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.

Learning to live with danger

How easy is it to catch a disease again? Chicken pox, never. A cold, perhaps even twice or thrice a season. For a new disease like COVID-19 this may be hard to figure out, but with tens of millions of people infected around the world, one can get rough answers surprisingly fast. Of course, the question needs to be qualified. Is there a version of “long COVID-19” which has periods of dormancy, so that a resurgence of the same infection may look like reinfection? If so, should we count this? Should we count infection by a new strain of virus to be a reinfection? Reasonable answers seem to be “Perhaps”, “No” and “Yes” respectively. With this in mind, it seems possible today that the chance of reinfection, while small, could be higher than that of death. All these estimates are provisional, of course. Partly because doctors around the world are learning to manage the infection and reduce the rates of death. Partly because the chances of new strains of virus to emerge depend on the number of people infected, and this number is still increasing.

Now that we know that recovering from a COVID-19 infection is not always the same as becoming our old healthy self, the statement that death is less likely than reinfection does not seem to be as much of a relief as it would have been nine months ago. Instead it raises new concerns. Would the effects of vaccines wear off? Will reinfections cause a mild disease or a worse one? There are, as yet, strong opinions but no definite answers to these questions. But the questions force us to re-examine the lives of our grandparents. They lived in a world of communicable diseases. Human life expectancy was lower, because you could die of such a disease before your heart started to act up. How did they live?

For some months we hid ourselves away from the world, regarded everything that had to be brought home with suspicion. Then we learnt to distinguish between levels of danger. Once we figured that we had been infected, we let our guard down for a while. Again, after realizing that we may not be safe for ever, we are back to masking and distancing. Life is not on hold any longer: regular work has resumed, dentists need to be visited, other medical check ups have to be done, some socialization is needed, holidays are necessary. The way we do things has changed, but life has resumed. I suppose all of us will have to find how to resume life. Even in medieval, demon-haunted times, people lived and worked. We know better, we will live safer; this I am certain of. No other disease has been studied by such a variety of scientists: I have read research reports on COVID-19 by doctors, data scientists, physicists, biologists, economists, and even engineers. We will learn from each other the safe ways to navigate the world.

Our journey so far

On December 31, 2019, WHO declared that an emerging new disease had been reported by China. The Family and I were on a trip, and like most others across the world, did not pay much attention to this news. Within a few days, the news from China began to take up more of the news cycle. The disease acquired the name COVID-19, and the virus that caused it was gene sequenced in China, found to be new, and dubbed SARS-CoV-2. I had a full year of business trips and vacations planned, and knew that I had to keep an eye on this. (New words: COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2)

It was hard to see the big picture in early 2020

On 30 January, 2020, WHO declared that the disease was a pandemic. On the same day, a traveler returning to India was found to have the new disease. This was the first reported case of the disease in India. Wuhan and its surroundings had been locked down for days. I’d already talked to my colleagues in Wuhan, and they told me of their tedium. It was hard to imagine spending weeks inside the four walls of a flat, energetic children cooped up in the same space, looking out at deserted streets. Little did we know that the world was to follow suit. (New word: pandemic)

The world was beginning to close in

In February we made a small trip to see the winter’s birds (the featured photo of the black-shouldered kite, Elanus caeruleus, comes from that trip). The news was beginning to get dire. Countries were locking down flights. Italy was badly affected; on a call with her sister in Milan, The Family heard sirens from racing ambulances in the background. I was on conference calls with colleagues across the world trying to decide whether to move schedules for meetings. A divide was perceptible: people from Europe, the USA, and Australia were sure that this would pass in a couple of weeks, and no long term measures were necessary. People from East Asia were convinced that it would take longer to normalize. Indians and South Africans on these calls were not sure, but tended to be cautious. (New phrase: contact tracing)

Everyone was captive in their own houses

When the first large cluster of infections was detected in Punjab, it had been brought in by a traveler returning from Europe. Soon a clutch of cases brought by tourists began to spread in Rajasthan. The Family and I shared a laugh with our extended families about the passing phase of reverse racism on the streets: any white tourist was given a wide berth, and there were mutterings about why they should stay home for now. I began to teach myself epidemiology just in time to understand the advise that was soon being offered on safety. But then, the government of India decided to shut everything down very suddenly. (New word: lockdown)

Wild oscillations between euphoria at remaining healthy and tedium at being locked down

The resulting human tragedy of unemployment and displacement was enormous. For a while we, like the rest of the middle class, remained hopeful, because the skies cleared up due to the lack of new pollution. Then the monsoon storms reminded us that planet was still warming from older pollution. And the new obsession with cleaning meant that more plastic and detergents were being pumped into the earth. In the beginning we cleaned obsessively. The Family brought her professional expertise to the matter and found safe ways to disinfect food: soak fresh food in brine for half an hour. Sealed packages could be dunked in soap water and then washed. Brine and soap water could be reused, since they do not allow the growth of bacteria and viruses, so buckets full of them could be reused, saving on water usage. (New word: social distancing)

A grey and colorless world

Locked down at home, we realized how important our internet connectivity was. New services for video conferencing were quickly adopted. Our meetings went online, and suddenly that part of our work had been revolutionized. We forced the pace of moving work on-line. The Family and I decided early on that we had to fight back at the black depression that threatened us. We decided to keep a strict routine, and eat only healthy food. We shared household chores, and cooking, learnt new time-saving techniques, and set aside time for watching movies and TV, and meeting friends and family through video conferencing. (New word: Zoom)

It is hard to see the big picture even now

Now, one year on, Mumbai is opening up. Today, on 1 February, 2021, the local trains are starting up again. What did we learn? What did we change? First, that when you are afraid of a respiratory disease, mask yourself. This would be enough to slow down the disease. Quick deaths, although in the millions now, turned out to be not the most likely bad outcome of the infection. People have reported recurring breathing difficulties, heart disease, extreme fatigue. These symptoms pass in a few weeks, or months, for most people, but others have continuing problems: the COVID long-haulers. With all this knowledge, the second lesson is internal, one that most people I speak to seem to have learnt. It comes out in little ways: your life is important, its quality is important, family and health are important, socializing is important, being chained to a machine is secondary. We do not yet know how things will evolve. Vaccines are available, but it will be a decade before most people get it. In the meanwhile new variants of the virus are appearing, cases of reinfection are being discovered. Perhaps the disease will be a thing of the past in another three to five years. Or perhaps we will learn to live with a deadly disease, as earlier generations had learnt to live with small pox. New ways of working, new politics, new power groups have already begun to emerge, and they will be part of the new normal. (New phrase: new normal)

For all of us this has been a journey into ourselves, finding what we are capable of, learning new skills. Like most people, we spent more time cooking than before. I tried to learn how to identify the birds around me by their calls. I kept a record of the days through my photos (the ones above are my photographic journey through the year) and through occasional blog posts.

Bad days

To the right of the building that you see in the featured photo, above the trees, is my view of the sea. I can often see ships on the horizon, waiting to dock in the Mumbai harbour. Not now. For the last two weeks, I have not seen the horizon because of the pollution. It is specially galling, because we’ve had wonderfully clear air for almost a year, since late March 2020. I took winter pollution in my stride before, hiding behind masks and switching on air purifiers, but this year I reminded myself of the reasons behind this.

Normal sea breeze
Inversion layer

The reason for the annual winter pollution is the formation of an inversion layer in the atmosphere. When the sea is colder than the land, the hot air over the city rises, and cold air from the sea blows in. This happens daily, through the year. In winter, the sea air is colder, and the sun is not high enough in the sky to warm this layer fast enough that the breeze sustains itself through the day. As a result, a cold layer stays put over the city, as human activity pumps more pollutants into it. Since cold air is denser, the layering is stable, and the static dense layer just gets more and more dirty. On a relatively warmer day this layer can get heated enough to rise, and one can suddenly see the air clear up. But then as the air cools again, it gets murky as the temperature inversion sets in. By comparing the maximum and minimum sea water temperature with atmospheric temperature, it seems to me that, as usual, we are in for bouts of bad air right until March.

What bothers me is the source of the pollution. Since businesses are still running in shifts, and people are largely home, the traffic is not as bad as it used to be. Sure, the rush hour has its share of snarls, but travel times are still only half of what they were last January. On the other hand, all the construction and repairs that were postponed by nine or ten months has suddenly started again. I can see roads dug up everywhere, many earth movers at work, and concrete being poured. I guess dust from construction, rather than traffic and industry, is the main component of the bad air now. This is actually worse than normal, and very bad news for respiratory health.

In other years I find that visits to Delhi or Kolkata in this season are likely to give me a bad throat. The reason is that the air pollution in both these cities comes from burning organic matter, which may cause fungal spores and bacteria to become airborne. These are directly responsible for throat infections. Winter pollution in Mumbai usually causes respiratory problems in more indirect ways. However, if dust is now a major component of air pollution in Mumbai, then the bacteria carried in soil have just added to the list of throat infections we can now get. Add this to our worries about COVID-19 and the possible cross over of the bird flu now killing poultry and crows through the country. Consider also that an inversion layer prevents the rapid dilution of pathogens that infected people breathe into the atmosphere. All told, the next couple of months could be bad.

Flying in the pandemic

We heard a lot of different things about flying since May 25, when airports reopened across the country. The early flights were crowded and had unreliable schedules. It was not yet clear how safe airports and aircrafts would be. There was a lot of drama about cleaning surfaces, but not enough was being written about cleaning the air. By October the outlines of the problem and its solution were clear enough that there were media stories about it. The two points about safety I got were this. First, planes usually have very good airflow and filtration systems, and the air is scrubbed clean much faster than in the building where I work. As a result, the main risk is from people around you transmitting viruses in the usual way: breathing, talking, and coughing. The second point is that we already know how to deal with this: masks and shield, and distancing, when possible. I realized that I had lost my fear of flying in the time of the pandemic.

This tree near the check-in counters makes the empty airport look welcoming

We put this to practice a couple of weeks back, when I realized that The Family and I have never had a holiday in Kolkata. There would be no year better than 2020 to see Christmas lights in this city, since most people are still avoiding going out. We knew that we are taking risks, and it would be safer to stay home, as others are doing. But perhaps with good masks, worn as well and as safely as we know how to, and other safetly precautions, we can still travel now and then. As it turned out, Mumbai airport (photos here) was not crowded. It was possible to deposit baggage, check in, pass through security, and wait in the passenger areas while maintaining distance most of the time. The aircrafts we traveled by were far from full. The airlines are not taking care to maintain distance between occupied seats, but when the load is so little, it is possible to move to seats as far from others as you can. Airlines hand out mask, shield, and sanitizer when you board, and we used them all. Arrivals is a little more chaotic, with knots of people around baggage collection areas, and the exits. Nevertheless, we felt very safe because all the passengers behaved sensibly; the pandemic has encouraged civility. I am happy we tried this out, I think flying is a risk we may be able to take now and then as we wait for a vaccine.

Easing back into a changed world

Chef Floyd Cardoz was the first person in my world who died after a COVID-19 infection. We’d been to his restaurant in Mumbai the day before it closed to the pandemic. We stilled the small panic in our hearts and visited it again the day after it opened. There are major changes now. Chef Thomas Zacharias, who had introduced me to the farm-to-table philosophy, and taken the time to demonstrate ways of retaining fresh flavours in food, has decided to move away. Chef Hussain Shahazad is now designing the menu. I was not very comfortable in a closed dining space, even though the staff was masked and tables well separated. The pandemic has not finished with Mumbai; people we know are still falling ill, and eating in a restaurant is not the safest thing to do right now. But we were tired of eating at home. We’ve had fancy food delivered, but even that requires us to assemble each dish. And, no matter what, there is always cleaning up afterwards. So we gambled, as we do sometimes.

There were many changes to the menu, now much smaller. A wonderful invention is the dish called Paya with Momo. I had encountered tangbao, soup filled dumplings, decades ago in a long-vanished Chinese restaurant called Nanking in Colaba, and encountered them again in our travels in Shanghai and Nanjing. Chef Shahazad has reimagined them as momos filled with paya. A momo covering is thicker than the tangbao that I’ve had, and Chef Shahzad goes with the momo. The paya (soup of trotters) was wonderful, quite comparable to the local slow-cooked version that The Family and I enjoy so much. The topping, a tangy and spicy chutney, is a lovely complement.

Chef Heena Punwani has added a very small selection to the menu; that day we saw only two of her creations listed. We decided to try what she calls Strawberries and Cream. A simple description would be a chhana poda doughnut sliced through to hold a lime infused cream, roasted pistachios and slices of strawberries, topped with a strawberry sorbet. Chhana poda, or baked paneer, is heavy, frying it into a doughnut would make it heavier. The Family was a little reluctant, but went along because of the strawberries. The whole thing was surprisingly light and delightfully fresh. Well-roasted nuts are almost a signature with her, and the sorbet was wonderful. I’m looking forward to more from Chef Punwani.

I will miss Chef Cardoz and his singular focus on exploring and popularizing India’s culinary heritage. I look forward to seeing Chef Zacharias doing something new. But I’m glad that a place that we have haunted for years continues to reinvent and showcase the immense variety of Indian food.