Clouded Leopards

Clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) are shy nocturnal creatures which spend days sleeping on branches of trees. In retrospect I realize that we were really lucky with wildlife sightings in Tripura. We saw two of these rare beasts in the Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary. Its habitat must have once ranged right from the central Himalayan range eastwards to Taiwan, across most of south eastern Asia and southern China. Now the population is fragmented; but a patchwork of forests and reserves from the Chittagong hills in Bangladesh, across Tripura and Mizoram, and into Myanmar holds a small number of these threatened animals classed as “vulnerable” by IUCN.

We spotted one sprawled across a sturdy branch near the bottom of the forest canopy above us. The grey pelt with the patches of darker fur give it its name. After a long unsuccessful wait to see its face we moved on, but luckily within a few hundred meters we saw another individual sleeping with its face towards us. We must have made some noise, because it raised its face a little, yawned, and then lay back down again. A list of sightings in the wikipedia page talk about a cluster of photos, apparently the first of this animal, taken in the early years of this decade, right about when we saw these animals. That makes me think that there must have been changes in land use just around then. The black topped road that allowed us to see these two magnificent cats probably were the first signs of human encroachment on their territory. It is sad to realize now that travelers like us are signs of the very destruction that we would like to prevent.

Day of lost species

November 30 is designated the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. I think I will use this time to refresh my memories of Phayre’s leaf monkey (Trachypithecus Phayrei, also called the spectacled langur). We saw a family group of six or seven (this included a juvenile) in Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary, sitting on a tree, munching away at leaves. At first we thought they were the familiar rhesus monkey, but when we looked at them we realized they were quite different. They are smaller, and the white fur around the eyes, the spectacles, is as distinctive as the moustache. The group size and behaviour was typical. When the juveniles are 4-5 years old they leave the group. Individuals can live up to an age of abbout 20 years.

Leaf monkeys developed in Southeast Asia about three million years ago and have radiated into about twenty living species, mostly threatened. The case of the Indian population of Phayre’s leaf monkey is typical. They are well protected in a few isolated sanctuaries, there are some international efforts at conservation, but the protected areas are small and well-separated from each other. As a result the populations are now quite inbred. The situation is not much better over the rest of its range: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and southern China. Much of this region is densely populated, and forest land is being lost fairly rapidly.

The spectacled langur is classed as “endangered” by IUCN. If habitat loss continues, it will inevitably slide to “critical” and then to “extinct”. I have encountered many beautiful and strange species since 2005, when I started to visit wildlife reserves around India. Sadly, a large fraction of them are threatened.

Sweet and sour curry

I find the Cantonese version of sweet and sour sauces a little too sweet. This is not the fault of Chinese immigrants in India; the version you get in Guangzhou today is quite as sweet. The version you get in Shanghai is slightly different, but, if anything, it is sweeter. While I was making liver some months ago, I decided I would try an Indian twist on this. I’d already marinated the liver in a paste of ginger, garlic, and an extremely sour tamarind, because I wanted a change of taste. While cooking the liver, on a whim I reached across to where The Family had cubed some overripe papaya, and tossed some into the pot. The Family looked on bemused, “Do you know what you are doing?” she asked. “Of course I didn’t; I’d thrown sweet overripe papaya into liver. It was an invention worth running with. The next time it was overripe pear. Then The Family took over and did one version with tamarind and honeydew melon.

Sour tastes abound in the Indian kitchen. Apart from tamarind, we also have a jar full of dried kokum. The mouth puckering sourness of amla also can be seen in our kitchen now and then. Sugar was invented in India, and sweet and sour chutneys are common, as are candied sour fruits. But I don’t know of any Indian dishes which use the common souring agents with fresh fruit to make a sweet and sour curry. The somewhat stodgy taste of liver could do with a bit of life. So our sweet and sour liver, Indian style, is now a regular addition to our family kitchen. I can also imagine that unripe jackfruit can be curried this way; its something that I will definitely try next season.

Is this a rediscovery? Are there regional Indian sweet and sour curries that you know of? Let me know.

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.

The last picture show

When I finally liberated myself from film, fifteen years ago, I started carrying my new digital camera in my pocket everywhere, having told myself that I would continuously take photos of everyday life. The two years when I did this gave me a bunch of photos which are very interesting to look back at. The pandemic seems to be another blow to movie halls. In the late 1980s the easy availability of video killed off a whole bunch of movie halls. Some came back this century as multiplexes. Now the post-pandemic streaming services are another blow. I wonder when, if, movie halls will make a come back now.

The intimacy of movie halls makes them ideal sites for superspreading. That’s something we always knew; remember the times when it seemed like everyone in the hall was coughing? The post movie crush in the lobby and roads outside are another place where distancing is impossible. What will masking, distancing, evolve into five years from now? I don’t think five years will be sufficient for vaccines to reach everyone in the world, not if the rich nations (the US, EU, Canada) continue to oppose a temporary waiver of global intellectual property rights on SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

Diwali eats

In recent years I’ve resigned myself to putting on a little weight between the end of monsoon, when the Ganapati festival kicks off a season of festivals, and January, when the last of the indulgent feasts are done. Unless you are particularly unsocial, you cannot fend off the many invitations to parties from family and friends, or the boxes of goodies presented to you by neighbours and colleagues. Of course, social customs need you to reciprocate. This seasonal increase in weight across India must be sufficient to make the earth wobble a bit in its orbit.

I wonder how long ago Indians started stuffing themselves with sweets during the seasons of sharad and hemant. In my childhood I remember that push carts full of neon coloured lumps of sugar, molded into animal shapes, would make an appearance on the streets during Diwali. As a child these took up more processing space in my brain than all the crowded mithai shops around town. There would be a permanent space for laddus on the dining table, sadly with a strict count of how many had disappeared when adults were not keeping an eye on the box. This was also the time when several coconut based sweets were made at home. So I guess the tradition stretches back at least to the late 19th century.

I found it easier to trace this history in my own memory than by searching on the net, because of the confusion between history and mythology that is now rife in writing on this subject. I could not find mention of these festivals in the writings of late medieval or early modern travelers, although that could just be because they were not perceptive enough. I must really start to read more memoirs from early colonial times to see whether they mention these customs. So, for the moment I’m happy with these photos of the last of the chakli and laddu.

Filling a gap in history

The island continent of India drifted for 70 million years through the Tethys Ocean. It separated from Gondwanaland about 120 million years ago and collided with the Eurasian continent around 50 million years ago. 70 million years is enough time for large families of animals to evolve and die. So there must have been families which arose in the Indian landmass and migrated to the rest of the world later. The first such family has now been identified.

These are the Cambaytheres, a genus of fossil animals found at the bottom of an open-cast lignite mine outside of Surat in Gujarat. These 57 million years old fossils seem to be the origin from which all modern even-toed ungulates radiated out. These include horses and zebras, tapirs, as well as rhinoceros. The Cambaytheres were first described in an article published 6 years ago but I read about it only recently from a monograph published this year. The Cambay shale deposits have also yielded a very rich variety of other fossils from those times, and I’m sure we’ll be reading more about new finds from them.

The monograph has a very clear statement that although the genus is not the direct ancestor to any extant even-toed ungulate, it is the best possibility for the last common ancestor of all of them. Previous claims to the origins of this family are based on fragmentary fossil remains, or, sometimes, on conjectural remains. By the early years of the 21st century the possibility that the ancestors of horses originate in the Americas, Europe, and Africa had already begun to seem remote. A lot of attention then focused on new findings in China. Now, with a large collection of remains, from three species of this genus, much more can be said. Mysteries which remain are the routes through which the animals dispersed across the world, and then radiated into a large number of species in a few tens of thousands of years.

Morph

The common Evening Brown (Melanitis leda) is an unusual butterfly. It flies at night, and unlike many of its brightly coloured cousins, it is a shabby brown in colour. One of the first things I found about it was that it comes in two morphs. The dry season morph is really the winter morph, since it lasts from about November to about the end of April. The rest of the year you can see it in the wet season morph.

Through September and October, the end of the monsoon, I’d seen individuals which had strayed into our home, fluttering all evening around lights, and then resting quietly in the mornings. They still had their wet form, characterized by the large eye spots. There is a correlation between appearance and behaviour. These large dots are meant to deflect the attention of predators, and that’s an useful subterfuge since its activity can attract predators. The dry season form has the vestigial eye spots, as you can see in the photos, but they are characterised by the way they blend into fallen leaves. Walking through piles of leaves, you can flush them sometimes. I’ve seen them inside the house now and then, but they usually rest unobtrusively somewhere. Camouflage and this behaviour is their defense.

The word morph had me thinking wrongly about them. It is not the individual which morphs. M. leda is not a long-lived butterfly; it takes about a month, or less, to go from an egg to a pupa, and the adult lives for about two weeks. For it the universe has only one season. The conditions which prevail during the first month of its development choose the colours of the adult. Since environment plays such a big role in its development, you may wonder how much variation there is in colour from one individual to another. I haven’t noticed much variation in the wet season form (maybe I’m distracted by the eye spots), but going through my past photos I discovered that the dry season form is quite variable. Apparently an enthusiast has photographed more than a sixty different variants. Diet makes the butterfly!

A decade of Diwali

2011 Tokyo: This was a quick visit to a small private university known mainly for its departments of music. I remember this meeting now as a time when I caught up with old friends, and made some new ones.

2012 Hong Kong: We planned this long lay over so that we could make a short trip into the city, look at the main sights, eat in one of the small but brilliant places in TST, and scope it out for a longer visit. We still haven’t made the return trip.

2013 Mumbai: I don’t remember why we didn’t travel that year. Perhaps we put off the planning for too long.

2014 Germany: A last minute trip to celebrate the 65th birthday of a colleague. I remember meeting up with so many friend; it was such a pleasant trip. Diwali should be a time like this.

2015 Germany

The featured photo is from that year’s trip. Another trip for a friend’s birthday. Again a lovely meeting with many people, but it rained all the time.

2016 Bangkok: We’d thought it would be a relaxed weekend, but it turned out to be hectic. We did enjoy this ice cream which looked like a plate of katsu.

2017 Mumbai: I remember this year quite definitely. We stayed home because we had traveled in October and we had a family trip planned for December. It is good to stay home for Diwali now and then.

2018 Guangzhou: One of the most charming cities that I have been to. The Family and I sat by the Pearl river on the evening of Diwali and had a long dinner.

2019 Wuhan: I wasn’t to know it for another three months, but the flu that I caught was to lay the world low the next year. Apart from that, I enjoyed this trip. Wuhan normally is a lively town.

2020 Mumbai: Like everyone else, we spent the year at home. We met family in fits and starts. A few people came home over the month, and the day after we had our first large family gathering, risky, of the year.

There’s a bit of contrast between previous years and now, but we are not doing things we’ve never done before. Its just that we’ve never done so much of the same thing before.

Reflection

After nine months of being confined within the immediate neighbourhood of home, watching the garden, the sea, and the sky respond to the changing seasons, I find it distressing to be elsewhere in the middle of the city. I can no longer ignore the expanses of concrete unrelieved by vegetation, the traffic, and the haphazardness of a city by the seas in which the majority of its citizens don’t have even a distant view of the sea. This is what I hear many people grumbling about. If work from home remains the way many of us work, then there will be a slow draining of people away from these congested unlovely parts of the city. There will be new inequalities of course; the people who stay will be people whose work involves being on the spot. Hard to follow the possible lines of the future. Maybe I should put together a panel discussion to talk it out.