The heat and haze this October is really something else altogether. As we drove back along Marine Drive just before lunch, The Family looked out across the white and almost featureless vista on our right and said “The Anthropause is really over. Look at that smog.” She might be right about the Anthropause, but it is not yet smog that we see from the moment we wake up. It is a haze of moisture that hangs over the city right now.
October is always hot and humid in Mumbai, but this year is something else. The day before yesterday, I opened the box of detergent before I started the washing machine and found that it the soap had turned into a sticky mass. Washing powder is deliquescent, like any soap, and it sticks a little during the monsoon. I’ve never seen it turn into a solid sticky mass ever before, and certainly not a month after the monsoon has gone.
This haze signals a very warm sea. Up, at the very north of the world, arctic ice has not yet started to form. Alarms have begun to sound about the possibility of disastrous flooding from increased glacial melting in the Himalayas, a possibility that would need international collaboration in a region now fraught with confrontation. The unprecedented levels of warming this year go from global to something that I can see in my box of detergent.
On a walk through a wet and sunny garden I remember the poem that made Dylan Thomas famous.
The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.
More than half a year at home; thrown back by two generations, into a time when infectious diseases could kill you. Almost a year since I traveled out of India. But the seasons change as usual. Varsha has given way to sharad, exactly as the calendar dictates it will. The motion of our world around the sun drives the seasons. The nuclear fusion that powers the world’s most destructive bombs powers life. Walking under trees you see death and life.
I turned the leaf over, and under it a caterpillar had drawn a cocoon around itself. A butterfly will emerge in days.
The weather is clearing up slowly as the monsoon dies down. Brilliant sunshine and no haze is the order of the day right now. On Saturday afternoon The Family and I decided to go for a walk to Marine Drive; we’d not seen it for six months. It was different. Not very crowded. People were mostly masked. These two youngsters without masks looked so much a throwback to earlier times that they gave me a twinge of nostalgia. I know that they should not be doing this, but I can hardly blame them. At their age you think you are immortal. I don’t want to take that away from them, though I hope they have sense enough to mask themselves when there are more people around.
There are reminders chalked on to the promenade. People took photos. I took one. The Family, who has been reading newspapers more regularly than me, told me that it appeared in the papers some days back. I think it is heartening that so many people are obviously being sensible. Hospitals are no longer over-run. The result is that the fraction of deaths in hospitals is decreasing. I’m sure many people are not getting themselves tested, and the actual number of deaths will only be tallied by historians in future. But the epidemic is destroying the country in other ways: jobs and incomes are lost, other diseases are unchecked, school meals have been stopped, less well-to-do children are missing school because they can’t go online. It’s too depressing to think of during a lovely walk by the sea. Let’s go back to admiring the view.
The weekend was bright and sunny. It was the first weekend of the month of Ashwin, the beginning of the season of sharad. It was warm and humid, as you might expect of a season which the British called an Indian summer, but the blue skies were fantastic. In the 4th century BCE, the Sanskrit play, Mudrarakshasa, described sharad as the season of white, of inner beauty. On a walk with my camera, these champa (Plumeria alba) flowers against the gentle blue sky seemed to be the essence of the new season. The skies will be grey again, but eventually give way to this blue.
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.
It was interesting to dive into photo archive for this and past Septembers, to see how monsoons end.
The featured photo of water buffaloes was taken in September 2007.
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.
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.
When I went to sleep last night the oppressive humidity of the afternoon had given way to a cooler breeze which brought rain. I woke to a clear morning. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, but the orchestra of birds was in full swing. A coppersmith barbet supplied the metronimic rhythm as the competing trills of green bee-eaters and purple sunbirds rose over it. The parrakeets joined in, and I thought I could hear an Alexandrine call amongst the rose-ringed.
I made my tea and looked out. The break in the clouds was the promise of the approach of sharad ritu, that interval before autumn that the English named an Indian summer. The sky was a blue that was almost impossible to see in Mumbai since the 1990s. The anthropause has made a big difference to the quality of the air. The crows had just begun to get into the swing of things. I was always a night person, more familiar with the late rising constellations than sunrise. But I’ve begun to enjoy this interval between sunrise and the start of human activity.
No time to wallow in the mire
Come on …