Dreamland

Pandemic changes are still rearranging my life. The Family asked “Why do you need so many small holidays?” Every few months a hale and hearty colleague or friend dies suddenly. Most are male, between the ages of 50 and 70. They include diverse people like Himalayan trekkers and yoga enthusiasts. What they share is the manner of their sudden death, a matter of seconds when their heart stops beating in the middle of a mundane day. One sitting at a beach with his family, one in the middle of a presentation, one at dinner with wife and two young daughters. Such incidents, all in the last two years, can change your perspective on what is important. Watching the sunlight filter through sal and pine into a grassland, in the coolness of autumn, two kilometers above sea level, seems as important as the work that I continue to love. In my travels now I meet a lot of people, often in their 30s and 40s, who have become more nomadic than me. I don’t doubt that people with other interests are also following them more passionately now. Pandemic and death, perhaps even the expectation of an imminent climate disaster, have changed our lives more deeply than we see yet.

Near these foothills the landscape changes within an hour’s drive. In the plains below I stood near a village where some partition refugees from Punjab settled a lifetime ago. Their children and grandchildren now till the land. Tractors and harvesters have set the bullocks and horses free, but they are still loved and tended. Another dream, of escaping the madness of the partition, of settling into a quiet slow life, of being untouched by history, is coming true.

Across the bund on which the horse stood was a huge reservoir created by the Haripura dam. We stood on the bund looking at water birds through our binoculars. This is the season when the winter visitors begin to arrive. We were not surprised by the water birds and small warblers which have come down from Tibet and central Asia. But I was happily surprised when a resident pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) dived into the water and came up with a catch.

Halcyon smyrnensis, white-breasted kingfishers, can be found everywhere in this landscape. They don’t require water, being able to catch lizards and frogs from the ripe rice fields they are poised over. The farmers watched us curiously: Who are these people with binoculars and cameras? I explained to one that we were watching birds. The young Sikh farmer took a look, then told me how one of the birds which used to nest under roofs here is disappearing. Everywhere you go, there are stories of slow extinctions. He invited us for a cup of tea. Very reluctantly, we refused. We had to be in the hills in a short time. He understood.

The berms are overgrown with Lantana. But among them are other plants which can beat them at the wild game of growth. There are vines of morning glory, pumpkin vines topping out the Lantana to spread their edible yellow flowers to the light. And there are these small white flowers with their incredible petals, like the wild dream of a botanist who tastes every leaf she sees. But for all its wild fantasy look, it is a real flower. I’ve seen it before, but haven’t identified it. Can anyone help? (It turns out to be parval, परवल, Trichosanthes dioicha. Now I’ll remember this flower every time I eat parval. Thanks for pointing to Cucurbitaceaea, Profundareflexion.)

Another dream is slowly emerging into reality. For years I would see the work of those wonderful wildlife photographers who post fantastic photos of predators with prey. In my own small way, I’m getting a chance to do the same thing. I saw a blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) on a wire. If you stand and watch for a while you see it sallying to catch an insect on the wing. I was lucky to get a shot of it with a wasp in its mouth. I remembered Lotte Eisner’s voice narrating the Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation myth, in Werner Herzog’s movie called Fata Morgana. The paradise of the myth is a place where food flies into your mouth. That’s what the photo of the bee-eater with its prey looks like. So that’s my answer to The Family, it’s a way to change a nightmare into a halcyon dreamland.

Mumbai- an overview

Each and every time when the plane begins its descent into Mumbai I feel excited about it. Coming back to the city I live in is always exciting, whether I’m back from a weekend in the deep jungles of Central India, a holiday in a big city in some other part of the world, a relaxing time in the middle heights of the Himalayas watching the sun rise over the world’s highest peaks, or the fussiest week of work away from home. Not for me the ennui that comes from the realization that I can have only four hours of sleep before I have to get in for a meeting. On the first day back in Mumbai even that work seems exciting.

As the plane glides over the densely packed apartments in the suburbs, the vast stretches of high density housing clutching desperately to hillsides (only to slide off sometimes in the monsoon) I realize that I am in a minority here. For some the four hours of sleep are a part of their daily routine. But even so, there is something miraculous about an enormous mass of people so focused on work that everything goes like clockwork. You don’t find this in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru. So, as the plane slides over the blue tarp covered roofs on hillsides, the multi-storied acres of the suburbs, as a taxi speeds past the stalled development in mid-town, I love coming home.

But which part do I love? The calm oases of gardens, full of flowers and trees, birds and insects? Or dense crowds, sometimes a crush? Everything, I suppose. I started carrying a camera in my backpack years ago to capture every mood of the city. I’m glad that over the years that equipment has shrunk to a little phone in my pocket. Mumbai offers an unending cascade of images, if that’s what you are after.

Or, if you want, there are lovely restaurants and specialty food shops. Once upon a time, word of mouth was the uncertain means of getting to know them. Now, of course, the right new is just a thumb swipe away on your phone. There are foods, fusion of India and the world (Lebanese influenced on the left, Norwegian inspired on the right), which you cannot get elsewhere. I see a touch of this in Bengaluru too, a smidgen in Delhi, but the taste for the new is definitely more widespread in this city. It gives odd hybrids, but some really good stuff.

I know a few people who visit once a year, and love to walk the streets of Mumbai, looking for the odd and zany. One of them told me of a street vendor selling used dentures. I haven’t seen something that crazy. But the oddest of graffiti (why would you even bother to write down that particular stray thought?) or odd evidence of constant hustle (not exactly a Lincoln Lawyer, yet) can come your way even when you aren’t looking. That’s why a camera in your pocket is useful.

Hustle is the way of life in the city. The guy around the corner from your workplace, the chap who serves you the best vada-pav in town, or the bhel-puri guy setting up his stall there, they are all in the city seeking fortune. They are totally focused on it, like the cabbies who take the late night shift and have time to talk to you. They come here, thinking of making money and going back to their failing farms. But they stay. Their wives come to the city a few years later, they raise their children, who, sometimes, get the kind of job they want. But they never go back to the dust bowl they left behind. If you really look, under the blue tarp roofs you will find the Indian middle class. Everyone else in the city is the one percent, even if they spend two hours commuting to work, or think hard before buying their first phone in five years.

That’s Mumbai for you, the Mumbai of an old film song in the voice of Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt. That’s the Mumbai that doesn’t stop even when terrorists attack. Hustle drives Mumbai. Everyone came here to find fortune, the Portuguese, the British East India Company, the Scotsmen who followed, the Armenians, the Baghdadi Jews, the Parsis, the Chinese traders. And it will remain the happy hunting ground of fortune seekers until the sea reclaims the city that was raised on the sea bed. It’s this transient place that I love coming back to.

Irani cafés

Quintessential 20th century Bombay? I suppose it is a toss up between the red double-decker buses and the Irani cafés. Which is a good reason to try them in black and white. Generations of students in the late years of the century remember the aura of faded elegance: marble-topped tables, black laquered bent-wood chairs, mirrored walls and high ceilings. Earlier generations memoirized elegant afternoon meetings for tea and cake in these bright rooms. Very few have lasted into the 21st century. When I took my first digital camera into the streets of Mumbai, these were naturally the places I took it to.

Iranis were the second wave of Zoroastrian immigrants to India. They settled in the thriving cosmopolitan port cities of Mumbai and Karachi in the early 20th century. The Iranian ghavehkhane, after transplantation copied the Viennese style, and became Irani cafés. The Iranian chai shirin, sweetened strong tea, infused with cardamom or rose, gave rise to the Irani tea. Iran has a tradition of adding hot water to a strong brew according to taste. In old Irani cafés you could order a khara chai which was stronger, not having the splash of water usually added before serving. And finally, the Irani chai always came to you in a glass.

In my years as a student I would love the berry pulao served up at these places, always accompanied by a shockingly sweet pink raspberry drink made only by Duke. On days when you felt you couldn’t take it, you could replace the drink with the equally shocking Duke’s ginger. At other times there was the bun maska, a small currant bun with generous amounts of butter, or the brun maska, a fresh baked crusty bun with butter. There was the ever-dependable caramel custard, and a whole selection of cakes and biscuits, which you still get from a couple of the Iranis around Metro which are valiantly keeping the 21st century at bay. I must remember to keep them in business today.

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.

The elephant in the room

We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India

into a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic

and to secure to all its citizens

justice, social, economic, and political;

liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

equality of status and opportunity;

and to promote among them all fraternity

assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation

in our Constituent Assembly this 26th day of November 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution.

That is the preamble to our constitution. What else can I write about this 8 week long tragedy, in the middle of the lockdown, involving millions of starving fellow Indians who are walking a thousand kilometers across the country to their homes. We have seen this every day on TV. Click on the photos for news reports and analysis.

The rift where man was born

While planning a visit to the East African savanna, I thought I would read up on how old this landscape was. This led me down an exciting path of discovery through articles which connected geology, weather, and human evolution, and told me about how much more there is to see than just the Big Five. In the featured map you can see a long valley down the center of Ethiopia, ending somewhere a little south of Nairobi. Equally visible is a line of lakes along the border of Uganda and Tanzania. These are the eastern and western East African Rift Valleys.

45 million years ago, soon after India crashed into the still forming Eurasian continent, a massive plume of magma welled up from deep inside the earth near where Djibouti is today. This cracked the continential plate of Africa into three: the present day Arabian plate, and the still separating Somalian and Nubian plates. Signs of this immense geological change are visible in the creation of the Gulf of Aden, and the 30 million years old lava fields and highlands of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In geological time, this is not long before the split between monkeys and apes (hominoids). It is now believed that the geographical changes due to this initial rifting may have cause climate changes that favoured the rise of the hominoids.

The magma plume later created two bubbles below the African plate and pushed up the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia (clearly visible in the map). About 7-10 million years ago, the heated rocks of the African continental plate began separating out, with the Nubian plate pulling west and the Somalian plate moving eastward. The land between them subsided, and the Walls of Africa rose up 3 to 4 kilometers high. The high walls blocked off wet air from the oceans, changing the climate locally, and converting forests to grasslands. This is also the time at which the split between apes and humans (hominin) took place.

Darwin thought that modern humans had arisen in the grasslands of Africa. The discovery of hominin fossils along the rift valley seemed to agree with this theory. But modern thinking is that the savanna of the rift valley and hominins evolved together as a response to geology and weather. Humans evolved in this land, and then left to settle in far corners of the world. When I go to see the annual migration in the Serengeti, or to look at the dormant volcano called Mount Kilimanjaro, or even to taste the wine grown high in Kenya’s rift valley, I will be a migrant’s child come back to marvel at the homeland that his ancestors left.

Ecology destroyed for an “Eco Park”

In Sohra one morning five years ago, The Family went off on a trek down a steep slope to see a living root bridge. I gave up on that walk quickly and asked Raju to suggest an alternative. He suggested a short drive to a point where there was a good view of Bangladesh. We parked on the road, and then followed a narrow track through overgrown bushes and around a thicket of trees to reach the edge of a cliff.

The Shillong plateau fell into the plains of Bangladesh below us. There was a sturdy fence at the edge of the cliff. Raju and I leaned on it and looked down at the enchanting landscape of the country of shifting waters. British imperialism had created a disaster here, and, in ebbing, left a permanent scar in the form of borders which cut off both Raju and me from our ancestral homes. Neither of us knew Bangladesh as anything more than grandmothers’ tales and old songs, genocide in a generation-old war, and tales of floods and natural calamities. It was a typical early winter morning in Sohra, overcast and foggy one moment, clear ten minutes later. In the hazy distance we could see a braiding of rivers, and no sign of humanity except for forests cleared for agriculture.

Before we left I spotted several species of butterflies. The common sailer (Neptis hylas, featured photo) was everywhere in this area, as were several species of tigers. I took my first photo of a red lacewing, Cethosia biblis, here (photo above). I did not realize then that the part I paid little attention to, the trees and the tumble of bushes, would not be here when I came back. My only record of that ecosystem full of butterflies, insects, and the birds which feed on them, are the few photos where the vegetation is the background.

Five years later, after some of the clan had left for the same trek that took The Family away that long-ago morning, the rest of us piled into the Rath of the Clan and the driver took us to an “Eco Park”. This was exactly the same place. The vegetation had been totally cleared. Now there was a large parking lot full of vehicles, a gate and tickets to see a leveled field of bare earth at the edge of which was the same fence where Raju and I had stood and tried to spot villages in Bangladesh. There was a desultory attempt to make a garden here with marigold and rose bushes. There were no trees, no butterflies, no birds, but an amazingly large number of humans and shops.

A fellow blogger who grew up in Shillong has been shadowing the blogs of my trip through Meghalaya, and, through her comments, adding a very welcome perspective. In one of her comments she said that she hoped that Meghalaya would follow Sikkim in developing tourism, not Darjeeling. Unfortunately, this “Eco park” was Darjeeling transplanted to Sohra, destroying precisely what people earlier came here to see. Five years ago, as we walked back to the car, Raju pointed out to me an underground stream which you could see through an opening in the rocks. He recommended the water for its taste and coolness. The opening was now covered with an iron grille, and the rocks around it were littered with empty packaging, the detritus of civilization.

Cranes of Mumbai

The two-day long monsoon shower ended around the middle of Sunday. I took this as an opportunity to walk through the back streets around the stock market. Even on a Sunday there’s usually something interesting going on here. I walked past the very busy street vendors and looked up at the tower of the stock exchange. I’d not noticed before how many data cables cross at all angles above the street. It looks like a safety net against the eventuality of a stock market crash. Poking up through this street-wide-web was a crane.

One of these old buildings had been pulled down and a new and unexciting concrete box was coming up in its place. The crane was parked right in front of it. The young man operating it looked really relaxed, feet up on his seat, moving the crane with a delicate touch of his left hand. I’ve seen people play arcade games with the same nonchalant elan. The cabin door was open and I thought that bright blue splash against the yellow cabin made a good picture.

This was a duplex crane! In the rear cabin someone was asleep, head resting on the disabled steering. I guess the operators were internal immigrants. Their work place is where they live most of the time. Usually workers who immigrate to the city share a rented room where they sleep in shifts. This man was either too tired to go back, or had decided that it was more efficient to sleep at work. I hope he is properly rested by the time his shift starts. A little inattention while manipulating the crane probably would not damage the neighbouring buildings, but could play havoc with the overhead cables.

Kottbusser Tor

The sun was setting when we walked up to Kotti. It has been known as one of Berlin’s most dangerous areas for decades. A recent police list ranked it seventh, behind Alexanderplatz and Warschauer Bruecke. We were there to look at the 10 years old Cosmonaut mural by Victor Ash. But we got distracted.

As soon as we emerged we saw a minaret of the Mevlana mosque, and its shallow Turkish dome, silhouetted against the golden sky (photo above). The Family said, “This looks interesting”. Behind us was a traffic island which seemed to have turned into a fruit and vegetable market. We walked into it and eyed the produce. It looked fresh.

We walked past it into Reichenberger Strasse, and immediately saw an alley with shops looking out into it. A few steps in, an underpass brought us to Dresdner Strasse. Right at the corner here was an interesting mural outside Kremanski Cafe (featured photo). We peered into the big window and saw people peering into their laptops (photo above). Just a regular cafe then. Disappointed, we moved on to the next window: Cafe am Kotti, which also looked ordinary.

The area has been considered less than safe for decades; first it was the Turks in the ’70s, then the squatters in the ’80s and the fights between skinheads and Turkish gangs, in the ’90s the druggies evicted from Berlin Zoo, East Europeans in the oughts. This decade was summed up nicely in a sentence by a resident quoted in a magazine: “The idea of Kotti as a cool neighbourhood attracts young people, and young people attract drug dealers.” The idea of Kotti as less safe than Alexanderplatz or parts of Friedrichshain may be coloured a little by the shades of skin you see around you.

We walked through the little streets of Kotti for a short while, looking for street art. There was not too much visible in the places we walked through. The mural which you can see in the photo above was the biggest we saw. The area was shabby and run-down, but full of interesting-looking restaurants. It did not seem to have an edge of danger. Crime statistics show that Berlin is safer than Brussels or Amsterdam, and Europe in general is safer than the US. When The Family said, “Should we have dinner here?” our conversation was about the time of the day and where else we needed to go rather than safety.

Down in the Battery

New York City: Battery park monumentWhen you go downtown to the Battery park in New York, you are reminded quite strongly that the history of the US is a history of immigration. At the entrance to the park is a memorial to the purchase of Manhattan from the local tribes by the Dutch. As far as we know, the ancestors of the tribes arrived in the land now called the Americas during a previous ice age, and spread over the continents in the same time that humans took to spread over the old world.

As you pass that monument you see a large expanse of grass and a circular structure behind it (see the featured photo). I think that beautifully green patch of grass was where Fort Amsterdam, and later Fort George, stood since 1626. New York City: Bowling Green The departure of the last British soldiers, and their freed slaves, is commemorated in the small plaque above the statue of the charging bull in Bowling Green. If you look carefully along the top edge of the photo here, you will see a plaque which reads Evacuation Day. After Britain lost the Americas to the new settlers, the fort, and the battery which gave its name to the park, was demolished.

The circular building, Clinton Castle, was erected in 1811. The army moved out of it in a few years, and leased it to the city. Jenny Lind, another immigrant, gave her first concert in this expanse of green in 1850. From 1855 to 1892, Castle Clinton was the place where immigrants landed and were processed. I did not enter the castle. I was distracted by a monumental sculptural group near it called The Immigrants (photo below). The sculpture by Luis Sanguino commemorates this period of history.

New York City: The Immigrants, a sculptural group

After this, the Ellis Island facility was started. From the pier here you can see the statue by Bertholdi, possibly the most famous statue in today’s world, which looms over the entrance to the harbour. The connection of the Statue of Liberty and immigration is so strong that it serves all over the world as the symbol of the freedom of human movement. I took a long shot of this statue, and then turned to leave through the East Coast Memorial.

New York City: East Coast Memorial

This is a memorial to the US soldiers who died in the West Atlantic during the second world war. I walked up the central aisle of the memorial, with four tall granite slabs on each side with the names of soldiers engraved on them, past the bronze statue of an eagle, and turned to take a last shot of the harbour through which waves of immigrants once arrived.