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.

Golden flowers fill your eyes

Green and gold caught my eyes as we drove in the damp heat of the early afternoon through Manas National Park. It may be early spring in astronomical terms, with the days still getting longer, but as seasons are counted in these eastern foothills of Assam, it was high summer. Monsoon was less than a month away. Most trees had already shed their spring leaves, and had begun to flower. But was this the flower of the tree?

I had to tear my eyes away from the lovely flowers to take in a larger picture. Did the leaves and flower actually grow from the tree? They were carried on rather thin woody stalks. But would such thin stalks ever grow directly from the main trunk of a tree? Normally a trunk branches multiple times before you come to leaf-bearing or flower-bearing stalks.

Pull back a little further. It becomes clearer. No the flowers do not belong to the tree. It is a silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra, earlier Bombax ceiba). In this place it is late in its flowering season. Some of the smaller trees are still flowering, some are fruiting, some are still releasing their lovely silky parachutes into the air, but giants like this are past all that and are already prepared for the monsoon. The flowers are orchids growing over the tree. A little search, and you find that they are golden-flowered dendrobium (Dendrobium chrysanthum). Orchids are said not to harm the trees they grow on. They have green leaves, so they produce their own sugars. Their roots are said to penetrate only the bark of the tree. It is said that they don’t tap into the wood. I wonder then where they get water from? Roots of plants which grow into soil search widely for water. It seems that orchids specialize in pulling moisture from the air.

I pull back further. The whole jungle is full of trees carrying various kinds of orchids. Many are flowering. Something clicks into place. I’ve seen flowering orchids in the Himalayas during winter, when it often rains. Now, here in the plains below the mountains, I see them just before the monsoon. They flower when the air is damp. Most plants require a lot of stored sugar and water for their flowers and fruits. That’s what is happening here, in this hot damp place. The flowers will fruit and produce their wind-borne seeds at about the time the monsoon winds begin to blow. On this vast scale, I begin to admire the small orchids, the large trees, and the vast jungle and the climate they are in. They shape each other.

One tree, sky

For about ten years I carried a camera in my backpack wherever I went. Then, as smartphones took over, I began to leave the camera at home. My old photos show that the two instruments are not yet interchangeable. You do different things with them. There is a tree which I pass daily on my way to work. I took photos of it every now and then. I stopped doing it when I began to leave my camera at home.

The featured photo is from one March at midday. The winter’s smog is gone, the sky is a lovely blue. This photo was taken in the late years, after I started carrying a smart phone, but before I began to leave my camera at home. But it is the earliest time of the day that I took a photo of this tree.

The images from the month of April span eight years and cover the time from late afternoon to sunset. This is the time of the day that the western shore of the city gets its best light. The tree is more or less a flat silhouette though.

There is a gaping hole in the record during the monsoon months. The sky is drab, the light is flat, and it is almost impossible to keep the camera dry next to the sea. I think I took this photo in a particularly dry monsoon year.

September is still a monsoon month. The sky is often overcast, but there is less rain. I have a couple of photos from this time of the year. This one was taken in the afternoon, at about the time when, in other months, the shadows would be lengthening.

This is a photo from one October. The sky is clear. The light remains good after sunset. Good enough to see the colour of the sea, and the green of the grass. What a difference the month makes!

Then, as the sea begins to cool in December, smogs begin to envelop the city. The colours of sunset remain spectacular, but the sky fades quicker. Lights come on in the garden early.

I thought I was photographing the tree. It turned out that I was recording the six seasons, and the way the light changes with the weather.

The monsoon arrives

The monsoon’s wind reached us on Tuesday, two days early. It had been raining on and off since the weekend. The trees outside my window had been thinned in the storms of the last two years. But through grishma, the summer, the remainder of the canopy had deepened in colour. Even the late-growing new leaves of the mango tree had begun to turn green. The weekend’s pre-monsoon showers had cleaned the dust of summer off the leaves and turned the picture to a vivid red and green. On Tuesday morning as I took this photo I saw the sea had turned grey and choppy. Varsha was imminent.

The monsoon rains started within an hour of my taking the featured photo. In one day we received 44% of the month’s rainfall. I might have thought of this as part of climate change, if I hadn’t lived here long enough to know that about 50% of the season’s rains always came in a few short episodes, may be a day or two long. That is why the monsoon is a boon for school children and hard for adults.

I tried to imagine the coastal ports bustling before the monsoon, as the trading ships from Malindi, Zanzibar, Alexandria, Berenice, arrived in Bharuch, Muziris, Karachi; cargo from the west being unloaded, other ships taking on cargo for the eastern ports of Vietnam, Malacca, and Java. The oceanic trade lent its name to the monsoon: trade winds, as we learnt in school, without understanding how it had once linked us with Rome and China, Venice and Japan. Reliance on fossil fuels has cut the cord between our lives and the weather. But as we transit to renewables, taking advantage again of the trade winds should be a logical consequence. Perhaps my nieces will live and grow old in a world of Meghdoot, cloud messengers crossing the globe on trade winds.

Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

Rain Fall Season

When I was a student, a professor coined a new name for the monsoon semester. He announced a course for the Rain Fall Semester. Everyone had a good laugh about it and the phrase stuck for the rest of my life as a student. He’d managed to gently point out that a phenomenon, Fall, may have multiple causes; that the world is full of diversity. The memory of student bodies at universities decays fast, and I think four years afterwards no one would have remembered his coinage. I was reminded of it during my walk today.

The rain has stopped for a couple of days, and the afternoons are becoming uncomfortable again. The paths I took were strewn with flowers battered down by the rain. The glow of the copper pods which I’d photographed through the hot season of grishma has been wiped clean by the rain. The tree is a gleaming green, and the flowers carpet the ground under the tree.

Every path I walked today was full of leaves, a little slippery, calling for care. In another two days they’ll be gone, swept into the surrounding hedges, where they’ll produce mulch for the rest of the year. What’s not swept away will be crushed under passing feet, and turn into mush. Fall is a good name for this season. How interesting that in different parts of the world the word “fall” fits different kinds of weather.

One hundred days of parakeets

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.

Just before the monsoon

This week the monsoon arrived in Mumbai, with two days of gloomy skies and frequent rains. You can feel its arrival: the unsettled weather before it, the thunder showers at night, then the persistent westerlies and a choppy sea. I went for a walk in the garden in the early afternoon. That’s when most people are at home, and the overhead light is usually terrible for photos. But I had spots in mind, where the sun would filter down through trees, and throw a beautiful dappled light on the handiwork of the gardeners. I was not disappointed. These days full of warmth and light will decrease over the next couple of months, so I was happy to catch the photo that you see here.

Hot Days

In other years May would be a good time to travel to tigerland. In this hottest part of the year, with temperatures often in excess of 40 Celsius, leaves and small patches of water dry up, and animals come to a few larger ponds and water holes to drink several times a day. That is when you see tigers. Even if you don’t, these burning months of grishma are a good time to travel to jungles. You see flowers blooming in abundance and wildlife of many different varieties.

Whatever doesn’t come out for a drink stays home to avoid heat. A couple of years ago, we spent three days in Pench National Park, near Nagpur. We passed this Indian Scops owl (Otus bakkamoena) several times as it peered out of its hole. I recognize it by the fact that it is the only dark-eyed owl in central India. I like how the head and ear tufts perfectly camouflage it against the broken bark of the tree. The nuchal collar, ie, the ruff around its face, has a noticeable brown edging. This is another way to identify the bird.

This is also nesting time for many birds, like this Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). I find it amazing that larger birds make these untidy nests of large twigs, whereas smaller birds can make some amazingly beautiful structures. These simpler nests perch on supporting branches, I suppose because it is hard to make hanging structures which can take the weight of these birds. This simple idea of gets support (couldn’t help the pun) from the fact that larger birds like this buzzard nest at the junction of the trunk and large branches (as in the photo), whereas slightly smaller birds, like crows, find smaller junctions between branches.

Collarwali with her cubs, cooling off in Pench National Park

On some of these trips you get superlatively lucky. Either you have multiple sightings of tigers, or you have wonderful views of family groups resting in water holes. If you want to see something like this, the tigress called Collarwali with her last brood, then mark down this uncomfortable month for travel through the hottest parts of India.

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