Monsoon light is special. In many parts of the world you get spectacular sunsets and sunrises when there’s smoke and dust in the air. Here we can see that kind of special light because of small droplets of moisture suspended in the air. At least, we can see it at the change of season between grishma and varsha, summer and monsoon, before the sky is completely overcast.
The Family has been going for a walk by the sea to take photos. Being more of a couch potato, I take them from our balcony. The added advantage to this placement (add-vantage, to make a bad pun) is that I can get a view of the canopy below me, covered with the last flowers of the Flame of the Forest (Delonix regia).
In another neck of the woods a spreading banyan tree, the adult form of a strangler fig, has become host to a dense growth of epiphytic Pothos. I’ve never seen another specimen with such large leaves. In the fading light of the evening the green seems greener than usual.
There are other strange effects of light in this season. In the middle of the afternoon a dense mass of clouds can begin to obscure the sun, producing a watery light like the sunset. The sky and the sea can be beautiful now.
Through the hottest part of May the treetops outside our window were a sea of bright red. The Flame of the Forest (Delonix regia, aka Gul mohar) was in flower. It is the one pleasure of this burning season. Between the peaks of the seasons for two major varieties of mangos, the best way to engage your senses is to stare out of the window in the morning or late afternoon, to see a golden light play on the flowers.
June is when the blooms are shed. True flowers of May, these, short lived, dropping into a red carpet on the ground at the beginning of June. It is more truly a Mayflower than that native of the Americas, the Epigaea repens, now commonly known as the Mayflower in the US, or even the original, Crataegus monogyna, after which the pilgrims’ ship, the Mayflower, was named. On World Environment Day, as I went to plant a neem tree (Azadirachta indica) in a clearing where a giant neem had stood before last year’s storm, I took these photos. That tiny green leaflet is one of the components of the multipart feathery (pinnate) leaves of the tree.
It is much easier to photograph these fallen flowers than to sight on a flower still on the branch. And a shot like this is enough to show you the five-petaled (pentameric) flowers, with one white petal streaked in red. What you don’t see is that when it is on the branch, the white petal sticks up, signalling to insects. These trees are not too far from its native Madagascar, and may well have been carried here in the natural course of migration. But since the 17th century the tree has been carried across the warmer parts of the world to serve be grown in gardens and along roads. Can’t think of a better way of preserving a species which is dying in Madagascar.
Between a post-travel quarantine and the lockdown, I’ve not left the gates of our housing complex for a hundred days today. Sitting at home, I think I’ve got more tuned to the natural world. I’ve noticed the seasons passing: vasant and grishma are over, and now we are in varsha (think of it as spring, hot season, and monsoon). On the 99th day I leaned out the window in the evening to catch the watery golden light of sunset filtering through monsoon clouds.
The air was full of the chattering and scolding of rose ringed parakeets. I looked at the canopy of trees just below me: such a variety of greens there. The parakeets seem to avoid the gul mohar tree for some reason. They would have been spectacular otherwise; imagine their green against the red of those flowers.
Why was this parakeet rubbing its beak along the bare branch it was sitting on? Was it cleaning its beak? I looked for other parakeets sitting down. There were many. Yes, and many of them seemed to be rubbing their beaks along bare branches, quite vigorously.
Could this be a search for food? Unlikely, I thought. There was enough other food available for them to be wasting the last minutes of daylight looking for insects under the bark of trees. It turns out that their beaks grow all through life, and have to be rubbed down constantly to prevent them from becoming too large. I hadn’t noticed this behaviour before,
I had to go and pare down my ever-growing stomach. But before that I tried to take a few photos of the birds launching off from their perches. It turned out not to be so easy. They seem to have planned out a route through branches and leaves before letting go of the perch: they twist and turn very fast, before coming to horizontal flight. The light was fading, and I’ll leave this exercise for the next hundred days.
Summer is the time of the Gul mohar, the Flame of the Forest, Delonix regia. I love that strange construction: a five petalled flower, four of which are bright red, and the fifth is stippled with yellow or white. When one petal of a flower looks special, you can be sure that it had something to do with pollinators. This one, called the standard, is a nectar guide, and its base contains nectar. I remember our class teacher telling us, “Go ahead and take them apart to look at them carefully, each flower will fall off the tree in four days or so, even without your help.”
As a result of the class project in primary school, this was one of the first flowers that I looked at carefully. In my mind it goes with the blazing heat of grishma, summer before the monsoon, in the plains of northern India. But modern genetic techniques extend recorded history in placing its origin in the western part of Madagascar, after it had separated out from the continental landmass of Africa. It spread to Africa unaided by humans, probably rafted by ocean currents, perhaps 10-20 million years ago. Then, in the blink of an eye, in geological terms, in the last four or five hundred years, it has been carried across the world by humans.
Summer is the time of mangoes. In the part of the country where I grew up, the decisive beginning of grishma (summer) would be the brief week or two when the house would fill up with seemingly unending baskets of lychee. But they would be over before I could ever anticipate it, and suddenly one day the house would have the first mangoes of the summer. There are almost no lychees in Mumbai, and the summer starts with the delightful apoos (alphonso). The other delightful aspect of this, the most terrible of seasons, are the flowering trees. My favourite is the red of the silk cotton flower (Bombax ceiba), named after the silky feathers which waft through the burning air in May, carrying seeds from the burst fruits. On the other side of the road, peeking out from behind a building I can spot another favourite, the red flowers of the gul mohar (Delonix regia, the flame of the forest). The easiest to photograph from my window are the copperpods (Peltophorum pterocarpum, yellow flame) which line the roads around us. Nearby, and invisible to me now, is a jacaranda tree which must be in flower. None of these popular road-liners are native to Mumbai. The first rains of the next season will knock all these flowers off the trees, and for a few days the roads will be carpeted with vivid patches of colour decaying into mush.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now I can see the morning’s light moving along my kitchen wall. A couple of weeks ago the sun, as it rose, would burn me as I made my morning’s tea. Now that spot in my kitchen is safe, and the sun’s first light falls on the southern wall. The cool land breeze of the morning stops earlier now, and the equally cool sea breeze also sets in earlier. The sound of the birds has changed; perhaps they have moved to different parts of the garden, and someone else in getting the early morning concert that I would a few weeks back. In Mumbai you feel the summer more by an increase in the humidity as the sun warms up the ocean. I can feel it already.