The resistible rise of the office building

Who invented the office building? Frank Lloyd Wright was the first answer that Google mama gave me. I know better than to take the word of this mamu too seriously. A little probing, and then it seemed to be a toss up between East India House and The Admiralty, both built in London in 1726 CE. I wasn’t going to settle for that either, because I know that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was built to be Uffizi, offices, in the 1560s, and became a museum only in the 18th century.

By the 16th century the Mughals were busy laying down an administrative structure for all of India. Their record keeping is remarkable, and the book of their administrative rules, the Akbar Nama, is the best source of ancient recipes that I know of. We only see their tombs and palaces now, but the innumerable rooms in their palaces would have housed offices. That tweaked something in my memory, and I went back to remind myself of the administrative structure of the Mauryan empire. My memory was right; in the years immediately following Alexander’s retreat from India, the Mauryas developed a complex administrative structure with extensive record keeping. Unfortunately the only structures which survive the couple of thousand years since their times are memorials. But these are unlikely to be isolated examples. Surely, every successful empire must have developed a bureaucracy, and offices, and office buildings.

So what’s the fuss about the demise of offices? Ah ha. That’s another matter. That has to do with large businesses modeling themselves after imperial bureaucracies. That fancy could be European, and, at first thought, may even be laid at the less-than-clean hands of the British East India Company. Although I believe that if you look a little more carefully, you will find that Venice did it a century or two earlier. So, if you follow that thought, then the office building started with the rise of capitalism, is its most visible symbol, and, if it disappears, would probably signal the end of this form of social organization. So I would bet that it is not going away soon. All this about co-working spaces, and working out of a Starbucks, is just a niche, like money changers working out of temples. Any takers?

Singing at the Qutb Shahi Tombs

The fabled Golconda Sultanate lasted from the early 16th to the late 17th century, and was ruled by the Qutb Shah dynasty. During these two centuries an amazing regional culture developed. Now that I rediscovered my photos of this trip, I will probably write another post about it. The beautiful tombs of the Qutb Shahs, their architecture a sophisticated merger of Indian and Persian styles, have fallen into disrepair. But in one of them we found a caretaker who demonstrated to us the beautiful acoustics of the structures.

I had a strong memory of taking this video, and thought I’d lost it. I’m happy that I found it again. The caretaker did not want a tip; he just wanted to pass on a beautiful discovery. I am happy to be able to help.

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.

Some more quick lunches

The Family has reached another of those troughs that living in lockdown presents. Fortunately, this time we are not experiencing it together. So I tried my best to help out in the kitchen. Since I no longer have the patience to read a recipe and follow it properly, I have to improvise. Fortunately, the pasta was easy. We had a jar of tomato sauce in our makeshift larder. When I opened it, the smell of herbs which floated out told me that it was better than my expectations. That made a twenty minute recipe. It takes ten minutes to boil enough water for the pasta. I chopped up some salami into little bits, and dunked it into the sauce. The Family made a fresh garden salad with a mint and lime dressing. She has started to char the capsicum before adding it to the salad. It brings out the flavour better. After the water boiled I added the fusilli. It takes about four minutes to make it to our taste. The rest is straightforward: drain, add the sauce and serve hot.

The water from boiling the pasta is something we could have reserved for a soup. Since it already has some dissolved wheat solids, it adds body. I must remember to save it the next time around.

The other part of a quick lunch is the fish. We had an absolutely fresh pomfret: firm to the touch, clear eyes, and (lucky us) full of roe. Apollo Bunder and Old Woman’s Island (separate until the early 19th century, when Colaba causeway was built to join then) were supposed to yield the best catch in the 18th century. Both names were anglicized; Apollo Bunder was a distortion of Palva bunder (Palva is the Koli word for the Bengali favourite Ilish) and Old Woman’s Island was a mishearing of Al Omani, after the deep sea Arab boats which docked there to take on fish. Unfortunately, today’s fishermen have to go much further to bring back our catch.

Such a fresh fish required very little preparation. I rubbed it with haldi and rock salt and left it for abput fifteen minutes. Then I heated a tiny bit of oil in a pan, just enough that the fish does not stick, and heated the fish for three minutes on one side, two on the other. The sweet pomfret requires nothing more. The roe was also perfectly done.

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.

Around the world in 30 days (2)

After that first day walking around Tokyo, I had a week of work before some more tourism. This work week introduced me to the pleasures of bento (this was 1990, and the box had not yet spread through the US), vending machines which gave out cans of hot tea (in four flavours: matcha, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Assam), and karaoke, which had then just taken over Japan. Finally, on the weekend, I joined a busload of my colleagues for a trip to Nara.

We rolled through crowded highways towards the town of Nikko. What I knew about it was that it had the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the person who unified Japan after decisive battles starting in 1600 CE. There was more to Nikko than this, as I discovered when we stopped at the 97 meters high Kegon waterfall. Autumn had coloured the forest in lurid colours. One of my colleagues told us the story of a young man who committed suicide here in the early years of the 20th century after carving a poem into a tree trunk. He was able to show me an English translation of the poem later. I thought it read like something that Camus could have written.

We got back into the bus and drove on to Lake Chuzenji. The traffic was bad. Alain, sitting next to me, said “This road trip is a nightmare.” We spent the rest of the halting progress talking about the grammatical gender of dreams and nightmares in French. Chuzenjiko was beautiful in this season, when the surrounding forests had turned into a lovely gold. But we had lost too much time in the bad traffic, and we had to move on to the main sight.

I’d already seen a shrine to the Meiji emperor, so I had a picture in mind of a Shinto shrine. But the Toshogu shrine was much more than that. The huge complex has beautiful wood carvings, and a lot of gold. That, and the location made it stunning. I spent a long time wandering through the warehouse area and came to a carving of the three monkeys, a theme which I’d thought of till then as Indian. The Kathasaritsagar was collected in the 11th century, but the stories may have been in circulation for centuries before that. Perhaps some were taken to China by Xuanzang four centuries earlier, and eventually entered Japan.

This was my first inkling of the long hidden connections between many different Asian cultures. Stories of elephants had clearly been carried from India with Buddhism. I saw these wonderful carvings of what must have been imaginary beasts to the Japanese woodworkers who made them. It reminded me of the strange lion carvings which I saw in various parts of India where no lion had been seen in historic times.

The main part of the shrine begins with the Yomeimon, one of the most decorative gates I’ve ever seen. Today I would have taken many more photos of the gate. But I see only this one photo in my album. I remember that this was taken with a roll of 100 ASA Fujicolor which I’d inserted into the camera the previous night. The 24 shots had to last me the whole day, and there were so many details which caught my eye!

This carved wooden peacock on the Yomeimon was one such detail. I liked the beautiful colour of the wood quite as much as the intricate work. The gate was rebuilt in 1818 CE after a fire. There is a lot of such rebuilding in Japan, and there must be a well developed branch of restorative art. I wonder how much creativity each restoring artist is allowed. How much of this peacock is the work of the original woodcarver, and what has each restorer added?

My memory tells me that once I passed the gate I walked through a long avenue surrounded by tall trees with seasonally colourful leaves. But I only have a photo of this place: presumably where Ieyasu was interred. My intention to capture his shrine was waylaid by my impulse of capturing the colours of the leaves, the result is the photo you see above; my final photo from Nikko.

I was going to leave Japan after another day of work, so this also turned out to be my last photo from Japan on that trip.

Around the world in 30 days (1)

I dug up another old album and found that it had photos from a thirty year old trip I’d made around the world, traveling east from Geneva. Scanning old photos with a phone app is now easy. What is hard is to restore some of the faded colour from the prints. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I learnt, and remembered as I tried out my restoration experiments. Thirty years ago, the web was still an experimental curiosity. Much more information was available then on the French Minitel. I spent quite a while on it trying to find tickets as cheap as possible.

My first destination was Japan, and one of the new transpolar flights would have been reasonably priced even if I changed in Hamburg or Helsinki. But in those days I would then have had to spend time on getting another visa. Instead I took an airline which gave me a stop in Mumbai. There was a little hiccup in computing whether I would lose a day or gain one when I crossed the date line going east; this was crucial for a quick change of planes in LA. I took no photos of the thick sheaf of tickets which I eventually purchased, and had to carry with me for a month. This was my first trip to Japan, and I was amazed by how the crowds of Mumbai and the efficiency of Switzerland fused in the working of the train which took me from Narita to Tokyo.

I spent that first day walking through a bit of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace (Kokyo) was very close to the station. This was first built in the late 19th century after the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji emperor became the head of an outward looking country. Part of this complex was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt immediately after. I gaped at the moats and remnants of fortifications (the much older gate Shimizumon above, and a defensive tower near the moat before that), before walking in to the public park called Kitanomaru (featured photo).

From there it was easy to find the shrine of the Meiji emperor (the Meiji Jingu shrine). After walking to Roppongi and spending a bit of relaxed time around the Tokyo Tower in the evening, I had just enough energy left to recover my bags from the station and get to a hotel for the night. In the early 90s Japan was slightly different in feel. Everyone had black hair, signage in English was not common, and only a trickle of tourists could be seen. But the Japanese were as open to foreign influences as they are now. I watched a Japanese street artist do a Flamenco dance on an upper stage of the Tower. For all their delight in the imperfections of life, wabi sabi (侘寂) as an artistic style, I noticed that a Japanese performer is always concerned with perfection.

I had covered about a fourth of the distance around the globe, and by the stamps in my old passport, this was the 5th day of the trip.

A forgotten story of Poland in India

While watching Crab Plovers and Great Knots in tidal flats outside Jamnagar, I noticed this cluster of buildings across the water, which make up a school. It turns out to have a forgotten history. Polish children interned in USSR during World War II were allowed to leave in 1942, provided some country took them in. The Jamsaheb Digvijay Singhji of Jamnagar opened up his seaside resort as a refuge for the children. That is the red-tiled building that you see in the featured photo. That’s the bare bone of the story. The children stayed here till 1946. During this time many were reunited with their families. Of those who had lost their families, several chose to remain in India.

Scanning old newspapers I pieced together the story of a British refusal to let the refugee ship dock in India (paralleling the Canadian response to refugees on Komagata Maru). On the intervention of the Jamsaheb, the ship finally docked in Rosi, a port which belonged to the kingdom of Jamnagar. The cultural sensitivity of the times has also been recorded: schooling in Polish, providing Polish food, and the freedom to raise the flag of Poland. Jamnagar was the first kingdom to accept Polish refugees, and others across the world followed. It is interesting to read about this at a time when there is a spreading belief that the post-war international order, including the rights of refuge, were put in place by the wartime Allies, largely the old imperial powers. This is false. Parts of the new world order are informed by values which belong to the wider and more diverse world which was emerging at that time.

Decline and fall

In the last three months I’ve spent hours daydreaming as I shell peas. The pods are fruit, and the peas are seeds. “Is it only in legumes that we throw away the fruit and eat only the seed?” I asked The Family in March. I got a severely blank look in answer. Pinterest threw up a slew of recipes for using the heaps of succulent pods, but warned that the garden pea pods that I had in front of me were not very good to eat. In April the pods looked withered and dry. Now in the middle of June the pods are definitely sick, and sometimes the peas too. “Is the world breaking down? Has agriculture collapsed?” I asked The Family. She looked at me and said “Peas are grown only in winter.” I persisted, “Why are they moldy? The world outside must be decaying into chaos.” Practical as ever, she said “Our bhajiwala is turning a profit, selling us the worst preserved peas at inflated prices. I’m sure Colaba market has better peas.”

I pushed away the dry, desiccated, sickly heap of pods in front of me to make space for my laptop. Escape into history is easy at such times. Peas (Pisum sativum) still grow wild around the Fertile Crescent where the first domesticated varieties have been found in archaeological digs dated to 11,500 years ago. In eight thousand years peas spread across Asia and the edge of the Mediterranean. I wonder about those distant human ancestors of ours. Did they know what they were doing? Did they reason like us, observe and think, talk to others, share their findings? We still live in the shadows of their revolution, domestication of plants, agriculture, whatever you call it. A room or two in our modern houses are given over to the lifestyles they developed: storage of agricultural produce, bowls and cups and plates, the hearth for cooking. How different were they?

Litchi time

This week The Family found litchis at our bhajiwala. When I was a child, litchis (Litchi chinensis) would herald the beginning of a wonderful period of the year. Two weeks of litchis, a couple of months of mangoes, and then the monsoon: that is the rhythm of summer in the sub-Himalayan plains of India. I didn’t realize then that this seemingly unchanging marker of time was historically recent.

The litchis that we eat originally come from southern China, the region of Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan, and north Vietnam. They still grow wild in virgin forests in this region. They were taken to northern China as early as the first century BCE. Litchis were first cultivated in Myanmar only as late as the 18th century CE, and were brought to India a few decades later, at the very beginning of the 19th century. Even now, most of the acreage given over to litchi in India is in UP, Bihar, Assam, and Tripura.

There were two varieties that I specially remember from long ago: the rose scented Shahi of the first week, and the Purbi from the second week. I suppose the Shahi variety was named after the nawabs of Awadh, since litchis arrived in India after the decline of the Mighals. The few that finally arrived on our table this week were the sweet but thick-skinned Purbi.