Bylanes of Colaba

Many years ago we decided to move out of south Mumbai at some point in our lives. As that, still indefinite, point comes closer, we walk around the city with fresh eyes. Walking down a side street off the causeway, we saw this lovely sight of the dome of the Taj hotel lit up, recalled the terrible night when we saw it going up in flames, while simultaneously having a pang of remorse at the thought that there will be a time when I won’t see this while out on a walk. As I took this photo, Niece Mbili told us the old urban myth of the mixed up maps which made the architect place turn the frontage around. No amount of protest by the hotel will stop this story. Colaba moves between seedy and grand every decade. Around now the seediness is disappearing again.

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A quiet dinner for two

I was back from China, and The Family was missing all the Chinese food she hadn’t eaten. So we decided to compensate with a visit to a new pan-Asian restaurant in one of the by-lanes of Colaba. Pan-Asian is a silly name because it is based on a “race” classification in the US which seems to lump together Malays and Koreans, among others. To be more accurate this restaurant served modern food influences by countries to the east of India.

The shrimp roll to start was a choice that we were very happy with. The steamed rolls with shrimps and fresh veggies rolled in a thin chapati made with rice flour came with a peanut and soya sauce options, and shavings of deep fried onions and garlic on the plate. The peanut sauce was an interesting combination, heavy, without hiding the freshness of the roll.

The cocktails were really exciting. The Family made the most interesting choice: a margarita infused with rice kanji. We had a sea bass for the mains. The little dab of green that you see on it turned out to be a very flavourful coriander based sauce. This was light and perfect as the major protein. The dessert was the amazing dish you see in the featured photo: a lemon tart topped with black sesame ice cream, black and white sesame wafers and little shavings of almonds. The food will bring us back to this small, quiet, and intimate place.

Raindrops keep falling

I have two favourite weeks of the year in Mumbai. One is the week called winter, when the temperature drops below 20 Celsius, and we start thinking of bringing out our sweaters. The other is the first week of the monsoon. This year I almost let the beginning of the monsoon pass by without saying anything about it. A taxi driver was kind enough to travel below the speed limit on the sea link, letting me take a photo of the skyline of the mill area and its stalled rebuilding, as the monsoon clouds finally blew in at the end of June.

Decades ago you could almost set the calendar by the arrival of the monsoon. It would arrive on 6th June, perhaps three days before or after. Over the years the gradual warming of the sea has delayed the monsoon. Warm seas also give rise to storms and hurricanes. This year a storm formed over the sea off the coast of Mumbai, brought a little rain, but blocked the monsoon winds for a substantial number of days. I took the photo above during the first monsoon shower. In the last four days or so of June we got all the rain that we usually expect over the month. Is this the shape of a warmer earth?

Miscalculation

If you are reading this post it is because of a miscalculation. I thought I would reach home in the morning, after a two-week-long trip to Turkey, but I haven’t. And I still haven’t finished talking about my trip to the Garhwal Sivalik’s, or The Family’s solo trip to the Garhwal Himalayas. So there will be a lot to talk about when I get back to a normal schedule tomorrow. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy my parting shot of the lower Himalayas taken a while back.

Have a pheasant Monday

Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos) spotted undisturbed in Jharipani near Mussoorie in Uttarakhand.

Some Mondays one doesn’t feel like talking. These pheasants are shy, and any talking is likely to disturb them.

Fresh Bakes

Sometimes spelling-Nazis take a break and enjoy the taste of Shrewsbury biscuits instead. I’m not a great fan of this Shropshire delicacy, but the ones that are made here are pretty good. They could be the best in Mumbai. But the apple pies are wonderful. This Irani bakery produces a dozen of them every day. They are taken out of the oven at about 3 in the evening, and if you are the thirteenth person to come in to buy one, then you are out of luck.

New Tehri

We climbed a little more than a 1000 meters from the Tehri Dam to the tpwn of New Tehri. The old town, now drowned in the waters of the dam, is supposed to have been founded by Sudarshan Shah, one of the rulers of the erstwhile Tehri kingdom. The new town was built by the Tehri Hydro Development Corportation when the dam was under construction in the late 1990s. The old town had a population of more than 250,000 people at the beginning of the 20th century. Ten years ago the population of New Tehri was not even a tenth of that.

The town looked pleasant enough as we drove up to it. The winter sun is pretty strong at this altitude of 1.7 Kilometers above sea level. In the sunlight the houses ranged along the slope above the road looked bright and cheerful, with apple trees in full bloom in little patches of garden.

Later when we stood on the road above the town and looked down on it, I realized that the houses look like they were stamped out of a mould. They were, actually, with the THDC forced to build houses in a hurry in order to rehabilitate some of the people who were displaced by the rising waters behind the dam. The town looked better planned and more orderly than the typical hill town here. However the central bazaar, through which we’d passed on our way up, was just as crowded and chaotic.

There was a nice viewpoint here. We looked down at the clock tower of New Tehri. Nitin told us that it was a replica of the famous clock tower of Tehri. The old tower was built by Kirti Shah, the fourth king of Tehri, in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Contemporary reports of the submergence of the old clock tower sound emotional. There was a ghost of the same emotion in Nitin’s voice. He is perhaps too young to remember the drowning of the tower in 2006 very clearly though.

On the lower edge of the town we’d passed a bright white coloured temple. I asked Nitin about it, but he wasn’t very sure which temple it was. “Local,” was his laconic reply. It was an interesting layout, with four outer structures with peaked roofs marking out a rectangle, and the central temple being the tallest part of the structure. I couldn’t remember temples built in this shape. I wonder whether this was also a copy of a structure from drowned Old Tehri.

It was just past lunch, and only walking about and taking photos was keeping me awake. I peered into a little roadside kiosk and found the owner was taking a little siesta. It was a tight fit, but he didn’t look uncomfortable. The sun kept the place reasonably warm. As we drove out of New Tehri and took the road back to our hotel, I succumbed to the winter’s warmth and dozed off for a while.

Tehri Dam

We drove from the town of Chamba down to where the old town of Tehri lies now under the lake behind the Tehri Dam. The road came close to the Bhilangana river just before it meets the Bhagirathi. The dam is on the Bhagirathi river. The calm water of the lake contrasted with my memories of the tumultuous days of 2005 when the last protesters were being removed by force from the town as the water began to rise. I have a faint memory of TV news showing the very last protesters on top of the clock tower at the center of the town. Nitin, who was driving our car, said that the tip of the clock tower can be seen in the middle of the lake when the water level dips.

We were at the upper reservoir, behind the rubble filled dam. The road went around the lake, past a yard with concrete and iron ferrules either left over from the construction, or held in reserve against future needs. They were immense, a little higher than a man’s height. The lower lake lies about 25 meters below the level we were at. The dam eventually plans to generate 2.4 Gigawatts of power, and the water is supposed to be released for agriculture. The protests against its building had multiple reasons, the drowning of a historic town, founded by the kings of the Tehri Garhwal kingdom being the most emotional. But also along with these were powerful arguments against creating a dam in one of the more geologically unstable parts of the Himalayas, and the impact on the ecology of the lower Himalayas.

Nitin pointed out the foundations of houses which have collapsed in the rising waters. I realized that we were standing on ground which was made of pulverized concrete overlain with years of silt carried down by the waters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much grass growing over concrete. Nitin was from this region, and he would have been a child when the protests against the dams were in full swing. He seemed torn between memories of his elders strongly against the dam, and his own adult life, after the dam. His conversation was full of gaps, little spots of history lit up. The dam is accepted today as a fact, but with a little resentment. We left the banks of the lake and began the climb up to the town of New Tehri.

Pika, Pika …

When The Family told me that she’d seen a Pika, I was flabbergasted. She couldn’t be playing Pokemon GO in a part of the Himalayas where the phone network is so sporadic. I had to google to figure out that she’d seen the Indian Pika (aka, Himalayan mouse-hare, Ochotona roylei). When I finally saw her photos I figured that they are indeed the small rabbit-like creatures which I’d read about in the meanwhile. She must have seen them at around the lowest elevation of their range; they are found at altitudes of 2.4 to 5.2 Kilometers above mean sea level. IUCN classes them as being of least concern for conservation, mainly based on the fact that there seem to be no new threats at these heights, although maybe at the lowest elevation there is some contraction of the population.

From The Family’s photos it seems that they like to live in burrows or crevices between stones, where predators may find it hard to reach. After a little search I found a study of these animals around the area that The Family had photographed them in. It was interesting to read that they do not hibernate, as a result of which they spend a large part of the year gathering food for winter. The Family had not noticed them doing much gathering. It could be that at the end of a prolonged winter they were more interested in foraging.

I’d been sure there were many studies of the natural history of these animals, but the study I found cited only two previous works. Observations in the field showed that a Pika typically moves far less than 100 meters from its burrow, although it must sometimes move much further in order to forage. Interestingly, inspections of its hoard showed that they often gather plants which are locally said to have medicinal properties. This could be part of the reason for the loss in Pika population at the lower end of its habitat where the density of people is increasing.

The Himalayan Tahr

The Himayalan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) is one of the several large hooved herbivores of the Himalayas. The Family told me about watching this individual walk down a steep slope as if it was on a highway. The spectacular long golden coat grows in winter and is shed in summer, revealing a dark undercoat. This picture is from mid-April, probably at about the time when the coat begins to fall off. It can be found along the length of the Himalayas, at a height of over 1500 meters, and up to about 5000 meters, with the eastern end of its range at Thimphu and the western end at Srinagar. In all the photos that The Family took, the Tahr is seen browsing on grass. As humans and their sheep range higher, the habitat of the Tahr is getting restricted, which is why IUCN now considers it to be near-threatened, even in the absence of a census.

The Family talked about standing on a road and looking at a far hillside where this individual walked down the steep slope while grazing. I looked at the photos, at the yellow eyes, the golden mane, and I wished I’d taken the trip with her. This is an animal I would love to see, wild in its natural habitat.