There will be time

“What a lovely moon,” The Family said as I took the featured photo of clouds at sunset. Often we do not agree about the proper scale of things. I was looking at ephemeral sunlight on passing clouds, things which would fade in two minutes. She was looking at things which change slowly, and would take two weeks to come to fruition. I scanned the sky. Moon? I looked at her, followed the direction of her gaze, and asked “What? Where?” “Right there, where I’m pointing.” I looked along her arm and shook my head “No.” She took my head in her hands, turned it, port to starboard, then a little adjustment horizon to zenith. “There. You see it now?” “Mmm. Oh yes. Nice.”

I fixed that bearing in my mind and zoomed a little to see that wonderful sliver of the new moon. Such a constant in our lives: the periodic unchanging appearance of the new moon. But actually, the earth, the moon, and the sun dance a slow dance, mediated by tides and gravity. If we had enough time, say about 50 billion years, the earth and moon would be tidally locked: the day would be about 1130 hours long, and the moon would stand still above a single place on earth. Unfortunately this will never happen, because in a mere 5 billion years the sun will eat the earth. Tidal friction is that small! The length of the day has increased by about 1/4 of a minute in the last 100,000 years. That is the time from which we have the oldest human architectural remains.

I zoomed a little more. The constancy of astronomy has been the way wandering armies and ships have told direction and time from as long as our records tell us. When you continue the imaginary line between the poles of the earth, it points towards Polaris, the pole star, today. But this direction moves in a little circle every 26000 years or so. As a result, the direction towards the rising sun on the day of the equinox changes with the same period. The Babylonians had found that this direction points towards the constellation of Aries. By the late years of republican Rome, the direction had moved to the constellation of Pisces. This was a shock to the Romans, and gave an impetus to the spread of the imported Indo-Persian religious cult of Mithra (मित्र, Mitra, the Vedic god of sunrise). All the trappings of conspiracy theories of today (secrets which can be discovered merely by looking, cabals and secret handshakes, governments keen to hide facts) come from that history, a sign of the trauma caused by the knowledge that the skies are changing. This fact is forgotten again and again. Shakespeare had Julius Caesar declare “I am as constant as the Northern Star.” Ironical, since this particular lack of constancy was creating an immense ferment in his armies. Even otherwise, this is an anachronism, since there was no pole star in Caesar’s day. By Shakespeare’s time, when the earth’s axis had moved to Polaris, the equinox had moved further towards Aquarius, and the pole towards Polaris. Not so constant, after all, and much faster than tidal locking. Two million times faster!

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T. S. Eliot

I put the dust cap back on my camera and we resumed walking. The deeply peaceful surroundings, and the view of the Panchgani plateau on one side, can make your mind wander. But my time was here and now, and The Family said we should walk back to the hotel before dark, “Time for tea,” she said. Our meals are as constant as the moon and the tides; we seem to change daily, but we are more constant than the Northern Star, in our own ephemeral way.

Winter solstice 2020: the great conjunction

Every twenty years or so, we can see Jupiter and Saturn come very close in the sky. This is called the great conjunction. I’d been looking at the two planets in the sky since the last full moon, watching them draw closer and closer. Today they looked like a single bright star to my naked eye. I could separate them by using my camera to zoom in. That’s the featured photo, displayed one pixel for every two on my sensor. The disks of the planets are clearly visible. The brighter planet, Jupiter, shows as a disc. The fainter planet, Saturn, looks slightly elongated; that is the best I can do about capturing the rings of Saturn with this camera. I may have done better if I’d bothered to set up a mount, or gone down to the lawn where the common sense of distancing was forgotten in the excitement of viewing the planets through a good telescope.

Why is one planet more dim? Because Jupiter is both larger and closer to us, it seems to be brighter. The different colours have an interesting explanation. Both are gas giants, with atmospheres of Hydrogen and Helium. But the colours come from the small amounts of other gases they have. Jupiter’s atomosphere has a little water and ammonia, and it is the latter which gives the yellow tinge. Saturn’s has in addition phosphene and hydrocarbons, which give it a much redder colour.

A great conjunction happens roughly every twenty years (the fact that it happened on the night of the solstice was a lovely extra), but it is not always visible at night. In the previous millennium it would have been clearly visible only thrice: in 1226 CE, during the lifetime of Genghiz Khan, then again in 1563, in the early days of the Mughal emperor Akbar in north India, and the last days of the Vijayanagar kingdom in the south. The last time it was visible was in 1623 CE, in the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir in India. It will be visible next in 2080 CE. Everyone alive today is lucky to have lived through such a rarely visible event, but today’s generation of young adults and children are specially lucky; most of them will see this spectacle twice in their lifetimes.

History is a door

It will be a while before I board an international flight again, but it doesn’t look impossible any longer. I’d got into what I call ambush photography in extremely crowded tourist spots where everyone is busy converting history into a backdrop to their glamourised online lives. This lovely moon door in Nanjing’s Ming era Zhan Garden was impossible to photograph without including other tourists. Ambush photography is when you deliberately use others being photographed in your photo. Using a zoom lens from far to take photos of people photographing each other can be ambush photography, but it borders on voyeurism. Instead, I set a rule for myself: the best ambush photos are when the subject(s) of the other photographer’s photo clearly realize that a stranger is also taking their photo at the same time, or the subject of your photo is the photographer, not the people s/he is photographing. That said, the real subject of my ambush photos is usually the setting, when I cannot subtract the people from it. So that’s what I have done with this beautiful door in a pavilion overlooking a pool with weeping willows drooping over it. It is my memory of how this aristocratic garden, once closed to common people, has been repurposed in a republic.

Moments, Monday

Tucked into an album that my mother filled with my photos over years, I found an envelope. It contained a few photos. One was of her from a time just before I was born. I have to guess, but she looks younger than I remember her, and I can recall the brown and beige checked woolen coat, with a deep green silk lining. How you find a thing is as important as what you find. “… that particular [medieval] manuscript has five copies, and one is in the Rampur library, two copies are in the British library, and two copies are in the Berlin library. The scholars get grants and go to Rampur and London and Berlin, read these manuscripts and they write the book. What I mean by post-colonised is that the condition of postcoloniality is in the dispersal of this manuscript. When we visit these archives, we cannot write that out of the story” explains the historian Manan Asif Ahmed in a recent interview. Our telling of the past is mediated by all the things that happened since then.

An album starts with a cover. As a child I’d admired the matte gleam of the silver ash pattern of this cover as it stood in a little shelf built in below the bedside table next to my mother’s bed. Now it is a battered looking thing, which will be trash in thirty years. The album preserves an ancient technology, black and white photographs. In high school I learnt to make a small dark room and develop and print my own photos. The technique remained useful even when I was in college, exposing and developing X-ray diffraction patterns from crystals in a lab, learning the techniques that had been used nearly thirty years before to unravel the structure of DNA. As I developed those X-ray plates, the first charge coupled devices had been built. CCD cameras were soon to become common on space probes. The photo album had outlived its time, and I was still preparing to start my life.

“Societies, not states, are the social atoms with which students of history have to deal,” this sentence from Toynbee’s first volume of A Study of History could apply to my family. In this album I find people whose history transcends that of my young country. My grandmother was born in what today is Odisha, in a house a few doors down from where Subhash Chandra Bose lived as a child. Her elder brother kept up the correspondence with his childhood friend until the war. As a child I listened to her stories of her brother trying to hide the letters, and their father discovering the cache and burning it. The British Intelligence of the day was raiding houses of Bose’s known friends, and would have considered those letters evidence of treasonous terrorism. How times change! My grandfather lived through a momentous time. As an employee of the colonial Indian government, he had a choice of citizenship. He brought his family to India, leaving his land and ancestral home in what is today Bangladesh. My grandmother’s brother in law was in Rangoon as the Japanese invaded. He walked to India through the forests of erstwhile Burma and Nagaland. I couldn’t believe that an old man dozing in an armchair had had such adventures. This old man told me of his meetings with Justice Radhagobinda Pal, who, through the Tokyo Trials after the war played a role in shaping modern international law.

I played cricket, dreamed of being a Gary Sobers, learnt to bicycle, went to school. This photo of me (center) and my cousins probably comes from a time between Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. I became a long haired teenager, wearing bell bottoms, watching Amitabh Bachchan become a bigger star through movie after movie. I listened to The Beatles, King Crimson, Dire Straits, and (of course) Kishore Kumar. I left home. There are no photos in the album of the times that I remember. After we were married, my mother showed this album to The Family. She found that the photos were beginning to fall out. The old black photo corners were coming unstuck. In the 90s black corners were no longer available, people had moved to albums with plastic pockets to hold prints. The gold corners were all she could get to help my mother repair the damage. The daughter of the young girl in the photo who can’t quite stay away from her mother became a one girl fan club for The Family at the same age.

One of the few photos from my angsty teenage years is this one of me with my brother. I looked at it after a long time, and realized that his eyes have been passed on to my niece. The same quizzical look! “When a word is properly defined it loses its capital letter and can no longer serve either as a banner or as a hostile slogan; it becomes simply a sign, helping us to grasp some concrete reality,” wrote Simone Weil. Sibling is such a word; it takes a lifetime to move beyond expectations to a place where we can create our own definition of the word. Then there are the fictions inside all our photos, of which the biggest is that a photo is a slice of life. The photographer is always unseen, but always present through his or her arrangement and framing of the subject. I cannot remember who took any of these photos, why we were asked to stand or sit in a particular way, and why we agreed. My mother created another fiction by choosing and preserving some moments, not others. History is just such a record of the past. So much is lost, the documents that we have were written by people with agendas. That immense hole which has to be mended and reconstructed is where contexts and interpretations slip in.

Arthur lake

For many year The Family had talked of Bhandardara lake. I’d pictured it as a smallish body of water, in the middle of meadows. In my mind I’d seen it as a place full of water birds in winter. Then I looked at the map and saw it was called Arthur Lake. That shattered these dreams. If it had such an English name, it must be the lake behind a colonial era dam, and like all lakes formed by dams, the ecology around it would not yet have adapted to the water. So it is. I found that the Wilson Dam was built across the Pravara river in 1910, less than hundred years after the British gained control of these hills by defeating the Marathas in the Battle of Khadki, and more than a hundred years from today.

The lake is immense, it can hold a little over 310 million cubic meters of water (11 TMC in the quaint old-fashioned units that hydraulic engineers still use). To see the entire lake you have to climb pretty high up on the surrounding hills, because the reservoir is a horseshoe shape which winds around a ridge that contains Bhandardara. During the day while I was at work, The Family had tried to walk down to the lake from the cottage, but had found the road closed. When we drove out later in the day, we found that epidemic-related restrictions forced us to travel completely outside the town, and up to the sluice gates in order to reach the lake. It was an empty spot, except for a shack selling tea, and a few locals who had set up about five boats for tourists. It was just too peaceful a scene to spoil with the putt-putting and exhaust of an outboard motor, so we declined a ride.

The monsoon had been good and the dam was full to the brim. The spillage beyond the barrier had created little still pools full of life. These water weeds and aquatic grasses were just a little bit of the scene that I had first imagined when I heard about this place from The Family. I stopped to take a photo.

The flowers were wonderful. I’m not very good at identifying wildflowers, and there are so many in these hills. I resolved to do better in future. We drove back to our cottage past the dam and its single hydroelectric turbine. This must be one of the oldest dams in this part of the world. I’ll have to do some reading about this in future.

Kapadvanj

As we begin to plan our winter travel in the middle of a patchwork of restrictions and uncertainty, I came to photos of a Winter Solstice trip to a little known attraction in Gujarat. The small town of Kapadvanj, 65 Kms due east of Ahmedabad, was once an important link in the textile trade out of Cambay port, and specialized in mirror-work embroidered cloth. During its period of prosperity, the Dawoodi Bohra community built wonderful wooden buildings. Although most of them were converted to hybrid material over the centuries, a few still stand. We spent two days in this place, entranced by the exuberance of the local architecture.

Kapadvanj is a town of verticals; small plots were built over as prosperity increased, and the only way to go was up. Most buildings are now three or four floors high. The exteriors are idiosyncratic mixtures of styles: beautiful traditional woodwork coexists with intricately carved pseudo-Corinthian capitals. Inside, the layout is a vertical development of the traditional internal courtyard surrounded by corridors leading to rooms. The courtyard becomes a tall atrium, lined with galleries connecting rooms across the opening. Steep wooden stairs connect floors. Most families left for Mumbai in the 19th century CE, and maintain their holdings sporadically. I saw beautifully painted facades, cheek by jowl with others which have fallen into near ruin (the earthquake of 2001 did its bit for entropy). Sometime, I should go back to look at the place more closely.

Cabbages and kings

In the evening we walked around the Gateway of India. When I walk here, I sometimes think of the enormous expense of that last hurrah of the British empire, the Delhi Durbar of 1911, in which George V and his consort Mary proclaimed their claim as the emperor of India. The ceremony was held in Delhi, but the king visited Mumbai. The whole seafront was realigned, and the gateway was built to commemorate that visit. Less than half a century later, the last British troops in India left for a voyage home from this point. I got a nice light on the harbour, along with the shadow of the Taj Mahal hotel on the gateway. The rise of Indian traders was the shadow that grew to engulf and expel the empire. Mumbai was the epicenter of that struggle. a fact that is written in its geography, if only one looks. I’m glad I caught those two pigeons right above the gate.

“That’s not what you think about all day,” I’m sure The Family will remind me. No, of course, not. I also take the time to look at tiny moths which I can’t identify. Like this beauty, a little over a centimeter long, hanging from the ceiling. The end of the abdomen seems to end in coremata, a organ involved in excreting male pheromones. They are common across many lepidoptera species, and not of much help in identification. The shape of the snout and the way it holds its antennae back along its abdomen could mean that it belongs to the family Crambidae. Whatever it is, it does look good.

How is your life under lockdown?

As I read an article with the same title as this post, I realized that the premise was quite right. The four authors had looked at tweets from Melbourne to see how the quality of your life under lockdown depends on the neighbourhood that you live in. Do you reveal your moods on social media? I haven’t been reading tweets, but the blogs I read do reveal the ups and downs of our moods during lockdown.

Now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are able to leave home, it seems to be a good time to take stock of the last seven months. You will remember that there was a lot of despair at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was small, but growing rapidly. That didn’t last too long. Very soon I could see people reacting quite individually.

It was interesting how people reacted to the claustrophobia of strict lockdowns. The Family was never terribly interested in cooking, but, like a lot of people around the world, she dived into it. And found that she was good at it. Like many of you, we rediscovered our families, and had frequent chats on phone and video calls with far-flung family members.

“What kept us sane?” I asked The Family. She thought for a while. “The trees and gardens around us”, she eventually said. That’s what I was thinking. Waking in the mornings to bird calls, looking out at a sea of green (we live just above the canopy of the trees which surround us), the open views of the sky and the sea. “If it was not for that,” she said, “I think we might have been bickering all the time.” Niece Moja told us several times about how widespread domestic violence had become during this time. She said that the fraction of her clients that suffered from this had increased sharply. I could agree with The Family; we were lucky with our surroundings. But we also talked through a division of work in the house right at the beginning, and decided to keep fixed hours. I think that also worked for us. We could arrange our day to suit us.

The article that I had read also talked about the availability of amenities. We were lucky with that too. A bhajiwala and a store inside our complex kept open all through the two months of strict lockdowns. There may not have been a lot to eat, or greatly fresh vegetables, but we didn’t run out of food. Our help, who were locked up in their houses were unable to locate stores with sufficient food. Our security staff helped us to talk to the police and arrange for us to give them basic supplies once a month. This kind of relatively easy connection to the police and municipal services also helped us to stay sane.

Is this the first time in history that the middle class across the world has had almost exactly the same experience, and known that for a fact? All of us lived, and are still living, through a bad epidemic, closed in at home, totally dependent on small supplies, reading and watching the same news, the same entertainment, sharing our experiences through this new medium, which has suddenly become so central to our lives that we are more conscious of how it exploits us. What a difference between the global middle class and the poor. We know now that around 400 million people in India walked away from cities to their villages, crossing the subcontinent on foot. This distress is perhaps less visible in other countries, but it must be there. And that is another difference: I can read about your feelings and experiences and see how closely they mirrored mine, but I have little idea about the inner world of the poorer people around me.

These gardens were my hideaway for two months, while the human world went to seed. Now, as the garden goes to seed, the world around me does not exactly show signs of recovery. What was the most interesting thing that happened to me in the Anthropause? The sudden end to human noise in the sea brought a pod of curious dolphins to Backbay. They came, they looked, they played, for the first time in recorded history. Curiosity satisfied, they went back to the deeper waters in the Arabian Sea where they are normally found. That was a reminder that there are other intelligences in the world.

Ghost city

At 6 in the evening, the center of Mumbai was like a ghost of itself. In the blue hour, I caught Flora fountain looking like a funeral, a few mourners standing and gawking. Niece Moja has taken the day off from counseling and spent the day with us. After her partner finished an interview (you can carry your work with you when it moves online) we drove out for a coffee and this funeral. The fountain was built in the 1860s, when the British built Fort George was finally demolished, at its former Church Gate. The antennas belong to the Central Telegraph Office. Ugly constructions like that belong to the 1960s.

Another change is coming now. The new Mumbai metro will have a station at the fountain. Metro stations everywhere have the same construction: either a single cylinder with platforms on two sides, or two cylinders passing a central platform. When that hole in the ground is filled up, this station will have a central platform, and a first underground level for customer services. The city is slowly changing. Niece Moja is one of the small fraction of millennial Mumbaikars who actually knows south Mumbai; she spent her college years haunting cafes and restaurants here.

But even she was surprised that a desirable property just next to the fountain had been entirely taken over by Zara. The blaze of lights from its open doors showed us a cyclist and a person parking a scooter. I don’t think the shop’s had a customer in a while. Mumbai has split so visibly into the two cities that it always was: the service providers who must brave the horrible lengthened commute every day to open shops which the service takers are too afraid to go into. The corona virus will become endemic, we have to learn to live with it. Care, not fear, is the future.

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?