How is your life under lockdown?

As I read an article with the same title as this post, I realized that the premise was quite right. The four authors had looked at tweets from Melbourne to see how the quality of your life under lockdown depends on the neighbourhood that you live in. Do you reveal your moods on social media? I haven’t been reading tweets, but the blogs I read do reveal the ups and downs of our moods during lockdown.

Now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are able to leave home, it seems to be a good time to take stock of the last seven months. You will remember that there was a lot of despair at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was small, but growing rapidly. That didn’t last too long. Very soon I could see people reacting quite individually.

It was interesting how people reacted to the claustrophobia of strict lockdowns. The Family was never terribly interested in cooking, but, like a lot of people around the world, she dived into it. And found that she was good at it. Like many of you, we rediscovered our families, and had frequent chats on phone and video calls with far-flung family members.

“What kept us sane?” I asked The Family. She thought for a while. “The trees and gardens around us”, she eventually said. That’s what I was thinking. Waking in the mornings to bird calls, looking out at a sea of green (we live just above the canopy of the trees which surround us), the open views of the sky and the sea. “If it was not for that,” she said, “I think we might have been bickering all the time.” Niece Moja told us several times about how widespread domestic violence had become during this time. She said that the fraction of her clients that suffered from this had increased sharply. I could agree with The Family; we were lucky with our surroundings. But we also talked through a division of work in the house right at the beginning, and decided to keep fixed hours. I think that also worked for us. We could arrange our day to suit us.

The article that I had read also talked about the availability of amenities. We were lucky with that too. A bhajiwala and a store inside our complex kept open all through the two months of strict lockdowns. There may not have been a lot to eat, or greatly fresh vegetables, but we didn’t run out of food. Our help, who were locked up in their houses were unable to locate stores with sufficient food. Our security staff helped us to talk to the police and arrange for us to give them basic supplies once a month. This kind of relatively easy connection to the police and municipal services also helped us to stay sane.

Is this the first time in history that the middle class across the world has had almost exactly the same experience, and known that for a fact? All of us lived, and are still living, through a bad epidemic, closed in at home, totally dependent on small supplies, reading and watching the same news, the same entertainment, sharing our experiences through this new medium, which has suddenly become so central to our lives that we are more conscious of how it exploits us. What a difference between the global middle class and the poor. We know now that around 400 million people in India walked away from cities to their villages, crossing the subcontinent on foot. This distress is perhaps less visible in other countries, but it must be there. And that is another difference: I can read about your feelings and experiences and see how closely they mirrored mine, but I have little idea about the inner world of the poorer people around me.

These gardens were my hideaway for two months, while the human world went to seed. Now, as the garden goes to seed, the world around me does not exactly show signs of recovery. What was the most interesting thing that happened to me in the Anthropause? The sudden end to human noise in the sea brought a pod of curious dolphins to Backbay. They came, they looked, they played, for the first time in recorded history. Curiosity satisfied, they went back to the deeper waters in the Arabian Sea where they are normally found. That was a reminder that there are other intelligences in the world.

Cooking in ghee

Many years ago, on a trip to Jaipur, I’d walked into a restaurant which seemed very popular. I asked the waiter for their specialty, which turned out to be mutton made in ghee. I’d forgotten this until I looked at some very good mutton for the first time after the strict phase of the lockdown. After that first experiment in recreating that experience a few months ago, I had a very good idea of what to do when I tried it again yesterday.

Ghee and aromatic spices go well together. So I rubbed tiny quantities of powdered turmeric, dhania, and jeera on the mutton, and let it stand for a while with whole garam masala. For me that is a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, and star aniseed: the ancient treasures of India, which trickled across the world on caravans and dhows which passed east and west in medieval times, and which drew a newly expansionist Europe to Asia at the beginning of the modern era. I let the ingredients marinate in a mixture of history and personal memory for a half hour, while I peeled and chopped an inch of young ginger.

I chose a thick flat bottomed pot for the cook, and threw the ginger and a bay leaf into the hot ghee. I’d decided to layer the mutton along the bottom, and let it stand for about three minuted before flipping each piece over. I realize that I need a pair of small tongs for such manoeuvres (note: remember to order them today). I flipped the pieces, and let the other side brown for an equal amount of time.

The browned meat has a thin glazing of ghee over it, and turns intensely aromatic. I love it, and I was happy that The Family pronounced herself quite satisfied with the result. A little extra that happens when you cook anything in ghee is its transformation into a lovely dark mass at the bottom of the pan. I used to love that khurchan with a bit of rice when I was a child. The unfortunate problem with this cook is that it is at its best when fresh off the fire; so I’ll have to make small portions every time I want it. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing when you have such a calorie-dense dish.

Threatened

Just as we were about to leave Bhandup pumping station, there was a ripple of excitement. A golden jackal (Canis aureus) had been spotted. It stood at the side of the road far from us and looked at us warily. I couldn’t believe that jackals still coexist with us in the middle of the city! These waste lands run all along the eastern coast of Mumbai, and connect to the wildlife refuges nearby, so I guess there is a constant flow of wildlife through this area.

Golden jackals are not usually considered to be threatened species. But a recent study of reports published in media revealed that there is a large cryptic trade in jackals. This is largely fueled by superstitious beliefs about jackal skulls. Most conservation efforts in India concentrate on tigers, rhinos, and elephants. The public is aware of the dangers these species face, and there is a strong opinion against trade in these animals. The authors of the study point out that the data on jackals indicates that similar threats to less charismatic species often escape public consciousness.

Ghost city

At 6 in the evening, the center of Mumbai was like a ghost of itself. In the blue hour, I caught Flora fountain looking like a funeral, a few mourners standing and gawking. Niece Moja has taken the day off from counseling and spent the day with us. After her partner finished an interview (you can carry your work with you when it moves online) we drove out for a coffee and this funeral. The fountain was built in the 1860s, when the British built Fort George was finally demolished, at its former Church Gate. The antennas belong to the Central Telegraph Office. Ugly constructions like that belong to the 1960s.

Another change is coming now. The new Mumbai metro will have a station at the fountain. Metro stations everywhere have the same construction: either a single cylinder with platforms on two sides, or two cylinders passing a central platform. When that hole in the ground is filled up, this station will have a central platform, and a first underground level for customer services. The city is slowly changing. Niece Moja is one of the small fraction of millennial Mumbaikars who actually knows south Mumbai; she spent her college years haunting cafes and restaurants here.

But even she was surprised that a desirable property just next to the fountain had been entirely taken over by Zara. The blaze of lights from its open doors showed us a cyclist and a person parking a scooter. I don’t think the shop’s had a customer in a while. Mumbai has split so visibly into the two cities that it always was: the service providers who must brave the horrible lengthened commute every day to open shops which the service takers are too afraid to go into. The corona virus will become endemic, we have to learn to live with it. Care, not fear, is the future.

The waste land

Sunrise in Bhandup pumping station was spectacular. The vegetation dripped with water; either there had been a short shower late at night, or the ground was saturated with water and the vapour had condensed through the night. A shot against the rising sun gave the golden photo that you see above. The light changed rapidly, and part of the fun in photography was seeing the change.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss.

A current under sea

Picked his bones in whipers.

The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot

When I walk through the waste lands inside Mumbai, where nature has reclaimed the space abandoned by people, I do not quite feel as if I’m in a forest. You cannot forget the ghosts of the city: the boisterous boys cycling by in a rush, the distant infrastructure of ports, the paved roads falling into ruins. I am constantly reminded of the short fourth section of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land.

Two hours later the light was beautiful, warm, and full. Perfect for catching this hovering honey bee (genus Apis). From its small size and colour, it was probably a red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea). With an exposure of 2.5 milliseconds, my photo sees an invisible blur of wings! Wingbeat frequencies have been recorded for several kinds of bees and flies; the wings beat slower in hover, and the records say that there would be around one beat in about 2.5 ms for bees. Clearly that is not true for this one; that blur indicates a significantly faster beat. Human muscles cannot move that fast for that long. The biochemistry of converting sugar into energy is the same in insects and mammals, so it is the actual muscle which is different. Fascinating thing to follow up on.

Old favourites and a new acquaintance

I’d gone to Bhandup pumping station last week in the hopes of seeing an Eurasian wryneck for the first time after a couple of years. I heard the pair, but didn’t see them. The find of the day was instead the Malabar starling (Sturnia blythii, aka Blyth’s starling). A flock of glossy birds surveying their surroundings from a high perch were a lifer. The light was wonderful and I could see all the defining details: the yellow bill with a bluish-ash base, the white head with contrasting chestnut belly, and the grey and black wings and tail. This bird is resident in India, and was split off from the migrant species called the chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabaricus) with which it was confused even at the beginning of the century. As I took the photos you see above and in the gallery, I realized that I’d been hearing their chitter for a while.

Most of the other birds I saw that day were old acquaintances. We arrived before sunrise, and the early part of the day was not very good for photos. So I missed shots of a common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) which spent some time on a branch in front of my eyes. My photos of an eastern marsh harrier (Circus spilonotus) trying to snatch prey in midair have digital noise and are beyond rescue. Some of the others you can see in the gallery above. I should really start keeping my bird lists, but I can’t bring myself to admit that I’m slowly turning into a twitcher.

Two shrikes

Three shrikes and you’re out. No birder will tell you this, but it’s true. I’ve never seen more than three kinds of shrike in a morning of bird watching. Last week’s outing to Bhandup Pumping Station was no exception. I heard a beautiful birdsong, one that was not familiar from the past six months of patient study, and found that it came from this long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach, aka rufous-backed shrike).

I’d only heard the shrill harsh call of this bird, so common across India. That shriek gives the group its name. But this was a song. Quite different, and more enchanting. Why was it singing when the mating season was past? It was answered by other calls. So perhaps this was a territorial call. I recalled a paper I saw a month ago which said that bird calls had become more complex in the quiet of the anthropause. One of the results was a decrease in aggression among city birds, because the more complex songs seem to better convey meaning about territory.

A little later I walked down a side path where three boys went racing past me with bikes (and unmasked, perhaps because they were outside the gaze of parents). In the quiet after they left I looked around and spotted a great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor lahtora). This was renamed two years ago, and some would recognize it by its older designation of southern gray shrike (Lanius meridionalis). The photo shows it in a characteristic high perch. The perch seems to be an important aspect of its territorial behaviour.

These were all the shrikes I saw that day. I never even reached the upper limit of three.

Gari

It is so very easy to make gari, Japanese pickled ginger, at home! Take young ginger roots. Peel gently. Slice thin. Wash in brine. Dry. Pickle in sugar and rice vinegar. How can you spoil it?

I guess you just have to be me.

I scoured two markets and the only fresh ginger I could get is fairly old. As a result it is fibrous, and won’t slice thin. Unless you have the tempered steel blades that samurai and Saladin used (by all accounts, one of the major metallurgical exports from medieval India). So I chopped the root into thick chunks before washing it in brine.

I have given up using sugar in food a few years ago. The Family showed me the coarse brown sugar that she uses sometimes. We don’t have rice vinegar at home, and I already used the best vinegar for other pickling. So it was coarse bits of ginger in pretty harsh vinegar and brown sugar.

After a day I was surprised to find that the ginger had turned the subtle pink colour of real gari. Maybe the brown sugar was responsible for the colour change. It would have tasted better sliced thin. The flavour was good on the tongue, but when I bit into the chunk I still got the spiciness of uncured ginger.

By making all the mistakes that one can, I have now understood the recipe. I’m happy it didn’t involve expensive ingredients.

Scalewinged

Our gardeners have decided to put in beds of lantana and tuberoses in a sunny patch at the back of the building. Late in the morning this is a magnet for butterflies. For a few days now I’ve been waiting for the scaly-winged fliers after 10 in the morning.

In an earlier post I’d described how hard it is to take a photo of a tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon). This attractive flier, with bright green spots on a dark background is so active that you can barely ever get it sitting on a flower. When it settles for a few seconds, its wings move too fast to capture in detail. Now I decided to change my strategy and catch it in flight just before it descends on flowers. I focused on a bunch of flowers and waited for it to descend. The braking maneuver as it lands makes it slow its wing beats. In this bright sunlight I could get a few clear shots, as you can see here. I’m happy to have this new technique under my belt. I’ll have to work on it.

Another common visitor in this patch is the very common skipper called a small branded swift (Pelopidas mathias). It prefers tuberoses to lantana; must be something to do with the anatomy of its proboscis. The caterpillar of this species is one of the major pests which feed on rice (a few of these otherwise unrelated species are rolled into a group called rice leaf bundlers, for their habit of rolling leaves into a bundle before feeding). I wonder which of the garden plants they feed on.

The common baron (Euthalia aconthea) is another butterfly I saw here often. It is pretty nondescript when you see it in the shade, the colour of dust with marked out in grey soot. Here, in the bright sun, it glows with colour, the brown and olive markings coming alive with brightness. I suppose its caterpillars and pupae must infest the mango tree around the corner of the building.