Knowns

Within the ten paces where I’d seen so many unknown plants, I also saw many animals. We look at an animal and immediately say, “That’s a butterfly. That’s a moth. That’s a bird, a mammal, a spider.” But we can’t do the same for plants. Our greater familiarity with animals extends to being able to identify species more easily. I’d dabbled with identifying butterflies in the past, so I wasn’t fazed by the female of the Chocolate pansy (Junonia iphita) which briefly sunned itself by the side of the road.

I waited there with Adesh and my companions for quite a while because we kept hearing the call of an Immaculate cupwing (Pnoepyga immaculata). This skulker in the undergrowth was completely new to me, and its new name gave me no picture of the bird. When I learnt its older common name, a Nepal wren-babbler, I had a quick flash of what it would look like: small and brown. I wish common names were not changed so frequently by the committees that have taken over bird watching. I was lucky to finally get a glimpse of the bird, and incredibly lucky to get a photo, whatever its quality. This bird is not rare, but it rarely shows itself.

I had time enough to spot and photograph a tiger moth sitting in plain view on top of a leaf in a cluster of lantana bushes. A moth which does not take the effort to hide is probably poisonous. Later I checked and found that it was Tropical tiger moth (Astora caricae) a member of the colourful family Erebidae. It produces distasteful chemicals which make it unpalatable to most predators, including its main enemy, nocturnal bats.

A mountain spring trickled down the cliff. The place was quiet except for the sounds of birds, and the soft babble of the water as it flowed in a tiny stream by the road next to us. It is so different being in the mountains. A wet stream on the side of a city road would certainly not be clean, and is something you would go out of your way to avoid. Here water of this kind is clear and drinkable. If you fill a bottle with it you see a little turbidity which settles quickly. A land crab scuttled out of the stream as soon as my shadow fell over it. It took shelter in a niche, and I could see nothing apart from a claw. It is hard to identify hidden animals.

The six seasons: 4

Sharad follows varsha. Sharad is often translated as autumn, but this is incorrect. It is still astronomical summer in the northern hemisphere when the season starts; the sun has yet to cross the equator on its southward trend. This is what the British called Indian summer. It is an uncomfortable time, since the monsoon has left the air full of moisture, and the weather warms up again. At this time the weather in the Himalayas is turbulent, there are dramatic cloudbursts and floods, and passes are closed. But also this is a time when nature reawakens in the plains, with warmth and water in plenty. On the coast the monsoon storms have passed, the time of the spawning of sea life is over, and traditional fishermen take their nets out to sea in newly painted boats. The featured photo was taken in Goa.

On land, I would scour the countryside in this season with my camera for wildflowers and insects. This photo of a chocolate pansy butterfly (Junonia iphita) was taken in the comfort of a garden. Even here photographing insects involved keeping a steady hand on the camera if a mosquito bit it just as you were about to release the shutter. When you look around you, it is clear that sharad is not autumn. Nature is bursting into renewed life. The fruits of this season are specially sweet and flavourful, the late medieval imports of chikoo (Manilkara zapota, also called sapodilla, or sapota), sitaphal (Annona squamosa, known elsewhere as sugar apple), and Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana, which has no local name although it is so widespread). I love these fruits just by themselves, or in jams and ice creams, or in rum based drinks.

But most of all, this is the season of festivals. It starts with the Ganapati festival, and culminates with the Navaratri, or Durga puja. There is an almost continuous stream of festivals from Ganapati to Christmas. It is a part of the year when your resolve is badly needed. The weather is uncomfortable, and you are tempted to forgo the daily exercise that had almost come to a halt in varsha. And now there’s the tempting food, from the wonderful fresh catch of pomfret (Bramidae, also called pamplet or paplet) to the special sweets of the many festivals. Everything conspires to force you to put on weight. It’s the season to be careful.