The monsoon settles in

Sometime in the late morning of yesterday I realized that we were going through the first spell of a proper monsoon rain. It had been raining continuously since the previous evening. The earlier part of June had passed in little fits and bursts of rain. That was typical early monsoon; it gives you time to turn the house upside down looking for the umbrella that you put away last September, and the raincoat that you bundled into a drawer. In our part of town July and early August see the maximum rain on average. So the monsoon this year looks like it is textbook weather.

Part of the textbook is this first long and bothersome spell of rain at the very end of June. I had a day full of meetings, which, fortunately, in our new normal, means that you can stay at home glued to the laptop screen. I was glad about that. Otherwise I would have had to make a waterproof bundle with a towel and a change of clothes and shoes to take to work. I kept looking out of the window to see how much the rain pools in the garden. In continuous low-intensity rain like this, water can become ankle high in the garden at high tide, and drain out almost completely when the tide is low. It’s a good proxy for how the trains function. Fortunately for commuters, high tide was not at rush hour.

In the evening, as I took macros of the bougainvillea still in flower on our wet balcony, The Family scrolled through the news and read out the day’s statistics to me. It had rained a steady couple of centimeters every hour. In five hours we’d got a 100 mm of rain, in eight, 165 mm. The day had been dreary, and I’d switched on all the lights at home to make the place look cheerful. A few notes of cheer had been added by the sparrows sheltering on my windowsill, and the pair of purple sunbirds which come to sit on the bougainvillea vines. Now I look out at the first morning of July, and find another dreary day, with the clouds looking all set for another tedious day of rain. I have a meeting today which I can’t do on zoom. Bother!

First shower

Petrichor is the smell of rain hitting parched ground. Equally wonderful is the sight of raindrops on petals and leaves in that first monsoon rain. That’s the photo. The monsoon is on schedule. More than a week on, I woke on the day some places in the high latitudes will celebrate La Fete de la Musique, or, later in the week, Midsommar, and looked out at a welcome dreary drizzle and completely overcast skies. Just the day to walk out in a tee and shorts, in flipflops, to walk through the rain on Marine Drive, munching a cone of fresh roasted peanuts. Too bad it is a working day.

Seeking shade in summer’s heat

May is a month when there’s no lack of light. It is the height of summer, when you wait eagerly for the quenching rain. The sky is flash burnt to a white like a nuclear explosion. Even the inside of the house is bright and hot. You can withdraw from this world by drawing thick curtains across windows, switching on the air conditioning, and living by artificial light. Or you can take the less comfortable, but more satisfying route of drawing a curtain of green across your balcony to filter the light and allow the sea breeze to pass through your house. This year we succeeded in creating the second route.

Behind the filtering curtain of Bougainvilleas the light is mild and the shadows are subtle. I could take flower macros in this light, there would be no danger of blowing out details or losing them in black. The erect stigma of Hibiscus always draws my eyes. Sitting on the balcony I wondered why erections are feminine for this species. Could it be a device to avoid self-pollination? The stamens and the pollen sacs are always placed well behind the fivefold stigma. Focus bracketing gives interesting effects when you photograph a bud about to open. The delicious play of light and shadow on the stigma is perhaps better captured in the featured photo.

The delicacy of white Bougainvillea always gives me pause. The true flowers of the plant are always white of course. It is only the bracts, not flowers at all, which are different colours. But the paper thin bracts are beautiful. Here I focused on the flower, so instead of the texture of the bracts, you see them as abstract areas of light and shadow. I see this as a monochrome photo, rendered in shades of green, from dark to light.

One bunch of the flowers on this pink Bougainvillea was curled just so that I could focus both on the open flower and the texture of the bracts. Looking through the viewfinder, I lose myself in the minutely detailed texture of the bracts, the surface like paper, but with a network of veins. The light shows how the bracts curve in space. On a flat surface of a photo, it is only light and shade that tells you of the shape of things in three dimensions. Without shade a photo would be just flat patterns. I’m happy with our shady balcony this year.

Grishma

Grishma ritu, high summer, has us in its grip. The relentless heat of the day only gets worse as the sun passes the zenith. At night the moist sea breeze comes down on us like a warm blanket. As your body tries its ancient mammalian method of cooling by sweating, the moisture works against it. You are easily dehydrated in summer.

The flowers love it. Bougainvillea is flourishing on our balcony, providing a green screen that filters the light in the living room. The white flowers of the creeper are nestled in four colours of bracts. Hibiscus blooms in its shade, its fivefold stigma red and erect.

Purple and gold

The angel of death has yet to breathe on this cohort. It still gleams in purple and gold on our balcony. I’m alternately exasperated with and envious of The Family’s phone. In good light its camera does a wonderful job of rendering details, although under other circumstances its AI daemon will tweak images right into the uncanny valley (quite like Byron, when you think about it). In this case I liked the job it has done with the white flowers, and their gold centers. But it has tried to smooth out the papery texture of the purple bracts, which I found disturbing (they seem to have waxed a little deadly and chill). Still, it is a good likeness of the Bougainvillea blooming in our balcony right now.

Slow Fade

We’d wasted the best hours of the late afternoon puttering down a nondescript mountain road. I was silently raging at this waste of a wonderfully clear golden hour. Now that we were close to home, I decided to get off and walk around Naukuchiatal to the hotel. There would be no spectacular sights here, but I would get to exercise my camera. The last light lit up the sky to the west. It would soon fade.

At one spot on the path I stopped to take this photo. I thought the day was now not totally wasted, but I wished I’d had a walk on one of the high meadows bordering an oak and deodar forest. I’d sat down on a rock, taken a photo of a beetle, and watched a laughing thrush. An hour there would have been wonderful, perhaps giving me more birds and insects. This was tame, but better to carpe the remains of the diem, than to carp about the most recent afternoon of my mis-spent life.

Now there was a wall between me and the lake. Not so bad, I thought, this gives me a different set of subjects. Quick, before the light fades, take the gold shining through dry leaves and grass. Not spectacular, but an image that I enjoy.

Red-orange bougainvilleas are not the most common, and backlit with the golden light they are made for the camera. I was happy enough with this shot. But the sun had dipped behind the curve of the turning earth. The light would fade from now on.

I was standing behind a retired colonel’s house, looking into his garden. Two dogs voiced their displeasure. I heard the voice of the master quieten them. In the last of the fading gold light I caught the other bougainvillea in his garden.

The fading light is actually ideal for this delicate purple-pink rose. I photographed a bunch which was on the other side of the bush and saw that the slightly better light bleached the colours off them. This is better. I’ve met this variety earlier, but I don’t know what it is called. I wished the colonel would come around and tell me. No luck. He’d probably settled down with his whisky and soda, dogs at this feet, watching the sun set over the lake.

I came to a part of the road next to a deep woods. This is supposed to be a good place for birds. We never managed to come here during our vacation. But right next to the road I saw this white-cheeked bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys, aka Himayalan bulbul). The light was still good enough to see its white cheek, but in any case its stylish quiff is almost enough to identify it by. I did manage to record its call too.

The hills are alive with the sound of barbets. And I’m sure they have been for a thousand years. I got a glimpse of a Great barbet (Psilopogon virens) in silhouette. By now the light was so bad that the final identification could only be done by its call. Strangely, although I heard its call all the time for the whole week, I never got a good view of one. At least not good enough for a better photo.

But the day had one more present waiting for me. I was inside the grounds of the hotel now and stopped to try to figure out a strange bird call I’d heard. Could it be a nightjar? When it didn’t call again, I looked at the rapidly darkening lake on my right. Just above me an unlit light-bulb caught the last pink gold light of the day, lensing the forest around it. One last shot before I went in to order a sundowner.

Colourful leaves

Calla lily, Poinsettia, Bougainvillea. Three of the plants in which people sometimes mistake leaves for flowers. Gardens and hedges in Mumbai are full of the splashy colours of Bougainvillea right now. But the colourful stuff isn’t petals, they are just the leaves surrounding the true flower. The youngest niece asked me, “What’s the difference?” Well, the petals unfurl from inside the bud, but the bracts, these differently coloured leaves, develop from the stem just as normal leaves would do. Hers was a deep question if I read it differently. One parts of the “abominable question” of the rise of flowering plants which exercised Darwin was the origin of petals. Are they modified leaves, or modified stamen? Modern methods are beginning to answer this question, but the understanding can change yet. Current opinion leans towards petals rising from bracts.

In our balcony I caught the bracts in the middle of changing colour. In the featured photo you can see the green stalks of the buds just about to open into tiny flowers. The leaves around them have started losing their chlorophyll. The transformation has progressed further in the leaves closest to the bud. A few of the leaves in this cluster are more green, presumably having started the transition later. Further back in the same branch you see a small cluster of leaves which have just begun to turn colour.

Just for fun, here is another of my experiments with black and white. This time I wanted to get the difference in texture between the leaf and the bract, and colour distracts from texture. I’m happy to have caught this plant at the right time.

Bougainvillea and Baret

The Bougainvillea on our balcony has begun to flower. The west-facing balcony makes it very hard to photograph the delicately textured white bracts which surround the tiny flowers. In the morning the back-light presents a terrible contrast, and in the evening the setting sun glares into the lens. But I have time, so eventually I’ll find a way to solve this problem. While reading about Bougainvillea, one of the first interesting things I found was that it was initially described, as I expected, during Bougainvillea’s circumnavigation of the world which started in 1766 CE. What I had not known was the interesting story of the two botanists on board: Philibert Commerson, Royal botanist, and his long time assistant, Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world.

Baret disguised herself as a man, since women were forbidden on French navy ships of that time by a royal ordinance. It is believed that the first samples of this thorny flowering vine were collected by her when the ships docked in Rio de Janeiro. Baret’s circumnavigation of the earth was interrupted after reaching Tahiti, when she was discovered to be a woman. Baret and Commerson were forced to disembark in Mauritius, where they lived until his death. Eventually Baret married and moved back to France in 1775, completing the circling of the globe. Commerson had, in the mean time, written about her as the first woman voyager around the world. On her return to France she was tried by a naval court, and, under the influence of Bougainvillea, was acquitted with honor, being described as `femme extraordinare’ and granted a pension of 200 livres a year.

An article by Londa Schiebinger in Endeavour and a book by Glynis Ridley have details of Jeanne Baret’s story.

Black and white Bougainvillea

You’ll usually find colourful Bougainvillea draped over fences and climbing up walls. Most photos of these flowers emphasize the colour, but I think the texture is equally nice. That’s why these two photos: enjoy the texture of the bracts and the leaves. No disturbing colours. It’s a Monday after all.

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