Out of the blue

A bonus! That’s what the sight of a reconstructed model of the World War 1 biplane, the De Haviland DH9, sitting in Bikaner’s Junagarh palace museum is. This shell of the war’s most widely produced, but problematically under-powered, bombers is said to have been put together from parts of two planes shot down in combat (but they could have been unused war surplus). The information board in front of this exhibit does not mention the reconstruction as ever having flown; nor is there any record that the aircraft bodies that were shipped here came with engines or armament. These disabled planes were what was called the Imperial Gift of 1920, in return for the 500 Bikaneri troops who served Britain on the western front in the World War 1.

Even so, it was an instructive display. The planes of that era had very little thrust. The DH9 engine developed only 170 kW of power. As a result, stable flight required a relatively large wing surface. The wingspan was almost 13 meters, giving a total wing area of for an empty weight of just over 1000 Kgs. Half a century later, the popular Cessna 210 had a wing surface which was about two and a half times smaller for almost the same weight, flying on an engine which gave 230 kW of power. Unlike the model on display, the real DH9 had wings covered in fabric, and the rigging required a special wire with an aerodynamic profile.

It is interesting that the Imperial War Museum and the Historic Aircraft Collection in UK own two working models of the DH9 which have links to this war gift. The full story is told at the website of the HAC by Guy Black, the person who did the restoration. In brief, the remnants of the aircrafts were found in a dump yard behind Junagarh, and several rarer parts of the aircraft could be salvaged for use in the two models. I learnt that flight-worthy reconstructions of historical planes have tremendous amount of replacements due to flight safety concerns. So the amount of salvageable material from the Bikaneri relics is considered substantial. I am well aware of the problem that museums of computers and information technology face in sourcing important historical equipment, since we all treat old equipment as disposable. It was fascinating to see this same story play out in another domain of engineering.

The long take off

Look out of your window and watch a bird take flight. You might see it push off from a perch and gain lift with hard strokes of its wings. Or you might see it drop, open its wings into a glide, and then begin to beat them for lift. On the surface of water neither method works. Water is too level to drop into a glide from, and too fluid to push against. So water birds have the ungainly take off that airplanes do. On Bhigwan lake we watched the long runs of coots (Fulica atra) as they scattered from approaching boats. They don’t flee from perceived danger; they take off in the direction that they face, sometimes towards the approaching boat. Perhaps it would take them longer to turn than to take off. I should time them.

The bar-headed geese (Anser indicus), those champion fliers, have even longer runs to take off. But the longest runs that we saw were those of greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus). The flight of birds is quite different from that of an aircraft of course, but still, a greater weight would require a longer run for take off, unless the musculature and wings of two birds are very different. So a flamingo needs a longer runway than a coot, just as a Dreamliner needs a longer runway than a Cessna Skyhawk. A practical benefit of understanding this is that if you want to find coots and small ducks you could just drop by a small pond, but you need to find lakes if you want to watch geese and flamingos.

Mackinnon Mackenzie in Mumbai

History is a long prelude. In 1820 CE the British East India Company set up an opium factory in Ghazipur in order to trade it for Chinese tea. The lucrative drug trade eventually devastated both China, the recipient country, and India, where farmers were forced to grow drugs, and attracted a series of young pushers to the “China trade” (as you can still see in Benedict Cumberbatch’s breakthrough role, it impacted Victorian Britain pretty badly too). Robert Mackenzie entered the China trade in 1836 when he set up a company in Ghazipur. Eleven years later he was joined by an old schoolfriend, William Mackinnon, who came out from Glasgow to be closer to the China trade.

They set up a business called Mackinnon Mackenzie and Company Limited in 1847, soon after the First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanjing opened up China’s ports and Hong Kong to “the trade”. In 1853 Robert Mackenzie was lost at sea while sailing to Australia to seek a new market. The company kept expanding. In 1856, just before the start of the failed War of Indian Independence, it morphed into the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company, and won an exclusive contract to carry mail between Calcutta and Rangoon, and later to Penang and Singapore. In 1862 it again morphed, this time into the British India Steam Navigation Company, which eventually controlled large parts of all shipping in the Indian Ocean, and connected it to the “home countries”. William Mackinnon died in 1893 in London. In 1913 the company was taken over by James Mackay, the first Earl of Inchcape, becoming soon the largest shipowner in history. It lost half of its fleet during World War II, and eventually transmuted into the car company Inchcape plc.

When James Mackay took over, the new Alexandra Docks (now Indira Docks) had been dug, and the seabed was being used to fill in a square kilometer reclamation next to it. When the first buildings came up in 1918, it became the new business district, Ballard Estate. The layout and many of the buildings were designed by George Wittet, who was by then a well-known name, having designed the Gateway of India, the imposing facade of the Institute of Science, and the impressive dome of what was soon to become the Museum.

So when I walked up to the Mackinnon Mackenzie building on Sunday, I knew I was looking at a place where the lives of four Scotsmen intersected. The grand building in a Edwardian neo-classical style, from which once the foundings of Mazagon Docks Company of Mumbai and Garden Reach Workshops of Kolkata were directed, had fallen on bad times. The Malad stone of which the building is constructed is fairly indestructible, and the details on the facade glowed crisply in the morning sun. But the roof of the turret is missing a large part of the tiles of fired Bombay clay which once covered it. These buildings were monumental, and can be restored and reused. The glass in the windows was intact. Even the penthouse gazebo seemed to be in a reasonable state of repair. There was clearly some work going on, and I wondered whether it was the work of repairs and restoration.

If you took a ship to Bombay in those years, then as you left the gates of the international passenger docks, the bearded Greek hero recoiling from you in front of this porch would have been the first thing you saw. I should have started my walk around Ballard Estate from here, but it was one of the last buildings I came to. When I walked around it I found that it was enormous, taking up the whole block. Something was going on in one of the courtyards. Some people were setting up a sunshade over the yard as another person took photos. Some youngsters chatted outside a side gate, looking trendy. Entertainment, media, or event management? The building is still clearly in use. A block away I met a man on a scooter looking for it. I directed him, and he rode away after thanking me. I looked back along the road to one of the last remnants of a storied company from the glory days of capitalistic imperialism.

How to break a glass ceiling

The Parsi Lying-In Hospital had an architect whose name I had not come across before: Muncherjee Cowasjee Murzban. Not very strangely, it was hard to find anything about him. Even rather well-known architects, engineers, or scientists are not remembered long. It was a while before I found the full text of an out-of-print biography written by his son. Since there is not even a Wikipedia entry on a person who deserves to be remembered better, let me set out a brief bio here. He was born on 7 July, 1839 to Cowasjee Furdoonjee Murzban and Hambaiji Murzban (nee Chandaru). He was married to his cousin Gulbai when he was 14 years old, with whom had a daughter, Mithibai, in 1855, and a son, Murzban, in 1857.

The attic rooms of the Yacht Club have a wonderful view of the harbour over the Gateway of India

Muncherjee’s family came to Mumbai from Surat and became very well known. The family name Murzban is an ancient Persian title given to governors of provinces in the empire. His grandfather, Fardunjee Murzban, moved to Mumbai in 1805, and became a book binder and printer, eventually starting a Gujarati newspaper called Mumbaina Samachar in 1822. The first editorial expressed strong opinions on the freedom of the press, and the newspaper was widely read during the Independence movement, since it reported speeches by Gandhi and other leaders of the movement. Interestingly for its time, women were employed to work in the press alongside men. The newspaper has been in continuous publication since, and now, two hundred years on, remains Asia’s oldest newspaper still in print.

The serene facade of Wilson College has a view of Backbay and Chowpatty across Marine Drive

A record of Muncherjee’s life reads like a case history of a brilliant engineer constantly butting up against the glass ceilings of colonial-era India. I give a bare-bones summary here, but his career became entwined in controversies about the rapid rise of a “native” Indian. His life became quite politicized, and newspapers on both sides of the political divide wrote about him. After studying engineering in the erstwhile Poona College, he joined the Public Works Department in 1857. At the personal request of the Governor, Bartle Frere, he was appointed to the Bombay Rampart removal committee in 1863. He was then seconded to the Bombay Harbour Defense in 1866. Murzban was eventually promoted to Assistant Engineer in 1872 after he took personal initiative in correcting major deficiencies in the engineering design of the General Post Office. He travelled to Europe in the next year (I found it interesting that the exchange rate was two shillings for every rupee; the rupee was not devalued until much later, under the advice of Keynes). Muncherjee visited the Tay Bridge on the Firth of Forth, then under construction, and (his son records) in his diary wrote about the likelihood of its failure. I hope the diaries are not lost, because they will be very interesting documents today.

The foundations of the Wilson College were specially designed by Murzban to float over the daily tidal floods

His fame seems to have increased soon after. Murzban was elected an Associate-Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers of England in 1874, and a Fellow of the University of Bombay in 1875. In 1876 he was promoted to an Executive Engineer (he was only the second Indian to hold this position). The newly crowned Empress of India conferred the title of Khan Bahadur o Muncherjee in the Delhi Durbar of 1877. People who visit Mumbai will recognize some of his best work of this time: not only the General Post Office (1872), but the reclamation of Apollo Bunder, where the Gateway of India stands in front of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, which he constructed, and the J.J. School of Arts (1878) in what was then the Esplanade.

The harbour face of the Yacht Club is now blocked because of traffic routing

He was elected to the Municipal Corporation of Bombay from Ward-H in 1880, moved into his own house Gulestan (on what is now Murzban Road) in 1884, and deposed before the Royal Commission on the admission of “natives” to the Civil Services in 1886. The accomplishments piled on. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1889, appointed president of the Municipal Council of Bombay in 1890, and made a Companion of the CIE in 1891. His election as Chief Engineer of the Municipal Corporation in 1892, the first Indian in this post, created quite a controversy. He voluntarily retired from the PWD in 1893, and was re-appointed for five years in 1898. Mumbai’s most eminent engineer of his time was appointed to the Board of the erstwhile Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute in 1900, where he served for 12 years.

The annex of the Parsi Lying-In Hospital was added in 1910 and built in concrete

The buildings he constructed before retirement includes Alexandra School (1881), the Bombay High Court (1886), Cama Hospital (1886), Elphinstone College (1889), Wilson College (1889), Albless Hospital (1890), Wadia Hospital (1892), and the Anjuman-i-Islam Madrassa (1893). He is credited with changing the street lights to incandescent gas lamps, establishing municipal markets in Bhuleshwar and Colaba, installing sewage treatment pumps in Worli, and building many of the roads which now give shape to south Mumbai.

Metro work in progress on Lamington Road

His output as an architect seems to have been more modest. I’d already seen the Parsi Lying-In Hospital (1895). The Murzban Parsi Colony in Lal Chimney, on Lamington Road was another which has been written about. This was a self-contained gated complex built for low-income Parsi families, owned by a charitable trust. I read about its recent restoration, and decided to put off visiting it until the Metro construction nearby is done.

Muncherjee Murzban died in 1916, the year after Gandhi’s return to India changed the politics of the nation forever. His career spanned precisely the years in which a prickly relationship, neither a partnership nor yet Gandhi’s non-cooperation, between “native” and colonisers created the skeleton of modern India.

Winds of time

Kutch is a flat land, a sea bottom raised in geologically recent times by the motion of the Indian continental plate. When Alexander’s army came to India, the Rann of Kutch was a vast inland lake. Now it is the southern end of the Thar desert. A plane so flat that large parts are covered in a millimeters thin sheet of water every monsoon, then baked dry the rest of the year, it is perfect for generating renewable power. For years, isolated families in this region have installed solar panels for their own use. Now they install wind turbines and pumping the output into the national grid.

The people I was traveling with laughed when I started taking photos of the pylons which criss cross this land. But I find that these impossibly tall towers have a poetry of their own. They are a first glimpse of our future. They are impressive when you stand near them. Low down on them falcons alight and scan the desert for prey. Buzzards build nests on the second rung of the towers. Ipomoea grows dense around the bases, taller than a man, but can’t climb beyond the first rung. The power lines which they support do not seem to pose a hazard to flying birds. Most fly well below them. Others fly far above.

But when you see lines of these columns disappearing over the horizon, you see what a light footprint they cast on this land. That tiptoeing through the landscape, like giraffes on the veldt, seems to be the only sustainable future for us. You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan famously sang.

Tractors and rice

Half a year ago we’d stopped at the census town of Ghoti to buy vegetables and rice. Ghoti turns out to be the town closest to Vaitarna dam. So we were not surprised by the rice fields surrounding the villages here. On a very rainy morning we walked through these fields photographing every day life. People were hard at work. A light bamboo cage covered with thin plastic sheets was the rain-gear of choice. Umbrellas were less common.

I squatted on small boulders and waved at the people as they worked. They would wave back, and go back to their jobs. Some people have tractors. I watched as one plowed a field. On the margins a cow kept watch on this machine which had made its males redundant. The job was over in minutes, and the tractor drove off to another field. It seems that one or two people in a village own a tractor, and plow others’ fields for a fee. The hardest part of farming rice is the transplantation of paddy. The seedlings are grown in one field, and then transplanted to another, plowed and flooded, field later.

Rice (Oryza sativa) is one of mankind’s oldest technologies. The genus Oryza seems to have first arisen in the islands of the Sunda straits about 18 million years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of caches of wild O. sativa come from Vietnam. These remains in Xom Trai, are dated to about 11,600 years ago, at the very beginning of the retreat of glaciers. This was the end of the period called the Younger Dryas, the beginning of the Holocene.I call rice a technology because it is the product of a long process. Domestication completely transformed rice. Even the wild rice of today is actually feral rice, technological artifacts which have escaped our control. Our rice fields are attempts to recreate the conditions of the end of the Younger Dryas. The melting of the glaciers left sodden land which would flood often. It is amazing how many human technologies have been brought in to help. Everything helped: metal working, the domestication of oxen, the internal combustion engine.The long wall behind the flooded field in the photo above is part of the Vaitarna dam. Even that is ancillary to the technology of rice!

This is a job for the whole family. Every hand turns up to work in the field. Little breaks become family affairs, like this early lunch that this family enjoyed on the field. I did not go up close to talk to them, but I’m sure that the metal containers held rice and dal. Vegetables are not a constant part of the meal. Another family had recruited one of their youngsters, the guy with a pink umbrella in an earlier photo. While the rest of the family replanted paddy, he dug a drainage channel.

The ox-drawn plow has not disappeared. The next day in another part of the plateau I found a field being plowed by a team of oxen.The nearest village had a cart being pulled by oxen, the only such ancient transport I saw. Relative prosperity has reached this part of the country. The result is that internal combustion engines are replacing animals. Can batteries replace them? It may be a while before electric tractors take over the world.

Redundancy

Some weeks ago I noticed that junk calls from telemarketers was decreasing in frequency. I put this fortunate circumstance down to the pandemic. After all, these immense telemarketing operations are super-spreading venues, and must have been closed down. I suppose that meant that some of these jobs went into a gig economy. I guess that the extreme incoherence of some recent telemarketers, and the high levels of background noise in their calls could be due to this. Now the market has stabilized again, not due to vaccines, but because of automation. Today I was woken in the morning by an automated telemarketer.

I always fall into the bullshit. Why?
Socks on in bed—the devil is a lie.

Pentametron++

Travel agents were losing business for a while, and the pandemic has killed them off. Retailers have bounced back, but not exactly to where they used to be. Online marketing has taken on a larger share of the market, and the pandemic has moved a larger number of people into delivery gigs. A couple of times I opened the door for a delivery and saw a man older than me. I wonder what their stories are. Sudden loss of a job? Death of the main bread-earner in the family? While this low-paying job market seems poised for growth, how long will it be before delivery is further automated? The gig economy is a passing phase: it is the automation of shops and customer service counters. Now the automation is reaching deeper: right into the service being provided. The pandemic provides a window where accepting this change becomes easier.

Yet in a circle, pallid as it flow
By this bright sun, with his light display,
Rolled from the sands, and half the buds of snow,
And calmly on him shall infold away.

Deepspeare

Complicated jobs requiring simultaneously human judgement and manual work have been automated: for example, large cargo ships now run with crews of ten or so. My two cataract operations at the end of last year were performed, in about fifteen minutes each, by a robot which calmly intoned the purpose of each part of the process before beginning on it. I found it soothing. The doctor was in the operation theater and supervising, but it will not be many years before she is redundant. How long before the rest of the chain around her is also automated? Perhaps you will get your glasses from a vending machine in a few years. And instead of me, an artificial neural network will be writing these posts.

Lakshman Jhula

When I was a child I listened to my granduncle describe how he spent a vacation walking from Uttarkashi to Rishikesh. The one thing that stuck in my mind was that he crossed the Ganga at Lakshman Jhula on a swaying bridge more than 20 meters above the water. In my mind the bridge he described was mixed up with a 19th century bridge here which was made of ropes, and crossing this bridge became my touchstone for adventure. I went to see the bridge a couple of times later. When you see the same thing again, it seems to become mundane. So it was good to see it with fresh eyes, those of The Family.

We drove up from Rishikesh along the right bank to the village of Tapovan and parked the car. The sun was still pretty high up, so we thought of sitting down for a coffee until the day was a little cooler. Two decades ago I’d found a nice German cafe near the bridge, serving warm rolls fresh out of an oven. We looked for it, but it had changed hands a long time ago, and looked very characterless now. It had a good view, so we took the time to take a few photos. We found a more interesting cafe in the large marketplace which has sprung up here in the twenty years since my last visit, and waited the sun out. What we didn’t know was that the ninety year old bridge is officially closed for almost two years. In early July of 2019 the state government closed the bridge and declared that they would build a new one a little way downstream.

When we walked up to the bridge there was sign saying DANGER, but crowds streamed past it. There was no sign saying that the bridge is officially closed or condemned. We crossed, stopping on the bridge that my granduncle had crossed a lifetime ago, to take photos upstream towards the mountains from which the Ganga descends, downstream where a raft was headed back to town from the white waters upstream. The sun was setting behind Tapovan village, giving it a nice halo. Jonk village, the east bank was bathed in a wonderful golden light. It was no longer possible to walk along the river, as I had done on an earlier trip here.

Hardly any of the locals wore a mask. Barely 5 kilometers away, in Rishikesh, areas of town were being sealed into quarantine as the pandemic struck, but the lives of the locals had not changed. The road was not too crowded, and we were masked, so I did not think we were particularly in danger that day. Most masked people seemed to be tourists. Of course, even among them there were those who were not masked, such as the white-water rafters in the Ganga. I chatted with the vegetable vendor, his vegetables here come from Haridwar. There were no takers for the chai or the chana. People seemed to prefer sugarcane juice. We took our photos and walked back the 140 meters to the village on the other bank, crossing the river 20 meters up in the air.

Greening the red

Electric buses have been visible on Mumbai’s roads in the last few months. The plans seems to be to put 340 electric buses on the road by early next year. That is about 10% of the fleet. Quite a fraction of the new buses seem to have been deployed already. I haven’t been in one yet, but they are supposed to have 60 seats, and space for 30 standees (there’s another version with 25 seats). A friendly new feature is a mechanism to lift wheel chairs into the bus, or lower them to the road.

Yesterday my taxi was held up for a minute while this but backed into a parking bay on a narrow road. I clicked the photo you see here, and looked up the technical specifications. In normal use the engine uses about 150 KW from a Lithium battery which stores 186 KWh of energy. That rating should give nearly 100 hours of run. I suppose the reality is more restrictive, because according to the BEST (Brihan-Mumbai Electric Supply and Transport corporation) press handout, the batteries are supposed to last 200 Kms on city roads in a single charge. The bus is fully electric, from start to stop, and has no clutch or gear control. The company lists in-bus utilities like charging points for users and WiFi on the go, but the BEST press release does not mention them. I guess I will have to check these out when I ride the buses.

I was surprised to find that these buses have already run over 4 million Kilometers on city roads, in various cities. There are hybrid electric buses already running on intercity routes. These are the visible results of the government’s scheme, FAME, for Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric vehicles in India, started in 2015. If these emission-free and (relatively) noise-free buses turn out to have a lifetime of 15 years, like the older buses on the roads, then it will be a rather nice and big change.

Counting the days

Finally, the tickets are booked. I’m looking forward to a trip through the Himalayas again. Wonderful views would be great, but no views, just fog, is also welcome.

There are very few things I want in life (only about a hundred and forty seven), and the pandemic has taught me to seek a balance between them.

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