Winter’s tales

You don’t have to be standing in this desolate landscape at the roof of the world to be cold this winter. Bleak winter weather has had the western Himalayas in its grip since early in January. The first heavy snowfall attracted Pakistani tourists into a deathtrap in the town of Murree. Things have not been so bad in India, but trekkers reported difficulties in completing their routes. The effects can be felt in Mumbai too. Instead of being comfortable in shorts and a tee, I’m now forced to wear track pants at home. The nearby hill town of Mahabaleshwar twice reported freezing temperatures: zero Celsius. Amazing at an altitude of 1.3 kilometers in the tropics.

Instead of moaning about not being able to visit the Himalayas yet again, I looked for murder mysteries set in extreme cold. I’ve had a surfeit of Nordic noir recently. So when I saw a book which was touted as a worthy successor to Gorky Park, I picked it up. Disappointing, I thought, when I was part of the way through. But the story recalled the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 during the siege of Leningrad. So I finished the rest of the book with Shostakovich playing in my ear buds, and an unending supply of tea at hand. Not exactly a replacement for a walk in the mountains, but what can you do in an Omicron winter? I would have preferred a re-read of John Grimwood’s Moskva. Maybe I can still do it.

This would have been a good year to sit through long concerts of classical music. This is the music season in Mumbai, but the pandemic has put a stop to that. I’ve only heard one live performance in the last two years; that was by Ustad Rashid Khan earlier this year. It looks like Omicron will burn itself out soon, and perhaps there will be time for some music before spring sets in and I finally get to an altitude of 5 kilometers above where I sit. But one doesn’t know. The La Nina winter will shift the west Pacific typhoon nursery westwards, so the east coast of Asia will probably have more rain and storms. Will it affect the weather in the mountains?

The art of photography

Many blogs and web sites teach you the craft of photography: focus, aperture, rule of thirds, leading lines. The art is something we have to puzzle out for ourselves. At some point I realized that one aspect of the art is not to show what you want people to see, but what you want people to feel. If it is a sense of peace and serenity that you are after, hide the details. Show fog.

We were off early in the morning to grab a hot paratha at a bazaar which had sprung up at a road crossing. The sun broke through the mist as we passed by Almora and hit the forest just beyond. Beautiful sight. As I took this photo, I knew it would convey a sense of calm and peace. The sense of rush, the craving for breakfast, that was my own. It did not express itself in the photo.

The Pearl river delta cuts up the southern coast of China into islets. The mega city of Guangzhou sprawls across it. From the top of Canton Tower I took a photo which shows Guangzhou at its calmest: the hour of sunset. Barges pass along the river, evoking a certain timelessness, which the misty look enhances. Guangzhou has the same weather as Mumbai, warm. What you see is not mist, but the sense the photo evokes is still calm. Hide the hurry, and everyone thinks things are calm.

This was a morning when I was calm and content. Sitting on the deck of a hotel floating on the warm waters of Lake Inle in Myanmar, I was thoroughly relaxed. A chai in hand, camera at my feet, I wondered how to convey that sense. Evoke fog, my head told me. So I took a reflection of the clouds in the waters of the lake, broken by the lily pads that grow around the hotel.

Annoyed? No one will know. A day of bird watching in the mountains of Darjeeling district was interrupted by fog. The only things I saw were drongos, too quick to photograph in the bad light. But this barred jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) sat placidly in front of me and preened. You want calm and serene? Take photos of an owl. Better still, one of an owl in fog.

I had come down from the Philosopher’s Walk, crossed the Neckar, and was making my way to Heidelberg’s railway station. I had to get a coffee and a roll before my train rolled in. I was in a bit of a hurry, and sweating mildly under my layers of warm clothes. But the tree on the other bank looked wonderful. A pair of European Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) flew by as I took this photo. Lazy, calm, gliding circles, quite unusual for this squabbling and greedy species. That’s all you see here, not my need for a coffee. The art of photography is to exclude yourself and your own momentary feelings from the image, to retain only what you want to remember after many years.

Wide open spaces

Cliffs, ridges, waterfalls. That’s Khandala for you. Speeding along the expressway, I’ve often looked longingly at the meadows around the Duke’s Nose (that cliff was said to resemble Wellington’s profile, and the name remains even when the association is forgotten). The Family is rather blasé about it. She’s spent weekend retreats in one of those villas every year. This year I followed her into some of those places and saw a view which was new to me. I realized that I have to go wider than wide to capture the sense of what I saw. I had to take a panorama.

The meaning of a wide angle is clear to anyone except a photographer. Fussy lenspeople will talk of focal lengths and film sizes, and try to translate it to digital in terms of ratios. By this definition, most smart phones have wide angle lenses. But that does not take into account the software which chops or adds to images. I wondered a little about this as I took a photo of clouds drifting across the slope and the cliff. But only a little, since I was busy trying to figure out whether I should cross the haha (you see it as the brown line beyond the rock in the photo above) and get closer to the lip of the cliff. I walked up a bit further, and found the slope too steep and slippery and decided not to.

I moved a little and took another photo. This time catching the turn in the expressway just before it gets to Lonavala. If you ever wondered how high the monsoon clouds are, go to Khandala. They drift along the roads here, and drop off into valleys. Since this place is half a kilometer above sea level, that tells you how low monsoon clouds get. The fluffy white cirrus clouds that you can see in other seasons are about six kilometers up in the sky. I love the feel of the monsoon in the Sahyadris, the drifting fog that hides and reveals, the strange light, the startling green of these meadows.

Raindrops

Out with a water-resistant camera in the rain, I was bent over ankle-high plants, trying to photograph the monsoon up close. Some parts of the Khandala plateau are good for this.

There are flowers so small that my camera cannot see them clearly. I wonder how they are pollinated. Luckily the raindrops around them are visible.

I tried hard to get a closer look at such a flower. Instead I saw the water drop act as a lens, imaging the grass below. Serendipity!

Hairy leaves! These may serve the same purpose as anti-pigeon spikes on buildings. One reason they could be there is to prevent leaf-damaging insects from getting at them.

I usually cannot decide whether the colour photo works better than monochrome. But for spider webs I’m pretty sure the monochrome works well.

More spider webs. The continuous pinging of water drops on the web may be as tiring to spiders as sitting in a noisy bar is to people.

I think monochrome works better with this image too: the texture and shadows come out better. I’m not sure this arrangement of hair can deter insects.

Droplets hang in the air, drowning the flowers behind these spathes. These plants grow everywhere in the plateau. They must use the drops in some clever way. I wish I knew.

Another flower which is too small to figure in field guides! If you get a lens like this, be prepared to find flowers (and plants) which will be very hard to identify.

Clouds and rain

Clouds drift low in the sky during the monsoon. In Khandala, half a kilometer above sea level, they drift along roads. You’ll be driving along a clear road, then you take a turn, and suddenly you are inside a cloud. During the day you see this as reduced visibility. Your camera also sees the same thing. It is different at night.

I had to pick up a pizza for dinner. As I waited, my eyes saw a drifting mist and a light rain. My phone camera saw a fairly clear night. The software in a phone camera is tuned to give you the clearest possible image. Especially at night this involves a lot of algorithmic enhancement. Most of the time I’m happy with it. But it cannot deal with mysteries and atmosphere. You have to teach the algorithm to show what you see.

The clue to accomplishing this is in the halo of light that you see around the front of the building. Fog scatters light. That’s half the reason it reduces visibility. I took a photo with my flash on. The intense light of the flash makes the fog visible. The fog actually now looks denser than it did to the eye. I think a diffuser over the flash will give a result closer to what my eye sees. I’ll have to take some time to improve on this technique, but I think I have the principle now.

August’s end

July was a really wet month. When the rains let up early in August we were happy to see the sun. It is astronomical summer after all, so when the rain stops it gets hot very fast. In spite of the heat and humidity, it was nice to get a few days of sunshine. Unfortunately for me that also coincided with an upkick in work. So I spent these sunny days indoors, looking out at a garden.

I was looking forward to the mid-week break we’d planned in late August. Visions of walks in the hills, getting wet in the sprays from seasonal waterfalls, ran through my head. But the night we were to leave the skies opened up again. Our walks were going to be different.

The monsoon of late-August is different from that of July. No more storms which threaten to shake mountains apart. The monsoon clouds gather, it rains hard for an hour, or a day. And then the clouds are gone again. Till they are back. It is no use saying “We’ll wait for the rain to pass before …” You have to carry on regardless.

Mid-week trips replace WFH by WFA, work from anywhere. While I was busy in a meeting one morning, The Family sat on the sun deck of the hotel watching the hills. At breakfast I’d noticed that the rain had washed the air clean. So, despite the moisture, you could see pretty far. The Family took the series of photos you see here: a sunny monsoon morning turning abruptly cloudy.

Low-lying clouds blew in to the mountains from the sea, up the expressway. You can see it meeting the mountains, climbing up, getting denser. But you have to imagine the rest: The Family leaving the deck in a hurry as the rain started, me finishing my meeting about the time she got back, and then us leaving for a walk in the rain. That’s August for you, all rolled up in the story of a morning.

Here is a composition by A. R. Rahman in raag Megh Malhar. It is a raag which is said to be appropriate to the early monsoon, but it will do for the changeable season of August too.

Blue and green

Take the expressway, turn off to Khandala, drive through the village, and stop at a hotel just off the old highway. It looks over the valley at the hills across. The expressway comes over the ridge and dips into the valley at one edge of the view. The hills are deeply carved by ancient weather. Waterfalls cascade over the cliffs in this season, part of the same weathering of the Sahyadris.

It is a pleasant sight late in the evening or during the foggy days of the monsoon. In a few months the electric green of the grass will change to gold, giving yet another look to the same hills.

One tree, sky

For about ten years I carried a camera in my backpack wherever I went. Then, as smartphones took over, I began to leave the camera at home. My old photos show that the two instruments are not yet interchangeable. You do different things with them. There is a tree which I pass daily on my way to work. I took photos of it every now and then. I stopped doing it when I began to leave my camera at home.

The featured photo is from one March at midday. The winter’s smog is gone, the sky is a lovely blue. This photo was taken in the late years, after I started carrying a smart phone, but before I began to leave my camera at home. But it is the earliest time of the day that I took a photo of this tree.

The images from the month of April span eight years and cover the time from late afternoon to sunset. This is the time of the day that the western shore of the city gets its best light. The tree is more or less a flat silhouette though.

There is a gaping hole in the record during the monsoon months. The sky is drab, the light is flat, and it is almost impossible to keep the camera dry next to the sea. I think I took this photo in a particularly dry monsoon year.

September is still a monsoon month. The sky is often overcast, but there is less rain. I have a couple of photos from this time of the year. This one was taken in the afternoon, at about the time when, in other months, the shadows would be lengthening.

This is a photo from one October. The sky is clear. The light remains good after sunset. Good enough to see the colour of the sea, and the green of the grass. What a difference the month makes!

Then, as the sea begins to cool in December, smogs begin to envelop the city. The colours of sunset remain spectacular, but the sky fades quicker. Lights come on in the garden early.

I thought I was photographing the tree. It turned out that I was recording the six seasons, and the way the light changes with the weather.

Surfing on deep time

Vaitarna is a little river which arises in the Sahyadris and drains into the sea just north of Mumbai. It has been called India’s most polluted river, at least in the lower stretches. The upper parts have been called the most dammed river in India. This stretch is clean enough to supply drinking water to tens of millions. The 154 kilometer long river has three dams, which, between them, hold nearly a billion cubic meters of water. Why so many dams, I wondered as we walked along the uppermost of these dams.

The answer lies in the weather and the land. The Indian Ocean monsoon dumps incredible amounts of water on this land for three months every year. It has done that for tens of million years. The land itself was formed in the volcanic eruptions sixty to seventy million years ago, during the time that the dinosaurs died. The ancient lava flow cooled into the basalt of the Deccan Traps. Later it was weathered in the hot house that the earth became thirty million years ago. The weathering formed the thin red laterite soil that covers the Sahyadris. The deep channels eroded into the volcanic basalt channels the seasonal waters as they flow into the sea. The dams catch and store the rains.

This beautiful landscape is the shadow of incredible volcanic eruptions. The soil is thin, because the rain washes it away. Where it collects in deep trenches, agriculture is possible. Around the dams rich agriculture has developed in the last hundred years. You look at this land and see few trees. The highest growths are usually tall shrubs. The thin soil of the highlands is covered by low herbs, creepers, and grasses. Weird new species have evolved in the thin metallic soil. It is an amazing place for wildflowers and strange animals. The harsh land has given refuge to some hardy exotics.

Among them you may count the water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica). Although the locals do not seem to know it, it is edible. In this it is like many other morning glories in the genus Ipomoea. I’ve eaten its leaves both steamed and stir fried in my travels across Asia. It is hardy, grows in poor soil, and is a sure indicator of the presence of water. It needs little effort to cultivate. You just have to harvest it and eat it. I see it being used as a hardy decorative around the country. Why doesn’t anyone here eat it? Perhaps just the lack of knowledge about how edible it is.

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.

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