Bad days

To the right of the building that you see in the featured photo, above the trees, is my view of the sea. I can often see ships on the horizon, waiting to dock in the Mumbai harbour. Not now. For the last two weeks, I have not seen the horizon because of the pollution. It is specially galling, because we’ve had wonderfully clear air for almost a year, since late March 2020. I took winter pollution in my stride before, hiding behind masks and switching on air purifiers, but this year I reminded myself of the reasons behind this.

Normal sea breeze
Inversion layer

The reason for the annual winter pollution is the formation of an inversion layer in the atmosphere. When the sea is colder than the land, the hot air over the city rises, and cold air from the sea blows in. This happens daily, through the year. In winter, the sea air is colder, and the sun is not high enough in the sky to warm this layer fast enough that the breeze sustains itself through the day. As a result, a cold layer stays put over the city, as human activity pumps more pollutants into it. Since cold air is denser, the layering is stable, and the static dense layer just gets more and more dirty. On a relatively warmer day this layer can get heated enough to rise, and one can suddenly see the air clear up. But then as the air cools again, it gets murky as the temperature inversion sets in. By comparing the maximum and minimum sea water temperature with atmospheric temperature, it seems to me that, as usual, we are in for bouts of bad air right until March.

What bothers me is the source of the pollution. Since businesses are still running in shifts, and people are largely home, the traffic is not as bad as it used to be. Sure, the rush hour has its share of snarls, but travel times are still only half of what they were last January. On the other hand, all the construction and repairs that were postponed by nine or ten months has suddenly started again. I can see roads dug up everywhere, many earth movers at work, and concrete being poured. I guess dust from construction, rather than traffic and industry, is the main component of the bad air now. This is actually worse than normal, and very bad news for respiratory health.

In other years I find that visits to Delhi or Kolkata in this season are likely to give me a bad throat. The reason is that the air pollution in both these cities comes from burning organic matter, which may cause fungal spores and bacteria to become airborne. These are directly responsible for throat infections. Winter pollution in Mumbai usually causes respiratory problems in more indirect ways. However, if dust is now a major component of air pollution in Mumbai, then the bacteria carried in soil have just added to the list of throat infections we can now get. Add this to our worries about COVID-19 and the possible cross over of the bird flu now killing poultry and crows through the country. Consider also that an inversion layer prevents the rapid dilution of pathogens that infected people breathe into the atmosphere. All told, the next couple of months could be bad.

Blown down

You know it is cold in Mumbai when you can no longer walk around the house in shorts and a tee. You know climate change is in the offing when long sleeves and track pants become confortable clothes to wear. The minimum temperature fell below 20 Celsius several nights this week. Satellite photos showed a continuous corridor of clouds blowing in from the Indian Ocean. The clouds and rain obscured the Geminid meteor shower. Strange weather.

Sunrise or sunset?

Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics dies,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
And blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.

—Dylan Thomas

How can you tell the difference between a photo of a sunset and a sunrise. One of the most popular classes of photos on instagram are these, but we depend on the artist to tell us which is which. I began to wonder if there is something intrinsic in the quality of light by which we can tell. Is there something to the metaphors of rebirth and hope or death and melancholy which are associated with these two daily events, or is it just a fancy?

I went through my old photos, classifying them into bunches: so many minutes before sunset, so many after sunrise, looking in the direction of the sun, away from it, or at angles to it. Then I measured the colours and luminosity. There was no way to tell by these visual cues which was a sunrise and which a sunset.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

—T.S. Eliot

But it turns out that there is a subtle difference. It is not the sky that gives it away, but the earth. The temperature at dawn is lower than the temperature at dusk. This is most visible in winter, when the mist, if there is any, is thicker in the morning. In Mumbai, when it is seldom cold enough for the mist, the haze is worse at sunset, because the sea water has warmed through the day to saturate the air. If you know local conditions, you can usually use these other cues to figure out whether a particular photo you are looking at is from dawn or dusk. “Satisfactory,” as Nero Wolfe might say.

Winterdawn

Yesterday morning we said goodbye to our clifftop refuge. We woke before dawn, pulled ourselves out of the warm blanket, and walked out past the garden to the edge of the cliff. Far below us was Arthur Lake, with a huddle of houses around it. But we could see beyond it to the ranges which enclose the Kalsubai wildlife sanctuary. It was just the beginning of winter, but the valleys were enveloped in a morning fog. The sky was still dark. We were not warm in our shirts, but not too cold either.

We stood there for about twenty minutes, our heads pointing towards the far away stars, as the earth rolled on its axis, its horizon dropping towards the sun. The dark of the sky paled from a blue to white; the deep rose above the furthest hill brightened into a red, and then a blazing yellow, as the horizon slipped below the disk of our nearest star. The glowing ball of fusion flame seemed to rise above the hills. It is such an ordinary sight, but new and exciting each time!

In the measure of our own lifetimes, the cosmos is completely regular and predictable. The intersection of this regularity with the unpredictability of the atmosphere renews our experience of the sunrise every day. In hours the sun would burn away the mist. By the time we left for the drive back to our home, the valleys were clear.

Very slow changes

Ice reflects 80% of the sun’s light back to space. Ocean waters absorb 90% of the light. As a result, when arctic ice melts, the amount of heat absorbed in the ocean increases by 450% (that is 100 X 90/20). I looked at photos I’d taken of Greenland as I flew over it on June 8, 2006, and I could actually see that. Ice is the brightest thing you can see from an aircraft flying 11 kilometers up in the air, at the edge of space. And sea water is the darkest.

A long non-stop flight to LAX can be boring. I’d wandered over to the galley, and poured myself a glass of water. The window shade was open, and I looked out, and saw icebergs being birthed. Rushing back with my camera, I captured a sequence of photos which I still look at now and then. I’d wanted to go back to those frozen northern lands, but never took the time to work that into my schedule. Now I wonder whether I will ever do it, while they remain frozen.

An article in Moscow Times first alerted me that this year was a disaster in more senses than I had realized. A portion of the Arctic Ocean called the Laptev sea usually freezes early, and causes icing to start over the rest of the ocean. This year it is terribly delayed, due to the exceptionally hot summer. The weather changes from year to year, so how exceptional is this? If you look at the record of ice formation in the thirty years from 1980 and 2010, then this year is an extreme outlier; it hasn’t happened so late in any other year.

Why am I worried about my future travel plans? It is because the loss of sea ice is a runaway process. If the ice becomes patchy, and uncovers more water, then the oceans absorb 450% more heat from the sun in summer, and stay warmer into winter. This causes less ice to form in the following year, so exposing a larger surface of the sea in the next summer. And so it goes. Maybe in four or five years I will find myself able to travel to Iceland or Greenland. And by then the winters could just be more balmy. Of course, it is not only my collection of photos which will suffer.

Sunrise to sunset

Back in the land of the seeing, I’m so happy that I missed the news cycle, full of the elections in Myanmar and Bihar. It gives me a quieter state of mind in which to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets in my neighbourhood. I stretched the definition of sunrise a little when I went off for a walk by the harbour in the morning.

Coffee in hand, I stared at the incredible changes in the harbour. In the two weeks since I’d last walked there, the harbour has filled with boats. Sails furled, these Lightning class boats are ready to make the best of Mumbai’s sailing season. I watched one unfurl its sail and slip off into deeper waters. The air was warming, and a haze of vapour lay over the harbour, but I liked the glint of the sun on the sea. It is sailing season again for the next five months or so.

A small number of professional photographers cluster around the Gateway and the Taj hotel, hoping to find a tourist or two who wants a photo taken. This was never a lucrative profession, but times are harder now. I was wondering whether the lockdown was the last blow to the few left here, but they are back. As the long and hard epidemic begins to wind down, at least for now, more people are back. Almost everyone has a mask, although many continue to use it as a chin guard.

The morning brought back an old familiar, the moth Cydalima laticostalis. Its diaphanous wings with the golden line on its leading edge, the white body partly visible, first made me take up moth identification. Progress has been slow, but steady. This species makes its appearance towards Diwali, as the weather cools. This was my first sighting of the year.

Nights have been cool, but the day was hot today. As I came over the sea link around sunset, the inner bay was heavy with a damp mist. Two young men had parked their motorbikes on the verge and were busy taking photos of the skyline of Parel rising through the mist. It was a lovely sight, and a nice end to a lovely day, meeting family for lunch. It was our first gathering after February. In several conversations during the day, people talked about how much they enjoyed the change in work habits forced on them by the epidemic, how they gained hours of time from not being bogged down in traffic, and not having useless meetings. There is a definite shift in attitudes towards working from home. Individuals and corporations are in agreement here. The latter are happy to stop spending on office space. Perhaps, in the future, people may not have to move into cities like Mumbai any more. There are so many possibilities that branch out from here! Perhaps the sun is really setting on these unfinished high rises in south Mumbai.

Hazy days

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.

The lips of time leech

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.

Marine Drive on a weekend afternoon

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.

A fine weekend

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.