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.
It was winter when I first passed through the Sahyadris, many decades ago. I looked out of the window of a train at the amazing landscape: fantastic rock shapes covered with swathes of drying grass. Those expanses of drying yellow grass have drawn me out of the city year after year. From a distance you see hills covered by trees, but when the rock falls away too steeply for a tree to find stability, grasses cascade over the steep slopes, in shades of yellow, gold, or red. I’ve always wondered about the varieties of grass that one can see. Now, in the infrequent outings during the pandemic, I thought I would learn how to tell grasses apart.
Starting is never easy. I looked at books and guides, and wondered at why I never took to botany. I looked at the lovely words: rhizome, culm and spikelet, rachis, glume, awn and floret, bulb and crown, sheath, blade, ligule and auricle. I could hypnotize myself with words like this, fall in love with language. But in school, when I tried to study botany, I would open the books too late, and the words would become a wall I could never be able to climb. I never mastered the words, and never managed to look out at the vista of the subject from the top of that high wall. One learns a technical language to be able to read and understand others, not to create barriers for others. Now that I have all the time in the world, here are some notes to myself. In the analogy that I have drawn, the rest of this post is a set of spikes driven into the wall so that I can climb it quickly later. If you enjoy it, so much the better.
I am not about to become a late-flowering botanist, so I will not look at the structure below the ground: the root and the modified stem called the rhizome. All that I’ll need to know is that if the rhizome is present, then the grass is a perennial. The stem is what I start from, and that should be called a culm by people like us who want to know more about grass. The culm could have a part below the ground, called the rhizome, but I will learn about the stolon, which is the part above ground. Some stolons, like the ones in these photos, stand upright, but others, for example on the lawns outside my apartment, trail on the ground. Stolons have nodes, and leaves or roots can arise from these. These nodes are called crowns when leaves arise from them. If a grazer eats a culm, it is regenerated from a crown. The leaf is another thing to look at. Its sheath wraps around the culm; if the blade bends away from the culm, then you can see a little tongue near the bend. This is a ligule; and it prevents insects from crawling down the blade into the sheath to eat away at the culm.
The most interesting part of a plant is the flower, the floret is what you would call it if you are a grass gazer. Grasses are wind pollinated, and do not require the petals which other plants use to attract pollinators. The florets are held on a part of the stem called the rachis; it may be straight or branched. The flowers are contained in spikelets. At the base of the spikelet, close to the rachis, are two modified leaves called glumes, which hold the florets alternately along their length. The tips of the glumes are extended into the long pointed things called awns, which you can easily see in all the photos here.
I love awns; they are what made me take the photos.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.