Bee’s knees

Not really the knees, but filled pollen baskets. That’s what stopped me in my tracks inside the Presidential gardens. As I tried to take a better picture, a plainclothes security man appeared at my elbow and said “You can’t stop to take pictures.” Without taking my eyes off the bee, I said “But photography with the phone is allowed in the garden.” He replied “But it doesn’t mean that you have to take a photo of every flower.” I conceded that point, but argued that I hadn’t, I wasn’t even so interested in the flower. It was the bee I was looking at. But he didn’t stay to listen to me; other knots of people attracted his interest.

Bees do not feed on nectar alone. While carbs are good for giving them energy, all individuals, especially the growing larvae, need proteins and fats. That comes from pollen. Bees are not being altruistic in taking pollen from one flower to another in order to further the reproductive success of plants. They harvest pollen, and nectar, in order to feed themselves. The sexual favours to plants are incidental. Hairy species of bees just carry the pollen in mats of hair called scopa. But these red dwarf honey bees (Apis florea) have pollen baskets, corbicula, on the tibia of their hind legs instead. I haven’t noticed them so full before. I wish I had panniers built into my legs; it would be a very useful alternative to plastic shopping bags.

Presidential gardens

We’d seen many photos of the gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, so when we found that we had a uncommitted morning in Delhi that was one place that immediately came to mind. A search told us that there were seven hourly slots for entry, each accommodating a hundred people. Since people rarely spend more than two hours in the garden, one should expect about two hundred people at a time. A friend had told The Family about the tulips in bloom in the gardens, so she was keen on it. Even though only phone photography was allowed in the gardens, it seemed like a place where I could get some decent macros. We made our online bookings for a Friday morning.

What we’d not known was that school children are allowed a free visit on Fridays, so an enormous number of schools plan a trip to the gardens. We were waist deep in about ten thousand children. It was hard to get lines of sight which did not involve throngs of children being hurried about by the security, while their teachers ran ragged trying to get their bunch to keep together. I was happy to get the usual calendar shot of a rose in the foreground of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Maybe I shouldn’t say usual, because the calendars I’ve seen frame the rose more carefully. Here I found that I couldn’t budge because of the press of children around me.

In spite of all the jostling, I did get the rose in the foreground. I was happier with the photo of the tree with the guard in the background. The tulips? They were far from the path that visitors had to keep to. It was impossible to get a photo using my phone camera. I could have done with a better zoom.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan has been occupied by the titular head of India since the capital shifted to Delhi from Kolkata in 1912. The gardens were laid out first a year later by William Robert Mustoe, and have been changed many times later. Our path was lined with these interesting chest-high water spouts, each sporting a globe of spilling water. As I framed the two gardeners at rest behind it, I became the center of a curious bubble of school children. Their minders kept them moving, but there was always a bubble around me. Somewhat like the water bubble around the central unmoving spout, I thought.

The lassi cooler

The Delhi Metro makes me feel peckish. What quick snack could I get? Outside the metro station was a very crowded paratha place. It smelt good, but a paratha is not a small snack. Around the corner I found matkas full of lassi, cooling in cold cabinets bearing logos of giants of retail who are locked in a perpetual battle like the Arisians and Eddorians or the Kree and the Skrull. I don’t mind the pop culture of The Empire, but I would rather have a lassi than sugared water for a snack. One matka was enough for two of us.

Three roses

The rose garden in Rashtrapati Bhavan used to be called Mughal Gardens. The day before I booked a visit with The Family it was renamed the Amrit Udyan. Doesn’t a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Let me go with roses, not names.

I’m completely naive when it comes to gardens. All around me I notice people stopping at their favourites and reeling off the name of the cultivar, talking about the soil and the humidity needed to get the best blossoms. I listen, and the words drip past me. All you need, in order to grow the best roses, is to be the President of India, and have a huge garden and staff.

She does have the best roses I have seen in a while. I do like the spotty white one, although the rose-tending-to-purple is pretty eye-catching too. Interestingly, not one of these three had a sweet smell.

People and pigeons

A short auto ride from the Janpath Metro station in Delhi is a lovely old step well called Agrasen ki Boali. Ever since someone pointed out that these step wells are a water management system known since the third millennium BCE, I’ve tried to take the time to look at examples whenever I heard of one. After all, a system which has been in use for five millennia is a part of the human technological heritage as old as cities, and certainly older than history. So The Family and I entered the gate to this old step well.

How old? No one has a clue. An information panel put up by the Archaeological Survey says this quite explicitly. Wikipedia pointed to the architecture, which resembles that of 14th century buildings in Delhi. The structure is the simplest possible: a single flight of stairs led down to the reservoir. The step wells are no longer being maintained, but an open reservoir of this kind is wonderful for harvesting rainwater and recharging ground water. In these days, as we begin to run out of usable water, it is good to look at, and adapt, a technology which had been useful throughout our history. In that spirit, one can also figure that the well could be easily older than the current walls that we see around it.

I walked down to the level of the dark water. Although pieces of plastic were floating on it, there was no sign of eutrophication. Does this mean that the baoli can be made usable again with some cleaning? In these days of municipal water piped into your house, there is little use for this expense, but it would be worth finding out. Unfortunately, I could not find any articles on the hydrology of this well.

I looked at the surrounding walls. They are made of dressed sandstone with the surkhi mortar which was common across northern India. The highest level of the wall looks different. The stone is badly dressed and the mortar is barely visible. At some time the outer wall was clearly raised. Why? And by whom? There seem to be two kinds of niches on the walls: one level seems to be deep niches, and another looks today like architectural fancy. Both sets are topped by well constructed load-bearing arches. Why would you go to the trouble of building them? The lower set is at the same level as the main entrance doorway. Could they be ghost doors, ie, doors which served a proper doorly purpose before they were filled in? There are more questions in this quiet place than answers.

Sport or chimera?

The gardens at the Rashtrapati Bhavan turned out to be more interesting than I had expected. One of the fun things was a bed of pansies around the base of a tree. The gardening staff have been putting out interesting crosses with the Viola tricolor base stock in recent years. Having seen the photos from the past years, I looked carefully at the bed. The featured photo was taken by The Family. You can see two different stalks of the same plant have flowers in two different colours (the one behind is closer to the wild V. tricolor) than the main subject of her photo. How often do you see two differently coloured flowers on the same plant? Not so often that one can ignore it, right?

How can that happen at all? In any organism, different genes can be activated or silenced as the animal grows. The patches of colour on cowhide, or the stripes on a tiger are the most visible example of this. Sometimes a cell mutates during development, and the mutant cell produces more daughter cells with the mutation. This is called a chimera. Some individuals have a patch of coloured skin visible on their body, sometimes called a birthmark. This is due to such a mutation in skin cells. These two things can happen to a plant as well. If the genes for a pigment are switched on or kept off during the development of a flower, then you might have two different colours of flowers on the same plant. These are called sports in botany.

So the pansies that we saw in that one bed in the gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan are sports, and chimeras. I wonder if the flowers give rise to seeds which will keep the colour of the flower it came from. If it does, then you can breed multiple cultivars from the same plant. In that case some seeds from this plant could give violet flowers, others white, a third set yellow, and yet another set of seeds could give that tricoloured flower that you see in the featured photo. Is this one of the methods that plant breeders use? Someone with more knowledge than me will have to answer that question.

Odds and ends

Paging through photos I came across some odd shots which suddenly reminded me of the circumstances in which I’d taken them. The featured photo was taken in south Sikkim on a very overcast day. We’d thought of taking a walk in a rhododendron forest, but the cold drizzle put us off. Instead we walked through a small village looking for a place to have a chai. This blazing wall gave me the first photo of the day. It was a typical frame house. Mats are tacked to the frame and covered with mud. A hole cut in the mud holds a window. But the colours!

From the wonderful aesthetics of the mountains to its utter absen e in Delhi. Walking through the university, I this unlikely juxtaposition of a toilet door covering an open manhole, a bicycle on the ground chained to a post, and an office chair. The exuberant gracelessness of such sights is as much Delhi as the beautiful imperial monuments built across half a millennium.

“Out at work” is a line that popped into my head when I saw the closed doors of a trekking guide’s office. We were in Yuksom, west Sikkim. This is the start of a big array of walking trails of all levels of difficulty, and guides are in heavy demand. Clearly.

The extremely decorative facade of CST, the century and half old railway terminus in the heart of Mumbai, is reflected in the window of a taxi waiting at a red light. I was in another just behind it, when I realized that this just might be the oddest shot that I’ll ever get of that ornate building.

Delhi to Chandigarh: highway kitsch

For most of the distance between Delhi and Chandigarh, you would follow National Highway 44. It turns out that this is the highway of kitsch. Finding a three-headed dragon in a parking lot, I asked The Young Niece whether it was from Harry Potter. The answer was definitely “No. Harry Potter only has a three headed dog.” This was a friendly dragon, and probably not called Fluffy. She posed under the dragon with an ice cream cone in her hand (which did not melt under its hot breath).

Much before that, before we had left the gravitational attraction of Delhi, we passed this wonderfully kitschy temple. The dwarapala of classic temple architecture have been replaced by giant statues of Ram and Hanuman. I took the photo as our car flew down the highway. Later, looking at the picture I was not sure whether the structure just behind the dwarapala is a dhaba or a temple. The triple spired structure behind the cube is definitely a temple, but, going by the signboards, the cube is probably a dhaba.

Our flight had landed in Delhi just after ten, and now it was getting to be time for lunch. The distance between the airport in Delhi and the center of Chandigarh can be covered in about four and a half hours, not counting a halt for food. The road is lined with dhabas, but most are empty of clients. It seems that opening a roadside eatery is a popular business, but not one which is highly remunerative. All the crowds seem to stop at places which are full of kitsch like the three-headed dragon.

That dhaba also had toilets which were guarded by these statues in armour: another touch which was right out of an alternate world Harry Potter. “Of course,” I told The Family, “in this part of the world it has to be Hari Puttar.” Reassured, I walked into the clean loo. The Lotus tried to put forward a different theory of the origins of these statues, but I think the Hari Puttar story is too colourful to be wrong.

Even the divider between the states of Haryana and Punjab is kitschy. Just after Amabala (or before, if you are coming from Chandigarh) is this amazing state border. The highway passed below a complicated arch with the name of the state written on it in large friendly letters. On the divider was a tall pole holding up something which looked like a conch shell disguised as a submarine. Some day in the future all this might look like classic art. I wonder what the kitsch of that time might be.

Mean Streets

Negotiating the mean streets of Delhi you see sometimes the car “which is not itself mean, which is neither tarnished nor afraid.” That’s a rare sight. Significantly less rare are less-than-new luxury cars. If fleeting glimpses are anything to go by, then the Mercedes E class is becoming very popular on the roads. A quick search tells me that right now there are 270 used Mercedes E classes on sale in the Delhi region. Wonder if the car which I took a photo of has been put out to pasture yet.

13 hours in a aluminum box

My flight left JFK at 3 in the afternoon. Most brunch places in New York seem to open after 11. So this didn’t leave me enough time for a nice Sunday brunch. As a result, my main meal of the day was the dinner on the flight that we had soon after we took off. As always, cabin lights were dimmed after this in order to simulate night. The movies were not very interesting. I slid up the window shutter, turned the glass to transparent and peered out. We were somewhere over the north Atlantic, a little southwest of Reykjavik. There was a sea of clouds below me. The sky had turned a brilliant blue in the approaching dusk. Ten years ago I’d managed to take a photo of calving glaciers from a flght. No such luck this time.

In flight over extreme north Europe

I got myself something to drink, forced myself to watch a movie, and then fell asleep. When I woke we had crossed the Atlantic. I scrolled through the flight data and saw that we were a little south and east of Riga. I’ve never seen Riga, or the Baltic states. I popped the shutter open again. Light poured in. We were well above the sea of clouds which hid the north European plains below me. One of the cabin crew came by to ask me to pull down the shutter. They like people asleep. I complied, but then walked around the cabin for a while, did my stretches, drank some water. It was about 6 hours since we took off. Almost half way.

In flight somewhere near Delhi

The second half of the long flight was excruciating. I watched parts of five movies. I dozed, ate, fell asleep again. I walked around the cabin, through the galley and back. I read all the newspapers that were available. I finished a Simenon and started another. Eventually the flight data told me that we were near Delhi. Now there was no objection to shutters being up. I took a photo of the first clear sky that I’d seen in half a day: the monsoon sky over Delhi. I was a little hop from home.