Post-Delhi Durbar architecture

Architectural styles adapt very fluidly to weather and techniques. This adaptability is so abundantly clear when you compare the architecture of 19th and early-20th century Mumbai to contemporary fashions in England. The Gothic Revival in its late Victorian guise transmuted into the iconic Indo-Saracenic style buildings of Mumbai. I think of this as F.W. Stevens using the medieval sources of inspiration of George Barry, transplanted to India, rather than the details of his style. The sea-front around the Gateway of India was realigned for the visit of George V of England. The buildings in the immediate neighbourhood were built in the 1910s and 20s, and were influenced by the Edwardian style, in the same way that Stevens adapted Barry. The detail that you see in the featured photo marries the Edwardian spirit to an update of the late Maratha style of construction from a century earlier. Notice also the flat terrace, a very Indian feature.

The exuberance of the sea front disappears in the row just behind it. On good days you may call this row harmonized . On bad days you might call it industrially repetitive. I walk through this road now and then with my take-away latte, admiring the solidity of the buildings. To me it appears to be an Edwardian reworking of the basic Victorian style, but quick and commercial. Floors of Gothic arches alternate with the classical. Symmetry is a driving motive. The decorative elements of the Edwardian style are entirely missing. The houses in the row are distinguished mainly by their colour. Notice the top floor; the unadorned cornices for some protection against the rain, and the simple sloping roof, are the only nods to the local weather. I am glad that this style covers only two roads. A city full of these houses would be oppressive.

I need your help

On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.

The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

We’ve had liquid dinners since last March. Stop smiling. It’s not that. A large bowl of soup has been our dinner on most nights for a year. But a couple of days ago I asked The Family, “Why not some roasted veggies instead?” I’d not done something like this for a few decades. So, like the newbie that I now was, I looked up cooking times. If you set the oven at the usual 200 Celsius, then there is a group of veggies that takes 30 to 45 minutes: squash, carrots, onions and potatoes. Probably all roots. (Also corn. I don’t consider corn a vegetable; I think of it as a grain.) Then there is the other group that takes 20 to 30 minutes: Shimla mirch (bell peppers), cauliflower and broccoli, pumpkins and squashes, green beans and tomato. Basically most other things. I suppose the reasonable thing would have been to put the first group in the oven, and then after ten minutes bung in the rest. But I refuse to be reasonable in the kitchen. I decided that the roots will be cut smaller than the rest, and everything will go in and come out together.

While in uffish thought I stood, The Family with eyes of flame had found the herbs. “Not that song again”, I muttered. “No peas” she ordered. I fussed with the oven as she tossed the veggies with rice bran oil (her current favourite) and the herbs. I arranged them in the baking tray with the stipulated care to keep the pieces separate from each other. In twenty minutes everything was done. The Family had exhumed two pavs from the fridge, and heated them on a tava; nice to have some bread with roasted veggies. The onions and carrots were nicely caramelised. The beetroot and tomatoes were passable, but could have improved in another five minutes. The beans and bell peppers were wonderful. We have to do something different with the baingan; it was a little bitter. “Not bad for a first attempt”, The Family told me patronisingly. “Just you wait,” I thought, “I’ll have my response ready when you do the fish next week.”

But the thought of a liquid with dinner wouldn’t leave me. So I dug up a bottle of Smirnoff vodka so old that if it had been a wine it would have soured by now. There was about one shot remaining. Chill a beer mug. Drop a spoonful of honey from mustard flowers (same vintage as the vodka) into the glass. Watch as if hypnotized by the sight of the honey oozing to the bottom. Recover. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon. Add the vodka, give it a good stir. There was no ice in the fridge, so fill the mug with chilled water. Bung in a bag of Earl Grey. Nice aromatic drink, which gets more flavourful as you slowly sip it and the water warms. The Family said that some crushed mint leaves would be a good addition. I agreed, but was too lazy to pick them from the balcony, and clean and crush them. Still, a nice pairing with the roasted veggies.


The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream—
The Champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream

The Indian Serenade, by P. B. Shelley

White for death, white for purity. An ancient Indian custom mingled with the beautiful scent of the Champa to make it a flower of funerals. Indian gardens were full of fragrant white flowers. The rest are used in religion, and not specifically connected with death. Why was the Champa so closely associated with deaths and funerals? Was it because it was a late arrival to India, and was therefore not able to make it into the list of sacred flowers which could be used in auspicious ceremonies? Death is more accommodating. I’ve not been able to trace the journey of this group of plants from its native Central America to South and South-Eastern Asia. Presumably that happened in one of the early and undocumented globalization events, like the spread of rice or wheat across the human world.

When Indian cultural influence spread across Asia in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the association of the champas with death also became part of the pan-Asian cultural background. It is too beautiful a flower to live with death forever, and in the last few centuries has spread into a generalized cultural space. I guess my photos are part of that spread.

Winter light

What passed for winter, the season called shishir, is nearly over. The sea remains cool, but the days are longer. The sun gets enough time to warm up the sea breeze. Still, the light is mild, and oranges are in season. In the afternoons, when the sun streams into the room I work in, I can sit and enjoy an orange with my tea (in shades of Leonard Cohen!) and then take a photo of the emptiness and harmony.

Again I was distracted and opened up my copy of Achaya’s book on Indian food. Oranges were first mentioned by Charaka, who lived in the 2nd century BCE. He called it nagaranga. The traveller Xuan Zang, in his memoirs of his travel through India in mid-7th century CE, mentions them as growing everywhere, but does not use the Chinese word for the fruit. In Shah Jahan’s time (17th century CE) grafting was applied to oranges and mangos in Bengal. Presumably it was already widely available when the Portuguese came to India. ArcGIS adds that the origin of this fruit is in the southeastern foothills of the Himalayas, but misses the reference in Charaka.

Second wave

Bad news came in over the weekend. Cases are up in Mumbai, and in several smaller towns. Kerala, which had beaten back the pandemic in its early days, has been going through enormous pains in recent weeks. This week, overall, cases are up in India by about a third. We seem to be at the beginning of a second wave. Friends around Mumbai have been discussing the inevitability of such a thing ever since the local trains were opened to the general public. I have been playing the devil’s advocate (what an appropriate phrase at this time) with the argument that if livelihoods are to be safeguarded, we have no choice but to let people move around. An increase of cases today inevitably leads to the conclusion that the policy changes made two or three weeks ago are at the root of the problem. Governments agree, and sometimes have gone the whole hog again, imposing full lockdowns in some towns.

My early training predisposes me to seek answers in an engineering discipline that is called Systems Design and Control Theory. One of the things that we learnt was that you could try to control a system by using its output to influence its input. This is called feedback. There is a theorem which says that feedback with delays leads to oscillations. Every teenager who has tried to form a rock band knows about the screech of feedback which badly placed mics and speakers can lead to. Others can more easily relate to the frustrating experience of making sure that the water in the shower is a comfortable temperature as an experience of oscillations due to delayed feedback.

Why should this lead to second and third waves of epidemics? The argument goes something like this. When it becomes clear that there is an epidemic, governments put various restrictions in place. But these are temporary, and when the number of cases decreases they are removed. Clearly there is a feedback. The delay comes from two sources: it takes time to realize that there is a consistent rise (or fall) in the number of cases, and it takes time for committees to make decisions.

Fortunately, the theorem assures us that we are not doomed to be tossed about forever by waves of the pandemic. If there is friction in the system then that damps out the successive waves. Where does this friction come from? One is the brutal calculus that the most susceptible are the earliest victims of the epidemic, so successive waves of disease, eventually, find better prepared immune systems. The second source is our personal learning and initiative. When we realize that there is danger, we personally take precautions. And we learn what are the most important, and best, measures. The third is the most enlightened reason of all: medical practice evolves, so that treatments and vaccines become available.

Human behaviour is unpredictable. There are no theorems which guarantee how I will act. Still, when studying a large enough body of people, there are general principles which seem to govern how such collections will respond to circumstances. There are limits to such predictions. Different countries, even different cities, have had a their second and third waves of COVID-19 at different times.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Snacking after a workout

At two poles of the country, Mumbai and Kolkata, the same thing is known by two different names: masala bhel and jhal muri. I replaced the bhel/muri by roasted chana and peanuts. Kept the chopped veggies: cucumber, tomato, carrots, Shimla mirch (bell pepper). Dropped in a bit of chopped green chili, and ginger. This is the season for fresh turmeric root, so a little of that also went in. I didn’t want any chutneys in it, so I squeezed in half a lime, added a sprinkle of black salt. It was ready before you could say “full toss.” The tea was a bag; I’m too hungry after the weights to wait to steep leaves. A tasty bowlful of protein, fiber, and fats; and rather filling. Just right for after a workout.

I suppose it is not hard to figure out that part of the photo is in black and white. I must snap out of this. Monochrome has its place, but not front and center of modern life.

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.

Colourful leaves

Calla lily, Poinsettia, Bougainvillea. Three of the plants in which people sometimes mistake leaves for flowers. Gardens and hedges in Mumbai are full of the splashy colours of Bougainvillea right now. But the colourful stuff isn’t petals, they are just the leaves surrounding the true flower. The youngest niece asked me, “What’s the difference?” Well, the petals unfurl from inside the bud, but the bracts, these differently coloured leaves, develop from the stem just as normal leaves would do. Hers was a deep question if I read it differently. One parts of the “abominable question” of the rise of flowering plants which exercised Darwin was the origin of petals. Are they modified leaves, or modified stamen? Modern methods are beginning to answer this question, but the understanding can change yet. Current opinion leans towards petals rising from bracts.

In our balcony I caught the bracts in the middle of changing colour. In the featured photo you can see the green stalks of the buds just about to open into tiny flowers. The leaves around them have started losing their chlorophyll. The transformation has progressed further in the leaves closest to the bud. A few of the leaves in this cluster are more green, presumably having started the transition later. Further back in the same branch you see a small cluster of leaves which have just begun to turn colour.

Just for fun, here is another of my experiments with black and white. This time I wanted to get the difference in texture between the leaf and the bract, and colour distracts from texture. I’m happy to have caught this plant at the right time.

The guy whose feet are too big

When you have a tiny little flower waiting to be photographed, why do you want to ignore it and concentrate on the tinier droplets of water on stalks in front of it? As George Mallory is famous for saying, “Because it is there.” One of my last trips with a Panasonic of many years, was to Kaas Plateau, that unique and very difficult habitat which contains some species of wildflowers not found anywhere else. I’d scratched the lens when I fell off a slippery boulder, and spent a year thinking I would replace it. Also, sensors had become better, and data buses faster, so it made sense to replace the camera.

I dug up this image because in the last few days I’ve been obsessed with figuring out how to do at least a half-way decent job with black and white photos. It is something to worry about, but I’m getting there. The plateau bursts into flower for a couple of weeks towards the end of the monsoon. I’ve never been there when the sun is out. You see marvelous (but tiny) flowers, but you are always wet. It is a job keeping your equipment dry. Doing it in a mask is one thing that I do not want to try.