhimsen Joshi.

Zen and the art of dish washing

Now in the lock down, I have rediscovered an old joy, the joy of washing dishes. In my twenties, when I first started living by myself in a flat, I first discovered that nothing calmed me down as much as washing dishes. I would stand at the sink, in good light, and clean for an hour every evening, and feel wonderfully relaxed after that. I would lose myself in the simple process of scrubbing everything in the sink, then looking at each piece once more to see if it needed a second scrub to get rid of some stubborn stain. There was nothing automatic about it, my mind was constantly busy, examining differently shaped objects, looking for spaces where food could hide, changing scrubbers according to need, sometimes simply using muscle. There was no reason why this should have been calming: the constant identification and solution of a stream of problems. But it was.

Gratuitous photo of the door to a beautiful bungalow on a cliff in Landour; a reminder of inner peace achieved on a holiday spent walking and eating. Yes I found more than one path to contentment.

Many years later when I re-read Robert Pirsig’s cult classic (for a certain generation) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it all came together for me. Zen, dhyana, is being mindful of the moment, immersing yourself completely in the simple flow of things, something that you find so absorbing, that it drives every thing else out of your mind. Zen can be anything: archery, chopping vegetables, mathematics, washing dishes, copy-editing a manuscript, cleaning out a cupboard, learning to play music just beyond your capability, mopping the floor. There is no need to listen to the obscure words of sages (If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, … Blake). The coronavirus has given me a wonderful new shot at achieving inner peace.

Waiting for mangoes

From a window I can see a mango tree throwing a dense shadow at the junction of three paths near our flat. I’d been looking at it for a few days, noticing the dense clusters of flowers. The light was good now, so I took out my camera and tried to take photos. It is a little tricky because of the breeze; the branches keep moving in and out of the focal plane. I have nothing urgent to keep me running, so I wait and watch until the gusts die down a bit. This tree was planted more for shade than for the delicacy of the fruits which it bears in large quantities every year. So no one minds that the fruits are eaten by children around the complex before they ripen. This year I wonder whether they will get to them before the parakeets.

Today is the traditional new year in many parts of the country. The earliest mangoes have already come. The Family picked up a large badami a few days ago. “Why only one?” I asked. She was being nice to neighbours. There weren’t many, and she wanted to leave enough for others. I tasted a sliver, because she really enjoys her mangoes. She strung out the rest of it for two days. I took a photo of the look of bliss on her face as she ate a slice, to share with family and friends. Some of them in other parts of the city tell us of the apoos which they have already got. The people who deliver this every year may not come now, but we are waiting for the local fruit vendor to get some. This year international travel is not likely to restart before summer, so maybe I will be home through the mango season after many years, tasting the varieties as they keep coming, one after another, from now through July and into August.

Spring in the air

I woke this morning to the definite feeling that spring was here in full bloom. My nose was blocked, my eyes were watering. Hay fever, means pollen, means flowers. This is definitely not the virus, but my own body reacting to spring. It’ll have passed by mid morning. In my balcony the jasmine plant had begun to flower, the little white vincas are in bloom. In a little patch of ground below the flat I can smell the parijat, the night flowering jasmine. Looking out over the garden in front of us, the banyan tree is full of fruit, the mango tree is bursting into bloom, there are red coral flowers on top of a sea of green. In the mountains the musk rose, the peony, daffodils, must be in bloom. I stood on our balcony and stared at the deep blue sky flecked with clouds. I’ve never seen Mumbai look so beautiful. Today is a bad day, I can’t keep my mind from thinking of traveling up to the mountains, walking in the open.

The intense social life under lockdown

Our culture is changing so rapidly now. Some of it is bad: a constant worry, leading to a tendency to be prescriptive in our little lives and dictatorial in powerful circles. But others are wonderful. The Family and I are in much closer contact with our globally dispersed families.

Apart from calling more often, we have family meals together at least twice a week. We find ourselves having dinner as others join us on video with an evening’s tea, or an elaborate afternoon meal, or a mid-morning break for tea, or even brunch. Sometimes these are formal occasions, where everyone dresses up (except an occasional hilarious couple who have just woken up and appear looking disheveled). We chat about our daily lives (I’d never pickled onions before), while the children run around and come up now and then to monopolize the conversation for a bit (they have seldom had such large audiences). Sometimes two or three of us wander off for a private phone chat, and join the conversation later. It is all a bit like a messy family weekend that I remember from my childhood.

Is this the shape of our lives for a while? I will be happy. WHO recommends that we do physical distancing. That’s what it feels like: social togetherness and physical distancing.

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan

There are times when I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else than the heart of Mumbai. I like to think that I stalk these familiar lanes all the time, renewing acquaintance with the little things that I love, and frowning disapproval of the new. But I just discovered that I’m wrong. I see two sets of street photos from Mumbai, the featured photo is one of the group which comes from a long walk the day after Diwali 2019, and the photo below from a walk in January this year.

Niece Mbili will finish her long course in architecture this year. When she visited in January I took her for a walk to see the parts of Mumbai she didn’t know. I like this view because you see three completely different styles of architecture standing cheek by jowl: the grandiose tower of the stock exchange looms behind a dilapidated Art Deco building from the 1930s, while a newly painted chawl, probably from the early 20th century, stands off to the left.

I led Niece Mbili to a few of Mumbai’s lesser known Art Deco buildings. The photo above is of the crumbling Lalcir Chambers on Tamarind Road. The beautiful Art Deco front door still remains. The wonderful lettering in the facade is another clear Art Deco feature. If you step back and ignore the inept repairs, the data and electrical cables stapled to the walls without any consideration of aesthetics, and obscure signboards, you can see the clean Art Deco lines emerge. Niece Mbili is an expert at this kind visualization. She was suitably stunned. She didn’t know that Mumbai has almost aa many Art Deco buildings as Miami. Now she plans to visit for a longer while. When she does I’ll plan a good walk.

My earlier walk had brought me to an unexpected sight: this artful wooden door. I was quite surprised by what looked like a street art duel: one artist painting a Picassoesque face, the other replying with Pacman. But equally interesting were the padlocks on the door. I was certain that I could tear the padlocks out of the wood, if I wanted, much more easily than picking the lock. The unthinking things that people do for their peace of mind!

But that day’s highlight was the guard sitting on the road, guarding a building which was under renovation. I like the totally relaxed attitude of the man, his chair blocking what would have been an extremely busy road on a working day, slippers off his feet, knowing that no one in their right mind would walk in through that doorway. Oh, and that doorway! It must have been all the rage in the 1880s to sculpt the most modern things into arches above doors. The locomotive is great: progress and trade, and what not. Some day I should post a photo of my favourite: a sculpted stone representation of a complicated theodolite.

Let me leave you with this song by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt, from the 1956 movie CID, with Jonny Lever and Minoo Mumtaz (I think) in this scene. For many of us, that is the anthem of the city: you can’t bear to live here, you can’t bear to leave.

On the road

We had a bit of a drive ahead of us and our driver pulled into a petrol pump almost as soon as we got on to the highway. I looked out of the window at the truck filling up next to us. I’ve written about art work on Indian trucks many times before, but this looked different. At eye level with me was some of the usual kitsch (featured photo), but it was executed perfectly. None of the distortions of naive art. This was a master at work.

I got off and walked around the truck. No amateur, the artists who worked on this truck. Stencils had been used. This medium is becoming commercial! But just look at that swan: wonderful lines. Never seen something like that on a truck. This could be a well-trained commercial artist, one who could as easily design a logo.

Around another tyre-well, more kitsch, this time from some cartoon. But look at that repeating motif that arches around the tyre. It is not only executed flawlessly over and over (see also the featured photo), but has been designed to be easy to execute.

An elegantly executed Hanuman was spray painted on with a stencil elsewhere on the truck. There were numerous small pieces rather than a single overall theme which I’ve seen before on trucks. Is this good or bad? Am I seeing the beginning of the commercialization of truck art? Is this the end of King Rat? By all accounts small businesses have given way to large conglomerates over the last three years. Perhaps in future large fleets of trucks will be decorated by one commercial artists’ firm, instead of one truck one artist.