Rite/right of Passage

Traffic flows like tar along the highways out of Mumbai these weekends. With the easing of travel restrictions and the simultaneous start of work, people need a break. Mumbai’s youth always had a rite of passage. A teenager would join friends for a trip to the nearest hills in monsoon. Monsoon rains trickle down from the hills over impermeable volcanic basalt. These seasonal streams falls over the frequent cliff faces in these hills to make monsoon waterfalls. Gangs of the young spend drunken weekends under random waterfalls . Even decades removed from that age, The Family still longs to get out to the waterfalls every monsoon. In trying to avoid these crowds we decided to walk around Lonavala one Thursday afternoon.

We drove up for an early lunch and then exited on to the road leading to the lake. Pandemic restrictions have not gone completely. Just past the embankment was a police checkpost where a few people were turned away. We looked decrepit enough to be allowed through. “What are they checking for?” The Family wondered. My speculation was that they are denying the right of passage to gangs of the nearly-adult. Bad times for them. Not only do you face a tough negotiation with parents, but then it comes to nought because of the police. “Your three cameras are passport enough for us,” The Family declared. It was an overstatement; one was a phone.

It had started raining, and it would continue all evening. I wished I had fewer cameras with me. I couldn’t bring out one because of the rain. Even the waterproof camera gets drops over its lens in rain. I huddled over it to dry the cover. The rain had grayed the lake. The clouds had come down over it, hiding the far side. I loved the serenity of the place. Could it make a decent photo? I wasn’t sure as I clicked away. You can always delete things which don’t turn out halfway decent.

On the far side a stream staggers down a cliff every monsoon. We ambled round to it. It had attracted a few other people. Some couples, a family with exuberant children, a small group of young people. The light was getting worse. We didn’t have the right footwear for getting close enough to it. We looked at the falling water for a while and then moved away. Across the road there was an attractive symmetrically spreading tree. It deserved to have its portrait taken.

Even in these sparse crowds a couple of people were trying to run a business. A middle-aged man was selling roasted bhutta (corn). A more enterprising lady was offering everything from her version of a food truck. From under that awning I spotted a group of hikers walking up the slope towards the top of the waterfall. “They have the same footwear as us,” The Family remarked. The lady asked “Do you want a tea?” The Family was torn, but then decided on the tea.

Strolling in the rain

By the time we reached the luxury tents by the side of Vaitarna lake, it was well past mid day. As we took in the breeze by the infinity lake, we met a group of young doctors who were unwinding after a year of hard work. Never an easy life, and certainly not in the last months. Lunch, then settle our stuff into a tent, and by the time we were ready to go out again, a drizzle had set in. The doctors were in and around the pool, two bottles of wine open on a nearby table, glasses in hands. They called out to us, but we wanted a walk. The scenery was spectacular after all.

There was a choice of extremely muddy tracks or a black-topped road. We’d had a bit of discussion about what to wear. Expecting really heavy rain, I’d opted for shorts and a tee, and flip flops. The rain is not cold, so this works. “No point getting trekking shoes soggy,” I’d said to The Family. She had taken normal, everyday shoes and a poncho. Also good. But our choice of footwear meant we couldn’t take muddy tracks down slopes. So the yellow-brick road it was.

Clouds were massing overhead. We didn’t know yet that the next three days would be so stormy that we wouldn’t feel like going out to the pool. There was a high-pitched call overhead. I looked up to see a black winged kite (Elanus caeruleus) hovering overhead. I missed my long lenses. A macro lens or phones are just enough to remind you of a sighting like this, but not to show what we saw. The kite hovered and dived down to the lake. “I didn’t know it eats fish,” The Family said. We moved on to watch it as it soared and stooped again. It wasn’t breaking the water. So probably it was scooping up large insects. Dragonflies?

Walking in the middle of farmlands you expect to see cattle. Sure enough, there were water buffaloes grazing in an open field near the path. This must be a wonderful time for them. Pools of muddy water form during these weeks of storms, and take many weeks to dry. The animals don’t have to move far between forage and wallow. There were a couple of very heavy showers as we walked. There was little cover. We could huddle behind bushes or under stunted thorn trees, or we could keep walking. We decided to turn our backs to the wind and walk.

When it became a little light, I took out my waterproof camera, and started taking photos of wildflowers. The Family sometimes gets a little impatient when I do this, but today there were enough things to see that she was happy walking at my uncertain pace. She pointed out a butterfly. Again I missed my long lens. Fortunately my camera has enough pixels that I could crop a long shot. This is a common crow (Euploea core), one of the commonest butterflies in the Sahyadris, especially at this time of the year. My flip flops worked better than soggy shoes would have. We compromised on a walking distance between my footwear and The Family’s, and decided that it was about time to walk back.

Darkness in Matheran

Good legs and comfortable shoes are what you need to visit Matheran. No cars are allowed on the plateau. You could drive from Mumbai and park at the immense parking lot below the plateau, or take the train in. A century old toy train may run from the station up, but it is often out of order. So you either walk or take a horse. A dozen years ago, we walked up immediately after the end of the monsoons.

No ID for the moth, and I didn’t notice the insect with the long elegant legs until later

Matheran is only 800 meters above sea level, but it seems immensely high when you look up at it. The youngest among us was seven years old. Lewis Carroll’s description “All of us were out of breath, and some of us were fat” fitted us to the last trailing T. Clouds had gathered over the plateau as we drove in. True Mumbaikars that we are, our rain gear had been packed away after the monsoon. We confidently predicted no rain, and began the walk along the tourist route. The hour long walk turns lovely a little way up. We stopped frequently to take photos and prolonged it a little.

After checking into the hotel, we decided to have tea before going out for a walk. It can take a couple of days to stroll all the way around the plateau. Although we were keen to do it, we had to have tea first. It was already late afternoon. A very lucky decision, because the clouds burst into a hard rain. The rain became a storm. And in no time, a tree fell on the power lines up to the plateau. It would take a few hours for Matheran to get its electricity back. The tea became an elaborate affair. Darkness fell before we could go out.

We love to take isolated hotels. This one evening it did not seem like a good decision. The mall road was a smudge of light in the distance. We walked out into a dark and muddy path. You knew there was a puddle to be avoided only after your shoes were wet. The Family did not mind. It was a little adventure, and Matheran is famous for its footwear. Each shop in the market had emergency lights. Power outages are frequent, but commerce cannot stop. Handbags, fancy footwear

I knew it was time for me to leave The Family, The Leafless, and the nieces to their devices. My cousin and I slowly melted into the gloom. The thin red laterite soil overlying the porous rock would drain away the water within a couple of hours. That’s also the reason why this place is not really fit for human habitation. There would have been no people here if it wasn’t for the 19th century craze to take the mountain air. That drew the British, the Parsis, and the Bohras to build little sanatoria here. Their remains, now largely turned into hotels, now draw crowds from Mumbai. The locals turn up to make a living off the city folk.

Leaving the women to the handbags and chappals, we walked around looking at what else was on offer. Training horses for riding across the plateau was a major occupation. Although the darkness was not the best time for it, there were lines of hopefuls who eyed us. We stopped instead at one of the many people roasting bhutta. After all, you need to eat a couple of times between tea and dinner. It was either bhutta or chikki. Why not both, I suggested to my cousin. He is an agreeable sort when you make such suggestions.

The lights came back before we had finished inspecting all the food on offer. We decided to find the rest of the party before less adventurous tourists decided to leave the safety of their hotel rooms. A mall road is a magnet for moths and men after dark. I took a last photo of two men in animated conversation in a small eatery. It was time to go find how many shoes and handbags a woman needs.

The rain bicycle

As the man came over the hill a thin blowing of rain met him. What had set out as a walk along tarmac lanes had turned dreamily by hedge-gap into a cross-ploughland trek, the red mud of the fields inching up his exposed legs. And now there was a wetness in the air that would be downpour again at any minute.

This was the view he had been thinking of. Vaguely, without really directing his walk, he had felt he would get the whole thing from this point. He saw the rain pulling up out of the distance, dragging its grey broken columns, smudging the trees and the fields. But as he turned, something moved in his eye-corner. All his senses startled alert. He stopped.

Over to his right a thin, black bicycle was running across the field toward the hill, its head down, neck stretched out. It seemed to be running on its toes like a cat, like a dog up to no good. From the high point on which he stood the hill dipped slightly and rose to another crested point fringed with the tops of trees, three hundred yards to his right. As he watched it, the bicycle ran up to that crest, showed against the sky – for a moment like a nightmarish leopard – and disappeared over the other side.

He ran along the top of the wood and finding no shelter but the thin, leafless thorns of the hedge, dipped below the crest out of the wind and jogged along through thick grass to the wood of oaks. In blinding rain he lunged through the barricade of brambles at the wood’s edge. The little mean trees were small choice in the way of shelter, but at a sudden fierce thickening of the rain he took one at random and crouched down under the leaning trunk.

Still panting from his run, drawing his knees up tightly, he watched the blurred lines of rain slanting through the boughs into the clumps of grass and herbs. He felt hidden and safe. The sound of the rain as it rushed and lulled in the wood seemed to seal him in.

All around him the boughs angled down, glistening, black as iron. From their tips and elbows the drops hurried steadily, and the channels of the bark pulsed and gleamed. He wanted this rain to go on for ever.

All at once he found himself thinking of the bicycle. The hair on the nape of his neck prickled slightly. He remembered how it had run up to the crest and showed against the sky.

He tried to dismiss the thought. Bicycles wander about the countryside often enough. But the image of the bicycle as it had appeared against the sky stuck in his mind. It must have come over the crest just above the wood in which he was now sitting. To clear his mind, he twisted around and looked up the wood between the tree stems, to his left.

At the wood top, with the silvered grey light coming in behind it, the black bicycle was standing under the thorns, its head high and alert, its ears pricked, watching him.

A bicycle sheltering from the rain generally goes into a sort of stupor, tilts its front wheel and hangs its head and lets its handle bars droop, and so it stays as long as the rain lasts. This bicycle was nothing like that. It was watching him intently, standing perfectly still, its soaked neck and shank shining in the hard light.

What was he to do? Ridiculous to try driving it away. And to leave shelter, with the rain still coming down full pelt, was out of the question. Meanwhile the idea of being watched became more and more unsettling until at last he had to twist around again, to see if the bicycle had moved. It stood exactly as before.

Bicycles left out by farmers in a field always make me think of them as being alive. I have a mental image of them as feral animals, racing alone through the landscape. When I saw one in a monsoon downpour while walking in the rolling fields near Vaitarna village, Ted Hughes’ short story, The Rain Horse, came to mind.

A few minutes

Doesn’t everyone need exactly what they don’t have? During normal times I would be so wrapped up in busy-work all day that I had no time to think outside the box. In a life crammed with not-so-necessary meetings, unending traffic, pointless face-to-faces, a holiday was a time to unwind. You wanted the most picturesque. Now, in a time of travel restrictions, any get away is good enough. We are lucky to have spectacular destinations a short drive away. These are destinations that we neglected in the past. Now the idea of wading through seasonal streams in beds of volcanic basalt is wonderful. Everything outside your eyeballs is a source of inspiration. As your body exerts itself, your mind becomes alert. You see new things.

We came to a point where the stream ran below a low bridge. We were forced to cross the road. We weren’t the only ones. A land crab scuttled across the blacktop. I’d never seen a land crab walk before, and I’d expected the same ten-footed sideways gait as sea crabs. This one walked sideways on two feet! Bipedal land crabs should be easy to identify. Unfortunately I have no field manual. So I’ll leave it as belonging to the family Gecarcinidae and move on. I have to move faster than The Family when I’m taking photos, because she gets a little testy sometimes about my frequent photo stops.

Clambering over stones at the edge of the road I saw a mass of pulsating red. A closer look showed me the original inhabitants of India. These were centipedes (class Chilopoda). They have one pair of legs in each segment of the body. This distinguishes them from millipedes, which have two pairs of legs per segment. It seems that their ancestors lived in the Indian landmass 80 to 100 million years ago. The oldest signs of humans here are no older than 1.5 million years ago. I gave these unfriendly ancient natives of India a wide berth, and moved on.

The flooding water had moved loose stones on to the road. These scattered stones now stood in the way of the water still flowing over the road. I looked at the criss-cross of braided flow that resulted. Quite an interesting pattern. Worth a shot, isn’t it?

As we climbed proceeded along the stream on the other side of the road, more inspiration waited to strike. My strides disturbed a leap of grasshoppers (infraorder Acrididae). They jumped from the low grass on to stones. Most of them jumped away immediately into grass again. A few stragglers gave me an opportunity to take photos. Stubby little bodies, light green in colour. Huge hind legs, which could unfold at the knee to allow them to jump many times their body lengths. I saw this species again a couple of times. I should spend some time trying to identify them.

Just ahead, a small caterpillar on a rock in the middle of the stream posed a mystery. What is a caterpillar doing on a bare rock in the middle of flowing water? A mystery worthy of Hercule Poirot, I believe. There were rice fields ahead. This stream led there. Perhaps a clue to the origin of the caterpillar? My little grey cells tickled. I walked on.

After the rain, me

Saturday night I fell asleep to the sound of thunder and very hard rain. We’d planned a simple trek, just the two of us, to a hill fort outside Mumbai on Sunday morning. The rattling of windows in a proper monsoon storm woke me before the alarm. I looked out of the window and decided to cancel our plans. Even if the rain stopped, as it briefly did soon after sunrise, the ground would have turned to mush, and the mountainside would be slick with water. Not the easiest conditions for a walk.

After a cup of tea, The Family decided to go for a walk around the complex. It has been an odd monsoon. Very high winds, many dry spells, but normal rainfall on the average. The result is that several trees have fallen, and lots of branches and twigs have been shaken off others. These have been piled up next to paths, waiting for final disposal at the end of the monsoon. Today the lawns and playgrounds between buildings were flooded.

On a tree quite a way above my head, I saw one of the exotic giant snails which usually hide below shrubs and fallen leaves. This climate refugee must have started its journey early, but it was far from the only one. The half hour walk yielded so many creatures that The Family threatened to leave me on my own if I stopped again to take a photo of nameless creatures. I must have really tried her patience, because she was impermeable to my argument that each climate refugee has a story worth listening to.

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

Paul Verlaine (Il pleure dan mon coeur)

Oh sweet sound of rain
Ground and on rooftops!
For a heart that is bored,
O the song of the rain!

He cries for no reason
In this sickening heart.
What! no treason ?
This grief is without reason.

Paul Verlaine (It rains in my heart)

Here is a small selection of creatures which were trying to get away from their flooded homes. The colourful millipede is extremely common along the west coast of India, and perhaps even further afield (It is Anoplodesmus saussurii. Thanks for the ID, NN; it is no longer nameless). Unfortunately there is no go-to field guide which would let me identify it. It is a creature that lurks in leaf litter, and quite innocuous. The small brown snail was new to me. It had crawled out of the pool below a tree on to a giant bracket fungus growing on the trunk. I don’t know how many kinds of slugs you find around Mumbai, but I’m sure I’ve seen this species before.

Back home after the walk, I checked my phone for messages. There was a forwarded message from the Municipal corporation saying that the main water purification plant for the city had been damaged. Flood waters had breached the pipes, and citizens were advised to boil water for drinking. Are these episodic extreme rain events due to climate change? If yes, then are we beginning to see the conditions that will eventually force us to join the ranks of climate displacees?

A walk

You don’t get to do the same walk twice. So, although this is a walk I’ve written about earlier, I’m doing it again now in monochrome, and the featured photo is one example of this reworking. I’d posted a colour photo earlier. Although I like that more, I’m not unhappy with this version. It kind of fits the slowly fading memories I have of the walk. And there is also a sort of shadow, a memory of a memory of a memory of an earlier walk along the same route in colder weather.

This part of Binsar National Park is a mixed oak-rhodo-pine forest, in a dynamic dance with pine grasslands on other slopes. My understanding of their interactions has certainly improved since I last wrote about this walk. I should really go back now and correct my earlier post. Although these pine grasslands are much maligned by local ecology activists, there is increasing scientific evidence that the politics is based on early twentieth century understanding that may need to be revised. The mixed forests are not more bio-diverse, they are only more full of larger animals. Slopes full of pines are very photogenic. Experimenting with monochrome, I found that long shots of these mixed forests are also turn out well. The white undersides of the leaves of Himalayan white oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) reflect light very well when a breeze moves them.

I’d stopped many times to take photos of the butterflies sunning themselves on the path. Fallen oak leaves spotted with mould in the dappled light which filtered through the canopy presented an interesting challenge in monochrome conversion. I like the way the butterfly appears slowly as you look at the photo above. This is the mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), which is easier to recognize in a colour photo I’d posted before.

Oak trees support a lot of other plants and fungi which feed on them. These ferns, mistletoe, orchids, and lichens and fungi catch light in different ways. As a result, oaks are great subjects for close up photos. I love them in colour, but I’m not unhappy with the wide variety of shadows I see in the photo of above. I think I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future. I’m sure there are wonderful opportunities for more monochrome photos lurking in these forests.

I can’t leave this place without saying something about the mammals which live here. I never managed to photograph the quick yellow-throated martens which run through these jungles, but the band of Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus) which I saw here waited long enough for me to take photos. I’ve posted a colour photo of the individual you see here earlier. I think she looks equally elegant in monochrome.

Truth and the camera

What is truth? I can’t pretend to answer this in its complex philosophical entirety, but I could try to talk about my memories of a walk at sunset. I did this walk alone. I did not meet anyone at all. I carried a camera. If I hadn’t used it, the only truth would be my memory of the walk. The core of that truth is that my mind was roiling when I started, and at peace when I finished. The truth of the images from my camera should then capture the events that changed my mind. It was the sunset and my attempt to capture that fading light. The deliberate concentration on a problem I could solve was what settled my mind.

The mind is very fickle, turbulent, strong, and obstinate. It is like the wind, impossible to control. … When all desires vanish in a state of thoughtfulness, when the inner self is satisfied within itself, then one is a master of a stable mind.

Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Bhagwat Gita

If you had little time, you could be satisfied with the simplest part of the truth, that a walk during a nice sunset put my mind at rest. The featured image would be enough. Nice lake, wooded path, colourful sunset. Restful. But that story hides a further truth. The image did not appear by itself. I worked at it. First, by selecting a viewpoint: have I got enough of the water? No, move a few steps. Now? Yes. But the colours in the camera are not what I see. So I’ll have to recreate them in post-processing. The featured photo is both memory and process. That is a larger truth.

Uncovering the image inside the shadows is hard. The inset in the image on the right shows what I could do quickly. Doing better than this might require a lot more time than I’m willing to spend.

But there is more to it, of course. The idea of capturing the reflection of the sunset in the lake came out of an idea which would not work. I took a photo of the fiery sky, the one which you see above. I meant to bring out the details from the darkness in software. That works often enough, but I realized that might not work here. So I would need the back up that you saw. I was right, and my earlier experiences taught me the necessity of the backup. I was completely immersed in the sunset I was participating in. So much so that I had dragged a part of my past into this sunset, forced the larger me to take part in that.

The truth that capturing what my eye saw required more than the software in the camera came a little earlier. As the sun set, the last lights fell on leaves high above me. My camera could not capture what I saw. If I zoomed into the leaves, the background became black. If I took a wider shot, then the dazzle of backlit leaves disappeared. So I decided to take the wider shot (the one on the right), then crop and edit it to get what I really saw (the shot on the left). The truth is the entirety of these photos: that it was concentration on what I saw, being in the moment, while being anchored in the continuity of myself that settled my mind.

But why was my mind unsettled to begin with? Because I had spent the golden hour of the day looking out on a brilliant landscape through the windows of a moving car. Separated from the world around me in this way, being able to connect only through random shots taken with my phone, I had been reduced to the role of an automaton. Was I merely a CCTV camera, programmed to record what came into view? A photograph is not just a record of what is in front of you, but a result of constant evaluation of many possibilities, discarding most, and capturing what is the truth in the mind’s eye. A photo requires a still mind in knowledge of itself, and a seeking towards an expression of that knowledge. That’s a zen truth, isn’t it?

Hustle without bustle

After another lunch out, we walked through the area around the stock market. The state has designated five categories of lock down, and districts move between them depending on the availability of hospital beds. This is one of the most rational ways that public health agencies can act, but it is still an awful time for business. Mumbai is now in the middle category. I chatted with the owner of the restaurant: he is resigned to the enormous losses, the impossibility of doing his full menu, and the lack of a stimulus.

Since last June we have discovered a large number of people who, having lost their previous business, turned to food as the one thing which always generates an income, no matter how meager. Associated with this is the rise of delivery services, taking their workers from among people who have lost other semi-skilled jobs. The Family worked out a way of no-contact tipping of these delivery boys. We still say boys, although a slowly increasing number are older men, perhaps compensating for the loss or incapacitation of the major bread-earner in the family.

Our walk showed us the same business model on the street. Many of the old street-food stalls are open, now to a much reduced number of customers. Businesses are working on restricted in-office personnel, and the central business district of Mumbai looked empty in the middle of the week. The man roasting peanuts outside the stock exchange, whom you see in the photo above, was joined in the lunch business by newcomers. We saw two such new businesses working out of parked SUVs. One was selling plates of cut fruits, the other was serving out plates of idlis and vadas from large vessels. I liked the views through the open doors of the boots. SUV owners turning to street catering is an indication of a fall in incomes. Mumbai has changed deeply without changing. If the streets are anything to go by, the hustle remains, although the virus may have set us back by one generation in terms of prosperity.

The Family feels like providing business to these street food vendors, but there is only so much you can eat. Paying for others is perhaps the right alternative, but how do you provide a connection between these businesses and the people who are going hungry? I ask the question here because the last such question I asked generated responses, including direct reach outs, which helped us and others in our tiny efforts to help.

Slow Fade

We’d wasted the best hours of the late afternoon puttering down a nondescript mountain road. I was silently raging at this waste of a wonderfully clear golden hour. Now that we were close to home, I decided to get off and walk around Naukuchiatal to the hotel. There would be no spectacular sights here, but I would get to exercise my camera. The last light lit up the sky to the west. It would soon fade.

At one spot on the path I stopped to take this photo. I thought the day was now not totally wasted, but I wished I’d had a walk on one of the high meadows bordering an oak and deodar forest. I’d sat down on a rock, taken a photo of a beetle, and watched a laughing thrush. An hour there would have been wonderful, perhaps giving me more birds and insects. This was tame, but better to carpe the remains of the diem, than to carp about the most recent afternoon of my mis-spent life.

Now there was a wall between me and the lake. Not so bad, I thought, this gives me a different set of subjects. Quick, before the light fades, take the gold shining through dry leaves and grass. Not spectacular, but an image that I enjoy.

Red-orange bougainvilleas are not the most common, and backlit with the golden light they are made for the camera. I was happy enough with this shot. But the sun had dipped behind the curve of the turning earth. The light would fade from now on.

I was standing behind a retired colonel’s house, looking into his garden. Two dogs voiced their displeasure. I heard the voice of the master quieten them. In the last of the fading gold light I caught the other bougainvillea in his garden.

The fading light is actually ideal for this delicate purple-pink rose. I photographed a bunch which was on the other side of the bush and saw that the slightly better light bleached the colours off them. This is better. I’ve met this variety earlier, but I don’t know what it is called. I wished the colonel would come around and tell me. No luck. He’d probably settled down with his whisky and soda, dogs at this feet, watching the sun set over the lake.

I came to a part of the road next to a deep woods. This is supposed to be a good place for birds. We never managed to come here during our vacation. But right next to the road I saw this white-cheeked bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys, aka Himayalan bulbul). The light was still good enough to see its white cheek, but in any case its stylish quiff is almost enough to identify it by. I did manage to record its call too.

The hills are alive with the sound of barbets. And I’m sure they have been for a thousand years. I got a glimpse of a Great barbet (Psilopogon virens) in silhouette. By now the light was so bad that the final identification could only be done by its call. Strangely, although I heard its call all the time for the whole week, I never got a good view of one. At least not good enough for a better photo.

But the day had one more present waiting for me. I was inside the grounds of the hotel now and stopped to try to figure out a strange bird call I’d heard. Could it be a nightjar? When it didn’t call again, I looked at the rapidly darkening lake on my right. Just above me an unlit light-bulb caught the last pink gold light of the day, lensing the forest around it. One last shot before I went in to order a sundowner.