Darkest before dawn

When the sun is a few degrees below the horizon, you can see the highest visible peaks of mountains just barely catch the light. The highest peak I could see clearly was Trisul, and only the peaks of 7100 m and 6690 m were visible from my viewpoint. I find this a magical time of the day. You can look up into the grey sky and find it blank, not a single star visible any longer. And you can look down into the valleys and see nothing, because a deep mist shrouds all the lights of villages in this transition between the seasons of sharad and hemant. Your hand is forced if you want to show what your eye sees: I used ISO 160, aperture f/5 and exposure of 1/250 s.

For the next shot I zoomed back, still keeping the focus on Trisul. A long shot shows you the surroundings better. I wanted to capture the valley in mist, and the ranges rising towards the high Himalayas. I was standing below 2000 m, above a slope of pine-dotted grassland. I panned west to the lower peaks around Nandakot (6861 m) caught the sun. This gave me a wider view of the valleys immediately below me. Both photos are taken with ISO 100, aperture of f/4 and exposure of 1/100 s.

This camera setting was just right for a shot of the valley. I could see the great river of clouds seething as the sun just began to touch its surroundings. You could argue that I should have used a wider aperture and a shorter exposure for this; perhaps the details in the clouds could be caught better. Perhaps. I will not argue much if that’s what you think. It is certainly worth trying. At this time of the year the clouds would boil away in an hour. A couple of weeks later the mist would take much longer to clear.

Two minutes later the horizon had tilted by about half a degree and the sun was visible just above the distant mountains. This was the hardest photo to take. I took it with ISO 100, aperture of f/2.8 and exposure of 1/250 s. Any less would have muddied the colour, any more and it would have blown out the mountains. Out of the box I didn’t have any colour in the vegetation. I had to do some tinkering to get some of the foreground. It is at times like this that I wish I was in the habit of exposure bracketing; that would have given me a couple of more images to play with. But then it would put a bigger strain on my external hard drives. You have to optimize.

Two minutes more, and the horizon drops to the east by another half a degree. The sun was now high enough to light the pines in front of me. I caught this photo of our driver and guide, Arjun, enjoying the sight of the sunrise. I upped the exposure to 1/80s for this photo, and you can see how the line of mountains has been blown out in order to bring out a little more detail in the foreground. The previous day had been a hard drive for him: from the plains to this village halfway up Kumaon. The plan for the day was lighter: just a foray into the grasslands to look for pheasants.

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.

Sunrise to sunset

Back in the land of the seeing, I’m so happy that I missed the news cycle, full of the elections in Myanmar and Bihar. It gives me a quieter state of mind in which to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets in my neighbourhood. I stretched the definition of sunrise a little when I went off for a walk by the harbour in the morning.

Coffee in hand, I stared at the incredible changes in the harbour. In the two weeks since I’d last walked there, the harbour has filled with boats. Sails furled, these Lightning class boats are ready to make the best of Mumbai’s sailing season. I watched one unfurl its sail and slip off into deeper waters. The air was warming, and a haze of vapour lay over the harbour, but I liked the glint of the sun on the sea. It is sailing season again for the next five months or so.

A small number of professional photographers cluster around the Gateway and the Taj hotel, hoping to find a tourist or two who wants a photo taken. This was never a lucrative profession, but times are harder now. I was wondering whether the lockdown was the last blow to the few left here, but they are back. As the long and hard epidemic begins to wind down, at least for now, more people are back. Almost everyone has a mask, although many continue to use it as a chin guard.

The morning brought back an old familiar, the moth Cydalima laticostalis. Its diaphanous wings with the golden line on its leading edge, the white body partly visible, first made me take up moth identification. Progress has been slow, but steady. This species makes its appearance towards Diwali, as the weather cools. This was my first sighting of the year.

Nights have been cool, but the day was hot today. As I came over the sea link around sunset, the inner bay was heavy with a damp mist. Two young men had parked their motorbikes on the verge and were busy taking photos of the skyline of Parel rising through the mist. It was a lovely sight, and a nice end to a lovely day, meeting family for lunch. It was our first gathering after February. In several conversations during the day, people talked about how much they enjoyed the change in work habits forced on them by the epidemic, how they gained hours of time from not being bogged down in traffic, and not having useless meetings. There is a definite shift in attitudes towards working from home. Individuals and corporations are in agreement here. The latter are happy to stop spending on office space. Perhaps, in the future, people may not have to move into cities like Mumbai any more. There are so many possibilities that branch out from here! Perhaps the sun is really setting on these unfinished high rises in south Mumbai.

Green jewel bug

A bright green spot flew in front of me and landed on a tree which gives a characteristic redolence to this time of transition between sharad and hemant, the night-blooming jasmine (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, parijat in Hindi and Odia, shiuli in Bengali, xewali in Assamese). When it landed I could see that the shiny green spot was a green jewel bug (Chrysocoris stollii, aka the lychee shield bug). I haven’t identified any of the other 450 jewel bugs, so I can’t be certain. But this had characteristic markings, and the colour, of what I was told was the C. stollii.

Of course one can do better these days, I realized as soon as I wrote that sentence. A little search with the help of google mamu told me quickly that the markings on the back were not of the C. pulchellus or C. patricius. I’m glad I did that check, because I found that in 2017 I’d posted misidentified photos; those smaller bugs were probably C. patricius. I’m also pretty certain now that this is not the C. purpureus, since that should be purple, as its name suggests. Could it be the C. hahn? The pictures I came across are confused, and I can’t figure out whether this is different. But let me go with C. stollii, for now, especially since it is supposed to be the most abundant of jewel bugs in India.

So what do I know about it? It is a bug, not a beetle, although the green shield could mislead you. If you look carefully, you’ll see that there is no mid-line parting on its shield; a beetle will have a divided back. You can also try to distinguish them by counting the number of segments on legs and antennae. Since it drinks sap from plants, it is considered a pest. My fund of knowledge runs out pretty fast. I must look for more bugs, this is a season for insects anyway.

Outdoor, indoor

The seasons keep changing. Varsha, sharad, hemant… How gender imbalanced! Four seasons give names to men: Sharad, Hemant, Shishir, Vasant. One to women, Varsha. And no one names their babies Grishma. Anyway, the pandemic which started in vasant has now lasted till the change between sharad and hemant.

This is the time of the year when this night-flying butterfly makes an appearance. Like all its cousins, the moths, it is lured indoor by our lights. You would have a hard time telling this wet-season morph outdoor at its normal perch among rotting leaves on the ground. The dry season morph is equally invisible among fallen dry leaves. I suppose it is the humidity during pupation that determines which morph emerges from the chrysalis.

But mostly this is a time when moths fill your house. In recent times in Mumbai I’ve been seeing a lot of the underwing moths, their drab upper wings closing over bright orange hind wings as they come to rest. But here are three beauties which I haven’t been able to identify. They are all small, between half a centimeter and half an inch! The photos show their sizes relative to each other accurately. You need magnifying glasses or a macro lens to examine them, but it pays off.

Hazy days

The heat and haze this October is really something else altogether. As we drove back along Marine Drive just before lunch, The Family looked out across the white and almost featureless vista on our right and said “The Anthropause is really over. Look at that smog.” She might be right about the Anthropause, but it is not yet smog that we see from the moment we wake up. It is a haze of moisture that hangs over the city right now.

October is always hot and humid in Mumbai, but this year is something else. The day before yesterday, I opened the box of detergent before I started the washing machine and found that it the soap had turned into a sticky mass. Washing powder is deliquescent, like any soap, and it sticks a little during the monsoon. I’ve never seen it turn into a solid sticky mass ever before, and certainly not a month after the monsoon has gone.

This haze signals a very warm sea. Up, at the very north of the world, arctic ice has not yet started to form. Alarms have begun to sound about the possibility of disastrous flooding from increased glacial melting in the Himalayas, a possibility that would need international collaboration in a region now fraught with confrontation. The unprecedented levels of warming this year go from global to something that I can see in my box of detergent.

The six seasons: 5

The clunky construction, pre-winter, has to be replaced by the correct description of hemant as autumn. As the sun trends south, the days begin to get shorter, and the mix of vegetables changes to more pumpkin, potatoes, and onions. Fruits become less interesting, lots of apples (how I miss the flavourful Himachali apples, which have given way to large tasteless apples shipped from far away), bananas, and papaya. There’s the delicious coincidence of a singer called Hemant crooning melancholy songs about fallen leaves. But this is a warm country, and spotted doves cooing in fruiting papaya trees is a common sight in some parts of the country.

As a result the cultural significance of hemant is not at all like that in the mid-latitudes. This is the time of Diwali, of indulging in laddoos and barfis, while telling yourself that one more sweet cannot do much harm. Diwali is also the season of insects. When I look at my personal photo archives, I see that an enormous fraction is of insects: beetles and moths, katydids and bugs. I’ve not been able to identify most of them. The brown insect that you see in the photo above is a long-horned grasshopper (family Tettigoniidae), and probably the variety called a cone-head (subfamily Conocephalinae). But while there are large tribes of amateur birders and butterfly spotters, there’s no tribe of amateur insect hunters. So it is hard to do find field guides which will help me sort through my library of photos of these insects of hemant ritu.

This is a time when we used to bring out our cricket kits, the wickets, the pads and shop for a good bat. Now this is the season when we take long trips to obscure places. In the last years we have been taking roads to the highest points in India. This is the time when you can reach as far as the high border with China before the passes are closed for winter. This is also the time when the migrant birds begin to arrive, and their first stops are the high ponds and meadows of the Himalayas. The photo of the half-frozen lake reflecting prayer flags was taken very close to the border of India and China at an altitude of 4.6 kilometers on the day of Diwali. The black-necked cranes were late that year, and we missed them yet again, but the drive through this high desert made up for it. Hemant is a time for travel.