Day of lost species

November 30 is designated the Remembrance Day for Lost Species. I think I will use this time to refresh my memories of Phayre’s leaf monkey (Trachypithecus Phayrei, also called the spectacled langur). We saw a family group of six or seven (this included a juvenile) in Sipahijala wildlife sanctuary, sitting on a tree, munching away at leaves. At first we thought they were the familiar rhesus monkey, but when we looked at them we realized they were quite different. They are smaller, and the white fur around the eyes, the spectacles, is as distinctive as the moustache. The group size and behaviour was typical. When the juveniles are 4-5 years old they leave the group. Individuals can live up to an age of abbout 20 years.

Leaf monkeys developed in Southeast Asia about three million years ago and have radiated into about twenty living species, mostly threatened. The case of the Indian population of Phayre’s leaf monkey is typical. They are well protected in a few isolated sanctuaries, there are some international efforts at conservation, but the protected areas are small and well-separated from each other. As a result the populations are now quite inbred. The situation is not much better over the rest of its range: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and southern China. Much of this region is densely populated, and forest land is being lost fairly rapidly.

The spectacled langur is classed as “endangered” by IUCN. If habitat loss continues, it will inevitably slide to “critical” and then to “extinct”. I have encountered many beautiful and strange species since 2005, when I started to visit wildlife reserves around India. Sadly, a large fraction of them are threatened.

Our daily mask

While putting away the washing a new world order came into focus. I suddenly realized that masks have now become just another thing to wear before you leave the house. Most of my masks are two layers of cotton; in the heat and humidity of Mumbai anything heavier is unbearable when I’m out. I wear better masks only when I’m forced to be in an enclosed space with many people for a long time, like a doctor’s clinic. But what is surprising is how quickly they have become interesting.

I started to wear masks three years ago, when construction in the neighbourhood threw up so much dust that outdoor exercise became a minor health hazard. Then they had to be ordered online, and were uniformly black, grey, or dark blue. As a result, I had a packet of masks with me in the fearful days when everyone was looking at instructions for DIY masks.

And now? You have to have several masks in your drawer because each can be used only once before you wash it, and you have to discard ones which have gone through twenty five washings or so. Every clothes shop has a rackful of them, in a choice of colours, in cotton or silk, in two or three layers. You can get them block printed, or hand painted, in handloom, or raw silk. The Family is hoping to find some with Madhubani or Warli paintings. They are well on their way to becoming fashion accessories.

I’ll know that the new normal has arrived when I see the first jeweled masks on film stars or in a society wedding. I would like that: the final stage, acceptance.

Help!

I need somebody

Help! Not just anybody

Lennon-McCartney

The pandemic broke the world and told us what is really important. A few days of panic as the familiar world and its patterns dissolved. Packaged food disappeared before The Family and I could react. Our household help was suddenly unavailable. The routines of work were gone. We were adrift!

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

Pink Floyd

Afterwards, in those long and unending hours there were only two of us in the house, rattling around in these four rooms. Wasn’t this our dream once? Let the world disappear, as long as I still have you? Without thinking of it, we moved back into a mode that we had forgotten in these decades. But now it was so much more pleasant. Then we were still adjusting to each other, still not entirely comfortable replacing me with we. It was different now.

But we didn’t know ourselves. The Family found that she liked cooking. And I discovered that I didn’t mind helping around the house; that doing mindless things helped me to reach inner peace. We cooked, and cleaned, and the uncertain days of the pandemic became a preview of our life in retirement. And when we sat together to eat, it was time to talk and talk. Unlike those early days when the purpose of talking was to tell the other of our life before them, now we could say “Remember this? Remember when? Whatever happened to?”

April, come she will

When streams are ripe and swelled with rain

May, she will stay

Resting in my arms again

Paul Simon

We cleaned and chopped and cooked. Spring onions lasted well into summer. We ate lychees after years, because there was little else available. Some lunches were just a small salad, a fruit, an egg, and toast. Other lunches were elaborate, a dal, two freshly cooked veggies, some chicken, and fruit. We only had soup for dinner. Except when we uncorked a bottle of wine, and brought out the precious few munchies and packets of nuts we had left over. I had the time to devil an egg, and The Family learnt to make a Bengali style veggie which is normally served during durga puja. And then, when we could finally begin to get fish, we would sometimes have a beer and a fried fish. I discovered how acid could liven a flat tomato sauce, and invented new ways of making liver. And we dressed up on our birthdays.

There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be

It’s easy

Lennon-McCartney

The pandemic passed like bad novels and movies. Julie and Julia? Love in the time of cholera? The hundred foot journey? The incredible lightness of being? No reservations? Lunchbox? For us, life was nothing dramatic. Just finding a recipe. Inventing something new. Praising each others’ food. Dressing up for dinner. Small and simple things which became treats, new discoveries.

How is your life under lockdown?

As I read an article with the same title as this post, I realized that the premise was quite right. The four authors had looked at tweets from Melbourne to see how the quality of your life under lockdown depends on the neighbourhood that you live in. Do you reveal your moods on social media? I haven’t been reading tweets, but the blogs I read do reveal the ups and downs of our moods during lockdown.

Now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are able to leave home, it seems to be a good time to take stock of the last seven months. You will remember that there was a lot of despair at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was small, but growing rapidly. That didn’t last too long. Very soon I could see people reacting quite individually.

It was interesting how people reacted to the claustrophobia of strict lockdowns. The Family was never terribly interested in cooking, but, like a lot of people around the world, she dived into it. And found that she was good at it. Like many of you, we rediscovered our families, and had frequent chats on phone and video calls with far-flung family members.

“What kept us sane?” I asked The Family. She thought for a while. “The trees and gardens around us”, she eventually said. That’s what I was thinking. Waking in the mornings to bird calls, looking out at a sea of green (we live just above the canopy of the trees which surround us), the open views of the sky and the sea. “If it was not for that,” she said, “I think we might have been bickering all the time.” Niece Moja told us several times about how widespread domestic violence had become during this time. She said that the fraction of her clients that suffered from this had increased sharply. I could agree with The Family; we were lucky with our surroundings. But we also talked through a division of work in the house right at the beginning, and decided to keep fixed hours. I think that also worked for us. We could arrange our day to suit us.

The article that I had read also talked about the availability of amenities. We were lucky with that too. A bhajiwala and a store inside our complex kept open all through the two months of strict lockdowns. There may not have been a lot to eat, or greatly fresh vegetables, but we didn’t run out of food. Our help, who were locked up in their houses were unable to locate stores with sufficient food. Our security staff helped us to talk to the police and arrange for us to give them basic supplies once a month. This kind of relatively easy connection to the police and municipal services also helped us to stay sane.

Is this the first time in history that the middle class across the world has had almost exactly the same experience, and known that for a fact? All of us lived, and are still living, through a bad epidemic, closed in at home, totally dependent on small supplies, reading and watching the same news, the same entertainment, sharing our experiences through this new medium, which has suddenly become so central to our lives that we are more conscious of how it exploits us. What a difference between the global middle class and the poor. We know now that around 400 million people in India walked away from cities to their villages, crossing the subcontinent on foot. This distress is perhaps less visible in other countries, but it must be there. And that is another difference: I can read about your feelings and experiences and see how closely they mirrored mine, but I have little idea about the inner world of the poorer people around me.

These gardens were my hideaway for two months, while the human world went to seed. Now, as the garden goes to seed, the world around me does not exactly show signs of recovery. What was the most interesting thing that happened to me in the Anthropause? The sudden end to human noise in the sea brought a pod of curious dolphins to Backbay. They came, they looked, they played, for the first time in recorded history. Curiosity satisfied, they went back to the deeper waters in the Arabian Sea where they are normally found. That was a reminder that there are other intelligences in the world.

Two shrikes

Three shrikes and you’re out. No birder will tell you this, but it’s true. I’ve never seen more than three kinds of shrike in a morning of bird watching. Last week’s outing to Bhandup Pumping Station was no exception. I heard a beautiful birdsong, one that was not familiar from the past six months of patient study, and found that it came from this long-tailed shrike (Lanius schach, aka rufous-backed shrike).

I’d only heard the shrill harsh call of this bird, so common across India. That shriek gives the group its name. But this was a song. Quite different, and more enchanting. Why was it singing when the mating season was past? It was answered by other calls. So perhaps this was a territorial call. I recalled a paper I saw a month ago which said that bird calls had become more complex in the quiet of the anthropause. One of the results was a decrease in aggression among city birds, because the more complex songs seem to better convey meaning about territory.

A little later I walked down a side path where three boys went racing past me with bikes (and unmasked, perhaps because they were outside the gaze of parents). In the quiet after they left I looked around and spotted a great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor lahtora). This was renamed two years ago, and some would recognize it by its older designation of southern gray shrike (Lanius meridionalis). The photo shows it in a characteristic high perch. The perch seems to be an important aspect of its territorial behaviour.

These were all the shrikes I saw that day. I never even reached the upper limit of three.

South Mumbai on Sunday

We took a little walk through the empty streets near the stock exchange late on Sunday afternoon. The roads were far from busy, and it was easy to take photos. I haven’t done street photos for almost year now, and it felt good to be out with my camera.

There was construction going on in this lot for a while before the lockdown due to COVID-19. Now work has stopped completely. I wonder whether it will resume at all. If the building industry crashes one can imagine that a lot of savings will be totally wiped out.

A street barber can always find work. The featured photo is a close up of this same barber at work. No masks! That seemed to be common on Sunday. This is not a political statement that the media is geared to recognizing. But it certainly is a response to the way the poor have suffered through the pandemic.

A raddiwala sleeps outside his shop. Sunday afternoon is a good time to sleep. Why is he sleeping there, I wondered. What’s his story? He is likely to be an employee. If he is still here at a time when this business is doing so badly, he must be quite desperate for work.

Above the raddiwala’s shop were lots of small apartments. The pink casement caught my eye. Every building looks battered after the monsoon. Some of them will get a coat or two of paint soon. Other buildings were not being maintained because the owner was planning to make money by selling the lot to a builder when the tenants moved out. These calculations will have to be redone.

There were games of cricket on every street. Sometimes even two to a street. This happens every Sunday, but it seemed to me that there were more people on the road now. Lockdown fatigue?

Younger children were going into a park to play. Different age group and different economic class. That’s why the toy vendor is standing at the entrance. The flood light is from a film shoot which had just finished. So they are shooting films again. Lack of consumers is not the problem with that industry.

This old man also seemed to be a raddiwala. Why was that little diya burning inside his kiosk. Evening puja? I feel sorry for people in this business. The margins are low, and at this time I’m sure he’s barely making money.

Near the stock exchange is this imposing neo-classical building which holds a bank. It’s almost a hundred years old now, and is in slightly better repair than many others around. It was perhaps the last of the neo-classical buildings here. Just about the time that it was finished, Art Deco became all the rage.

Time to get a taxi. This lemonade stand does business near the parked taxis. Clever guy. But someone should teach him the right way to wear that mask.

At the end of the walk I was very happy that I had a good mask and a face shield. I’d passed too many people who were not wearing masks. Outdoors the risks are lower than they would be otherwise. Still it is not the most comfortable situation to be in. I usually see a larger fraction of people with masks. Perhaps the people I saw today are always without masks, and only the middle class office workers, bankers, and businessmen wear masks. I’ll have to watch carefully the next time I come around here.

Tulsi in flower

I woke to a flat and uninspiring light. Towards the end of the monsoon the days alternate between sunlight and totally overcast, and the temperature oscillates rapidly between warm and cool. All around me people have sniffles, and scaring themselves and others to death. No help in the balcony; there was an unnatural quietness from the birds. None of the potted plants are flowering. Or are they? In one forgotten corner, the tall struggling tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum, previously called Ocimum sanctum, aka holy basil) was flowering. I’m constantly fooled by the reddish leaves into thinking that I need to water the plant (now that the monsoon is over I’ll have to), but that’s a natural colour. This is the variety called a Krishna tulsi, not the more common green-leafed variety known as the Ram tulsi.

It was almost not worth taking a photo in this awful light, but I know of no better way of finding inspiration than by drilling down to the particulars of a small little thing, losing myself in the moment. That’s my way to inner peace, my zen or meditation, whatever you call it.

The genus Ocimum are the basils, a huge genus of aromatic plants. The tulsi is one of the seven species of this genus which is found in India, and was probably domesticated in the early Bronze age somewhere in the middle of India. Its medicinal properties made it a staple in Ayurveda later. A recent genetic study claims to have found the keys to its special properties. That’s a good study, but I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions.

If there are so many plants in the genus, you would be surprised if no other species is potentially useful. Sure enough, a little searching led me to papers (here and here) which find many commonalities between chemicals produced by different Ocimum species. So, I guess the tulsi is a little more useful than its cousins, as people discovered a couple of thousand years ago; they were no less intelligent than us. But over the years we have amassed more knowledge. So, I’m sure that we could turn these lesser known plants to good use today, if we wanted to.

Are you storking me?

Yes, I was. Kind of. The purpose of waking up before sunrise on a winter morning and going into the damp wetlands of the Khichadiya bird sanctuary was to see herons and storks and ducks. So, yes. I was storking, and ready for this couple of black-necked storks (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) when they landed in a little dry spot in the middle of a lake. I’d missed the male’s landing, but was ready to shoot as the yellow-eyed female touched down. Elegant, isn’t it? That posture as she touches down. I wouldn’t mind an outing like that again.

Bad virus. Down! Down! I’m going for a walk, and you’re not coming. (I wish that worked)

LA: symmetry

Get me out of here

It is believed that there are cold as well as hot hells. The least of the cold hells is called Arbuda naraka. Blizzards blow across this frozen cold plain through which lonely naked people walk for a few trillion years. There is also a belief that the bodhisattva Ksitigarbha tries to bring help to those who live here. It is said that his method is to convince people who live on earth to transfer a bit of the merit of their good deeds to those who live in hells. I suppose the idea is that kindness and caring works.

The good news is that social changes are working. Six months into the pandemic, 20 million out of 8 billion people have been infected; that is one fourth of a percent. I guess wearing masks counts as part of this transfer of merit.

The first spell of monsoon

We had the first long spell of monsoon rain in the last four days. It is a beautiful time. Heavy showers, like the one you see in the featured photo, come and go during these days. You can see the sun dimming, the gusty winds setting in. You rush to close windows and doors, take in things, and usually do not succeed in preventing the first gust of rain from wetting a few things. I finished closing the windows and looked at the world outside disappear behind the cascading water. I had to capture this! My current phone camera is up to it. It shows what the human eye sees. The Family’s is too intelligent for its own good; it cleared up the blurring sheets of rain and brightened the photo until it lost its particularity: the shape of what she sees.

These stormy gusts do not last long; ten minutes to half an hour, and they are gone. When I looked at satellite photos of this mass of clouds I could see it covering about a thousand square kilometers, moving slowly, passing over Mumbai in about four days. But within this mass there were eddies and collections of more or less dry clouds. The less dry are the things which keep dripping for days. This early in the season they are a joy to walk out in. I went out to get photos of flowers getting wet in the rain. Unfortunately, as the ground beneath the bushes gets flooded, the bluebottle flies which feed on the rotting mulch get flushed out. I saw them on these leaves. By tomorrow they will be invading my home. It is little things like this which make you eventually tire of varsha.

Masks would have got wet and turned useless at their job if I’d taken an umbrella. So I dug out a poncho with a long overhanging hood. It prevents me from seeing anything (I remember a walk in Acadia National Park wearing this), but it keeps my face very dry. It is the perfect attire for close-in monsoon photography. Monsoon in the COVID-19 season is bad, it will prevent droplets from drying fast, and will help to spread the disease faster. But outdoors, during the rain, it makes things safer, by flushing virus laden droplets out of the air into the ground, where the salts and acid can destroy them. Every season has its dangers and delights.