Building trust

If you ever do street photography, you will find that the best shots come when you have built some trust with your subject. This photo was taken in Quy Nhon in Vietnam, once a port of call for Zheng He, and in the last century a base for American troops close to the front lines of that dirty war. I could not have got the photo you see above if the little girl had not been in a position where she felt safe. Building this trust does not depend only on you as an individual, but also the circumstances in which the subject finds herself. I think this girl would not have had such an open smile if I had come across her alone in a market.

I read the following sentences “On 13 March 2020, as the infection continued to spread in Italy at a brisk pace, Standard Ethics – an independent sustainability rating company – improved its outlook for the country from negative to stable”. This is because, according to Standard Ethics, “in the emergency resulting from the spread of the Covid-19 virus, [Italy] has re-established a remarkable solidarity and united purpose. […] It is possible that by courageously overcoming this difficult test, a beautiful nation like Italy, will rediscover its vigour and optimism” (press release, 13 March 2020). The case for the Spanish flu was the opposite: “government institutions and national health care services largely proved ineffective in facing the crisis, while civil society experienced a serious breakdown due to the climate of generalised suspicion” I read in a thought provoking article.

After the cyclone of 1999, the state of Odisha changed its approach to disasters, by emphasizing preparedness over relief. The social capital that it built up by previous work on schools and primary health, saw instant dividends in saving lives through this century. That is a wonderful Indian example of dealing with disasters, and shows what changes can be made with good governance.

When I think of long term effects of the ongoing epidemic, I think of the possible waves to come in the next five or ten years, their effect on travel, and on our circumstances. How our governments deal with this crisis: whether by putting in place a robust health system or not, may determine whether and where we will travel in the next years, whether we will meet open and smiling faces, or sullen and suspicious ones.

Some more quick lunches

The Family has reached another of those troughs that living in lockdown presents. Fortunately, this time we are not experiencing it together. So I tried my best to help out in the kitchen. Since I no longer have the patience to read a recipe and follow it properly, I have to improvise. Fortunately, the pasta was easy. We had a jar of tomato sauce in our makeshift larder. When I opened it, the smell of herbs which floated out told me that it was better than my expectations. That made a twenty minute recipe. It takes ten minutes to boil enough water for the pasta. I chopped up some salami into little bits, and dunked it into the sauce. The Family made a fresh garden salad with a mint and lime dressing. She has started to char the capsicum before adding it to the salad. It brings out the flavour better. After the water boiled I added the fusilli. It takes about four minutes to make it to our taste. The rest is straightforward: drain, add the sauce and serve hot.

The water from boiling the pasta is something we could have reserved for a soup. Since it already has some dissolved wheat solids, it adds body. I must remember to save it the next time around.

The other part of a quick lunch is the fish. We had an absolutely fresh pomfret: firm to the touch, clear eyes, and (lucky us) full of roe. Apollo Bunder and Old Woman’s Island (separate until the early 19th century, when Colaba causeway was built to join then) were supposed to yield the best catch in the 18th century. Both names were anglicized; Apollo Bunder was a distortion of Palva bunder (Palva is the Koli word for the Bengali favourite Ilish) and Old Woman’s Island was a mishearing of Al Omani, after the deep sea Arab boats which docked there to take on fish. Unfortunately, today’s fishermen have to go much further to bring back our catch.

Such a fresh fish required very little preparation. I rubbed it with haldi and rock salt and left it for abput fifteen minutes. Then I heated a tiny bit of oil in a pan, just enough that the fish does not stick, and heated the fish for three minutes on one side, two on the other. The sweet pomfret requires nothing more. The roe was also perfectly done.

Starting again

I wandered out to do a few overdue chores, protected by a mask and face shield. Afterwards I decided to pay a visit to my usual pre-pandemic haunts. Downtown, between Flora Fountain and the stock exchange, crowds were thin. The bakery I like has been open for a while, and I got all the little things I missed for months; a few pavs, a brun, and a loaf of German bread. The pav is a Mumbai special, fluffy sourdough buns, with a hard crust, probably adapted from a Portuguese ancestral bread. Someone must have written a thesis on its origin, and I would love to read it. The other typically Mumbai bread, the brun, is even more crusty, and is slowly becoming extinct. I love it the old fashioned way: sliced open, slathered with butter, then cut into smaller pieces to savour with tea. I walked into a chain cafe (featured photo). They had removed their tables; everything was to go only. I got my double shot of espresso, and came out on the deserted road to have it.

Life has to start again. But for the first time in five months the disease seemed much closer to us; a couple we know well have tested positive. A dependable survey in Mumbai found that the epidemic has not yet touched more than half the population. That means if we drop all safeguards, the disease will begin to burn through the city again. As yet there is no clear way of managing the disease if it turns critical, and no vaccine. Even after you recover, it may require months of rehabilitation. We don’t even know whether immunity lasts a full year. I guess The Family and I, like most of us, will grope and search for a safe way to socialize in the coming months.

PPE pollution

We’ve all been very happy with the decreased soot and dust in the air and the lower level of noise pollution. The anxiety of having to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic makes these positive changes great things to hold on to. Unfortunately, as life starts again, this will go back to normal. The immense economic disruption that the whole world has gone through will mean that little money will be left to improve soot emissions in the short term. And then there is one invisible bit of pollution which will spread even more. That is the disposable PPE. Already, for several years now, pollution from single use plastics was a major concern. Now we will begin to add more to it. Airports are producing a lot of this every day as air travel has opened up again; market places are full of it too. The Family took a photo of her hairdresser in a disposable kit. This is an indicator that there will be wider use of such things as the economy opens up again.

Fortunately, some people have taken notice. There is a very timely paper from a team of chemists in Dehra Dun who test a solution to this problem. They reduce this to a fuel which is similar to industrial diesel. The simple process was proven in other contexts, and is not new. Another nice thing about this process is that the plastics don’t have to be separated. One can take entire garbage bags full of the kits and use them as starters. So there is a problem, there is a solution. What is needed next is to take this out of the lab and into the world. That needs economic and political will.

To dream, perchance to sleep

The weekend was completely free of rain. The clear skies and wonderful sunsets drew The Family out to the sea shore. She would come back gushing about the light, and the number of people who came to quietly watch the sunset. So yesterday, I took my camera and climbed up to the terrace on the roof of our building. The western edge of the terrace is lined with satellite dishes, and each of them served as a perch for a crow, sitting quietly and looking at the sun. They were a little distracted when I appeared, and were torn between watching the sunset and keeping a wary eye on me.

“When our minds are much affected, so are the movements of our bodies,” wrote Charles Darwin in his book The expression of the emotions in man and animals (1872). This observation started a whole scientific enterprise of understanding the value of emotions by comparing them in humans and other mammals. Much less is known about the emotions of birds. “Birds and mammals are thought to have evolved from different groups of Mesozoic reptiles … during the Carboniferous or Permian period. Yet, birds and mammals exhibit extensive convergence in terms of relative brain size, high levels of activity, sleep/wakefulness cycles, endothermy, and social behavior, among others,” says a recent review of the literature on negative emotions in birds. Little else is known about emotions in birds. But when I see crows watching the sunset, or soaring against the breeze as the sun goes down, the parallel with human reactions to the beauty of sunsets does not seem farfetched.

The clear air of the last few months, and the relative coolness of the last few days meant that the sunset showed a simple gradation of colour in the sky, so different from the strangely beautiful sunsets that we had seen until the previous weekend. As the sun set, The Family and I enjoyed looking at so many different kinds of clouds. The horsetail streaks of cirrus clouds 5 or 6 kilometers above looked white in reflected sunlight because the sun had not set on them yet. As the horizon rose above the sun, the most spectacular were the golden layers of altostratus clouds at a height of about 3 kilometers. Meanwhile, the fast drifting layers of cottony stratus, merely a kilometer or two above our heads, had already started looking black because they no longer caught the sun.

The moon was already up in the east. As colour faded from the sky, the last clouds to turn pink were the high streaks of cirrus: ice crystals condensing out of the air in the cold of the upper atmosphere. The city lights came on, to add a glow to the moonlight. Between the clouds and lights, there is no way we will catch a glimpse of comet Neowise.

Details for the devil

We never ran out of eggs, even during the worst days of the lockdown. Now that the lockdown has eased, and one can get about again, in small ways, we thought of fancier ways of using them. A weekend is a time when you can kick back and relax, and I thought of devilling some eggs.

I’m not terrifically fond of the standard chili-flakes-in-egg-yolk recipe. So I rummaged about in the cupboard until I found something interesting: a sweet pickle of sour lime with chili. My gustatory cortex immediately lit up. This was the secret sauce which completed my recipe. It was only afterwards that I noticed the small print in red on the label: this is part of what an old now-vanished Marathi restaurant near CST used to call “fast food”. The Family popped one of the canapes into her mouth and pronounced it a success.

When you check back on the production of eggs in India, you find references to a revolution in poultry during the early days of Indira Gandhi. I don’t find clear evidence for this in records of government expenditure. All I see is four decades of slowly increasing expense on poultry, from about one part in 2000 of the Plan budget to about a part in 1000. But there is lot of material on the development of large poultry farms in the early seventies (I remember this as conversations between my mother and aunts on how poultry chicken was much easier to cook). The result is that India is now the third largest producer of eggs in the world. This was a key transformation in the nutrition available to children, especially in the school lunch which, for many, was the bulk of the day’s meal. Now that all schools are shut due to COVID-19, the meal scheme is totally disrupted. The resulting malnutrition will be one of the serious long-term consequences.

I like the mild taste of a Corona beer in the relaxed late afternoons of a weekend. Now that we managed to find a case, we can kick back on these lovely breaks in the monsoon and enjoy the long days of late (astronomical) summer. The lime and chili tempered sweetness of the devilled eggs were a nice accompaniment to the mild beer with its slice of lime.

Perfect game for the online life

Bugged with the online life? Want new ways to waste time? Follow me. In my effort to waste good productive hours, I made a deep dive into the shallow (but extensive) waters of meaningless web surfing, link clicking, and searching for random words until I came to a gem.

This is a wonderful game which leads to world domination through twitter:

My attention span is very short these days, and I love it when you can become Dictator for life of an online sandbox in ten minutes. It is a fun game. Hope you enjoy playing it as much as you enjoyed the photo of my keyboard made of 22-carat gold.

Go to the ant

In spite of taking photos of insects for over a decade, it turns out that I don’t have a photo of an ant. So, now that I want to talk a little about how ants deal with epidemics, the only photo I can use is of a termite. Since termites are social animals too, the photo is not inappropriate.

I came across a two year old paper which observed how ant colonies deal with infections. It seems that ant colonies have a rather modularized structure. Every ant does not meet every other member of the colony all the time. They mostly socialize with a reasonably small set of friends and colleagues. These little social cliques intersect, so that they have the “six degrees of separation” that human networks show. What this means is that messages pass very efficiently from one forager to another, or from foragers to the queen and her attendants.

It turns out that when a forager is exposed to an infection, the social network rearranges itself. Each ant meets a much smaller set of friends. As a result, it becomes harder for messages, and infections, to pass from one to another, or to the queen. It is amazing that these measurements were made and have been known for two years already. Interestingly, the colony does not lock down all activity. It cannot afford to do that for long, like human societies. Foraging, defense, breeding continue, but with appropriate caution, namely defensive distancing.

Who says that there is no proof that distancing is effective against an infection? You can quote chapter and verse now (Proverbs, 6 and 6, if you must know). People have gone to the ant, considered her ways, and learnt from it. The lesson is clear: distancing works against infections.

On pause

I’ve spent a week writing about all that I’m beginning to like about the anthropause. But there’s a part of our lives which is on hold. The Family and I talked about it yesterday after we got a call from one of our friends: a travel professional. What I miss are the long road trips. You may be crammed into uncomfortable cars for long hours, but there is a romance in these trips to corners of India which are never in the news.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When you take photos of roads, they look entirely charmless: trucks and buses edging out smaller vehicles in the race to reach their end, while you travel endlessly. But there are the charming stops: the little dhabas and chai stalls, which make up for all the discomfort. Even if the stall makes nothing but chai, sometimes you are surprised by its taste, and sometimes by the conversation you find there. Each stop is a little more added to your life, a little more of India.

This sense of unending miles, a world left to see, that’s what I miss in the anthropause.

The world begins again

In April the world’s seas had fallen silent. The shipping lanes which carry the bulk of the world’s commerce had emptied out. We saw signs of that in Mumbai. There were videos of dolphins playing and fishing in Backbay. In the last hundred years there have been no reports of dolphins sighted so close to the shore. The anthropause had begun. Another sign was the lack of ships on the horizon. Normally we see long lines of ships on the horizon, all queued up to dock at Mumbai’s port. They had gone missing.

Now, finally, at the end of July, when I walked out to watch the monsoon sunset over Mumbai I saw the first signs of the end of the anthropause. At the horizon, past Prong’s lighthouse, there were two ships. Appropriately, one was gliding into port, the other moving out. I followed it until it moved over the horizon: traveling to new shores, as I still cannot. But the world has begun again. As we learn how to live safely with the threat of more infections, we will begin to resume our lives, slightly differently.