Bhim tal

Seven years ago we’d driven up from Delhi to the lake district of Kumaon. It was an October sunset when we stopped by Bhim Tal to stretch our legs. The hills around the lake were still dense with vegetation, green after the rains. The quiet serenity of the lake seemed to be enhanced by the one sailboat out on it. That is the image of the lake which the words Bhim Tal now bring to my mind.

Spring was not a good time this year. The winter had been dry, and the hills around the lake had turned brown. The still sheet of water looked as clear as ever, but I’d been reading the alarm calls sent out by those who monitor the health of these waters. It was quite evident why. The number of houses around the lake has increased tremendously. The lake itself was obscured by makeshift shacks selling knick-knacks to the very few tourists who had come here.

This is the beginning of the end for many such beautiful spots around the country. First a few city people retire to a beautiful spot, then their friends visit. Word of mouth opens a trickle of tourists. Then, when it becomes a constant stream, these shops come up. The once beautiful spot becomes obscured by a jumble of construction. Trash collects. Boat rides, and horse rides become the order of the day. Eventually there are busloads of tourists who come to buy souvenirs, get back on the bus, and go away. There is nothing else for them to do. The process is sad, because with a little tweak and nudge, the entrepreneurship of the locals can be used to increase the value, not degrade it.

The pandemic has interrupted this sad growth. I didn’t see any sails; they have been replaced by the row boats pulled up to the newly made steps down to the water. Their numbers were a testimony to the long slope down which Bhimtal’s tourism slide had gone. At this time barely two boats were in use. One group got off as I watched. Another family was out in the middle of the lake, being pulled along by the boatman. I consoled myself with the thought that the place had remained in public consciousness for a hundred and fifty years before it had reached the stage it was in now.

The world of woven trees

We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.

J.R.R.Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings

The season of jamun (Syzygium cumini) came and went again in an eyeblink. It has been a favourite since my childhood, when my friends and I would pick fallen fruit from the ground, and in complete disregard of instructions from parents, eat them without bothering to wash them. Our mouths would turn a bright purple from the juices of the fruit, so there was no hiding the fact that we had spent a morning foraging. My memories have a strange anti-resonance with Tolkein’s verse, equally laden with nostalgia. Sitting on the shore of this western sea, I still remember my childhood in the far land of woven trees. Especially the burning heat of summer holidays, when dogs and their Englishmen dozed in the shade, and only school children and crows would venture outdoors.

The lake district

The sun had not yet set when we reached Naukuchiatal. The smell of smoke which had hounded us through our journey through the northern part of Kumaon was gone. The lake district of Kumaon is within a day’s drive of Delhi, and normally sees lots of tourists. There is a series of these old glacial lakes in this region, and I prefer the one furthest from Naini Tal, because it has less weekend tourists. In any case, now, with the beginning of a resurgence of the epidemic, crowds had thinned. We had the hotel’s terrace overlooking the lake all to ourselves. A chai in hand, I sat and looked at the sun go down over the hills. A great barbet’s call filled the air. As it got darker, that sound was drowned out by the call of cicadas. Peace at last.

Roasted

Words are slippery things. Metaphors become meanings. So let me drop all metaphors to talk about the roasting of food. In this lockdown I’ve been working at efficient use of an oven. When you think about it, an oven is highly wasteful of energy. It can take ten to fifteen minutes to warm up, especially if you need a high temperature. Then most cooking in an oven requires a half hour or more. So you spend a kilowatt-hour of energy on cooking, much larger than what you typical microwave oven, induction heater, or gas stove would take. My response is to use an oven for multiple things at the same time. I’ve begun to use the whole volume of the oven, using as many trays as I can fit in. I also keep in mind a graded cook, where different things use different temperatures. I start using it after a quick warming to a reasonably low temperature, and then warm in steps to the highest that I need.

Eggs cook in about 10-15 minutes at 150 Celcius. You can start to slow dry tomatoes on another rack while you do this, and you can add in a rack of karela (bitter gourd, if that made up name helps) at the same time if you want. You can push the temperature up to 175 Celcius in the middle of this cook. Then you take it up to 200 Celcius for the next stage. Chicken breasts take about 30 minutes at 200 Celcius. A couple of trays of vegetable can cook at the same time: carrots, radish, cauliflower, pumpkin, onion, beetroot, aubergine (brinjal), potato, are what I’ve tried. If you are started on the tomato, then let it continue inside the oven from the earlier stage for these 30 minutes. Then comes the last stage at 225 Celcius. Take out the chicken breasts and continue to bake the other pieces for another 15 minutes at this temperature, after turning them over, in order to brown them well. Continue the root vegetables and onions for the same time at this higher temperature.

All this may sound finicky, but it is actually simple if you arrange things in trays which need to be taken out or inserted at specific times. I made the graphic that you see above to help me plan. Arranging different parts of the cook into separate trays (or sections of trays) makes it much less of a chore than any other way of cooking.

I’ve reserved my Sundays for oven cooking. I love the fresh roasted plate of veggies to go with chicken. The roasting brings out an amazingly sweet taste from the vegetables. When you eat well-roasted onions, roasted to a transparency greater than in any of the photos here, the taste changes totally. I was reminded of a Hyderabadi dish called anokhi kheer, a sweet made of onions. The great upside is that at the end of the cook we also have a fridge stocked with meat and vegetables that we can use through the week, whenever we are short of time.

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Two confusing butterflies

My first guess when I see a tortoiseshell butterfly is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). It is the most widespread of all butterflies, and found on all continents except Antractica. But when you are in the middle heights of the Himalayas, between a thousand and three thousand meters above the sea, you could be wrong. Think instead of the Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmiriensis, featured photo), and the less common small or mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). I’d learnt this on a walk at a height of 3.1 kilometers, when I realized that I need to look at little details on the hind wings to differentiate between them. Now, on a walk in Binsar at 2.4 kilometers of height, I remembered the lesson again.

When I stopped to carefully photograph every butterfly on the trail, The Family decided to walk on at a steady pace. But I was happy to make a record of the relative numbers of the different tortoiseshells I saw. No painted ladies. Many Indian tortoiseshells. And one solitary sighting of the mountain tortoiseshells (above, resting on a bed of dry oak leaves). I count myself lucky at that. It had been a very warm and dry winter, and these butterflies are very sensitive to warm seasons. I’ll have to learn to tell the difference between these butterflies by looking at their hind wings. If I can do that, then I can identify them as I keep pace with The Family on such walks.

Rara avis

When Juvenal wrote “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”, I don’t know whether he had seen a black swan or not. But when a master birder pointed out a bunch of brown bullfinch (Pyrrhula nipalensis) I knew that I was seeing something rare and delightful. There were several on the tree right next to the Lava-Kolakham road, and the air filled with its characteristic twitter. The light was bad; sunset is very early here. I looked at the two-tone birds, a lifer and a very special one because of its rarity. As soon as I raised the camera to focus, they scattered. The light was bad and the best rescue that I could do just barely shows that halfway down the back the colour changes. The spot was half an hour out of Lava bazar, and I kept an ear out for it. Futile.

Eating on the road

Reading accounts of travel through Asia by Victorian and Edwardian writers, it would seem that they were planning trips through territories which no human had ever visited. They never took into account that food must be plentiful, because there were plenty of people living there. Of course, they were hamstrung by suppositions that they would not be able to eat the food that “natives” ate. When half the food of colonials in British India was Indian, and the spice trade was what had brought them there, this seems like a silly fear.

In actual fact there is seldom a lack of food. Ward says it well, “… since the geography books inform us with surprising unanimity that there are 400,000,000 Chinese there must be food somewhere in China.” Nevertheless he tells his readers to take along jam, Worcestershire sauce and a case of whisky. In the 21st century I think you’ll find these things even in the remotest islands of the Pacific. Whatever. I’m so glad I’m traveling again, and experiencing the romance of little roadside eateries. Chai at sunset, a plateful of steaming momo, fresh vegetables picked from the kitchen garden, a quick omelet, even a mood table with a view. I missed it.

The romance of the railways

Railways of my childhood were more raw: raucous, unruly, and colourful. Under the influence of Kim, I would try to memorize things happening on platforms outside my window in one glance. It never worked. If only we had camera phones then. But the Himalayan Darjeeling Railway retains its more genteel romance: tea gardens, holidays, and the mountains. I got to see it again this month.

The tracks run parallel to the road, and I walked along it. I remembered my aunt talking of people who would step off the train for a tea, and then run after it and catch up at the next station. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Watch the clip of the most famous song ever shot on this route (not so far from the photo you see above), and you can see two boys chasing Rajesh Khanna’s jeep as it paces Sharmila Tagore on the train.

Interestingly, Sharmila Tagore’s character is reading an Alistair Maclean called “When Eight Bells Toll”. I’d completely forgotten that book until I saw this clip again.

Human landscapes

Neora valley is supposed to be one of the richest ecologies in the eastern Himalayas. On the walks through the mixed forests, seeing the layers of vegetation growing one over another, the insects, birds, squirrels, clamber through the undergrowth and canopy, knowing that most animals have heard me before I came and moved away, I had no doubt about it. But even in the middle of this, I found the landscape strangely humanized.

When I walked the Pipeline trail, the vegetation around me seemed entirely wild: a mixture of oak and deodar, bamboo and rhododendron. But then the trail itself encouraged a different kind of growth. A wall of rock rose very steeply on one side. I guess a narrow ledge was once shaped into a walking path by people at some time. The natural slope of the terrain has been changed quite dramatically on the cliff side of the road. The steepness prevents large trees from taking hold on the wall, and the humidity and light allows giant ferns to take root, and droop over the whole hillside. Along the sides of the road flowering shrubs and herbs take root, and fill the trail with the nuts and berries that they produce. The result is a concentration of birds, exactly what we were there for. One kind of human activity had created an ecological niche for another!

On the downhill side, the slope was gentler, and larger trees could grow. Their canopy started a little above our heads. Through breaks in the canopy, due to channels cut over hundreds of years by trickles of water from springs, I could see larger vistas. These ranges of hills are carved through by the small tributaries that merge into the Neora river far below. But before your eyes reach that level, your view snags on the clearings half visible through the early morning fog. Each contains a village. Humans are as important to the shape of this landscape as weather and geology.

Through such a gap I took one of the photos above. In the mist I saw something different from what the camera records. My brain is trained to see human activity, so the red roof of the building was very prominent in my vision. The camera is not a neural computer trained in the way as me, and it sees a different view, paying more attention to the nearer forest, a little less to the village in the lower slope, and even less to the villages on the further slopes. My eye seemed to flit from village to village, making sense of the houses and fields. Further along the trail I could look down at a village with terraced fields. Rice is an important crop here, and every house also has a vegetable patch. We had been eating really fresh food in the homestay.

The notion of keystone species in an ecology is an useful one. It could be an apex predator (like tigers), or a species that works the landscape diligently (like termites in Indian forests), or one that creates mutualism between species (like elephants). Such a species shapes the landscape around it by maintaining a balance of species. Humans are a keystone species, as I clearly saw on these walks. We probably started as mutualists, by domesticating a few species, then became landscape artists through the invention of agriculture, and through social organization dominated other predators to become the apex predator in any landscape. I wonder how the Himalayas would look like if we just left.

The featured photo of a sunny village perched at the edge of a cliff is a typical example of how we shaped landscapes even before industrial capitalism. A clearing surrounded by trees, houses within walking distance in the clearing, but separated from each other, that is a human layout that we all understand. This may be the configuration of landscape and society within which genus Homo evolved. I think it could be the landscape written into our genes: open land within a forest for safety, a band of people looking out for each other, but also subtly in competition for the fruits, berries, and small animals that such open spaces inside forests foster. In the featured photo you can probably just see that dark bird perched on a tree to the left of the village. The photo above is a zoom for a closer look at the maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii).

Flying in the pandemic

We heard a lot of different things about flying since May 25, when airports reopened across the country. The early flights were crowded and had unreliable schedules. It was not yet clear how safe airports and aircrafts would be. There was a lot of drama about cleaning surfaces, but not enough was being written about cleaning the air. By October the outlines of the problem and its solution were clear enough that there were media stories about it. The two points about safety I got were this. First, planes usually have very good airflow and filtration systems, and the air is scrubbed clean much faster than in the building where I work. As a result, the main risk is from people around you transmitting viruses in the usual way: breathing, talking, and coughing. The second point is that we already know how to deal with this: masks and shield, and distancing, when possible. I realized that I had lost my fear of flying in the time of the pandemic.

This tree near the check-in counters makes the empty airport look welcoming

We put this to practice a couple of weeks back, when I realized that The Family and I have never had a holiday in Kolkata. There would be no year better than 2020 to see Christmas lights in this city, since most people are still avoiding going out. We knew that we are taking risks, and it would be safer to stay home, as others are doing. But perhaps with good masks, worn as well and as safely as we know how to, and other safetly precautions, we can still travel now and then. As it turned out, Mumbai airport (photos here) was not crowded. It was possible to deposit baggage, check in, pass through security, and wait in the passenger areas while maintaining distance most of the time. The aircrafts we traveled by were far from full. The airlines are not taking care to maintain distance between occupied seats, but when the load is so little, it is possible to move to seats as far from others as you can. Airlines hand out mask, shield, and sanitizer when you board, and we used them all. Arrivals is a little more chaotic, with knots of people around baggage collection areas, and the exits. Nevertheless, we felt very safe because all the passengers behaved sensibly; the pandemic has encouraged civility. I am happy we tried this out, I think flying is a risk we may be able to take now and then as we wait for a vaccine.