Bhim tal

Seven years ago we’d driven up from Delhi to the lake district of Kumaon. It was an October sunset when we stopped by Bhim Tal to stretch our legs. The hills around the lake were still dense with vegetation, green after the rains. The quiet serenity of the lake seemed to be enhanced by the one sailboat out on it. That is the image of the lake which the words Bhim Tal now bring to my mind.

Spring was not a good time this year. The winter had been dry, and the hills around the lake had turned brown. The still sheet of water looked as clear as ever, but I’d been reading the alarm calls sent out by those who monitor the health of these waters. It was quite evident why. The number of houses around the lake has increased tremendously. The lake itself was obscured by makeshift shacks selling knick-knacks to the very few tourists who had come here.

This is the beginning of the end for many such beautiful spots around the country. First a few city people retire to a beautiful spot, then their friends visit. Word of mouth opens a trickle of tourists. Then, when it becomes a constant stream, these shops come up. The once beautiful spot becomes obscured by a jumble of construction. Trash collects. Boat rides, and horse rides become the order of the day. Eventually there are busloads of tourists who come to buy souvenirs, get back on the bus, and go away. There is nothing else for them to do. The process is sad, because with a little tweak and nudge, the entrepreneurship of the locals can be used to increase the value, not degrade it.

The pandemic has interrupted this sad growth. I didn’t see any sails; they have been replaced by the row boats pulled up to the newly made steps down to the water. Their numbers were a testimony to the long slope down which Bhimtal’s tourism slide had gone. At this time barely two boats were in use. One group got off as I watched. Another family was out in the middle of the lake, being pulled along by the boatman. I consoled myself with the thought that the place had remained in public consciousness for a hundred and fifty years before it had reached the stage it was in now.

Yellow=Red+Green

Like many others, I went through the usual art classes at school. But even before I took my first such class, someone may have told me that you mix yellow and blue pigments to make green. These joyful discoveries were made systematic in the art classes where we learnt how the primary colours of pigments are red, yellow, and blue. This was so ingrained in my thinking that I completely ignored the writings of Seurat even after I discovered his pointillist techniques later in school.

Spring leaves, Naukuchia Tal

I could have paid attention when my science teacher tried to tell us that the primary colours of light are different: red, blue, and green. When I did not, it was a steep learning curve for me as I grew interested in the stage during my years in college. I laboured at producing colours of light for plays using a completely wrong model for colours. I remembered the great surprise I had in producing a cold grey light for use in a play by mixing floods and spotlights. It was around then that I discarded the theory which worked for pigments.

Drying leaves in spring, Naini Tal

Now, of course, as we learn to use software for editing photos, the use of RGB colours has become so widespread that Seurat’s discoveries about colour seem commonplace. Still, when I discovered this spring that leaves use the same method I felt the pleasant tingling of discovery. The underlying colour of many leaves is red. The green colour is due to chloroplasts that the leaves produce to perform photosynthesis. When leaves die and the chloroplasts begin to decay, leaves turn yellow. If they don’t rot quickly you see them turning red as more and more chloroplasts die. In spring you see this in reverse. New leaves start out red, and grow chloroplasts, first turning yellow, and then green in a reversal of the changes that autumn brings. The first two photos in this post are of this transformation in new leaves. The photo above shows the changes in dying leaves.

Shikanji by the lake, Bhim Tal

An old friend, once an artist in his spare time, took a job which involved printers and the design of colours. As he worked with software and printers, trying to reproduce the colours produced in one domain in another, his interest in colour vision and reproduction grew. I listened to him talk about how subtractive schemes like CMY correspond to the print experience better, and what happens if you add on black ink. Now he spends much more of his time on his art, but spared some time to talk about what he found.

Fruits in a market stall, Bhowali

Colour vision is a property of human physiology and perception. So the fact that our eyes have receptors, the rods and cones, is part of the story. But behind this is a layer of computational nerves, a neural network, which combines the signals from these, and feeds it to yet other nerve cells which then transmit the information, through our optic nerves, to specialized areas in our brains. It is hard to believe how we see! Birds and insects see the world very differently. Photos of flowers or butterflies’ wings taken at wavelengths invisible to us show incredible patterns. This is an indication that in the ecology in which they exist, markers visible to non-humans are important. It is amazing how much detail the world shows once you zoom in to any part of it.

A hard day’s drive

When our flight was canceled we took a taxi as quickly as possible. The day’s drive was through the plains just before the land rises into the Himalayas, the hottest part of the country. The heat was already bad enough that the air conditioning in the car laboured to keep the temperature bearable. From Dehra Dun it is just a short while to Haridwar.

Haridwar was hosting the Kumbh Mela during this time. If I’d passed so close to it in a normal year I would have spent time photographing pilgrims, but this year I thought it prudent to avoid it. As our car sped past Haridwar we saw the tent cities that had been erected on both sides of the Ganga to accommodate pilgrims. It wasn’t a particularly holy day, so they were mostly empty. But there were people coming for a dip in the holy river anyway. Farmers had come here with their tractors, family in open trailers with mattresses and changes of clothes. Other groups had elected to come in minibuses, which normally hold about 15-25 people. Some walked. Others looked for taxis and autos. It was a hot day, notice how that family trying to flag down an auto stands in the shade of an enormous gate which welcomes travelers to the Mela. As our car sped by I had a pang that any photographer will feel at missing a wonderful opportunity for people watching.

Soon after we moved off into narrow country roads. The continuous stream of traffic sped past many little villages, each with its little market square. Now and then we would pass a large walled off property. In these plains fired brick was the building material of choice. The heat hid the fact that it was still just around the middle of astronomical spring, so trees were still flowering and putting out new leaf buds. For a large part of the day we drove through the state of UP, where the local body elections were about to happen: the evidence was posters on walls, and large hoardings lining the roads. But most of the time we just drove past agricultural fields. This is India’s heartland, mostly farming.

Then, in the golden hours of the day, we passed a country market. If we had more time I would certainly have stopped the car and walked along the margins of the market with my camera (the crowd without masks was too daunting to wade into). But I got a few shots with my phone as we speeded past this enormous, but completely unremarkable, market. So many human stories there, I thought, it only I could have stopped. India’s plains are like that: more stories per square kilometer than almost any other rural part of the planet.

Then the landscape began to change. The plain had segued into broken land, the mountains closer. We’d crossed from Uttar Pradesh to Uttarakhand: UP to UK. Before I knew it I realized that we had gained more than half a kilometer in altitude. We began to pass mixed forests of sal and pine, and rivers which originate in the mountains. I was glad to catch the story that you see above: ephemeral, but repeated endlessly across the globe. Even in a non-stop six hour journey in a taxi I was able to take an ambush photo! I call something an ambush photo if it is a photo of someone taking a selfie, or a photo of a photographer taking a portrait. Soon we were in Haldwani and had exchanged our airport-to-airport taxi for the car that we were to take for the next few days.

Our hotel in Almora had agreed to keep a late dinner for us, but we hadn’t eaten since we left the airport munching a couple of wraps. We stopped in Haldwani for a quick snack, and drove on. A climb, a brief stop next to Bhim Tal to take photos of the lights at night. “Crystal clear,” The Family said, a phrase I would remember in the next week of smoky air higher up. I love these night drives in the mountains, and now sitting in the seat next to the driver I could get to take shots which tell you something of the charm of passing through this liminal space: well-lit towns empty of people, streams of trucks beached next to the road for the night, cars parked outside houses blazing with light. I was dog-tired when we reached the hotel after 11 at night. The charming staff brought us hot food in our room, and I must have eaten something before sleeping, because when I woke the next morning there were used plates on the balcony.

Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

Haldwani to Bhimtal

wildflower

The terrain changes around Haldwani. The endless plains of Uttar Pradesh begin to crinkle and rise. We travelled through the plains in the heat of the day. As we climbed, the afternoon lengthened into evening. We stopped at a bakery in Haldwani for tea. Two schoolgirls discussed their new young physics teacher. A couple drank tea with their heads so close that their cups were in danger of clinking against each other. Three young men carrying their biking helmets chatted over a large plate of cakes.

The Family selected cakes. It took little thought to choose tea over instant coffee. I was impatient to start: we were going to miss the golden hour, that couple of hours before sunrise when the light is so beautiful that you can make a great photo out of a garbage heap. The remainder of the drive took longer than I had estimated, because we had to leave the main Haldwani-Nainital road very soon for a smaller road to Naukuchital, where we planned to spend the night. Then, just before sunset we arrived at Bhimtal.

Bhimtal

The lake district of Kumaon is almost 2 kilometers above sea level. Bhimtal is the biggest of the famous lakes in this region. I’d flicked through images of Bhimtal before leaving, so I recognized it immediately from the little island which houses an aquarium. We never managed to visit this, unfortunately. That’s one thing we must work into our next trip.

Rowing on Bhimtal

I grew up on stories of Kumaon’s lake district. A grand-uncle had a bungalow there for many years, and would make a yearly trip alone up to the mountains. On his return we would spend dinners mesmerized by stories of him meeting Nilgai on walks from Sattal to Bhimtal, and what to do if you ever meet a leopard (shine a torch at his eyes; not something I plan to do), and how green chilis, which he crunched with his dinner, were much better in the hills. The quiet and nearly deserted lakeside of Bhimtal brought back echoes of those memories. But times have changed, the boatman rowing nearby had reminders of modernity on his boat.