For today I recommend very highly a short short story that I read just before falling asleep last night.
On Wednesday, I went for a walk in the rain at 11 in the morning. It was not pleasant. The blustery wind pushed the rain through my poncho. At the end of half an hour I realized that it would have been easier to walk without rain gear; at least it would have presented a smaller surface for the wind to push against.
By noon, the wind had picked up further. The remnants of our cyclone preparation for June served us well. The windows rattled, and only a little water seeped in from the balcony. Outside was a scene from a nightmare. Trees swayed crazily in the wind (between 80 and 100 Km/h, as we found later, double that when channeled between buildings). I could hear cracks of branches breaking off, so close that it sounded like thunder. You can hear it once in the video above. The next day I would see the extent of the damage when I went for a walk; the featured photo is one from that walk.
Grainy photos kept coming in all day from friends: flood waters and destroyed traffic lights on Marine Drive, the roof over the DY Patil stadium (where some IPL cricket matches are held) destroyed, the iconic sign atop the stock exchange tumbled by the winds, knee deep water in one of the largest hospitals in the city, even the unloading facilities at the port damaged.
TV is pretty bad at reporting anything unexpected. Coverage started late in the evening, and talked only about flooding of roads. The rain was no worse than the extreme rain that we get once in the season. The “editorial oversight” that TV channels are so proud of completely missed the real story: the wind. Google News reflects perforce the editorial biases of media, so until now there is no overview of what happened. I had to mark every photo I got on a map to see where the winds had hit hardest: it was everywhere in the city. I suppose the surrounding areas were not spared either.
If the photos above don’t tell you enough, this last video should tell you how bad the storm was. No individual event can be attributed to climate change. But when events like Wednesday’s become more common, uncommitted thinking cannot blame anything else. The seas are hotter than they ever were in human memory. By heating the air above them, they are bound to create deadly storms.
Even now I can hear gardeners cleaning up the remnants of the trees (two hundred were uprooted in the storm, most trees lost branches). One of our neighbouring buildings lost electrical power until its basement could be drained of water; this took twenty four hours. The high density houses along the sea were completely flooded for a day. If the people who live there move away they will lose their livelihood. But when they do, the middle class will lose their maids and cooks. This is what climate change looks like: a mounting burden of problems, unequally borne by different people.
The weekend was completely free of rain. The clear skies and wonderful sunsets drew The Family out to the sea shore. She would come back gushing about the light, and the number of people who came to quietly watch the sunset. So yesterday, I took my camera and climbed up to the terrace on the roof of our building. The western edge of the terrace is lined with satellite dishes, and each of them served as a perch for a crow, sitting quietly and looking at the sun. They were a little distracted when I appeared, and were torn between watching the sunset and keeping a wary eye on me.
“When our minds are much affected, so are the movements of our bodies,” wrote Charles Darwin in his book The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872). This observation started a whole scientific enterprise of understanding the value of emotions by comparing them in humans and other mammals. Much less is known about the emotions of birds. “Birds and mammals are thought to have evolved from different groups of Mesozoic reptiles … during the Carboniferous or Permian period. Yet, birds and mammals exhibit extensive convergence in terms of relative brain size, high levels of activity, sleep/wakefulness cycles, endothermy, and social behavior, among others,” says a recent review of the literature on negative emotions in birds. Little else is known about emotions in birds. But when I see crows watching the sunset, or soaring against the breeze as the sun goes down, the parallel with human reactions to the beauty of sunsets does not seem farfetched.
The clear air of the last few months, and the relative coolness of the last few days meant that the sunset showed a simple gradation of colour in the sky, so different from the strangely beautiful sunsets that we had seen until the previous weekend. As the sun set, The Family and I enjoyed looking at so many different kinds of clouds. The horsetail streaks of cirrus clouds 5 or 6 kilometers above looked white in reflected sunlight because the sun had not set on them yet. As the horizon rose above the sun, the most spectacular were the golden layers of altostratus clouds at a height of about 3 kilometers. Meanwhile, the fast drifting layers of cottony stratus, merely a kilometer or two above our heads, had already started looking black because they no longer caught the sun.
The moon was already up in the east. As colour faded from the sky, the last clouds to turn pink were the high streaks of cirrus: ice crystals condensing out of the air in the cold of the upper atmosphere. The city lights came on, to add a glow to the moonlight. Between the clouds and lights, there is no way we will catch a glimpse of comet Neowise.
In April the world’s seas had fallen silent. The shipping lanes which carry the bulk of the world’s commerce had emptied out. We saw signs of that in Mumbai. There were videos of dolphins playing and fishing in Backbay. In the last hundred years there have been no reports of dolphins sighted so close to the shore. The anthropause had begun. Another sign was the lack of ships on the horizon. Normally we see long lines of ships on the horizon, all queued up to dock at Mumbai’s port. They had gone missing.
Now, finally, at the end of July, when I walked out to watch the monsoon sunset over Mumbai I saw the first signs of the end of the anthropause. At the horizon, past Prong’s lighthouse, there were two ships. Appropriately, one was gliding into port, the other moving out. I followed it until it moved over the horizon: traveling to new shores, as I still cannot. But the world has begun again. As we learn how to live safely with the threat of more infections, we will begin to resume our lives, slightly differently.
When I was a student, a professor coined a new name for the monsoon semester. He announced a course for the Rain Fall Semester. Everyone had a good laugh about it and the phrase stuck for the rest of my life as a student. He’d managed to gently point out that a phenomenon, Fall, may have multiple causes; that the world is full of diversity. The memory of student bodies at universities decays fast, and I think four years afterwards no one would have remembered his coinage. I was reminded of it during my walk today.
The rain has stopped for a couple of days, and the afternoons are becoming uncomfortable again. The paths I took were strewn with flowers battered down by the rain. The glow of the copper pods which I’d photographed through the hot season of grishma has been wiped clean by the rain. The tree is a gleaming green, and the flowers carpet the ground under the tree.
Every path I walked today was full of leaves, a little slippery, calling for care. In another two days they’ll be gone, swept into the surrounding hedges, where they’ll produce mulch for the rest of the year. What’s not swept away will be crushed under passing feet, and turn into mush. Fall is a good name for this season. How interesting that in different parts of the world the word “fall” fits different kinds of weather.
I walked out to the sea on Friday evening when I saw a patch of sky opening up. These are moments of dramatic light. I was not disappointed. I got a Turneresque framing of the skyline of Mumbai with the last of this week’s rain clouds, with the setting sun breaking through it. This rain will pass. This epidemic will pass. The seas are still getting warmer. This city, reclaimed from the sea, will also pass. That promontory which you see will be the last thing to remain above water by the end of this century.
I woke up once very early in the morning, listened to the sound of a hard rain and fell back into sleep. When I woke up finally, the rain had stopped, and it was bright outside, but without a break in the clouds. The Family had finished her morning chai and gone out for a walk. When my last meeting got over in the evening I changed quickly, put on my mask and raincoat, and went out for a walk. I’ve not had a long walk for several weeks, and I found I was itching to go although it was raining.
Problems arose immediately. My glasses began to fog up because of the mask. That usually signals a bad mask, because where your breath can get out, contaminated air can come in. I made a mental note to try a different mask the next time. But it was raining, so there was really no one on the streets. For now the mask would suffice. A wet mask is no good at filtering, but my raincoat has a long hood and protects the mask quite well. Unfortunately the hood falls over my face, so I can only see the ground in front of me. With fogged glasses and an overhanging hood, I was really glad that there was no traffic and no walkers either.
It was a difficult walk, but I enjoyed this season’s first long walk in the rain. Unfortunately, in this COVID-19 year I can’t do the usual thing of getting wet in the rain on a long walk, but at least I can go on a walk. What good is a monsoon if you don’t go out in it?
I’m afraid I didn’t quite keep track of when it started raining. Perhaps it was July 3 (if it wasn’t earlier). Since then it has stopped raining for an hour or two a few times. The lawns get flooded whenever the tide comes in, and the water drains out slowly through the ground when the tide recedes. We live on borrowed land, after all (a friend sent me a photo from the 1950s showing the open sea where we live now). The rain hasn’t stopped long enough for the gang of crows to crowd flooded parts of the lawn looking for little tidbits flushed out by the waters (this two years old photo was thrown up by the photos reminder). So they have been crowding the windowsill of our kitchen, trying to look in!
Its been a wonderful monsoon this July. It has rained more or less continuously for about a week now. I guess it seems more wonderful because we have been more or less forced to stay in by the lockdown. I have been looking out of the windows constantly. Constantly distracted from work by the sight of this lovely season. A few mornings ago I woke up and took the featured photo. The sea has been rough, and in the shallows the mud from the bottom has been churned up. Every year I look at it and see by the change in the colour of the water where the seabed drops off into a navigable channel. At the southern cape of Mumbai, perched on the edge of these shallows is the rock which holds up Prong’s lighthouse. I would have to walk out to the rocks to see it. The sky is also in two colours, the dark clouds overhead, and a lighter and more open sky out at sea. It is an enchanting month, with this sky and sea constantly changing.
Doing a deep dive into my archives, I came across photos of a trip to the Harz. This is a rugged part of Germany at an elevation of a little more than one kilometer above sea level, which lies inside a trapezoid with corners at Gottingen, Brunswick, Magdeburg, and Halle. It had snowed heavily in February of 2006. When a plan was being formed to go skiing for a weekend, I decided to join in. It was more than fifteen years since I’d done any skiing, but I figured that its like riding a bicycle or swimming. Your muscles don’t forget how to do it.
This is absolutely true. You need to add though, that the level of skill which comes back depends a lot on how you have treated your muscles. In those years I’d let my muscles go slack. Two of my colleagues were Finns, who’d been on cross country skis since they were children. The other was a very fit German, who, although new to the sport, picked up the basic skills very fast. So, early on the first day, I told them to not hang around waiting for me to catch up. Soon I was alone in that wonderful terrain: all snow and sky, covering what looked, in this season, like rolling hills.
The chalet that we stayed in for those three nights was nicely isolated, and stood under a stand of spruce trees. As the light changed during the day, the look of the place changed quite dramatically. The featured photo was taken in the evening, as the light began to turn red. The green of the spruce looked almost black in this light. The next photo was from mid-morning. I liked the extreme purity of the snow in the white band across the bottom of the photo. That final photo of the door to the chalet was taken in the blue hour.