There is something refreshing about the blank spaces of museums. On an otherwise hectic day, you might enter a museum, walk through galleries full of bright paintings hung on dull coloured walls, and emerge with a new view on the bustle outside. A museum’s galleries are designed not to call attention to themselves. These photos were taken in Duesseldorf’s K20, built in 1986. I took these photos soon after the architects, Dissing+Weitling of Copenhagen, became famous for their design of the Oresund bridge. They capture my experience of walking through any modern museum: long views through doorway after doorway, the enveloping quietness.
The long sight lines are part of the design, making a museum guard’s job easier. It is not an easy job; having to stand for hours, keeping an eye on all visitors. Now and then, when I enter a museum at an off-peak time, I can see one sitting down, perhaps to read a newspaper. Otherwise they are usually on their beat, perhaps occasionally exchanging a few words with a colleague. It wasn’t a dangerous job till now.
“I will touch a hundred flowers and not pick one” –Edna St. Vincent Millay
“Flowers didn’t ask to be flowers” –Kurt Vonnegut
“I must have flowers, always, and always” –Claude Monet
“Who wants flowers when you’re dead?” –J.D. Salinger
It was a Wednesday night and we didn’t have much food at home. Although we talked about going out to eat, we were too tired. Eventually we scraped a dinner together and sat down to see the post-prime time news. That’s when we saw the first confusing shots of what would later be known as the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.
It wasn’t for another hour that we realized how lucky we were that we stayed home. The curfew lasted only three days, but it was a month before I walked about Colaba aimlessly again. On Christmas day, The Family and I found that we were tourists in our own backyard, so to say. We walked past small restaurants which were suddenly infamous, past a familiar vegetable market into lanes which had appeared as blurry shots on TV screens across the world. Looking back at that now, I realize that lockdowns and curfews do not end when restrictions are lifted; it takes time for you to come back to normal.
The little lanes were still full of press photographers. Usually I like to talk to them; they are not in an easy profession. But that day they had no time off to chat. When I look back at my archives, I have more than twenty shots of the crowd of photographers jockeying for position without jostling. Today when I look at the photos I see professional rivalry, as well as the courtesy to let someone else rest a heavy lens on your shoulder to steady a shot. A very different world from the savage days that we had gone through. That walk bled some darkness out of us.
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).
It has become a near-daily ritual to exchange photos of our food with the family. Strangely, now that we are physically distanced from each other, we know more about each others’ daily lives. After I shared the featured photo, an undistinguished apoos (Alphonso, so called by the Portuguese, after Afonse de Albuquerque), I was bombarded with photos of its better pedigreed cousins. Sad to say, our local vendor only has these unblushingly green skinned apoos. With the restrictions we have, the two of us are unwilling to try to finish a crate of six dozen which the better ones are packed into. As a result, it has been a year since we saw the beautiful rose-coloured Ratnagiri variety.
On the other hand, I’ve never kept such a close watch on the friendly neighbourhood mango (Mangifera indica) tree before. Here is a record of the development of the mango from April 11 to May 17. I missed the first stage, the growth of the flowering stem and the initial budding. The earliest photo I have shows the opened flowers. Then, the mature stage of flowering, when some have already transitioned into fruits. Each inflorescence holds both male and hermaphroditic flowers, and only the latter develop into fruit. From the second and third photos you can see that most of the flowers on the inflorescence were male; few develop into fruits on each flowering stem. If this were a cosseted orchard tree, with enough nutrients and water poured around the roots, then most of these growing fruits would mature. In the wild, usually at best one fruit eventually remains on each flowering stem. The one you see in the fourth shot will drop off the tree in another month, unless a bird gets to it first.
In a normal year, by this time the season for sailing in Mumbai would be over. Although the warming oceans mean that the monsoon is unlikely to go back to its “normal” arrival time, tropical storms are brewing in the Bay of Bengal, and there is unsettled weather in the southern part of the Arabian Sea already. It felt nice to look back at old photos of a sail in Mumbai Harbour.
I’m not a sailor but I don’t turn down invitations for a quick sail around the three lighthouses. This was a lightning class sloop. I’m happy to sit close to the water, receiving instructions from the skipper to tighten a rope or duck my head as the boom swings around, feeling the little spray hit my face. The Family likes to take a position at the back where she can keep an eye on the boom and the sky. Her brother is our usual skipper, an experienced sailor in several waters.
It wasn’t a crowded day. Once we got clear of the main lanes leading from the Gateway to the the jetties on the main land, we passed a few moored boats, a few other lightning class boats out for a sail, and one deep sea fishing boat with a crew of five, strangely busy hauling nets at the edge of the harbour. Perhaps not so strange, on second thought. The name Apollo Bandar is supposed to be a corruption of the old Koli name, Palva Bandar, for the fish that was plentiful in the harbour as recently as five generations ago.
The sky was clear, flecked with wisps of clouds. The day was warm, but a nice steady breeze kept the sails half filled, and drove small waves on the sea. The sail was smooth, no need to tack constantly, or fiddle with the ropes. The boom swung around once as we rounded the yellow and red Prong’s lighthouse and headed back for a beer on the long verandah of the Yacht Club.
Some weeks are hectic, and you wait impatiently for the weekend to arrive. Even when you are in isolation. Like this tiger cub in Kanha National Park, waiting for its mother. The white ear tufts are characteristic of the Bengal tiger.
I was behind the curve on this one. The third Friday of May is National Endangered Species Day in India. Fortunately, I can retrofit this post. There are degrees of danger: IUCN has categories which run from near threatened (NT), vulnerable (VU), endangered (EN), critically endangered (CR), to extinct in the wild (EW) and extinct (EX). The three categories VU, EN, CR will lead to extinction without human intervention and help.
Looking at some of my earliest digital photos, I dredged up memories of a week in a part of the world I’d known very little about. This was the South Tyrol, where Austria shades into Italy. A night train had taken me to Innsbruck, where I changed to a local which crossed from Austria to Italy, and deposited me in the charming town of Trento. A short walk through the town can tell you much about its history. My walks would start at the piazza in front of the cathedral (featured photo) with its fountain of Neptune. The photo includes the statue of Nepture, the 16th century CE frescoes on the facade of Casa Balduini, and the dome on top of the bell tower of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
That was the church where the counter-reformation solidified with the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century. The importance of the resurgent catholic church is visible through much of the center of the town. Somewhere in one of the lanes around the square I passed this rococo sculpture of the Annunciation outside a second floor window. The deep colour of the painted wood emphasizes the beautiful pastel shades of the sculptural group.
Walking through that maze of streets I stopped to take a photo of this typical South Tyrol wall. The wooden protective casements over windows are typically Alpine, and the colours of the walls are a mix of Alpine and the southern hues which are visible all the way from here to nearby Venice. After the Imperial Recess of 1803, which ended the Holy Roman Empire, and with it, the rule of the Bishops of Trento, the district passed to Austria.
The first door I ever photographed with a digital camera belonged to the house of the local patriot Enrico Conci, who supported Trentino autonomy while a member of the Vienna House of Deputies, and was jailed and put on trial during the First World War. After the war, when Trento became a province of Italy, he was elected to the Imperial Senate. His daughter, Elsa Conci, was a member of the Constituent Assembly of Italy after the war. The plaque above the door memorializes both of them.
The Alps around Trento are beautiful, full of the high sunny meadows of the Tyrol, and wonderful mountain paths to walk along. It drew me out of the town very quickly. But that is another story.
Like many others, I must have discovered Dylan Thomas’ poem in my teenage years. In those days it was a sort of a secret anthem on how to live for a cryptic club. The anthem adapts to circumstances. On a late afternoon walk through the Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch, I thought about the poem again. People I knew in Wuhan were already in lock-down, and in February it was already clear that the pandemic would strike some time, but that was not what was uppermost in my mind.
We strolled for more than a kilometer out to the waterline. The tide in this gulf is spectacular, and the receding sea had left pools in which we could see sponges, puffer fish and crabs. Over the years I’d discovered that I was similar to a migratory shorebird, like the common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), which visits these pleasant coasts in winter, striding through tide pools, stopping to inspect things, turning over little stones. The sun was about to set. “Time to go back”, said someone. “Just a few minutes more”, I said, trying to prolong the pleasant day, raging against the dying of the light.
The poem is about living right, as all teenagers know. It is not about dying.
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone, and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead, and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved them all