Failed dispassion

When everyone else around me is waiting with bated breath for a tiger to emerge from the grass, my attention wanders to the blades of grass or the trees around us. The Family calls it my ADHD, the need to constantly take photos. Are they worth taking? The Family grants that some may be. “But are they art?” A confused friend asked me recently, adding “Normally you take pretty good photos.” So that’s the answer. Boredom is in the mind of the beholder.

We waited in the shade of a tree for a while because we’d heard the alarm call of a chital (Axis axis). These spotted deer are easily startled, but they do come across tigers more easily than us. As we waited, fruitlessly, as it turned out, I admired the sunlight on a dead tree across the road from us. You can lose yourself in the gnarly weathered pattern of the wood. That’s what our world is, we are.

The other thing I do at such times is play with the presentation. At what distance does the photo of a chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabarica) turn from a portrait of the bird to a minimal composition of light and shape? In the first crop what does your eye do after seeing the shape of the branch and the bird? Does it land on the play of white on blue, cloud and sky? Would the silhouette of a panting changeable hawk-eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) qualify as a minimalist abstract? Or is there too much detail in the silhouette of the decayed branch? The photo of the chestnut-headed bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti) can be seen as a composition in crossing lines, but is it too full of detail to be called minimal? Bird photography is always a lesson in presentation.

I went from jungle to the garden to find more examples of such compositions. A curtain of green opening to reveal two snails who have found the plant’s “bed of secret joy” would have been minimal if I’d cropped the snails from the photo, isn’t it? Now it is not. Instead it packs in a lot of stuff: the relation between the plant and the snail, the details of the leaf, and, even though the focus is not on it, the colour and shape of the nail’s shell. The tiny dry leaf that landed on a parchment on my table would become a minimalist composition if I’d drawn back further and given more space to the white of the parchment. But what is it now?

I didn’t think this photo of a boat on Bhimtal has the aggressive minimalism of a Brancusi. The Family reminded me that I am no Brancusi. I concede the point, but is there any reason to aim at less than the best? Maybe I can darken the colour of the boat so that this just looks like a pair of triangles suspended in a void. It is construction sites in Mumbai and sculptural buildings, like one in Kobe’s Bay Area, give me the best opportunities for minimalist photos. But as you can see, even these do not reach the stillness of Malevich’s Black Square.

One of the most famous exchanges in the Bhagwadgita, a dialogue between Arjun and Krishn at the beginning of a civil war, is Arjun’s cry, “The mind is very fickle indeed, turbulent, strong, and obstinate.” Every human mind is the same, and all of us want some control over it. The answer that Krishn gives sounds like no answer at all, “[control over the mind] can be achieved through sincere practice and dispassionate detachment.” But this is the only answer we have. It was the beginning of Gandhi’s political philosophy of Anashakti, detachment. And one can adapt it to the art of photography as well. What is needed to tame the turbulent world into minimalist images is discipline and dispassion: giving up the attachment to detail, to the exactitude that photography seems to bring automatically.

Hiroshima

Remembrance day, armistice day, veteran’s day. Whatever you call it, the 11th of November, at 11 minutes past 11 AM, is set aside for remembering the war dead in countries which participated in WW1. I have blogged poppies and Flanders Field before. Today I wanted to remember civilian deaths in another war. Hiroshima’s peace memorial is the ruins of a concrete building standing very close to ground zero of humanity’s brutal entry into the atomic age. The town had 375,000 people. About 400,000 eventually died in the explosion, radiation, fires, and fallout. These included rescue workers. Ninety percent of the deaths were of civilians and prisoners of war. This was a brutal war with many casualties among civilians across Asia: China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma and much of South East Asia, India, Russia, and Japan. About 2-3 million civilians died in Bengal as a direct result of British war policies. At the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal set up after the war, Justice Radhabinod Pal gave a dissenting opinion in which he argued that colonial powers should also be brought to trial.

But apart from one horrifying evening in what was once the center of Hiroshima, I stayed in the calm bay across from the city’s main tourist attraction. This is the old Shinto shrine of Itsukushima, located in Miyajima Island. I took the ferry across to the island every morning and back to the main land late every evening. I passed the 12th century shrines and the otorii, the great gate, every day on my way into the presence of the Shinto deity, the island itself. The gate made of camphor wood is said not to rot. It is not dug deep into the sea bed, but kept upright by stones weighting the cross beams at the top. I climbed Mount Misen on the island, and at night, before taking the ferry back, I took a photo of the shrines and the tower on the island from the jetty. The dimly lit tower and shrine complex at night hold a wonderful air of mystery.

My world in mid-July

2006: Kashmiri chili

A response to a challenge by a Lens Artist needed some thought. A response needed me to show you my world. I decided to select a picture from each year, as close to mid-July as I can get. Usually the monsoon is at its heaviest in mid-July, which lets me show a season I love. I stayed home some years. In others I traveled. I see that this is a fair picture of what I spend my time on. The series spans the period from 2006, which is represented by the featured photo, to the hard lockdown of 2020.

As always, click on any photo to get to the gallery.

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.

Gari

It is so very easy to make gari, Japanese pickled ginger, at home! Take young ginger roots. Peel gently. Slice thin. Wash in brine. Dry. Pickle in sugar and rice vinegar. How can you spoil it?

I guess you just have to be me.

I scoured two markets and the only fresh ginger I could get is fairly old. As a result it is fibrous, and won’t slice thin. Unless you have the tempered steel blades that samurai and Saladin used (by all accounts, one of the major metallurgical exports from medieval India). So I chopped the root into thick chunks before washing it in brine.

I have given up using sugar in food a few years ago. The Family showed me the coarse brown sugar that she uses sometimes. We don’t have rice vinegar at home, and I already used the best vinegar for other pickling. So it was coarse bits of ginger in pretty harsh vinegar and brown sugar.

After a day I was surprised to find that the ginger had turned the subtle pink colour of real gari. Maybe the brown sugar was responsible for the colour change. It would have tasted better sliced thin. The flavour was good on the tongue, but when I bit into the chunk I still got the spiciness of uncured ginger.

By making all the mistakes that one can, I have now understood the recipe. I’m happy it didn’t involve expensive ingredients.

Quail on a plate

Quail was commonly available in markets when I was a child. In the late decades of the 20th century, there were many attempts to stop the depletion of wild quail from the rapidly diminishing forest cover in India. The result was a long ban on the sale of quail. This has been cautiously revoked since 2014, and currently one can buy farmed quail. It is not as simple as ordering from your delivery service, because it can only be sold under license, and the buyer needs to submit identity documents. But once you go through it, you can buy dressed Japanese quail (Coturix japonica).

I had never made this before. I’d more or less forgotten the taste of the meat. So the first decision was what marinade to use. I went with a regular harissa marination. I like the complex taste of harissa paste by itself: red chili tempered with lime, and the notes of garlic, jeera, coriander seeds, and kaala jeera. Since it goes well both on chicken and fish, it couldn’t go wrong with quail. I guess a fifteen minute marination should be fine, although I forgot about them for a while, and it became an hour. Then I found that I was not sure about cooking times, and I did not want to pop it into an oven.

Instead I improvised an oven with a thick walled pressure cooker. If you leave the top open and keep it on a low gas flame, then it stays at a reasonably constant temperature without building up pressure. I put in a tiny spoonful of oil just so that the bird does not stick to the metal. When it was hot I put the two small birds into it carefully with tongs. The thighs tend to stick, so it was necessary to turn them quickly. I could see it browning before my eyes. It is hard to control the temperature with an improvisation like this. Towards the end of the cooking I found that the pressure cooker had got too hot. I had a bottle of IPA cooling in the fridge, so I splashed some into the cooker to cool it down. The yeasty taste turned out to be a good addition.

Fifteen minutes of cook time. That was good. And at the end I had most of a bottle of IPA left over. It was time for a decadent late afternoon snack. An IPA and quail. Nice. Both. The Family raised an eyebrow, but she joined me at the table.

Later, reading about Japanese Quail I had a moment of shock. These birds had been bred in Japan for 9 centuries (since about the time that Lady Murasaki wrote the Tales of Genji), and the different breeding lines were famous for their songs. All those centuries of culture were wiped out in the aftermath of the second world war. Now they are just farm and lab animals. What a devastating cultural loss!

Around the world in 30 days (2)

After that first day walking around Tokyo, I had a week of work before some more tourism. This work week introduced me to the pleasures of bento (this was 1990, and the box had not yet spread through the US), vending machines which gave out cans of hot tea (in four flavours: matcha, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Assam), and karaoke, which had then just taken over Japan. Finally, on the weekend, I joined a busload of my colleagues for a trip to Nara.

We rolled through crowded highways towards the town of Nikko. What I knew about it was that it had the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the person who unified Japan after decisive battles starting in 1600 CE. There was more to Nikko than this, as I discovered when we stopped at the 97 meters high Kegon waterfall. Autumn had coloured the forest in lurid colours. One of my colleagues told us the story of a young man who committed suicide here in the early years of the 20th century after carving a poem into a tree trunk. He was able to show me an English translation of the poem later. I thought it read like something that Camus could have written.

We got back into the bus and drove on to Lake Chuzenji. The traffic was bad. Alain, sitting next to me, said “This road trip is a nightmare.” We spent the rest of the halting progress talking about the grammatical gender of dreams and nightmares in French. Chuzenjiko was beautiful in this season, when the surrounding forests had turned into a lovely gold. But we had lost too much time in the bad traffic, and we had to move on to the main sight.

I’d already seen a shrine to the Meiji emperor, so I had a picture in mind of a Shinto shrine. But the Toshogu shrine was much more than that. The huge complex has beautiful wood carvings, and a lot of gold. That, and the location made it stunning. I spent a long time wandering through the warehouse area and came to a carving of the three monkeys, a theme which I’d thought of till then as Indian. The Kathasaritsagar was collected in the 11th century, but the stories may have been in circulation for centuries before that. Perhaps some were taken to China by Xuanzang four centuries earlier, and eventually entered Japan.

This was my first inkling of the long hidden connections between many different Asian cultures. Stories of elephants had clearly been carried from India with Buddhism. I saw these wonderful carvings of what must have been imaginary beasts to the Japanese woodworkers who made them. It reminded me of the strange lion carvings which I saw in various parts of India where no lion had been seen in historic times.

The main part of the shrine begins with the Yomeimon, one of the most decorative gates I’ve ever seen. Today I would have taken many more photos of the gate. But I see only this one photo in my album. I remember that this was taken with a roll of 100 ASA Fujicolor which I’d inserted into the camera the previous night. The 24 shots had to last me the whole day, and there were so many details which caught my eye!

This carved wooden peacock on the Yomeimon was one such detail. I liked the beautiful colour of the wood quite as much as the intricate work. The gate was rebuilt in 1818 CE after a fire. There is a lot of such rebuilding in Japan, and there must be a well developed branch of restorative art. I wonder how much creativity each restoring artist is allowed. How much of this peacock is the work of the original woodcarver, and what has each restorer added?

My memory tells me that once I passed the gate I walked through a long avenue surrounded by tall trees with seasonally colourful leaves. But I only have a photo of this place: presumably where Ieyasu was interred. My intention to capture his shrine was waylaid by my impulse of capturing the colours of the leaves, the result is the photo you see above; my final photo from Nikko.

I was going to leave Japan after another day of work, so this also turned out to be my last photo from Japan on that trip.

Around the world in 30 days (1)

I dug up another old album and found that it had photos from a thirty year old trip I’d made around the world, traveling east from Geneva. Scanning old photos with a phone app is now easy. What is hard is to restore some of the faded colour from the prints. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I learnt, and remembered as I tried out my restoration experiments. Thirty years ago, the web was still an experimental curiosity. Much more information was available then on the French Minitel. I spent quite a while on it trying to find tickets as cheap as possible.

My first destination was Japan, and one of the new transpolar flights would have been reasonably priced even if I changed in Hamburg or Helsinki. But in those days I would then have had to spend time on getting another visa. Instead I took an airline which gave me a stop in Mumbai. There was a little hiccup in computing whether I would lose a day or gain one when I crossed the date line going east; this was crucial for a quick change of planes in LA. I took no photos of the thick sheaf of tickets which I eventually purchased, and had to carry with me for a month. This was my first trip to Japan, and I was amazed by how the crowds of Mumbai and the efficiency of Switzerland fused in the working of the train which took me from Narita to Tokyo.

I spent that first day walking through a bit of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace (Kokyo) was very close to the station. This was first built in the late 19th century after the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji emperor became the head of an outward looking country. Part of this complex was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt immediately after. I gaped at the moats and remnants of fortifications (the much older gate Shimizumon above, and a defensive tower near the moat before that), before walking in to the public park called Kitanomaru (featured photo).

From there it was easy to find the shrine of the Meiji emperor (the Meiji Jingu shrine). After walking to Roppongi and spending a bit of relaxed time around the Tokyo Tower in the evening, I had just enough energy left to recover my bags from the station and get to a hotel for the night. In the early 90s Japan was slightly different in feel. Everyone had black hair, signage in English was not common, and only a trickle of tourists could be seen. But the Japanese were as open to foreign influences as they are now. I watched a Japanese street artist do a Flamenco dance on an upper stage of the Tower. For all their delight in the imperfections of life, wabi sabi (侘寂) as an artistic style, I noticed that a Japanese performer is always concerned with perfection.

I had covered about a fourth of the distance around the globe, and by the stamps in my old passport, this was the 5th day of the trip.

Narrow escapes

Yesterday was my second encounter with a cyclone. Fortunately cyclone Nisarga made landfall about 40 kilometers south of earlier predictions, and so missed us by about 80 kilometers. These are enormous disturbances in our atmosphere, so we got rain and high winds all day. But it was the kind of weather we see two or three times every monsoon, so it was not hard to weather. The incident brought back memories of another narrow escape: from typhoon Nangka when I was in Japan five years ago. That was a super typhoon which weakened into a minimal typhoon when it made landfall. The featured photo was taken at Shirasagi-jo, the White Heron Castle in Himeji, a few hours before the landfall. I’m not one to carp at these near misses.

Totoro and neighbour

I seldom have long conversations with my oldest niece any more; she is too traumatized at the end of a long day counseling people traumatized by the long lockdown to talk much. So it was a pleasure to chat with her the other day about Studio Ghibli movies. I’d just finished seeing Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. She said her favourite was My Neighbour Totoro. It is a beautiful movie; two young girls getting to know the natural world around them, full of pauses and asides, nature spirits and fantasy.

The lockdown traumatizes me when I think of all that I could have done if I wasn’t locked up at home while the epidemic rages out of control in Mumbai. The thought of infected people being turned away from over-full hospitals, dying without care, is enough to give you sleepless nights if you think about it. When I think of how much of a privilege it is to be able to have a safe place to continue to live in, it can also induce trauma about the unknown social changes around us. I guess I deal with it by changing focus. I’m very happy that long and wasteful meetings are slowly phasing out in favour of the core work. The extra time goes into household chores and the little new skills and interests that I’m picking up. Studio Ghibli is one of them.

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