There is extreme weather that you follow with satellite images, and then there is extreme weather that you feel round you. Mumbai is now reaching the uncomfortable level of humidity that precedes the monsoon. I can’t believe that it is only 31 Celsius outside. It is so humid that it feels like it is almost 40. Even the small potted palm on the balcony is feeling the heat; one of its fronds has turned yellow, although it has been watered on schedule. Inland there is definitely a heat wave. Nagpur was at 46.5 Celsius a couple of days back! We would have been passing through it now for a tiger watch if we had not been locked down at home.
Every morning I take a look at the satellite photos on the website of the Indian Meteorology Department. Normally, at this time of the year, my intention is to track the progress of the monsoon. The first sign of this is that the band of clouds along the equator (called the intertropical convergence zone) starts moving into the continental landmass of Asia. I marvel at the tools that are now at our disposal. Fifty years ago, we were entranced by a few photos of the the blue marble: the earth seen from space. Now, there is a torrent of such images. In about the same number of years the internet has expanded to be able to bring these images into our homes the moment we want it.
But the news is not always welcome. This is the week of Cyclone Amphan. The enormous extent of these cyclones is amazing: they are as big as continents. Amphan has currently gained enough energy to be called an extremely severe cyclonic storm (typhoon, if you are in the Western Pacific, and Category 3 storm if you are in the Atlantic or Australia). With the seas warming up, extreme weather of this kind is now an annual affair. Fortunately, disaster preparedness and response has improved over the last twenty years, to the point that last year the casualties were in the single digits. The human misery and economic cost remains severe, though. And I wonder how any physical distancing can be maintained when people are crammed into cyclone shelters for a couple of days. Bengal and Bangladesh are in for a bad time.
By afternoon the cyclone has gained enough energy to become a super cyclonic storm (typhoon, if you are in the Western Pacific, and Category 4 storm if you are in the Atlantic or Australia).
We were taught in school that astronomy determines climate, and the four seasons. Let’s take the astronomy first. From our earthbound view the sun seems to move north and south across the sky over the year. The extreme points are reached on the days of the solstices: the longest day and the longest night. The climate for a featureless earth follows from this, alternate heating and cooling of the atmosphere above the earth would produce two extremes. Culture determines the seaons: how would you want to divide the parts between the extremes of hot and cold? Into two, or four, or twelve? That would determine how many seasons you have. The simple geography of mid-latitude Eurasia and a large part of Northern America gave rise to the cultural artifact of the four seasons.
But there’s more to the climate than this simple and ancient model. The heating by the sun causes convection in the atmosphere. The rotation of the earth then breaks these convection cells into several northern and southern pieces. Approximately around the equator, these convection zones come together and create the monsoon. So, any continent that lies just north or south of an open equatorial ocean has monsoons. In our present geological epoch that is mainly Asia and Australia.
Unlike the rest of these two continents, India is also cut off from the polar circulation by the high east-west barrier of the Himalayas. This means that its climate is again particularly simple: the seasonal heating and cooling by the sun, and its interaction with the monsoon can be summarized into the six seasons. Essentially, the seasons of the mid-latitudes get interrupted by a season of rainfall. Summer is duplicated into grishma and sharad, and interrupted by varsha.
The rest of the world can be more, or less, complicated. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations counted two seasons. At the other end of the scale, Korean tradition counts as many as 24 seasons, Japan counts 12 in its classic poetry. The counting of seasons is a wonderful convergence of physical conditions and culture.
Photos from top to bottom: (1) Winter in the Thar desert of India (2) High summer in Greenland (3) Late spring in Germany (4) Early winter in Korea, the season of Ipdong.
Shishir, the season of dew, winter, is mild over most of India. In places you might want to bring out a sweater or two. In others, a tee would keep you warm. I’m not talking about the Himalayas, the pictursque towns in valleys, or the foothills, where winters can be severe, with snowstorms cutting off passes for weeks, and roads impassable due to snow. Nor am I talking of recent disruptions in the world’s atmosphere, which causes the polar vortex to come down to the mid-latitudes and brings weeks of awfully cold weather to the tropics. Otherwise, this remains the mildest and most enjoyable of times. You sit in gardens full of flowers in the mild winter sun, eating oranges, sipping tea, socializing through weekends. Enjoy the sight of colourful butterflies, like that Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete) in the featured photo, sipping lazily at a marigold.
This is the best time of the year for quick weekend vacations. You can indulge yourself in the fudge and chocolates that are a cottage industry in the hill towns of the Western ghats. You can buy enormous quantities of strawberries, peaches, or grapes, to eat or to convert to jams and preserves. And you can do all this without putting on the kilos, because the weather is finally right for strenuous physical exercise: walking in the mountains, or beaches. Climbing, swimming in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, or the Indian Ocean. This is the perfect time to spend a couple of weeks on the beach, living in the mild sun, collecting scallop shells (photo above), or cowries, or sea snails, or cuttlefish bones,
For me this is the season of travel, chasing after large breeding colonies of local birds like the Gujarati flamingos in the photos above, or the last individuals of once common species, like the Great Indian Bustard which I saw again a couple of years back in the grasslands around the Thar desert. But mostly, this is the time of the numerous migrants: from the large ones like the Dalmatian pelicans that I saw last year in Ranthambhore (Rajasthan), or the unforgettable sight and sound of my first view of the Siberian ruby throat a few years ago in Nameri National Park (Assam). Winter is a great time to travel around the country, enjoying the sheer diversity of geography, wildlife, and culture, but united by the weather.
The clunky construction, pre-winter, has to be replaced by the correct description of hemant as autumn. As the sun trends south, the days begin to get shorter, and the mix of vegetables changes to more pumpkin, potatoes, and onions. Fruits become less interesting, lots of apples (how I miss the flavourful Himachali apples, which have given way to large tasteless apples shipped from far away), bananas, and papaya. There’s the delicious coincidence of a singer called Hemant crooning melancholy songs about fallen leaves. But this is a warm country, and spotted doves cooing in fruiting papaya trees is a common sight in some parts of the country.
As a result the cultural significance of hemant is not at all like that in the mid-latitudes. This is the time of Diwali, of indulging in laddoos and barfis, while telling yourself that one more sweet cannot do much harm. Diwali is also the season of insects. When I look at my personal photo archives, I see that an enormous fraction is of insects: beetles and moths, katydids and bugs. I’ve not been able to identify most of them. The brown insect that you see in the photo above is a long-horned grasshopper (family Tettigoniidae), and probably the variety called a cone-head (subfamily Conocephalinae). But while there are large tribes of amateur birders and butterfly spotters, there’s no tribe of amateur insect hunters. So it is hard to do find field guides which will help me sort through my library of photos of these insects of hemant ritu.
This is a time when we used to bring out our cricket kits, the wickets, the pads and shop for a good bat. Now this is the season when we take long trips to obscure places. In the last years we have been taking roads to the highest points in India. This is the time when you can reach as far as the high border with China before the passes are closed for winter. This is also the time when the migrant birds begin to arrive, and their first stops are the high ponds and meadows of the Himalayas. The photo of the half-frozen lake reflecting prayer flags was taken very close to the border of India and China at an altitude of 4.6 kilometers on the day of Diwali. The black-necked cranes were late that year, and we missed them yet again, but the drive through this high desert made up for it. Hemant is a time for travel.
Sharad follows varsha. Sharad is often translated as autumn, but this is incorrect. It is still astronomical summer in the northern hemisphere at this time, the sun has yet to cross the equator on its southward trend. This is what the British called Indian summer. It is an uncomfortable time, since the monsoon has left the air full of moisture, and the weather warms up again. At this time the weather in the Himalayas is turbulent, there are dramatic cloudbursts and floods, and passes are closed. But also this is a time when nature reawakens in the plains, with warmth and water in plenty. On the coast the monsoon storms have passed, the time of the spawning of sea life is over, and traditional fishermen take their nets out to sea in newly painted boats. The featured photo was taken in Goa.
On land, I would scour the countryside in this season with my camera for wildflowers and insects. This photo of a chocolate pansy butterfly (Junonia iphita) was taken in the comfort of a garden. Even here photographing insects involved keeping a steady hand on the camera if a mosquito bit it just as you were about to release the shutter. When you look around you, it is clear that sharad is not autumn. Nature is bursting into renewed life. The fruits of this season are specially sweet and flavourful, the late medieval imports of chikoo (Manilkara zapota, also called sapodilla, or sapota), sitaphal (Annona squamosa, known elsewhere as sugar apple), and Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana, which has no local name although it is so widespread). I love these fruits just by themselves, or in jams and ice creams, or in rum based drinks.
But most of all, this is the season of festivals. It starts with the Ganapati festival, and culminates with the Navaratri, or Durga puja. There is an almost continuous stream of festivals from Ganapati to Christmas. It is a part of the year when your resolve is badly needed. The weather is uncomfortable, and you are tempted to forgo the daily exercise that had almost come to a halt in varsha. And now there’s the tempting food, from the wonderful fresh catch of pomfret (Bramidae, also called pamplet or paplet) to the special sweets of the many festivals. Everything conspires to force you to put on weight. It’s the season to be careful.
The season which I love, the season which I hate. The rainy season, varsha, the monsoon. This is when peninsular India, including Mumbai, is so different from the northern plains. Summer winds down slowly in the plains, the towns turning warmer and warmer, emptying slowly as schools let off, people traveling up to the cooler Himalayas. But on the west coast of the peninsula, monsoon strikes hard even before summer can bake the earth dry. In my first years with digital cameras, I tried very hard to capture a sense of this spectacular season: the lack of sunlight, the continuous rain. I look back at those photos now and I find that I could have taken my own style of photos in a different direction, more misty, atmosphere, less concrete. I might want to do down that route again.
The outside world disappears for days on end, and you are thrown into your own internal world. Classical poetry called this the season of love. Perhaps the greatest of Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa, wrote a whole travelogue about the monsoon clouds carrying a lonely person’s message to his love across the whole of India. I followed that route, and saw that the description of the country is still true, even after nearly one and a half thousand years. Then there is the music of varsha, raga Malhar in all its variety. Another form that fits this season is more modern, the claustrophobic film noir, so wonderfully used by a few talented directors in the last decades. This is the exasperating season, when nothing ever dries, everything gets moldy. This is the season for the phone camera, a much handier replacement for the compact I used once for monsoon photos.
Classical Sanskrit poetry observed nature so beautifully: frogs and insects, grass and trees, rain-streaked stone and wet crows; the weft and warp of our daily lives. Every time I think of the monsoon, those wonderful stanzas from Kalidasa’s Meghdoot pop into my head: so evocative, but so hard to translate into verse without clumsiness. How do you translate “snighdhachhayatarushu”? The calm shadow under a tree? But that is only one word, less than half of the last line of an early stanza. Most translations into English that I’ve seen published, gloss over this word in an attempt to catch the meaning of the whole sentence. But that seasonal reference is then lost, the sense of grishma ending and varsha about to come.
Summer is the time of mangoes. In the part of the country where I grew up, the decisive beginning of grishma (summer) would be the brief week or two when the house would fill up with seemingly unending baskets of lychee. But they would be over before I could ever anticipate it, and suddenly one day the house would have the first mangoes of the summer. There are almost no lychees in Mumbai, and the summer starts with the delightful apoos (alphonso). The other delightful aspect of this, the most terrible of seasons, are the flowering trees. My favourite is the red of the silk cotton flower (Bombax ceiba), named after the silky feathers which waft through the burning air in May, carrying seeds from the burst fruits. On the other side of the road, peeking out from behind a building I can spot another favourite, the red flowers of the gul mohar (Delonix regia, the flame of the forest). The easiest to photograph from my window are the copperpods (Peltophorum pterocarpum, yellow flame) which line the roads around us. Nearby, and invisible to me now, is a jacaranda tree which must be in flower. None of these popular road-liners are native to Mumbai. The first rains of the next season will knock all these flowers off the trees, and for a few days the roads will be carpeted with vivid patches of colour decaying into mush.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now I can see the morning’s light moving along my kitchen wall. A couple of weeks ago the sun, as it rose, would burn me as I made my morning’s tea. Now that spot in my kitchen is safe, and the sun’s first light falls on the southern wall. The cool land breeze of the morning stops earlier now, and the equally cool sea breeze also sets in earlier. The sound of the birds has changed; perhaps they have moved to different parts of the garden, and someone else in getting the early morning concert that I would a few weeks back. In Mumbai you feel the summer more by an increase in the humidity as the sun warms up the ocean. I can feel it already.
Living my days out in an air conditioned office in Mumbai, I’d concluded that Mumbai has only two seasons: uncomfortable and wet. Now that I’m forced to live at home, and I spend more time in the balcony, and open up the living room to the outside, I realize that was wrong. Even in this coastal city, there are seasons, although strongly moderated by the warm tropical sea. The many different Indian calendars roughly agree about the seasons. So across the northern end of the peninsula, closer to the mountains, and away from the sea, there is are climatic changes which can be recognized from east to west. It is different along the coast, of course, and down in the southern part of the peninsula there are very different climates and seasons. Mumbai lies roughly in between, so one can feel most of these variations if one is sensitive to it.
Looking out of the window, listening to the birds, I saw signs of vasant slowly passing. The bees which hummed between trees and bushes, are slowly less visible now that spring has passed. The last flowers of the season can still be seen (the featured photo). The sky was as mild as the morning’s cool breeze. The beautiful light blue, which I used to paint as a child, flecked with fluffy clouds are typical of this season which just passed.
When you use the words five and big together in the context of East African safaris, people think you are going to talk about The Big Five: the elephant, the leopard, the lion, the rhino and the Cape buffalo. That’s not really what I want to show you here. Instead I want to introduce you to five things in Amboseli national park that came as surprises (and very pleasant ones) because I had no idea that I would see them. In fact, until Anthony pointed out a East African black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) I didn’t even know of this creature. The sight of it running through the grassland with a stolen part of a kill, an antelope’s hindquarters, was an exciting sight. I met this species later, for a much better sighting, but it wasn’t as thrilling as this.
Seeing an Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) for the first time also counts among my big memories of Amboseli. I should have been aware of this species, it is after all visible in ancient Egyptian artwork. For a moment I thought I was looking at a ruddy shelduck, but Anthony gave the correct identification immediately. The red eye and the patch around it is a dead giveaway.
The huge dust devils which spring up through the national park in this season also count as a big surprise. I’d noticed little whirligigs of dust spin across the plains for a while, but this spout was amazing. I’d read about the dust, and was prepared with a breathing mask and lots of antihistamines. But nothing had prepared me for these incredible tall devils.
Meeting the iridescent glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) definitely counts among the big ones. Not because it was a lifer, but because it was like meeting an old friend for the first time in a decade on a street car halfway across the world. This was something I knew, but hadn’t given much thought to. The fact is that it is one of the most widely distributed of Ibis species.
The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is definitely one of the Big Five, no matter which way you think of it. I thought it surprising that it looked so much like an Indian water buffalo. But then I began to notice differences: its more robust build, and the way its horns meet at the center of the forehead. Fortunately I never got to test the bad temperament which has led to its genes never being mixed into domestic bovines.