To dream, perchance to sleep

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.

Details for the devil

We never ran out of eggs, even during the worst days of the lockdown. Now that the lockdown has eased, and one can get about again, in small ways, we thought of fancier ways of using them. A weekend is a time when you can kick back and relax, and I thought of devilling some eggs.

I’m not terrifically fond of the standard chili-flakes-in-egg-yolk recipe. So I rummaged about in the cupboard until I found something interesting: a sweet pickle of sour lime with chili. My gustatory cortex immediately lit up. This was the secret sauce which completed my recipe. It was only afterwards that I noticed the small print in red on the label: this is part of what an old now-vanished Marathi restaurant near CST used to call “fast food”. The Family popped one of the canapes into her mouth and pronounced it a success.

When you check back on the production of eggs in India, you find references to a revolution in poultry during the early days of Indira Gandhi. I don’t find clear evidence for this in records of government expenditure. All I see is four decades of slowly increasing expense on poultry, from about one part in 2000 of the Plan budget to about a part in 1000. But there is lot of material on the development of large poultry farms in the early seventies (I remember this as conversations between my mother and aunts on how poultry chicken was much easier to cook). The result is that India is now the third largest producer of eggs in the world. This was a key transformation in the nutrition available to children, especially in the school lunch which, for many, was the bulk of the day’s meal. Now that all schools are shut due to COVID-19, the meal scheme is totally disrupted. The resulting malnutrition will be one of the serious long-term consequences.

I like the mild taste of a Corona beer in the relaxed late afternoons of a weekend. Now that we managed to find a case, we can kick back on these lovely breaks in the monsoon and enjoy the long days of late (astronomical) summer. The lime and chili tempered sweetness of the devilled eggs were a nice accompaniment to the mild beer with its slice of lime.

Perfect game for the online life

Bugged with the online life? Want new ways to waste time? Follow me. In my effort to waste good productive hours, I made a deep dive into the shallow (but extensive) waters of meaningless web surfing, link clicking, and searching for random words until I came to a gem.

This is a wonderful game which leads to world domination through twitter: https://www.getbadnews.com/

My attention span is very short these days, and I love it when you can become Dictator for life of an online sandbox in ten minutes. It is a fun game. Hope you enjoy playing it as much as you enjoyed the photo of my keyboard made of 22-carat gold.

Go to the ant

In spite of taking photos of insects for over a decade, it turns out that I don’t have a photo of an ant. So, now that I want to talk a little about how ants deal with epidemics, the only photo I can use is of a termite. Since termites are social animals too, the photo is not inappropriate.

I came across a two year old paper which observed how ant colonies deal with infections. It seems that ant colonies have a rather modularized structure. Every ant does not meet every other member of the colony all the time. They mostly socialize with a reasonably small set of friends and colleagues. These little social cliques intersect, so that they have the “six degrees of separation” that human networks show. What this means is that messages pass very efficiently from one forager to another, or from foragers to the queen and her attendants.

It turns out that when a forager is exposed to an infection, the social network rearranges itself. Each ant meets a much smaller set of friends. As a result, it becomes harder for messages, and infections, to pass from one to another, or to the queen. It is amazing that these measurements were made and have been known for two years already. Interestingly, the colony does not lock down all activity. It cannot afford to do that for long, like human societies. Foraging, defense, breeding continue, but with appropriate caution, namely defensive distancing.

Who says that there is no proof that distancing is effective against an infection? You can quote chapter and verse now (Proverbs, 6 and 6, if you must know). People have gone to the ant, considered her ways, and learnt from it. The lesson is clear: distancing works against infections.

Around the world in 30 days (2)

After that first day walking around Tokyo, I had a week of work before some more tourism. This work week introduced me to the pleasures of bento (this was 1990, and the box had not yet spread through the US), vending machines which gave out cans of hot tea (in four flavours: matcha, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Assam), and karaoke, which had then just taken over Japan. Finally, on the weekend, I joined a busload of my colleagues for a trip to Nara.

We rolled through crowded highways towards the town of Nikko. What I knew about it was that it had the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the person who unified Japan after decisive battles starting in 1600 CE. There was more to Nikko than this, as I discovered when we stopped at the 97 meters high Kegon waterfall. Autumn had coloured the forest in lurid colours. One of my colleagues told us the story of a young man who committed suicide here in the early years of the 20th century after carving a poem into a tree trunk. He was able to show me an English translation of the poem later. I thought it read like something that Camus could have written.

We got back into the bus and drove on to Lake Chuzenji. The traffic was bad. Alain, sitting next to me, said “This road trip is a nightmare.” We spent the rest of the halting progress talking about the grammatical gender of dreams and nightmares in French. Chuzenjiko was beautiful in this season, when the surrounding forests had turned into a lovely gold. But we had lost too much time in the bad traffic, and we had to move on to the main sight.

I’d already seen a shrine to the Meiji emperor, so I had a picture in mind of a Shinto shrine. But the Toshogu shrine was much more than that. The huge complex has beautiful wood carvings, and a lot of gold. That, and the location made it stunning. I spent a long time wandering through the warehouse area and came to a carving of the three monkeys, a theme which I’d thought of till then as Indian. The Kathasaritsagar was collected in the 11th century, but the stories may have been in circulation for centuries before that. Perhaps some were taken to China by Xuanzang four centuries earlier, and eventually entered Japan.

This was my first inkling of the long hidden connections between many different Asian cultures. Stories of elephants had clearly been carried from India with Buddhism. I saw these wonderful carvings of what must have been imaginary beasts to the Japanese woodworkers who made them. It reminded me of the strange lion carvings which I saw in various parts of India where no lion had been seen in historic times.

The main part of the shrine begins with the Yomeimon, one of the most decorative gates I’ve ever seen. Today I would have taken many more photos of the gate. But I see only this one photo in my album. I remember that this was taken with a roll of 100 ASA Fujicolor which I’d inserted into the camera the previous night. The 24 shots had to last me the whole day, and there were so many details which caught my eye!

This carved wooden peacock on the Yomeimon was one such detail. I liked the beautiful colour of the wood quite as much as the intricate work. The gate was rebuilt in 1818 CE after a fire. There is a lot of such rebuilding in Japan, and there must be a well developed branch of restorative art. I wonder how much creativity each restoring artist is allowed. How much of this peacock is the work of the original woodcarver, and what has each restorer added?

My memory tells me that once I passed the gate I walked through a long avenue surrounded by tall trees with seasonally colourful leaves. But I only have a photo of this place: presumably where Ieyasu was interred. My intention to capture his shrine was waylaid by my impulse of capturing the colours of the leaves, the result is the photo you see above; my final photo from Nikko.

I was going to leave Japan after another day of work, so this also turned out to be my last photo from Japan on that trip.

On pause

I’ve spent a week writing about all that I’m beginning to like about the anthropause. But there’s a part of our lives which is on hold. The Family and I talked about it yesterday after we got a call from one of our friends: a travel professional. What I miss are the long road trips. You may be crammed into uncomfortable cars for long hours, but there is a romance in these trips to corners of India which are never in the news.

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When you take photos of roads, they look entirely charmless: trucks and buses edging out smaller vehicles in the race to reach their end, while you travel endlessly. But there are the charming stops: the little dhabas and chai stalls, which make up for all the discomfort. Even if the stall makes nothing but chai, sometimes you are surprised by its taste, and sometimes by the conversation you find there. Each stop is a little more added to your life, a little more of India.

This sense of unending miles, a world left to see, that’s what I miss in the anthropause.

The world begins again

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.

Jamun

I managed to taste some jamun (Syzygium cumini) at the tail end of the season. This is a fruit which is deeply embedded in my childhood memories. I literally measured my growth by a jamun tree which stood in the garden in front of the house I grew up in. My earliest memories of the fruit are of picking fallen jamun and eating them until my mouth and tongue were stained deep purple. Every summer, over years, my cousins and I tried to climb the tree. Eventually I was able to shin up that straight scaly trunk until the first branch. I was never as good at it as a friend who would go straight up to the fruiting branches and drop fruits down on the rest of us after eating his fill. I wasn’t surprised to find that this tree is native to the Indian subcontinent. Unlike the mango, another fruit of the summer, there is no mystique to this fruit; it is just an old friend, a favourite which you love to come back to. This year too, The Family and I sat down to savour the sweet acidic taste of the fruit, and shared childhood memories of having it with rock salt.

That’s why I was not surprised to find that there is huge genetic variation in the tree across India; no one has tried to cultivate particular strains. Since the taste of the fruit is preserved by the seed, vegetative propagation of jamun has not been widely used. Propagation by seed must have caused some selective distinctions between different regional varieties (the ones we ate this year did not colour our tongues much) while retaining genetic diversity. Two related facts amazed me. First, that although jamun has been carried across the world recently, there are many regions where the fruit is grown but not eaten (imagine that!). Second, that the genus Syzygium is found in a wide arc across the world, from Africa and Madagascar, through Asia, all the way to Australia and several Pacific islands. The geographic spread and genetic clocks indicate that the genus may have evolved after the late Jurassic, when the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was breaking up to create the modern oceans. It contains more than 1500 species, many of which have edible fruits, and (this blew me right out of the water) cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) belong to the same genus.

Foraging

The Family is a great forager. My shopping trips start with a list, and, sometimes, when some of the things on the list are not available, I replace them with the nearest equivalent. The contents of the bag do not surprise anyone. When The Family leaves home, I have no idea what she will get back. The trip that she took to work also yielded some surprises. A few landed up on our table instantly. The samosas and the hot vadas (without pav, unfortunately) were what I liked best. She put it on the last remaining piece of the first table setting we’d bought together. The usual rule of ceramics seems to be holding up: a chipped plate never breaks.

The fluffy hot dhoklas were another surprise. She’d also managed a peek into the kitchen where they had been prepared. As we demolished a large part of her findings, I listened to her stories of foot operated hand sanitizer dispensers, thin crowds in favourite shops, and clean kitchens. The first wave of infections is not over in Mumbai yet. As long as people remain masked, and spend most of their time distancing from each other, there should be no disastrous second wave.

Post-human sunsets

Long after the microscopic soot from human pollution has been flushed out of the air, when only the greenhouse gases remain to heat up the seas, what would sunsets be like? We got a look at that during this nearly rain-free week in Mumbai. It was so spectacular that The Family changed the time of her daily walk to synchronize with the sunset. Cameras rarely see what the human eye does, but you may still get a sense of what we have been seeing in the slideshow below.

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Soot and other particles in the air are relatively large, and serve only to dim the colours of the sunset. The colours are brighter when they have settled out of the air. Normally we see these monsoon sunsets at most for a day after heavy rains, before traffic pumps particles into the air and obscures them. Now we can see it for days on end. I understand now why people are calling this time the anthropause.

In cold and dry air, the colour of the sunset comes from sunlight scattered by molecules of air. The result is a gentle wash of light, changing colour from east to west, and intensity in the north-south angle from the sun. The sunset colours of tropical monsoons come from a more complex process: the sunlight scattering from aerosol droplets of moisture in the air. This explanation can be developed using a scheme invented by Gustav Mie. I wonder if he saw colours such as this during his youth in the German port of Rostock.

In any case, we are seeing the sunsets on a hot and wet earth, free of ongoing industrial pollution. These are the colours of the postanthropic world.