The Real India

Ideas take a long time to ripen. Around the beginning of the century half the human population finally moved into cities. Ripe to overripe takes a short time; I now read that by the end of this decade about two thirds of India’s population will probably move to cities. This thought struck me as I moved very slowly through traffic in a smaller city in India.

What is smaller? A population about halfway between that of Barcelona and Madrid, and a bit more than a tenth of Mumbai’s is what passes for small here. The tremendous growth of cities means that space is scarce. Land use patterns are the same as before, so housing, work and leisure districts have each become denser. Many more people then need to move between these areas, so transport is the big new problem.

Flying in to Patna after a decade, tremendous changes are visible. Great efforts have been made to manage traffic in the central part of the town. Extensive systems of flyovers are portals between the east and west of the town. The centre still gets crowded, but no more so than a decade ago.

It is in one of the older parts of the city that I took this photo. The variety of traffic on the road amazed me. The man walking down the middle of the road is moving faster than the average speed of other vehicles. The slowdown in caused mainly by hawkers parking carts full of merchandise in the middle of the road, or, as in the photo, trying to push it against the traffic!

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Harvesting water chestnut

Skimming anthropological news late last year, I found the first inventory of the diet of humans who lived three quarters of a million years ago. The largely plant based diet included water chestnuts! I love eating this, and reading the paper took me back to the time I watched them being harvested.

On a visit to Patna a decade ago, I stood near a pond covered over by plants. A boy wearing a flotation bag made of the skin of some animal was wading in the water, carefully harvesting the chestnuts, as you can see in the featured photo. The caltrop plant from which water chestnuts are harvested The Hindi name for the nut is Singhada (सिंघाडा), the same word that is used sometimes for samosas. The commonality of the names probably comes from the similarity in shapes; the word literally means horned thing. Water chestnuts are ancient food in India and further to the east. I’ve eaten them in China and in Japan (where it is called Hishi). Since samosas are a later import, I guess the word Singhada originally referred to this nut. You can see the plant in the photo above; it is technically a water Caltrop.

At one time the little ponds of North India were covered with Caltrop, making it an easy nut to harvest. As a child I learnt to distinguish it from the invasive weed called water hyacinth (photo here). Water hyacinth with flower I have memories of seeing people dredging these useless invaders from ponds using rakes. They would come away easily, with water dripping from shallow black floating roots. Now that water chestnuts are regarded as a poor man’s food, the efforts to keep ponds free of water hyacinth have decreased. As a result ponds grow stagnant, become breeding grounds for mosquitos. Eventually, they are drained because they have become health hazards. It is hard to get Singhada in markets now.

A heronry in Danapur

The Family and I were new birdwatchers a decade back when we visited Patna one October. We were told that just east of the city, in a place called Danapur, one can see trees full of birds. Just the previous year The Family had bought a field guide to birds by Salim Ali, and I had bought my first digital camera. We drove out along the Khagaul-Danapur road, turned right near the Ganges, and almost immediately saw several trees full of storks. Today we know that such a group of trees is called a heronry. Year after year, generation after generation, herons and storks will come back to their heronry to breed.

Asian open-billed storks in Danapur, Bihar

We were amazed. My five-year old niece, who was with us, was stunned. I took photos. When we came back home, The Family brought out her field guide, and patiently leafed through it, with my niece at her shoulder, trying to identify the bird. It turned out to be the Asian open billed stork. This was what bird watchers call a lifer: the first sighting of a species. We never forgot that it is called "open billed" because there’s always a gap between its bills. We saw it many times later, but this was the only heronry of this species that we ever saw.