Slow Fade

We’d wasted the best hours of the late afternoon puttering down a nondescript mountain road. I was silently raging at this waste of a wonderfully clear golden hour. Now that we were close to home, I decided to get off and walk around Naukuchiatal to the hotel. There would be no spectacular sights here, but I would get to exercise my camera. The last light lit up the sky to the west. It would soon fade.

At one spot on the path I stopped to take this photo. I thought the day was now not totally wasted, but I wished I’d had a walk on one of the high meadows bordering an oak and deodar forest. I’d sat down on a rock, taken a photo of a beetle, and watched a laughing thrush. An hour there would have been wonderful, perhaps giving me more birds and insects. This was tame, but better to carpe the remains of the diem, than to carp about the most recent afternoon of my mis-spent life.

Now there was a wall between me and the lake. Not so bad, I thought, this gives me a different set of subjects. Quick, before the light fades, take the gold shining through dry leaves and grass. Not spectacular, but an image that I enjoy.

Red-orange bougainvilleas are not the most common, and backlit with the golden light they are made for the camera. I was happy enough with this shot. But the sun had dipped behind the curve of the turning earth. The light would fade from now on.

I was standing behind a retired colonel’s house, looking into his garden. Two dogs voiced their displeasure. I heard the voice of the master quieten them. In the last of the fading gold light I caught the other bougainvillea in his garden.

The fading light is actually ideal for this delicate purple-pink rose. I photographed a bunch which was on the other side of the bush and saw that the slightly better light bleached the colours off them. This is better. I’ve met this variety earlier, but I don’t know what it is called. I wished the colonel would come around and tell me. No luck. He’d probably settled down with his whisky and soda, dogs at this feet, watching the sun set over the lake.

I came to a part of the road next to a deep woods. This is supposed to be a good place for birds. We never managed to come here during our vacation. But right next to the road I saw this white-cheeked bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys, aka Himayalan bulbul). The light was still good enough to see its white cheek, but in any case its stylish quiff is almost enough to identify it by. I did manage to record its call too.

The hills are alive with the sound of barbets. And I’m sure they have been for a thousand years. I got a glimpse of a Great barbet (Psilopogon virens) in silhouette. By now the light was so bad that the final identification could only be done by its call. Strangely, although I heard its call all the time for the whole week, I never got a good view of one. At least not good enough for a better photo.

But the day had one more present waiting for me. I was inside the grounds of the hotel now and stopped to try to figure out a strange bird call I’d heard. Could it be a nightjar? When it didn’t call again, I looked at the rapidly darkening lake on my right. Just above me an unlit light-bulb caught the last pink gold light of the day, lensing the forest around it. One last shot before I went in to order a sundowner.

Ruins

When you travel in the hills and mountains of India it is not uncommon to find the ruins from the late colonial era. The British tended to gravitate to the cooler regions of these higher elevations when possible. Often that meant that the administrative apparatus would go into very long breaks in the two warm seasons (summer and Indian summer). When the Raj collapsed, they sold what they could and moved back to the Old Blighty. What they couldn’t, slowly fell into ruin as the country reverted to its normal way of life.

Just past the bazaar in Mukteshwar I came to one such set of buildings: a late colonial barracks. Mukteshwar was perhaps at its bustling busiest in the 1920s. There had been continuous growth since the beginning of the 20th century until the Black Tuesday market crash in New York. Arguably, the punitive taxes imposed by Britain on its colonies in the aftermath of the crash led to the invigoration of the independence movement, and Britain’s eventual exit from India. But this past is a prologue to the sunny day on which I took these photos and wondered what could happen to this row of two-room apartments, each separated from its neighbour by just one wall. I suppose it will be torn down, and the stones reused to build something more suited to today.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of these old barracks was the miserly view they gave of the beautiful vistas behind them: the high Himalayas on one side, this lovely forest on the other. I left the ruins behind and followed the road, under the deodars and the firs, into a land full of the sounds of insects and birds.

No tiger in Mukteshwar

The tiny village of Mukteshwar (called Muktesar before 1947) has not changed substantially since Jim Corbett visited about a hundred years ago and met the brave little girl with the buffalo, before shooting the man eating tiger of Muktesar. You can do worse than follow his description of the place.

“Eighteen miles to the north-north-east of Naini Tal is a hill eight thousand feet high and twelve to fifteen miles long, running east and west. The western end of the hill rises steeply and near this end is the Muktesar Veterinary Research Institute, where lymph and vaccines are produced to fight India’s cattle diseases. The laboratory and staff quarters are situated on the northern face of the hill and command one of the best views to be had anywhere of the Himalayan snowy range.” The beginning of the story sets the scene. The Institute was relocated to this place in 1893. The population of the village remains small, but standing at 812 in 2011, has probably quadrupled since Corbett’s days. The number of resorts has increased substantially as word of the views have spread, but they are strung out along the road without crowding the bazaar.

“Accompanied by a servant and two men carrying a roll of bedding and a suitcase, I left Naini Tal at midday and walked ten miles to the Ramgarh Dak Bungalow, where I spent the night. The Dak Bungalow khansama (cook, bottle-washer, and general factotum) was a friend of mine, and when he learnt that I was on my way to shoot the man-eater, he warned me to be very careful while negotiating the last two miles into Muktesar for, he said, several people had recently been killed on that stretch of the road.” Corbett continued on foot the next morning, and reached Muktesar by early morning. Our drive took us a little more than two hours, allowing for a halt for chai. The road is good enough to do bettter.

“This was the first time I had ever climbed that hill, and I was very interested to see the caves, hollowed out by wind, in the sandstone cliffs overhanging the road. In a gale I imagine these caves must produce some very weird sounds, for they are of different sizes and, while some are shallow, others appear to penetrate deep into the sandstone.” I’d kept a look out for these formations described by Corbett, but nothing we passed seemed to fit. It is possible that the caves were dynamited to widen the roads. The only similar formation today is Chauli ki Jali, which is a steep rock face used by rapellers, and could not possibly have been an alternative route up.

“Where the road comes out on a saddle of the hill there is a small area of flat ground flanked on the far side by the Muktesar Post Office, and a small bazaar.” This description is still true, and corroborates my conclusion that the road is the same as in Corbett’s time, but without the caves he described. The flat ground is where we parked the car. Beyond the bazaar are the two famous guest houses of the place. By not taking the upper path I missed out on Chauli ki Jali and went instead to where Corbett has his breakfast. “[T]he khansama in charge of the bungalow, and I, incurred the displeasure of the red tape brigade, the khansama by providing me with breakfast, and I by partaking of it.” In the century since the Muktesar man-eater raged here, the Dak Bungalow has become a State Tourism (KMVN) guest house, accreted a number of cooks and waiters, and, as I found, is still so tied up in red tape that it takes a long time to fill in the paper work needed to serve a cuppa chai.

After a chai and toast, I picked up my camera, and followed Corbett, who continues, “Then, picking up my rifle, I went up to the post office to send a telegram to my mother to let her know I had arrived safely.” Meeting up with The Family, back from her jaunt to the ridge, we found that the sturdy colonial era house has changed in many ways in the century since Corbett was here. I am sure the paved forecourt is no more than a decade old, the solar panels are substantially more recent, the sign over the gate perhaps a couple of decades old, and the gate itself is half a century old if it is a day. Telegrams no longer exist; I had sent The Family one of the last, but that is another story. Nevertheless, the post-office is still one that Corbett might recognize if he were to reappear here.

“In rural India, the post office and bania’s shop are to village folk what taverns and clubs are to people of other lands, and if information on any particular subject is sought, the post office and the bania’s shop are the best places to seek it.” The shops have been remade in the last century, and the post office has probably lost its social standing. But the bania’s shop is still a place where people gather. I was amazed at how much sense Corbett’s description of Mukteshwar still made.

Two roads diverged

We had to park the car at the center of the little village of Mukteshwar. The road beyond this was under repair. We walked past a few shops and a post office. This was just a dusty cross roads, not a yellow wood, but our roads diverged here. The Family took the high road, up towards the Shiva temple and Chauli ki Jali, a rock face which is locally famous because it has become a favourite of rapellers (and no, that’s not an Anglicization of rapelleurs). I took the other, which was just as fair, because it was grassy and wanted wear. Late on a smoky morning was not the best time for either, but each of us enjoyed it.

The road I had taken wound above a wooded region called Kholiya. This is supposed to be a wonderful place for bird watching earlier in the morning. I stopped above a dense cluster of colonial era buildings. The air was full of bird calls. I’m not very good at identifying them, but a short message away are two experts. I recorded some of the sounds and sent them off. I had no luck at spotting birds at all, and I moved along soon.

The Family had found Chauli ki Jali, left completely to its own in this second pandemic year. The view would have been nice, she said, if there was less smoke in the air. She clambered about some of the rocks, got a few selfies against the bland gray smoke, while avoiding the fair bit of maskless tourists near the temple. The second wave was beginning to swell, and such tourists were to be given a wide berth.

A couple of hundred meters below, I had just walked past the cars parked on the side of the road by those same maskless tourists and found my morning’s muse: a crowd of Pachliopta aristolochiae, a swallow-tailed butterfly more well known as the common rose. This late in the morning they are extremely active and hard to photograph, so chasing them took up quite a bit of my time and energy, without producing anything useful. Photography is a nice and strenuous pastime, wouldn’t you say? When we got back together at the cross roads, both parties had stretched our legs adequately, and were ready to go look for lunch.

Stopping by the woods on a smoky morning

The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Robert Frost

During the drive to Mukteshwar I began to suspect that big data is only as good as the data. The drive took a little over two hours, just twenty per cent more than what the Mapapp told us it should. I thought it was slower than it should have been, but you can’t win if you argue against Google. Our slower than Google-average trip timing was now backed by all the phones in the car. When these numbers were crunched by Google’s hammer, it would increase the next prediction just slightly. Since the drivers are mostly locals for hire, and the phones mostly belong to tourists they ferry, the data is suspect. The charges for the hire are by hour, and the longer the drivers spend on a route, the better their profit margins. So it gives them a motive to drive slower than normal. I talked to someone who drives between Naini Tal and Devasthal quite often, and he confirmed that his next drive, which was done at his normal driving speed, took about fifteen per cent less time than Google’s prediction. This means that our driver took about forty percent longer than he might have.

That’s all to set the scene for the fact that by the time we were close to Mukteshwar, it was well past mid morning, and we needed our elevenses. A little cafe by the wayside presented itself. Nice wooden deck, elegant bare brick walls, possible view over a valley, space enough next to the road to squeeze in the car. We stopped. The main space was a large room with pinewood furniture. Warm colours, lots of light. There was a smaller side room for private parties. We opted to sit on the deck overlooking the valley. On a less smoky day we would have had a view of the high Himalayas from here, the kind of view that Mukteshwar is known for. Today, there was only a blue haze.

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.

Robert Frost

I’d noticed an espresso machine on our way in, so I asked for a shot. “Not possible. No electricity today,” the waiter replied. We got a masala chai instead. Some cakes. Not so bad. We were ready for a short walk. On the way out we met the owner, a red haired woman in her early 40s. It turned out that she had first come to Mukteshwar as a tourist, fallen in love with the place, and had pulled up her roots from Pune and moved here a few years ago. She’d built the place. Electricity? “Not so bad. It comes and goes.” About the same as Pune, then? “Not so predictable.” Does it rain a lot? “Not a lot. Not as much as Mumbai.” Maintenance? “Some. But the brick and wood holds up well.” I wondered about bare brick. It’s not so strong when it is soaked in water. While I totted up the reasons for not moving there, others were coming to the opposite conclusion.

Garden in the shade

Looking back at photos from our first trip to Binsar, I discovered that we had taken off-route walks on several days. One of the walks took us from a little temple in a meadow inside the national park up through a slope into a garden around an old and abandoned bungalow. You can see the back of the bungalow from the shady side of the slope in the featured photo.

I’d like to be, under the sea”

Lennon-McCartney (Abbey Road)

Gardens grow extremely well in the wilds up there. Over the years this rose bush had run wild, and had taken over a small slope. This delicate purple-rose colour is hard to photograph. In full light the colour bleaches away. I was very happy that this side of the slope faced north west, and was in the shade at that time of the day.

You might think that nargis, daffodils, are a dime a dozen up there. But they are actually quite hard to spot. A bed of nargis stood next to the path where it turned. It had been watered recently. It turned out that a family had established themselves in the yard of this deserted bungalow, and were taking care of part of the garden.

Bushes had been hacked away from the path to keep it clear, and posts had been planted in the ground to mark something, perhaps a boundary. The edge between open ground and the undergrowth is a good place to spot small warblers. I’m not good enough at warblers to be able to tell what this is.

This dark flower was growing in bright sunlight. In any other light I would not have been able to get that deep red on the nine petals. Nine! That’s not a Fibonacci flower. Whatever happened to all those theories of the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio which are supposed to make flowers beautiful? This is so clearly a compound flower; you can even see the tiny yellow florets in the core beginning to open up.

On one edge of the hedge a sulphur butterfly was sunning itself among the balsam. The butterfly with its irregular spots merges beautifully with the vegetation around it. Camouflage could mean that the insect is not poisonous. That, in turn, means that the caterpillar feeds on plants which are not poisonous.

They flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude

William Wordsworth (Daffodils)

My final photo from that walk is of this flower in full sunlight, throwing its shadow on a lush green leaf. The leaf has been fed on by a pest. Could it have been the caterpillar of the butterfly we just saw? The bungalow behind it was locked up completely. I wonder whether it has been turned into a hotel now, years later, or whether it has fallen into ruin. I don’t have a photo, but I recall spotting a raptor up here and hearing its high pitched call as it dove into the forest canopy below us. Some things you don’t need a photo to remember.

Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.

Devasthal

As we drove through Dhanachauli, we realized that we were extremely close to the Devasthal observatory, and decided to take a detour. This observatory, on top of a 2450 m tall peak, houses the largest telescope in India at this time. Visitors have to take an appointment from the Aryabhatta Institute in Naini Tal, a process I’d completely forgotten about. But scientists are usually an accommodating lot, happy to take you by the hand and walk you through the mysteries of the universe. A scientist whom I knew was willing to talk to the local administrator. The administrator was willing to let us in, but apologized that because we had not booked an appointment, there would be no one available to explain to us the working of the telescopes.

We could park at the gate, and walk up to the telescope, and we were not, under any circumstances, to take off our masks. We deposited our ID cards with the security at the gate, and before walking in, I took the photo that you see above. The place houses a 4 m diameter liquid mirror telescope. A container of mercury is spun at a constant speed, so that its reflective surface becomes a paraboloid. The liquid mirror was under construction, and the 3.6 m telescope was under maintenance. This would have been a wonderful opportunity to see these marvelous pieces of technology. If only I’d thought of making an appointment! Still, it was a nice walk through the campus, photographing beetles and laughing thrushes, far above the smoke in the valleys below.

The winter had been very dry, but even so, the observatory in Han Le in Ladakh (altitude 4500 m) would have had better viewing conditions. I would love to visit it once they start building the thirty meter telescope up there.

Bhim tal

Seven years ago we’d driven up from Delhi to the lake district of Kumaon. It was an October sunset when we stopped by Bhim Tal to stretch our legs. The hills around the lake were still dense with vegetation, green after the rains. The quiet serenity of the lake seemed to be enhanced by the one sailboat out on it. That is the image of the lake which the words Bhim Tal now bring to my mind.

Spring was not a good time this year. The winter had been dry, and the hills around the lake had turned brown. The still sheet of water looked as clear as ever, but I’d been reading the alarm calls sent out by those who monitor the health of these waters. It was quite evident why. The number of houses around the lake has increased tremendously. The lake itself was obscured by makeshift shacks selling knick-knacks to the very few tourists who had come here.

This is the beginning of the end for many such beautiful spots around the country. First a few city people retire to a beautiful spot, then their friends visit. Word of mouth opens a trickle of tourists. Then, when it becomes a constant stream, these shops come up. The once beautiful spot becomes obscured by a jumble of construction. Trash collects. Boat rides, and horse rides become the order of the day. Eventually there are busloads of tourists who come to buy souvenirs, get back on the bus, and go away. There is nothing else for them to do. The process is sad, because with a little tweak and nudge, the entrepreneurship of the locals can be used to increase the value, not degrade it.

The pandemic has interrupted this sad growth. I didn’t see any sails; they have been replaced by the row boats pulled up to the newly made steps down to the water. Their numbers were a testimony to the long slope down which Bhimtal’s tourism slide had gone. At this time barely two boats were in use. One group got off as I watched. Another family was out in the middle of the lake, being pulled along by the boatman. I consoled myself with the thought that the place had remained in public consciousness for a hundred and fifty years before it had reached the stage it was in now.

Yellow=Red+Green

Like many others, I went through the usual art classes at school. But even before I took my first such class, someone may have told me that you mix yellow and blue pigments to make green. These joyful discoveries were made systematic in the art classes where we learnt how the primary colours of pigments are red, yellow, and blue. This was so ingrained in my thinking that I completely ignored the writings of Seurat even after I discovered his pointillist techniques later in school.

Spring leaves, Naukuchia Tal

I could have paid attention when my science teacher tried to tell us that the primary colours of light are different: red, blue, and green. When I did not, it was a steep learning curve for me as I grew interested in the stage during my years in college. I laboured at producing colours of light for plays using a completely wrong model for colours. I remembered the great surprise I had in producing a cold grey light for use in a play by mixing floods and spotlights. It was around then that I discarded the theory which worked for pigments.

Drying leaves in spring, Naini Tal

Now, of course, as we learn to use software for editing photos, the use of RGB colours has become so widespread that Seurat’s discoveries about colour seem commonplace. Still, when I discovered this spring that leaves use the same method I felt the pleasant tingling of discovery. The underlying colour of many leaves is red. The green colour is due to chloroplasts that the leaves produce to perform photosynthesis. When leaves die and the chloroplasts begin to decay, leaves turn yellow. If they don’t rot quickly you see them turning red as more and more chloroplasts die. In spring you see this in reverse. New leaves start out red, and grow chloroplasts, first turning yellow, and then green in a reversal of the changes that autumn brings. The first two photos in this post are of this transformation in new leaves. The photo above shows the changes in dying leaves.

Shikanji by the lake, Bhim Tal

An old friend, once an artist in his spare time, took a job which involved printers and the design of colours. As he worked with software and printers, trying to reproduce the colours produced in one domain in another, his interest in colour vision and reproduction grew. I listened to him talk about how subtractive schemes like CMY correspond to the print experience better, and what happens if you add on black ink. Now he spends much more of his time on his art, but spared some time to talk about what he found.

Fruits in a market stall, Bhowali

Colour vision is a property of human physiology and perception. So the fact that our eyes have receptors, the rods and cones, is part of the story. But behind this is a layer of computational nerves, a neural network, which combines the signals from these, and feeds it to yet other nerve cells which then transmit the information, through our optic nerves, to specialized areas in our brains. It is hard to believe how we see! Birds and insects see the world very differently. Photos of flowers or butterflies’ wings taken at wavelengths invisible to us show incredible patterns. This is an indication that in the ecology in which they exist, markers visible to non-humans are important. It is amazing how much detail the world shows once you zoom in to any part of it.