Flying things

Last week, right at the tail end of the monsoon, we had the season’s heaviest rains. Of all things, insects probably had the worst time of their short lives in the last few days. Many of them evolved to fly, and they are too small to fly in the heavy rains. I would see an occasional crow or pigeon flying past my window in the drizzle, but there were almost no insects. I was happy not to have mosquitos, but the lack of moths and butterflies was striking. Now that this spell of rain is over, I found this moth on our kitchen counter. I don’t know who that is, but it is nice to see him. Unfortunately, it promises an abundance of other annoying insecta.

Money plant

There are myths that you cannot kill a money plant (Epipremnum aureum), that it grows even in dark places around the house, even in a jar of water. All false, as three generations in my family can attest to. The Family finally got one to grow by taking a dying stem and planting it in a pot in our balcony. It hasn’t exactly thrived there, but it has grown for a while, and lived for a long time. You can see the spray of leaves it has put out in the featured photo. There’s such a variety of leaf colours in this species, that I find it hard sometimes to tell whether a money plant is indeed one.

You would be as surprised as I was when I read that this is a flowering plant. Apparently it seldom flowers spontaneously, and needs you to add plant hormones to the soil. I guess its remarkable ability for vegetative propagation was useful for it to reach and proliferate in the remote Pacific islands of the French Polynesia, from which it was exported in historically recent times across the world. The fact that it can grow in saline water perhaps also helps it to live as it crosses oceans. I wonder why it was confined to just one island in the South Pacific before humans transported it across the world. It is a mystery on par with how it reached that island in the first place.

Gray days

The fag end of the monsoon is always depressing. Just when you have seen a day or two of bright sunshine and colour to remind you of what the world could be, the endless dreary rain sets in again. This year is no different. It has been a depressing gray since the weekend. Without social contact it is even worse. On Sunday I could not stand it any more, and the Family and I put on our rain coats and masks and went out to the Gateway of India in the evening. An espresso carry out, a stroll by the sea, and the sight of other people, although distanced and masked, revived our spirits for a while.

I felt cheerful enough to take photos of the depressing weather. The Gateway looked forlorn and beaten down by the rain. Usually it is cleaned by a work crew long before Diwali; I hope that happens this year. Far in the distance I could see the usual semi-industrial wasteland of the docks below the hills, the feet of the Western Ghats dipping into the sea. I guess the time when these toes of the Sahayadris are chopped off have just been postponed by the economic depression brought on by the epidemic. One can see a silver lining in everything when one feels upbeat.

Viper bowstring hemp

When I paused to take photos of this common garden ornamental, I was struck by how appropriate its common name snake plant is. Unfortunately, too many different plants are called by that name, so I could call it by its binomial, Dracaena trifasciata, or call it the viper bowstring hemp. This name comes from the fact that the fibers of this plant were used to make bowstrings by the Yoruba people who live in the native range of the plant: from the Congo westwards to Nigeria. There are so many varieties of this plant (another one in the photo below) that it is sometimes hard to believe that they are all in the same species. At least one study has tried to make sure that several plants that we lump into this species are indeed one.

Although the center of diversity of the 120 species of the genus Dracaena lies in west Africa, there is increasing evidence that the genus evolved in sub-tropical Asia. The main clue to this strange event is that the closest cousins of these species are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions of eastern Asia. They have gone extinct in that part of the world, but the oldest species of Dracaena seem to lie in Hawaii and parts of South America. This apparently also happened to the family of plants called the Begoniaceae (the Begonias). So there is the beginning of a mystery here: how did that first dispersal happen, and then a second dispersal to Africa. I’m on tenterhooks now, waiting for the solution.

The plant is easy to grow indoors, and we once had one which grew very well even away from direct sunlight. I find that different varieties as well as closely related species are being sold as “natural air purifiers”. This is not entirely wrong, since many papers have been written about its ability to slowly soak up volatile organic molecules like benzene and formaldehyde. Good ventilation is perhaps a more effective way of getting rid of those indoor air contaminants. There is no evidence that the plant gets rid of suspended particulate matter, which is a major component of air pollution in India.

Tulsi in flower

I woke to a flat and uninspiring light. Towards the end of the monsoon the days alternate between sunlight and totally overcast, and the temperature oscillates rapidly between warm and cool. All around me people have sniffles, and scaring themselves and others to death. No help in the balcony; there was an unnatural quietness from the birds. None of the potted plants are flowering. Or are they? In one forgotten corner, the tall struggling tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, previously called Ocimum sanctum, aka holy basil) was flowering. I’m constantly fooled by the reddish leaves into thinking that I need to water the plant (now that the monsoon is over I’ll have to), but that’s a natural colour. This is the variety called a Krishna tulsi, not the more common green-leafed variety known as the Ram tulsi.

It was almost not worth taking a photo in this awful light, but I know of no better way of finding inspiration than by drilling down to the particulars of a small little thing, losing myself in the moment. That’s my way to inner peace, my zen or meditation, whatever you call it.

The genus Ocimum are the basils, a huge genus of aromatic plants. The tulsi is one of the seven species of this genus which is found in India, and was probably domesticated in the early Bronze age somewhere in the middle of India. Its medicinal properties made it a staple in Ayurveda later. A recent genetic study claims to have found the keys to its special properties. That’s a good study, but I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions.

If there are so many plants in the genus, you would be surprised if no other species is potentially useful. Sure enough, a little searching led me to papers (here and here) which find many commonalities between chemicals produced by different Ocimum species. So, I guess the tulsi is a little more useful than its cousins, as people discovered a couple of thousand years ago; they were no less intelligent than us. But over the years we have amassed more knowledge. So, I’m sure that we could turn these lesser known plants to good use today, if we wanted to.

Fried rice for midnight’s grandchildren

While watching Nigel Ng’s hilarious takedown of Jamie Oliver’s fried rice, The Family said “We haven’t had fried rice for ages.” Fried rice was a rare delicacy when I was young. I had to cajole my mother into making it. I didn’t think I could recreate her recipe, but I could try to recreate my memory of that taste. My mother would make that in her kadhai, but I’m a little afraid of that utensil (it bites!).

I heated a tiny bit of oil in a nice rounded non-stick pan, the closest I could come to a tame (non bitey) kadhai, and cooked some prawns until they were almost done. If they cook a little in the rice, they’ll give it a flavour of the sea, so you don’t need to finish them now. I added a little more oil for the chopped onions and garlic and cooked them through. Then it was time to put the old rice from the fridge into the pan to fry. When it had started releasing its smell, I rummaged for eggs and found that we’d almost run out of them. I took the last three and broke them over the rice, and began to work it around. Something didn’t look right, so I drizzled enough soya sauce into the pan to colour the rice a nice red. At this time of the year there are no spring onions in the market, so I just put in the prawns, and waited for everything to cook just that little more. When I tasted it, I found that it could have done with more egg, some chili, and it needs some crunchy veggie bits, even if spring onions are not in season.

“This was not the best”, The Family told me. I had to agree. I realized that she’d been watching me closely, in the guise of helping me find eggs and chopping the onions. So it’s clear my fried rice has been appropriated!

My mother was fond of experimenting with food. I realize now that the things that I grew up eating were the history of a new and more open India in the making. Dosas and idli crossed over into north Indian kitchens about then, and my mother’s experiments with sambar lasted through my middle school. Dahi vada, chhole bature, and ragda patties insinuated themselves into the regional kitchens that mothers of her generation inherited from their parents. Fried rice and spring rolls from the Chinese subculture in India was part of this cultural appropriation. The result was a wonderfully cosmopolitan Indian culture that came to full flower in the last decade of the twentieth century, a generation after midnight’s children.

New things on the horizon

I woke before dawn today, even before the first bird had started singing. As the sky turned from black to a faint colour, I saw twinkling lights on the horizon, out at sea. The mad twinkling told me that the morning was going to be more hazy than I’d hoped. Shipping had come to a halt in April, and the absence of man-made noise must have been almost pre-industrial. For the first time in the recorded history of Mumbai dolphins were seen in Backbay. That is well past now. From July I’ve been seeing cargo ships pass through the far channel, weaving back together a world wide web of commerce. One of the set of lights, the rightmost, looked like a mobile drilling rig. The leftmost was certainly neither that, nor a container ship. It looked more like a cruise ship waiting to berth. I didn’t know that passenger cruises had started. Could this be one of those stranded cruises finally coming to dock? These are strange times; both would surprise me, but I’m ready for surprises.

Migrans memories

I saw an unusually large bird perching on the edge of terrace of the furthest visible building. I zoomed in, and there it was: a black kite (Milvus migrans govinda), the T Rex of our times. It is a hunter which is not above scavenging. It is a bird out of my childhood nightmares, one which snatched the lunch out of my hands on my very first day at school. Its lifestyle brings it into occasional conflict with crows; I see bands of crows harrying it when they are all after the same piece of food. Despite its large size, the kite seldom wins.

Looking at the history of the naming of the bird, I was overcome by memories of Paris, walks from a friend’s apartment on Rue Lacepede near the botanical gardens up Rue Monge, past the metro station of Censier-Daubenton to Place d’Italie. The bird was first named in Buffon’s book of 1770 CE, The Natural History of Birds, with illustrations produced under the supervision of the French naturalist Daubenton. It was assigned to its current genus, Milvus, in 1799 by one of Buffon’s collaborators on the book, Lacepede. A morning of nostalgia!

Morning on Malabar Hills

I nursed my morning’s cup of chai and looked out across Backbay at the high-rises on Malabar hills, just when the rising sun caught them. A kite soared across the bay, and nearer at hand there was a fog of high-flying dragonflies. The monsoon winds have stilled, and the light breeze created a tiny bit of surf at the governor’s beach. Right now mosquitoes are breeding across that posh area. I hope they learn to breed more dragonflies there, to eat the larvae of mosquitos and control them. The ones around our buildings are the mostly the yellow and blue variety known as the ground skimmer (Diplacodes trivialis). Another morning in Mumbai in late monsoon, pleasant, but with the promise of heat and humidity later in the day. Again at this time you welcome a heavy shower.