Survivors

Downtown Mumbai is a mess of memories right now. Many of our favourite old restaurants are shut. Some lanes are completely shuttered. Walking aimlessly through them I noticed a restaurant in a lane I seldom pass. It is a survivor. It had created a pleasant space in the middle of a crowded street with a forest of potted plants. They are still green and watered. It had to give up an upper floor, apparently. An empty facade looks out on the street with open shutters on windows which are now a mere windbreak. But below that they still advertise tea and cakes. The Family inspected the menu and said “We have to come here.” She wants to support the businesses which are still open.

Bollywood has barely responded to the ongoing crisis. We streamed the anthology film Unpaused, which is perhaps the only take on the ongoing crisis till now. I liked all five stories in their own ways. None of the stories had any stars, but many fine actors. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, and Shardul Bhardwaj are among the newer actors whom I would like to see again. Vishaanu, written by Shubham, was the best of the segments: sensitive, and not a false moment. Avinash Arun Dhaware, known for the series Paatal Lok, directs this segment.

The anthology reminded me of how it is hard to break out of middle class solipsism in this epidemic. Only one of the five stories was about migrant labourers. Looking for books to read, I lingered over The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (I’m afraid I never bothered to read it) but an algorithm directed me to 1232 km, The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri, converted from his documentary. That’s what I’m reading now, a book of reportage which follows a group of migrant labourers walking home during the first lockdown.

Wonderfully ordinary

Like many of you, we had been shut away at home even after being fully vaccinated. While a deadly wave peaked around us, affecting every person’s circle of family and friends, we did not feel any urge to go out. But that wave is now slowly dissipating, leaving behind the post-COVID complications that still kill (India’s first near-Olympian, Milkha Singh, being the latest victim). The sheer depression of being isolated at home while one or two people you know die every day made us want to get out. It had been possible during weekdays for the last two weeks. Eventually, yesterday, The Family and I could juggle schedules to arrange lunch together. South Mumbai looks pretty ordinary, if you forget what it would have been at this time two years ago. Some shops are closed, many of them perhaps forever. The traffic is lighter than normal, and the number of pedestrians lighter still.

Lunch was at a pizzeria on Marine Drive, where we got a table suitable for watching the monsoon tossed waves on Backbay across a welcome view of Marine Drive. A stiff breeze blew between the distanced tables, keeping the monsoon’s humidity at bay. The service and attention to detail has improved with the drop in crowds. We slipped into a dream of normal times, sipping a light rose, spooning up pasta, biting into a crisp pizza, looking for an appropriate dessert to follow and deciding on an espresso instead.

Afterwards we walked past the Brabourne Stadium to the hundred years-old ice cream shop below the stands, now piloted by an old Parsi lady, the grand-daughter of the original Rustom. She never pushes at the boundaries of the stereotype of a cantankerous old Parsi, so sure she is of the quality of the ice cream that she knows that neither her manner, nor the looks of the shop or the merchandise, have to be updated by about three generations. The usual small stream of customers waited patiently for the wonderful ice cream sandwiches, a generous slab of ice cream between two thin wafers, leavened with mild insult. We walked away, a dripping kesar pista in hand, happy that some things never change.

Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.

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.

Intimations of mortality

Until yesterday I had not realized that I was beginning to slip into depression. I’d neglected work. The news was horrible: people begging for hospital beds for family members, others dying outside overfilled hospitals, doctors filmed crying, other doctors begging the government to divert industrial oxygen to medical use, black marketeers making money on drugs with limited efficacy for COVID-19. Locked down at home, I vacillated between consuming this horror show and mindless rom-coms. In February I’d posted a photograph showing how complacent people had become about the falling numbers of infections. That was reinforced by the trips I took in March and April. Courts have begun to question the administration’s contention that only common people are to blame for this disaster.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
       The earth, and every common sight,
                          To me did seem
                      Apparelled in celestial light,
            The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—

William Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality

My nieces do not have this freedom. One, a counselor, realized she was in depression caused by listening to her clients trying to cope with the world that I just described. Her own therapist is counseling her from hospital while being treated for COVID-19. Another niece is in the vanguard of today’s lost generation. She finished her architecture degree from home during last year’s lockdown, and was lucky enough to get a job. So she is in a town completely new to her, setting up her home and commuting to work. She is fairly confident of her work environment; every one is masked all the time, she says. But she finds commuting scary, since in her town many people do not realize masks help protect you. Other nieces are a little further back in the same cohort. One is doing her final year’s internship from home. Another is beginning her second year of college from home. And yet another has just had her school leaving exam cancelled.

I realized that I had been depressed only when I came out of it yesterday. The trigger was that The Family and I got our second shot of vaccine. I had been depressed by thoughts of my own mortality, then. Unlike the two of us, my nieces spend time on social media, which is choked with an outpouring of grief and helplessness from individuals. They are still not eligible for vaccines, and next month, when they are, the vaccine shortage will really begin to hit. Their generation will be changed; I don’t know how.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

In my life

When you pay your money, walk through gates at the side of a road which winds through a forest, and you see a sign announcing a tiger reserve, you may be a little surprised if you thought you were visiting the ruins of the Swarg Ashram, the place where the Beatles composed large parts of their best album. That was the opinion then, and it remained the opinion of fans when the queen of England was fifty years older. Are you in the right place?

The disorientation persists as you walk up a steep paved path, with a high wall on one side. A large butterfly stares at you as you pass. I haven’t been in a tiger reserve like this. Perhaps you need your elephant and gun. Perhaps, in case of accident, you should always bring your mom. But continue, look around round, look around round round.

Strange. The path leads past a ruined bungalow. No Bill, no children asking if to kill was not a sin. The ruin is full of interesting looking graffiti, so we walked in to look. But it is only a distraction, perhaps a structure built and abandoned by the forest department which now owns this land.

I’m at the top of the slide. I stop and I turn and I go for a ride. “Right?” The Family suggested, and I agreed. Into the helter skelter maze of strange domed structures. A notice tells us that they were built as meditation huts in 1978. We walk into one: a round room on the ground floor, a tiny toilet and bath on one side, and stairs going up the wall to a domed platform, presumably the place where you sit to meditate. The first one we walked into had some beautiful work on the walls. The dome had an interesting piece in colour, which was very hard to take a look at because the stairs were not terribly safe. I stood on one of the safe lower rungs, stuck my phone up, and took a panorama. Unfortunately the phone needed more of a revolution than my precarious perch would allow.

We followed the path through these domed apartments, and saw the Ganga in front of us. Lovely view of Rishikesh on the other side. The place where there river turns is Triveni ghat, where the arti takes place in the evening. We seemed to have reached a dead end. It was time to follow the signs to the canteen and get our bearings.

The canteen was attached to some kind of an art gallery; I like the view through a series of doors which is an unmistakable sign that of one. The displayed work was not a surprise. They were photos of the Beatles in the ashram taken by Paul Saltzman. It was late in the morning, and getting warm. We hadn’t found the Swarg Ashram yet. We had a tea and went is search of Swarg.

Vaccine after-effects

About 50 million Indians, 3.5% of the population, had taken the first shot of their COVID-19 vaccine before I joined the queue on Monday after lunch. It went very fast. I had the jab less than an hour after I joined the queue. A half hour under observation at the hospital after that, and I was out. During the wait I downloaded my certificate of vaccination. Pretty smooth systems, I thought. The Family had got her first shot the previous week. We’d decided not to take the shots together because both of us might have had to deal with the usual after-effects of a vaccination. She hadn’t had any effects, not even a soreness at the site of the injection.

Sometimes I wonder whether all this happened because I didn’t forward that WhatsApp message to ten people. – forwarded on WhatsApp

Four hours later I noticed the first twinges from my immune system. I developed a slightly runny nose. This was a probably my non-specific immune system responding. Four hours later, my internal defense system realized that there was a persistent invader which needed more drastic measures. I developed a very high fever, bad enough to set my teeth chattering. A fever is one of the defense mechanisms that the body has against invading pathogens. Raising the body temperature stresses cells. An out of control fever can be killing, but it is a scorched-earth measure that an immune system adopts to slow an invader before new forces are brought into action.

By end of March the fraction vaccinated had risen to about 3.5 in every 100 people.

I was fairly certain that the fever would recede fast. I had a restless night, but by morning the fever was gone. I had the usual post-fever distress, a mild headache, a touch of nausea for the rest of the day. A mild fever recurred in the afternoon. I dealt with it as I have done whenever I had a bad infection: sleep. This time round I knew that the symptoms would be gone in a day as the adaptive immune system comes into play. This prediction was right. I woke in the morning at my usual time, still with sniffles, but otherwise fresh. There was a mild soreness at the spot of the injection, but I expect it to fade.

Sputnik V emergency use | India to discuss approval of Russian vaccine – MoneyControl news Report

My reaction to the vaccine were pretty much average. About six of the ten males in my age group I talked to had similar after-effects to the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, fading about a day and a half after the shot. One, an older and somewhat immuno-compromised person, had fever and body ache that lasted longer. Three had no after effects. The Family had talked a more eclectic set of women, and it turned out that among women of all ages about half suffered the same reactions as me. If you have this kind of a reaction you can be pretty certain that your immune system is reacting as it is expected to.

At most, perhaps 5% of people have been infected (with SARS-CoV-2)….If all that pain, suffering and economic destruction got us to 5%, what will it take to get us to 60%? That’s a sobering thought. All of that suffering and death is just getting started.” Michael Oseterholm in The Guardian, Jun 10, 2020

We will go on another small trip at the end of next week. Unfortunately, the second wave is still raging across the country, so we will have to remain masked and vigilant during the trip. After all this first shot has only primed the immune system, and the second shot is yet to come. The usual precautions are still needed.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

I need your help

On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.

The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?

Second wave

Bad news came in over the weekend. Cases are up in Mumbai, and in several smaller towns. Kerala, which had beaten back the pandemic in its early days, has been going through enormous pains in recent weeks. This week, overall, cases are up in India by about a third. We seem to be at the beginning of a second wave. Friends around Mumbai have been discussing the inevitability of such a thing ever since the local trains were opened to the general public. I have been playing the devil’s advocate (what an appropriate phrase at this time) with the argument that if livelihoods are to be safeguarded, we have no choice but to let people move around. An increase of cases today inevitably leads to the conclusion that the policy changes made two or three weeks ago are at the root of the problem. Governments agree, and sometimes have gone the whole hog again, imposing full lockdowns in some towns.

My early training predisposes me to seek answers in an engineering discipline that is called Systems Design and Control Theory. One of the things that we learnt was that you could try to control a system by using its output to influence its input. This is called feedback. There is a theorem which says that feedback with delays leads to oscillations. Every teenager who has tried to form a rock band knows about the screech of feedback which badly placed mics and speakers can lead to. Others can more easily relate to the frustrating experience of making sure that the water in the shower is a comfortable temperature as an experience of oscillations due to delayed feedback.

Why should this lead to second and third waves of epidemics? The argument goes something like this. When it becomes clear that there is an epidemic, governments put various restrictions in place. But these are temporary, and when the number of cases decreases they are removed. Clearly there is a feedback. The delay comes from two sources: it takes time to realize that there is a consistent rise (or fall) in the number of cases, and it takes time for committees to make decisions.

Fortunately, the theorem assures us that we are not doomed to be tossed about forever by waves of the pandemic. If there is friction in the system then that damps out the successive waves. Where does this friction come from? One is the brutal calculus that the most susceptible are the earliest victims of the epidemic, so successive waves of disease, eventually, find better prepared immune systems. The second source is our personal learning and initiative. When we realize that there is danger, we personally take precautions. And we learn what are the most important, and best, measures. The third is the most enlightened reason of all: medical practice evolves, so that treatments and vaccines become available.

Human behaviour is unpredictable. There are no theorems which guarantee how I will act. Still, when studying a large enough body of people, there are general principles which seem to govern how such collections will respond to circumstances. There are limits to such predictions. Different countries, even different cities, have had a their second and third waves of COVID-19 at different times.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Don’t get fooled again

The eye is so easy to fool! I’d posted the featured photo in colour before. Just for fun I decided to convert it to black and white. I was surprised that it works. Perhaps because the yellow of the tiny flowers is so luminous that although the whole plant is in shadow there is enough contrast there. That got me thinking about decomposing it by colour. I dialled down the saturation of everything except yellow, and the eye still saw it as not very different from before. You really have to put the two next to each other to remind yourself what the difference is. And even then you may not notice that in one photo the leaves are not green.

Are we thinking right in our response to the pandemic? The world locked down again and again to flatten the curve, to prevent hospitals from being overrun. Wuhan was absolutely locked down at the beginning, and that stamped out the disease in that city completely. In other cities we thought it wouldn’t hurt to go for a walk, and perhaps talk to the people we see. Surely meeting one acquaintance in a couple of weeks would not change things, we reasoned. Was that right?

June Almeida was the first scientist to image a human coronavirus (for bio, click on pic)

If the disease spreads evenly, that is every infected person has the same chance of passing on an infection, then even very mildly leaky lockdowns do not prevent a single death! When you study the total number of deaths, it seems to make no difference whether the lockdown was leaky, or whether there was no lockdown. The only difference is the availability of health care, and whatever that implies. Strange!

So lockdowns were thought of as a tool to “flatten the curve”, not as a long-term solution. But that step involved an assumption. It turns out that if you have epidemics (like the flu or COVID-19) which depend on super-spreading events, then the situation could change. The simple expedient of closing every place in which, say, more than 20 people can gather, can cut the transmission of the disease by a large factor. This saves many lives. Strange!

John Snow is widely regarded as the founder of the field of Epidemiology (for bio, click on pic)

It seems that the maths works out. Not quite as transparent as 2+2=4, but apparently quite as definite. But I am always left a little doubtful by mathematical arguments in which every assumption cannot be tested in real life. Maths is a bit like that photo in yellow; an approximation of the real world. Some scenes can be captured in yellow, others not. Believing blindly in mathematical models of the world led people to theories of the aether once. It leads others to believe in market economics today. Both could have been right, but without extensive testing we would not have known better. You don’t want to make the same missteps again with epidemics. The world is stress-testing epidemiology now. I wonder how the subject will change in a couple of years.