Back to earth

Normal life seems set to start. I spent a day in meetings from ten to six, with a fifteen minute break for lunch at three. Five hours in one chair, and then almost three hours in another, gives your back long enough to seize up. Making decisions which had been postponed for months is going to take long. Sights like gardeners mowing lawns, and crows descending to feed on the slaughter, were so uncommon in the past months that I took a photo when I saw it. Such things will become routine once more. I’m afraid the sky will get smoky and polluted again, adding another edge of danger to the epidemic which has not yet receded. What a wonderfully positive thought to begin the day with! I think I should stop now.

But I can’t resist remarking how plastic the behaviour of animals is; crows here have learnt to follow lawn mowers. Learning and passing it on others is culture. I don’t know whether crows satisfy the second part of the definition of being cultured.

The box arrives

Onam, one of the big festivals of Kerala, was yesterday. This is a harvest festival, and involves a wonderful onam sadhya, onam lunch. For the last couple of years The Family has located restaurants nearby for such a lunch. It was out of question this year. I’d not paid much attention to the calls to our favourite restaurant, and the fact that she’d ordered onam sadhya from them for us. After all, this restaurant is known for its innovative take on Indian food; how traditional could it be? Very, it turned out.

The box, when it arrived, was amazing. I made a video of the unboxing of the food. It took us half an hour to prepare the “plates”. Happy Onam to you. Enjoy!

Beam me up Scotty

No one will beam us back to normal except those who find a cure for COVID-19, or an efficient and cheap vaccine. Until then the world is experiencing a variety of effects: second waves in some places, persistent long plateaus in others, strong economic distress everywhere. Niece Moja, a therapist, is one of the few people with a burgeoning business, but she is also a wreck at the end of a busy day having to deal with others’ anxieties on top of her own. Niece Mbili is one of the unlucky generation. She graduated in the middle of the crisis, and at a time when the industry she wanted to join has dropped into recession. The Youngest Niece is in the uncertain generation. Will her school reopen? Will her school leaving exams at the end of the next year leave her infected?

We’ve decided for ourselves to work back to something closer to normal. I’d been working through video and phone calls, but now I’ve begun to take “coffee time” with colleagues. Some time back we started meeting friends outdoors: masked and distanced. Last week we met a couple for dinner for the first time in half a year. We sat as far apart in their living room as space allowed, and had all windows open. We think we can continue meeting couples for dinner, one at a time, with at least two weeks between meetings. This interval would be sufficient for us not to become unwitting carriers of the disease. Our help have been lucky, most of their employers gave them their salary and helped out with food, when they were not working. Still, they are happy now to get out of their own homes and back to work, but have concerns about safety. We worked out a way so that they don’t have to breathe the same air as us when they come home.

We’ve been shopping for a while, usually outdoors. Unfortunately markets are crowded, so distancing is not possible. Most people are masked, but many are not properly masked: noses outside the mask, or mask pulled down below the lips. So I prefer to have a face shield in addition to a mask when shopping. The economic trouble has reduced a lot of people to an unsustainable income level, so there are many people who come up to you begging for help. It is distressing, because you know that as an individual you cannot possibly help enough. I have the luxury of moral distress, but when you cannot get a meal, perhaps you are not focused on the long term. When I’m face to face with this kind of problem, I can’t help feeling a little ashamed that I have a mask and a face shield to protect against a more remote possibility.

COVID-19 has probably killed more people than we can really account for. When a younger friend, a Himalayan trekker, died of a sudden massive cardiac arrest three months ago, I did not think it had anything to do with the epidemic. But then I heard of two more friends of friends, again in the early and mid-40s, dying similarly, and read about cardiac problems that COVID-19 causes, and I begin to wonder. There is no upside to going back to normal. But there is no upside to remaining locked down either. A perfect dilemma! If I were in the shoes of policy makers, I would throw money at some kinds of biological and mathematical sciences. Funding science always produces new possibilities.

[All images except the featured one are WhatsApp forwards; artist unknown, copyright status unknown]

Last year, this time

A large Ganapati idol being trucked to a local pooja, it was a normal sight until last year. This year seems a little incomplete without the bells and whistles. I suspect that what we saw this year, that is, what we didn’t see, will be the new normal. Looking again at the photo, isn’t it interesting that Ganapati is protected by a sheet of plastic, but Shiva, above him, requires no such protection?

An evening drive in COVID times

Saturday was the first day of the Ganapati festival. When I went out to collect my new spectacles on Friday I didn’t notice any of the usual preparations: no idols being brought to their 10 days’ home in trucks, no stages being set up. On Sunday evening there would be the first day of immersion. This is usually an immersion day for the small gods from homes.

At nine in the evening we drove by one of the places set aside for immersion. There were traffic barricades and police, but no crowds of people. In other years, I have walked to this place with my camera and got nice photos of families come to immerse an idol. Nothing this year.

I passed a place where the residents get together every year and install a vary large idol. At 9 on the evening of the second day it would be rather crowded, especially if it happened to be a Sunday. Lights and preparation certainly, but no people this year.

Newspapers had carried photos of a crowded flower market in Dadar the previous day. I sat down to count the fraction of masked people. In the over hundred faces visible in that photos, I could spot more than 80% covered with masks. I wonder whether all the cities in India have compliance this good. I’ll have to wait for photos of Navaratri from across India to see that.

Building trust

If you ever do street photography, you will find that the best shots come when you have built some trust with your subject. This photo was taken in Quy Nhon in Vietnam, once a port of call for Zheng He, and in the last century a base for American troops close to the front lines of that dirty war. I could not have got the photo you see above if the little girl had not been in a position where she felt safe. Building this trust does not depend only on you as an individual, but also the circumstances in which the subject finds herself. I think this girl would not have had such an open smile if I had come across her alone in a market.

I read the following sentences “On 13 March 2020, as the infection continued to spread in Italy at a brisk pace, Standard Ethics – an independent sustainability rating company – improved its outlook for the country from negative to stable. This is because, according to Standard Ethics, “in the emergency resulting from the spread of the Covid-19 virus, [Italy] has re-established a remarkable solidarity and united purpose. […] It is possible that by courageously overcoming this difficult test, a beautiful nation like Italy, will rediscover its vigour and optimism” (press release, 13 March 2020). The case for the Spanish flu was the opposite: government institutions and national health care services largely proved ineffective in facing the crisis, while civil society experienced a serious breakdown due to the climate of generalised suspicion” in a thought provoking article.

After the cyclone of 1999, the state of Odisha changed its approach to disasters, by emphasizing preparedness over relief. The social capital that it built up by previous work on schools and primary health, saw instant dividends in saving lives through this century. That is a wonderful Indian example of dealing with disasters, and shows what changes can be made with good governance.

When I think of long term effects of the ongoing epidemic, I think of the possible waves to come in the next five or ten years, their effect on travel, and on our circumstances. How our governments deal with this crisis: whether by putting in place a robust health system or not, may determine whether and where we will travel in the next years, whether we will meet open and smiling faces, or sullen and suspicious ones.

Walking through a small village

We walked a short distance through the seemingly inhospitable terrain near the border between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. This was in the spring of 2006, on our first visit to Pench National Park. In medieval times this was the kingdom of the Gonds. The five century long history of the Gond rajas came to an end in the 18th century CE, when the Maratha armies captured their kingdom. The Gond state was completely demolished, and in present times we know these people only as a rural population of subsistence farmers. The only memory of that large kingdom is the name Gondwana by which the region is still known, and which was back-propagated by geologists to give a name to the southern part of the continent of Pangaea which formed 300 million years ago, of which the local rocks are a remnant.

The vegetation changed as we came nearer the village. I did not recognize it then, but the mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) surrounding the village were planted by them. In some places these mahua groves have a sacred status. It is interesting that mahua is a keystone species in such areas, encouraging the growth of several other kinds of plants, and perhaps attracting insects and birds. I guess the ecological engineering of Gonds is something that we are yet to completely understand. Contemporary records tell us that the late medieval period in this part of India was much drier than it is today, and there were many efforts to conserve water. It would be interesting to take a wider view of this kind of ecological engineering to see its effect on conservation of this kind. This history surely has something to teach us for the future.

The village was extremely small, just a few houses clustered together. I was fascinated by the painted walls of the houses. The dado was common. In offices and hospitals, the dado usually has a darker stripe on the bottom and a lighter colour on top, to hide accidental stains. Here it was reversed as you can see. I wonder why. I liked the patterns painted around the door. The long shaft of the yoke was fascinating. I suppose the length of the shaft means that the force applied at the yoke will be more nearly horizontal, resulting in easier rolling. The trade-off is that starting and stopping will be harder. Clearly this is a cart made for long-distance hauling on a flat terrain!

The village was not very empty. Most men were out, perhaps at work. Around a courtyard we found three generations of a family. The matriarch was almost bent double. Each family owned cattle. So I suppose milk and sunlight must be plentiful. Why would osteoporosis be a problem here? I found later that Gonds usually don’t drink milk as adults, perhaps due to widespread lactose intolerance. I suppose all the households in the village had three or four generations living together, and the families would probably be related to each other. I realize that I knew very little about the culture and history of the Gonds. That’s something I should repair; I share a country with them.

Get me out of here

It is believed that there are cold as well as hot hells. The least of the cold hells is called Arbuda naraka. Blizzards blow across this frozen cold plain through which lonely naked people walk for a few trillion years. There is also a belief that the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha tries to bring help to those who live here. It is said that his method is to convince people who live on earth to transfer a bit of the merit of their good deeds to those who live in hells. I suppose the idea is that kindness and caring works.

The good news is that social changes are working. Six months into the pandemic, 20 million out of 8 billion people have been infected; that is one fourth of a percent. I guess wearing masks counts as part of this transfer of merit.

Perfect game for the online life

Bugged with the online life? Want new ways to waste time? Follow me. In my effort to waste good productive hours, I made a deep dive into the shallow (but extensive) waters of meaningless web surfing, link clicking, and searching for random words until I came to a gem.

This is a wonderful game which leads to world domination through twitter: https://www.getbadnews.com/

My attention span is very short these days, and I love it when you can become Dictator for life of an online sandbox in ten minutes. It is a fun game. Hope you enjoy playing it as much as you enjoyed the photo of my keyboard made of 22-carat gold.

Empty city

The Family had to make a quick trip to work to pick up something that was only preserved on paper. On the way she took the photos of Mumbai slowly getting back to work which you see in the slideshow here. The reported number of deaths in the city due to COVID-19 has held steady at between 50 and 70 a day for the last six weeks. So people are reluctant to move out of home. The roads are as empty as movies of the 1960s used to show. The main visible difference between then and now is that almost every person on the road is masked.

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I have a fantasy vision of the world in 2120. The world’s population will have begun to fall. Even so, there will be more people than today. Drinkable water and tillable land will be harder to find than now. The coastal cities of the world will have drowned, and there will have been unstoppable mass migrations northwards. Most of humanity will have memories of war and loss in their lifetime. But a little before that would Mumbai look like this?