The monsoon settles in

Sometime in the late morning of yesterday I realized that we were going through the first spell of a proper monsoon rain. It had been raining continuously since the previous evening. The earlier part of June had passed in little fits and bursts of rain. That was typical early monsoon; it gives you time to turn the house upside down looking for the umbrella that you put away last September, and the raincoat that you bundled into a drawer. In our part of town July and early August see the maximum rain on average. So the monsoon this year looks like it is textbook weather.

Part of the textbook is this first long and bothersome spell of rain at the very end of June. I had a day full of meetings, which, fortunately, in our new normal, means that you can stay at home glued to the laptop screen. I was glad about that. Otherwise I would have had to make a waterproof bundle with a towel and a change of clothes and shoes to take to work. I kept looking out of the window to see how much the rain pools in the garden. In continuous low-intensity rain like this, water can become ankle high in the garden at high tide, and drain out almost completely when the tide is low. It’s a good proxy for how the trains function. Fortunately for commuters, high tide was not at rush hour.

In the evening, as I took macros of the bougainvillea still in flower on our wet balcony, The Family scrolled through the news and read out the day’s statistics to me. It had rained a steady couple of centimeters every hour. In five hours we’d got a 100 mm of rain, in eight, 165 mm. The day had been dreary, and I’d switched on all the lights at home to make the place look cheerful. A few notes of cheer had been added by the sparrows sheltering on my windowsill, and the pair of purple sunbirds which come to sit on the bougainvillea vines. Now I look out at the first morning of July, and find another dreary day, with the clouds looking all set for another tedious day of rain. I have a meeting today which I can’t do on zoom. Bother!

First shower

Petrichor is the smell of rain hitting parched ground. Equally wonderful is the sight of raindrops on petals and leaves in that first monsoon rain. That’s the photo. The monsoon is on schedule. More than a week on, I woke on the day some places in the high latitudes will celebrate La Fete de la Musique, or, later in the week, Midsommar, and looked out at a welcome dreary drizzle and completely overcast skies. Just the day to walk out in a tee and shorts, in flipflops, to walk through the rain on Marine Drive, munching a cone of fresh roasted peanuts. Too bad it is a working day.

Last light

Monsoon light is special. In many parts of the world you get spectacular sunsets and sunrises when there’s smoke and dust in the air. Here we can see that kind of special light because of small droplets of moisture suspended in the air. At least, we can see it at the change of season between grishma and varsha, summer and monsoon, before the sky is completely overcast.

The Family has been going for a walk by the sea to take photos. Being more of a couch potato, I take them from our balcony. The added advantage to this placement (add-vantage, to make a bad pun) is that I can get a view of the canopy below me, covered with the last flowers of the Flame of the Forest (Delonix regia).

In another neck of the woods a spreading banyan tree, the adult form of a strangler fig, has become host to a dense growth of epiphytic Pothos. I’ve never seen another specimen with such large leaves. In the fading light of the evening the green seems greener than usual.

There are other strange effects of light in this season. In the middle of the afternoon a dense mass of clouds can begin to obscure the sun, producing a watery light like the sunset. The sky and the sea can be beautiful now.

Wide open spaces

Cliffs, ridges, waterfalls. That’s Khandala for you. Speeding along the expressway, I’ve often looked longingly at the meadows around the Duke’s Nose (that cliff was said to resemble Wellington’s profile, and the name remains even when the association is forgotten). The Family is rather blasé about it. She’s spent weekend retreats in one of those villas every year. This year I followed her into some of those places and saw a view which was new to me. I realized that I have to go wider than wide to capture the sense of what I saw. I had to take a panorama.

The meaning of a wide angle is clear to anyone except a photographer. Fussy lenspeople will talk of focal lengths and film sizes, and try to translate it to digital in terms of ratios. By this definition, most smart phones have wide angle lenses. But that does not take into account the software which chops or adds to images. I wondered a little about this as I took a photo of clouds drifting across the slope and the cliff. But only a little, since I was busy trying to figure out whether I should cross the haha (you see it as the brown line beyond the rock in the photo above) and get closer to the lip of the cliff. I walked up a bit further, and found the slope too steep and slippery and decided not to.

I moved a little and took another photo. This time catching the turn in the expressway just before it gets to Lonavala. If you ever wondered how high the monsoon clouds are, go to Khandala. They drift along the roads here, and drop off into valleys. Since this place is half a kilometer above sea level, that tells you how low monsoon clouds get. The fluffy white cirrus clouds that you can see in other seasons are about six kilometers up in the sky. I love the feel of the monsoon in the Sahyadris, the drifting fog that hides and reveals, the strange light, the startling green of these meadows.

Raindrops

Out with a water-resistant camera in the rain, I was bent over ankle-high plants, trying to photograph the monsoon up close. Some parts of the Khandala plateau are good for this.

There are flowers so small that my camera cannot see them clearly. I wonder how they are pollinated. Luckily the raindrops around them are visible.

I tried hard to get a closer look at such a flower. Instead I saw the water drop act as a lens, imaging the grass below. Serendipity!

Hairy leaves! These may serve the same purpose as anti-pigeon spikes on buildings. One reason they could be there is to prevent leaf-damaging insects from getting at them.

I usually cannot decide whether the colour photo works better than monochrome. But for spider webs I’m pretty sure the monochrome works well.

More spider webs. The continuous pinging of water drops on the web may be as tiring to spiders as sitting in a noisy bar is to people.

I think monochrome works better with this image too: the texture and shadows come out better. I’m not sure this arrangement of hair can deter insects.

Droplets hang in the air, drowning the flowers behind these spathes. These plants grow everywhere in the plateau. They must use the drops in some clever way. I wish I knew.

Another flower which is too small to figure in field guides! If you get a lens like this, be prepared to find flowers (and plants) which will be very hard to identify.

Clouds and rain

Clouds drift low in the sky during the monsoon. In Khandala, half a kilometer above sea level, they drift along roads. You’ll be driving along a clear road, then you take a turn, and suddenly you are inside a cloud. During the day you see this as reduced visibility. Your camera also sees the same thing. It is different at night.

I had to pick up a pizza for dinner. As I waited, my eyes saw a drifting mist and a light rain. My phone camera saw a fairly clear night. The software in a phone camera is tuned to give you the clearest possible image. Especially at night this involves a lot of algorithmic enhancement. Most of the time I’m happy with it. But it cannot deal with mysteries and atmosphere. You have to teach the algorithm to show what you see.

The clue to accomplishing this is in the halo of light that you see around the front of the building. Fog scatters light. That’s half the reason it reduces visibility. I took a photo with my flash on. The intense light of the flash makes the fog visible. The fog actually now looks denser than it did to the eye. I think a diffuser over the flash will give a result closer to what my eye sees. I’ll have to take some time to improve on this technique, but I think I have the principle now.

August’s end

July was a really wet month. When the rains let up early in August we were happy to see the sun. It is astronomical summer after all, so when the rain stops it gets hot very fast. In spite of the heat and humidity, it was nice to get a few days of sunshine. Unfortunately for me that also coincided with an upkick in work. So I spent these sunny days indoors, looking out at a garden.

I was looking forward to the mid-week break we’d planned in late August. Visions of walks in the hills, getting wet in the sprays from seasonal waterfalls, ran through my head. But the night we were to leave the skies opened up again. Our walks were going to be different.

The monsoon of late-August is different from that of July. No more storms which threaten to shake mountains apart. The monsoon clouds gather, it rains hard for an hour, or a day. And then the clouds are gone again. Till they are back. It is no use saying “We’ll wait for the rain to pass before …” You have to carry on regardless.

Mid-week trips replace WFH by WFA, work from anywhere. While I was busy in a meeting one morning, The Family sat on the sun deck of the hotel watching the hills. At breakfast I’d noticed that the rain had washed the air clean. So, despite the moisture, you could see pretty far. The Family took the series of photos you see here: a sunny monsoon morning turning abruptly cloudy.

Low-lying clouds blew in to the mountains from the sea, up the expressway. You can see it meeting the mountains, climbing up, getting denser. But you have to imagine the rest: The Family leaving the deck in a hurry as the rain started, me finishing my meeting about the time she got back, and then us leaving for a walk in the rain. That’s August for you, all rolled up in the story of a morning.

Here is a composition by A. R. Rahman in raag Megh Malhar. It is a raag which is said to be appropriate to the early monsoon, but it will do for the changeable season of August too.

Rite/right of Passage

Traffic flows like tar along the highways out of Mumbai these weekends. With the easing of travel restrictions and the simultaneous start of work, people need a break. Mumbai’s youth always had a rite of passage. A teenager would join friends for a trip to the nearest hills in monsoon. Monsoon rains trickle down from the hills over impermeable volcanic basalt. These seasonal streams falls over the frequent cliff faces in these hills to make monsoon waterfalls. Gangs of the young spend drunken weekends under random waterfalls . Even decades removed from that age, The Family still longs to get out to the waterfalls every monsoon. In trying to avoid these crowds we decided to walk around Lonavala one Thursday afternoon.

We drove up for an early lunch and then exited on to the road leading to the lake. Pandemic restrictions have not gone completely. Just past the embankment was a police checkpost where a few people were turned away. We looked decrepit enough to be allowed through. “What are they checking for?” The Family wondered. My speculation was that they are denying the right of passage to gangs of the nearly-adult. Bad times for them. Not only do you face a tough negotiation with parents, but then it comes to nought because of the police. “Your three cameras are passport enough for us,” The Family declared. It was an overstatement; one was a phone.

It had started raining, and it would continue all evening. I wished I had fewer cameras with me. I couldn’t bring out one because of the rain. Even the waterproof camera gets drops over its lens in rain. I huddled over it to dry the cover. The rain had grayed the lake. The clouds had come down over it, hiding the far side. I loved the serenity of the place. Could it make a decent photo? I wasn’t sure as I clicked away. You can always delete things which don’t turn out halfway decent.

On the far side a stream staggers down a cliff every monsoon. We ambled round to it. It had attracted a few other people. Some couples, a family with exuberant children, a small group of young people. The light was getting worse. We didn’t have the right footwear for getting close enough to it. We looked at the falling water for a while and then moved away. Across the road there was an attractive symmetrically spreading tree. It deserved to have its portrait taken.

Even in these sparse crowds a couple of people were trying to run a business. A middle-aged man was selling roasted bhutta (corn). A more enterprising lady was offering everything from her version of a food truck. From under that awning I spotted a group of hikers walking up the slope towards the top of the waterfall. “They have the same footwear as us,” The Family remarked. The lady asked “Do you want a tea?” The Family was torn, but then decided on the tea.

Strolling in the rain

By the time we reached the luxury tents by the side of Vaitarna lake, it was well past mid day. As we took in the breeze by the infinity lake, we met a group of young doctors who were unwinding after a year of hard work. Never an easy life, and certainly not in the last months. Lunch, then settle our stuff into a tent, and by the time we were ready to go out again, a drizzle had set in. The doctors were in and around the pool, two bottles of wine open on a nearby table, glasses in hands. They called out to us, but we wanted a walk. The scenery was spectacular after all.

There was a choice of extremely muddy tracks or a black-topped road. We’d had a bit of discussion about what to wear. Expecting really heavy rain, I’d opted for shorts and a tee, and flip flops. The rain is not cold, so this works. “No point getting trekking shoes soggy,” I’d said to The Family. She had taken normal, everyday shoes and a poncho. Also good. But our choice of footwear meant we couldn’t take muddy tracks down slopes. So the yellow-brick road it was.

Clouds were massing overhead. We didn’t know yet that the next three days would be so stormy that we wouldn’t feel like going out to the pool. There was a high-pitched call overhead. I looked up to see a black winged kite (Elanus caeruleus) hovering overhead. I missed my long lenses. A macro lens or phones are just enough to remind you of a sighting like this, but not to show what we saw. The kite hovered and dived down to the lake. “I didn’t know it eats fish,” The Family said. We moved on to watch it as it soared and stooped again. It wasn’t breaking the water. So probably it was scooping up large insects. Dragonflies?

Walking in the middle of farmlands you expect to see cattle. Sure enough, there were water buffaloes grazing in an open field near the path. This must be a wonderful time for them. Pools of muddy water form during these weeks of storms, and take many weeks to dry. The animals don’t have to move far between forage and wallow. There were a couple of very heavy showers as we walked. There was little cover. We could huddle behind bushes or under stunted thorn trees, or we could keep walking. We decided to turn our backs to the wind and walk.

When it became a little light, I took out my waterproof camera, and started taking photos of wildflowers. The Family sometimes gets a little impatient when I do this, but today there were enough things to see that she was happy walking at my uncertain pace. She pointed out a butterfly. Again I missed my long lens. Fortunately my camera has enough pixels that I could crop a long shot. This is a common crow (Euploea core), one of the commonest butterflies in the Sahyadris, especially at this time of the year. My flip flops worked better than soggy shoes would have. We compromised on a walking distance between my footwear and The Family’s, and decided that it was about time to walk back.

The fruits of scarcity

Deep into the monsoon you get few seasonal fruits. Looking into my photo archives I can spot seasonal fruits recurring from year to year. But there are no records from August. I looked at the fruit bowl on our table today to refresh my memory of what we eat now. Apples and pears, the hardy fall backs for every season, lined the bottom of the bowl. A sweet lime kept them company. The Family loves them even when they are a bit desiccated, as they are now. A few juicy plums, the remnants of the summer’s harvest, loll in their satiny scarlet. A large green guava rounds off the collection. The guava harvest is now, but these peak season fruits turn out to be large and flavourless. A bright green rose ringed parakeet flew by the window, rolling its beady eyes and screaming derision at my collection of fruits. I wish I had that flamboyance.

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