I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space …
2020 was a hard year. The sky provided an infinite and soft refuge.
I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space …
2020 was a hard year. The sky provided an infinite and soft refuge.
Bad news came in over the weekend. Cases are up in Mumbai, and in several smaller towns. Kerala, which had beaten back the pandemic in its early days, has been going through enormous pains in recent weeks. This week, overall, cases are up in India by about a third. We seem to be at the beginning of a second wave. Friends around Mumbai have been discussing the inevitability of such a thing ever since the local trains were opened to the general public. I have been playing the devil’s advocate (what an appropriate phrase at this time) with the argument that if livelihoods are to be safeguarded, we have no choice but to let people move around. An increase of cases today inevitably leads to the conclusion that the policy changes made two or three weeks ago are at the root of the problem. Governments agree, and sometimes have gone the whole hog again, imposing full lockdowns in some towns.
My early training predisposes me to seek answers in an engineering discipline that is called Systems Design and Control Theory. One of the things that we learnt was that you could try to control a system by using its output to influence its input. This is called feedback. There is a theorem which says that feedback with delays leads to oscillations. Every teenager who has tried to form a rock band knows about the screech of feedback which badly placed mics and speakers can lead to. Others can more easily relate to the frustrating experience of making sure that the water in the shower is a comfortable temperature as an experience of oscillations due to delayed feedback.
Why should this lead to second and third waves of epidemics? The argument goes something like this. When it becomes clear that there is an epidemic, governments put various restrictions in place. But these are temporary, and when the number of cases decreases they are removed. Clearly there is a feedback. The delay comes from two sources: it takes time to realize that there is a consistent rise (or fall) in the number of cases, and it takes time for committees to make decisions.
Fortunately, the theorem assures us that we are not doomed to be tossed about forever by waves of the pandemic. If there is friction in the system then that damps out the successive waves. Where does this friction come from? One is the brutal calculus that the most susceptible are the earliest victims of the epidemic, so successive waves of disease, eventually, find better prepared immune systems. The second source is our personal learning and initiative. When we realize that there is danger, we personally take precautions. And we learn what are the most important, and best, measures. The third is the most enlightened reason of all: medical practice evolves, so that treatments and vaccines become available.
Human behaviour is unpredictable. There are no theorems which guarantee how I will act. Still, when studying a large enough body of people, there are general principles which seem to govern how such collections will respond to circumstances. There are limits to such predictions. Different countries, even different cities, have had a their second and third waves of COVID-19 at different times.
There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.
A response to a challenge by a Lens Artist needed some thought. A response needed me to show you my world. I decided to select a picture from each year, as close to mid-July as I can get. Usually the monsoon is at its heaviest in mid-July, which lets me show a season I love. I stayed home some years. In others I traveled. I see that this is a fair picture of what I spend my time on. The series spans the period from 2006, which is represented by the featured photo, to the hard lockdown of 2020.
As always, click on any photo to get to the gallery.
Someone said something like “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Who? A search, filtered through my web bubble, ascribed it to Stephen R. Covey, Anais Nin, Albert Einstein… The trail is complex enough that the Quote Investigator has an article on it. When you start thinking about the path from the the eye to the perception of the world around us, you realize that the world is so complex that the brain’s computations can only create an approximation. A frog sees a world of moving objects in exquisite detail. A butterfly sees the bright patterns in ultraviolet light that flowers have evolved to attract them. We do not. And the camera, that instrument that we carry around in our pockets, does not see what we see. So it takes a little work to tweak a camera’s output to get the impression of dark water, its surface reflecting the clouds above, its transparency letting you see a rotting leaf slowly sinking, its beading on the fresh leaf to reflect the sun, into what you think you see.
The cold war led to the development of CCDs to act as eyes on spy satellites. In the same year, 1976 CE, that they were first used for this purpose, they were also used for astronomical observations. The very next year they were put into the Voyager satellites, our first eyes to travel to other planets. Kodak labs had developed the first CCD camera in 1975, but it wasn’t till 1988 that the first commercial digital camera became available. There is enough information in the output that what looks like a perfectly black image at first can be used to tease out details. Even without using raw data, I could recover an image of a gaur (Bos gaurus) that I saw on a dark night in a forest. You see that imposing creature in the photo above. This was an old camera, so there is a lot of noise, but I like it that way. After all even our eye/brain does not see too well in the dark.
Colour perception is another whole kettle of fish. The simple RGB colour space model which cameras use is a very crude approximation of what our eye sees. Actual human colour perception is still an active research area. So the images that come out of a camera require colour correction. And the interaction of attention and colour; let’s not even go there. When I looked at this lotus pond inside a forest my first reaction was to the bright red of the flowers. Only later did I realize that the number of insects on it was enormous. And was the water strider (Gerridae) there for the flower, or its shade? I forgot all about the red. To reproduce a semblance of this attention I had to tweak the photo.
Lens artists will want to see the” originals” too. The step from raw to jpeg is all digital magic, so nothing is really original. For that matter, our eyes are not particularly great instruments, so the brain’s chemical-electronic magic is really needed to build up, see, the world around us.
On December 31, 2019, WHO declared that an emerging new disease had been reported by China. The Family and I were on a trip, and like most others across the world, did not pay much attention to this news. Within a few days, the news from China began to take up more of the news cycle. The disease acquired the name COVID-19, and the virus that caused it was gene sequenced in China, found to be new, and dubbed SARS-CoV-2. I had a full year of business trips and vacations planned, and knew that I had to keep an eye on this. (New words: COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2)
On 30 January, 2020, WHO declared that the disease was a pandemic. On the same day, a traveler returning to India was found to have the new disease. This was the first reported case of the disease in India. Wuhan and its surroundings had been locked down for days. I’d already talked to my colleagues in Wuhan, and they told me of their tedium. It was hard to imagine spending weeks inside the four walls of a flat, energetic children cooped up in the same space, looking out at deserted streets. Little did we know that the world was to follow suit. (New word: pandemic)
In February we made a small trip to see the winter’s birds (the featured photo of the black-shouldered kite, Elanus caeruleus, comes from that trip). The news was beginning to get dire. Countries were locking down flights. Italy was badly affected; on a call with her sister in Milan, The Family heard sirens from racing ambulances in the background. I was on conference calls with colleagues across the world trying to decide whether to move schedules for meetings. A divide was perceptible: people from Europe, the USA, and Australia were sure that this would pass in a couple of weeks, and no long term measures were necessary. People from East Asia were convinced that it would take longer to normalize. Indians and South Africans on these calls were not sure, but tended to be cautious. (New phrase: contact tracing)
When the first large cluster of infections was detected in Punjab, it had been brought in by a traveler returning from Europe. Soon a clutch of cases brought by tourists began to spread in Rajasthan. The Family and I shared a laugh with our extended families about the passing phase of reverse racism on the streets: any white tourist was given a wide berth, and there were mutterings about why they should stay home for now. I began to teach myself epidemiology just in time to understand the advise that was soon being offered on safety. But then, the government of India decided to shut everything down very suddenly. (New word: lockdown)
The resulting human tragedy of unemployment and displacement was enormous. For a while we, like the rest of the middle class, remained hopeful, because the skies cleared up due to the lack of new pollution. Then the monsoon storms reminded us that planet was still warming from older pollution. And the new obsession with cleaning meant that more plastic and detergents were being pumped into the earth. In the beginning we cleaned obsessively. The Family brought her professional expertise to the matter and found safe ways to disinfect food: soak fresh food in brine for half an hour. Sealed packages could be dunked in soap water and then washed. Brine and soap water could be reused, since they do not allow the growth of bacteria and viruses, so buckets full of them could be reused, saving on water usage. (New word: social distancing)
Locked down at home, we realized how important our internet connectivity was. New services for video conferencing were quickly adopted. Our meetings went online, and suddenly that part of our work had been revolutionized. We forced the pace of moving work on-line. The Family and I decided early on that we had to fight back at the black depression that threatened us. We decided to keep a strict routine, and eat only healthy food. We shared household chores, and cooking, learnt new time-saving techniques, and set aside time for watching movies and TV, and meeting friends and family through video conferencing. (New word: Zoom)
Now, one year on, Mumbai is opening up. Today, on 1 February, 2021, the local trains are starting up again. What did we learn? What did we change? First, that when you are afraid of a respiratory disease, mask yourself. This would be enough to slow down the disease. Quick deaths, although in the millions now, turned out to be not the most likely bad outcome of the infection. People have reported recurring breathing difficulties, heart disease, extreme fatigue. These symptoms pass in a few weeks, or months, for most people, but others have continuing problems: the COVID long-haulers. With all this knowledge, the second lesson is internal, one that most people I speak to seem to have learnt. It comes out in little ways: your life is important, its quality is important, family and health are important, socializing is important, being chained to a machine is secondary. We do not yet know how things will evolve. Vaccines are available, but it will be a decade before most people get it. In the meanwhile new variants of the virus are appearing, cases of reinfection are being discovered. Perhaps the disease will be a thing of the past in another three to five years. Or perhaps we will learn to live with a deadly disease, as earlier generations had learnt to live with small pox. New ways of working, new politics, new power groups have already begun to emerge, and they will be part of the new normal. (New phrase: new normal)
For all of us this has been a journey into ourselves, finding what we are capable of, learning new skills. Like most people, we spent more time cooking than before. I tried to learn how to identify the birds around me by their calls. I kept a record of the days through my photos (the ones above are my photographic journey through the year) and through occasional blog posts.
Do you remember 2019? People used to hang around in crowds, and look happy.
In retrospect the featured photo is specially poignant. It was taken in Wuhan, at a time when the virus had already begun to circulate, but no one recognized it for what it would go on to do.
On that note I take a blogging break of around two weeks.
Myanmar’s Inle lake is a place which fascinated me because of the life lived on water. Houses float on water, you need to take a boat to get to a neighbour’s place, children seem to take boats to school, there are floating farms, and the staple food is a lot of fish and rice. A odd thing is that traditional handicrafts include silverwork; the silver was brought from nearby mines. The silversmiths have now expanded into other kinds of jewellery.
Unfortunately we were there in an extremely rainy week. As a result, I spent a lot of time indoors, and part of it was in a jeweller’s workshop. My eyes snagged on the pearls. I’d never paid attention to pearls before, but in this watery light I could understand why painters had spent effort on getting the light on pearls. It was truly fascinating to watch how they react to changes of light: glowing yellow in filtered sunlight, changing to blue in shadow.
I had no idea that the pearls had to be separated from the mother with a tiny knife: a caesarean section! I learnt that pearls are cysts formed in the inner surface of an oyster or mussel shell, formed in response to irritants. The material of the pearl and the inner surface of the shell, the mother of pearl, are very similar. They are layers of a mineral (largely calcite and aragonite) alternating with very thin organic layers, containing the cells and genes required to secrete the next layer outwards. The concentric shells of mineral, each between half and a third of a micrometer thick, refract and diffuse incident light to give that characteristic sheen that people love. Pearls and the mother of pearl are great reasons to shoot close ups.
The eerily empty Park Street in Kolkata heralded the imminent end of the year 401 of the modern era. Usually this street is crowded with party goers in the evenings of the ten days between Newtonmas and Perihelion day. Not this year. We ducked into an old favourite of a coffee shop, nearly a hundred years old now, but still filled with young people. This year the wait for a table was only two minutes, not two hours. The Family’s face was glowing, she’d heard a lot about the street at this time of the year, and she was happy to be there.
The long nights of this season seem to be made for fairy lights, and in this pandemic year people have put a little extra into them. We decided to come home for the new year. The new year? There are so many different calendars in India, that the arbitrariness of choosing a date to begin a year is obvious. Is there really a special date to celebrate as we roll along around our star? It turns out that there are two such dates: one when we are closest to the sun (perihelion), and another when we are furthest (aphelion). If we want to choose something close to the new year in the common calendar, then Perihelion day, January 4, today, it must be. A different new year’s day deserves a different era to go with it. In the 16th century of the common era, Nicolaus Copernicus first realized that the earth goes around the sun. And then, in the early years of the next century, Johannes Kepler realized that the path of the earth was not a circle, but an ellipse. It is because of the ellipticity that there are special points in the orbit, a perihelion and an aphelion. So this discovery should mark the beginning of the modern era of a rational calendar.
Welcome to the year 402 of the modern era. The last of Kepler’s laws was published that many years ago. The start of the fifth century was traumatic for many, filled with losses. I seem to have spent mine in the safety of my kitchen, judging from my favourite photos of the year. But this is a new year, with new hopes of accommodating this virus without harm to ourselves through a vaccine. This is a year to celebrate careful study of the world around us, and to act on this understanding for the preservation of our place in the world around us. So a happy new year, 402 ME. ☀
A series of connected plateaus in the Sahyadris hold the twin destinations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. The plateau rises to an altitude of about 1.4 kilometers above sea level. We have our holiday season travel all planned now, but unlike previous years we will be traveling in our backyard. These places are a six hour drive away, and one of the locations we targeted for a holiday with parts of the extended family. One evening The Family and I left my aunts and cousins and nieces behind and went out for a walk on a plateau south of Panchgani. We stopped at a view of the Panchgani ridge from between trees and over fields.
These are the kinds of unremarked views that the people who live in the villages up on the plateaus have every day. To me these glimpses of the further plateaus from paths between fields of rice and corn were lovely and new. In the middle of the 19th century CE when the town of Panchgani was first founded, sights like this may have been common. But now, the haphazard growth of the towns has taken over the little neighbouring villages. As a result, most tourists who come to spend a weekend here do not get to see them. They miss out a beautiful part of the experience of living up there.
The ancient village of Mahabaleshwar is considered sacred because the Krishna river arises from a spring there. During British colonial times it became the summer capital of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency. The British administrators had the habit of moving their offices to cool high town, hill stations, in summer. Like most tourists now, we reverse the flow, visiting these plateaus in winter, when the temperature falls to a point where strawberries can grow. When I began visiting the area, forty years ago, the plateaus were still extensively forested, right outside the heart of the old towns. I was too callow to enjoy the wealth of wildflowers and birds you could see then.
Now the forest is in retreat, as hotels overwhelm the once peaceful towns of Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. Every bungalow is rented out to short term visitors. We got away from the maddening crowds by choosing a lonely hotel in a forgotten village where I could get these unusual views of the plateaus. Bird calls fill the evening, and an immense diversity of winter wildflowers is visible. Passing villagers give you an appraising look, and then smile and nod at you. It made for a perfect retreat, giving us the opportunity for long and pleasant walks. But on the walks I realized that I was contributing to the eventual destruction of what I like about the place. Inevitably, the number of hotels will increase, the fields and flowers will give way to crowded and narrow roads, cars and tourists. As I took these photos I felt like the vanguard of an army intent on loot and pillage. A happy holiday to you too.
Tucked into an album that my mother filled with my photos over years, I found an envelope. It contained a few photos. One was of her from a time just before I was born. I have to guess, but she looks younger than I remember her, and I can recall the brown and beige checked woolen coat, with a deep green silk lining. How you find a thing is as important as what you find. “… that particular [medieval] manuscript has five copies, and one is in the Rampur library, two copies are in the British library, and two copies are in the Berlin library. The scholars get grants and go to Rampur and London and Berlin, read these manuscripts and they write the book. What I mean by post-colonised is that the condition of postcoloniality is in the dispersal of this manuscript. When we visit these archives, we cannot write that out of the story” explains the historian Manan Asif Ahmed in a recent interview. Our telling of the past is mediated by all the things that happened since then.
An album starts with a cover. As a child I’d admired the matte gleam of the silver ash pattern of this cover as it stood in a little shelf built in below the bedside table next to my mother’s bed. Now it is a battered looking thing, which will be trash in thirty years. The album preserves an ancient technology, black and white photographs. In high school I learnt to make a small dark room and develop and print my own photos. The technique remained useful even when I was in college, exposing and developing X-ray diffraction patterns from crystals in a lab, learning the techniques that had been used nearly thirty years before to unravel the structure of DNA. As I developed those X-ray plates, the first charge coupled devices had been built. CCD cameras were soon to become common on space probes. The photo album had outlived its time, and I was still preparing to start my life.
“Societies, not states, are the social atoms with which students of history have to deal,” this sentence from Toynbee’s first volume of A Study of History could apply to my family. In this album I find people whose history transcends that of my young country. My grandmother was born in what today is Odisha, in a house a few doors down from where Subhash Chandra Bose lived as a child. Her elder brother kept up the correspondence with his childhood friend until the war. As a child I listened to her stories of her brother trying to hide the letters, and their father discovering the cache and burning it. The British Intelligence of the day was raiding houses of Bose’s known friends, and would have considered those letters evidence of treasonous terrorism. How times change! My grandfather lived through a momentous time. As an employee of the colonial Indian government, he had a choice of citizenship. He brought his family to India, leaving his land and ancestral home in what is today Bangladesh. My grandmother’s brother in law was in Rangoon as the Japanese invaded. He walked to India through the forests of erstwhile Burma and Nagaland. I couldn’t believe that an old man dozing in an armchair had had such adventures. This old man told me of his meetings with Justice Radhagobinda Pal, who, through the Tokyo Trials after the war played a role in shaping modern international law.
I played cricket, dreamed of being a Gary Sobers, learnt to bicycle, went to school. This photo of me (center) and my cousins probably comes from a time between Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. I became a long haired teenager, wearing bell bottoms, watching Amitabh Bachchan become a bigger star through movie after movie. I listened to The Beatles, King Crimson, Dire Straits, and (of course) Kishore Kumar. I left home. There are no photos in the album of the times that I remember. After we were married, my mother showed this album to The Family. She found that the photos were beginning to fall out. The old black photo corners were coming unstuck. In the 90s black corners were no longer available, people had moved to albums with plastic pockets to hold prints. The gold corners were all she could get to help my mother repair the damage. The daughter of the young girl in the photo who can’t quite stay away from her mother became a one girl fan club for The Family at the same age.
One of the few photos from my angsty teenage years is this one of me with my brother. I looked at it after a long time, and realized that his eyes have been passed on to my niece. The same quizzical look! “When a word is properly defined it loses its capital letter and can no longer serve either as a banner or as a hostile slogan; it becomes simply a sign, helping us to grasp some concrete reality,” wrote Simone Weil. Sibling is such a word; it takes a lifetime to move beyond expectations to a place where we can create our own definition of the word. Then there are the fictions inside all our photos, of which the biggest is that a photo is a slice of life. The photographer is always unseen, but always present through his or her arrangement and framing of the subject. I cannot remember who took any of these photos, why we were asked to stand or sit in a particular way, and why we agreed. My mother created another fiction by choosing and preserving some moments, not others. History is just such a record of the past. So much is lost, the documents that we have were written by people with agendas. That immense hole which has to be mended and reconstructed is where contexts and interpretations slip in.