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.

Surfing on deep time

Vaitarna is a little river which arises in the Sahyadris and drains into the sea just north of Mumbai. It has been called India’s most polluted river, at least in the lower stretches. The upper parts have been called the most dammed river in India. This stretch is clean enough to supply drinking water to tens of millions. The 154 kilometer long river has three dams, which, between them, hold nearly a billion cubic meters of water. Why so many dams, I wondered as we walked along the uppermost of these dams.

The answer lies in the weather and the land. The Indian Ocean monsoon dumps incredible amounts of water on this land for three months every year. It has done that for tens of million years. The land itself was formed in the volcanic eruptions sixty to seventy million years ago, during the time that the dinosaurs died. The ancient lava flow cooled into the basalt of the Deccan Traps. Later it was weathered in the hot house that the earth became thirty million years ago. The weathering formed the thin red laterite soil that covers the Sahyadris. The deep channels eroded into the volcanic basalt channels the seasonal waters as they flow into the sea. The dams catch and store the rains.

This beautiful landscape is the shadow of incredible volcanic eruptions. The soil is thin, because the rain washes it away. Where it collects in deep trenches, agriculture is possible. Around the dams rich agriculture has developed in the last hundred years. You look at this land and see few trees. The highest growths are usually tall shrubs. The thin soil of the highlands is covered by low herbs, creepers, and grasses. Weird new species have evolved in the thin metallic soil. It is an amazing place for wildflowers and strange animals. The harsh land has given refuge to some hardy exotics.

Among them you may count the water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica). Although the locals do not seem to know it, it is edible. In this it is like many other morning glories in the genus Ipomoea. I’ve eaten its leaves both steamed and stir fried in my travels across Asia. It is hardy, grows in poor soil, and is a sure indicator of the presence of water. It needs little effort to cultivate. You just have to harvest it and eat it. I see it being used as a hardy decorative around the country. Why doesn’t anyone here eat it? Perhaps just the lack of knowledge about how edible it is.

The rain bicycle

As the man came over the hill a thin blowing of rain met him. What had set out as a walk along tarmac lanes had turned dreamily by hedge-gap into a cross-ploughland trek, the red mud of the fields inching up his exposed legs. And now there was a wetness in the air that would be downpour again at any minute.

This was the view he had been thinking of. Vaguely, without really directing his walk, he had felt he would get the whole thing from this point. He saw the rain pulling up out of the distance, dragging its grey broken columns, smudging the trees and the fields. But as he turned, something moved in his eye-corner. All his senses startled alert. He stopped.

Over to his right a thin, black bicycle was running across the field toward the hill, its head down, neck stretched out. It seemed to be running on its toes like a cat, like a dog up to no good. From the high point on which he stood the hill dipped slightly and rose to another crested point fringed with the tops of trees, three hundred yards to his right. As he watched it, the bicycle ran up to that crest, showed against the sky – for a moment like a nightmarish leopard – and disappeared over the other side.

He ran along the top of the wood and finding no shelter but the thin, leafless thorns of the hedge, dipped below the crest out of the wind and jogged along through thick grass to the wood of oaks. In blinding rain he lunged through the barricade of brambles at the wood’s edge. The little mean trees were small choice in the way of shelter, but at a sudden fierce thickening of the rain he took one at random and crouched down under the leaning trunk.

Still panting from his run, drawing his knees up tightly, he watched the blurred lines of rain slanting through the boughs into the clumps of grass and herbs. He felt hidden and safe. The sound of the rain as it rushed and lulled in the wood seemed to seal him in.

All around him the boughs angled down, glistening, black as iron. From their tips and elbows the drops hurried steadily, and the channels of the bark pulsed and gleamed. He wanted this rain to go on for ever.

All at once he found himself thinking of the bicycle. The hair on the nape of his neck prickled slightly. He remembered how it had run up to the crest and showed against the sky.

He tried to dismiss the thought. Bicycles wander about the countryside often enough. But the image of the bicycle as it had appeared against the sky stuck in his mind. It must have come over the crest just above the wood in which he was now sitting. To clear his mind, he twisted around and looked up the wood between the tree stems, to his left.

At the wood top, with the silvered grey light coming in behind it, the black bicycle was standing under the thorns, its head high and alert, its ears pricked, watching him.

A bicycle sheltering from the rain generally goes into a sort of stupor, tilts its front wheel and hangs its head and lets its handle bars droop, and so it stays as long as the rain lasts. This bicycle was nothing like that. It was watching him intently, standing perfectly still, its soaked neck and shank shining in the hard light.

What was he to do? Ridiculous to try driving it away. And to leave shelter, with the rain still coming down full pelt, was out of the question. Meanwhile the idea of being watched became more and more unsettling until at last he had to twist around again, to see if the bicycle had moved. It stood exactly as before.

Bicycles left out by farmers in a field always make me think of them as being alive. I have a mental image of them as feral animals, racing alone through the landscape. When I saw one in a monsoon downpour while walking in the rolling fields near Vaitarna village, Ted Hughes’ short story, The Rain Horse, came to mind.

A luxury tent!

What is a luxury tent? We’d spent nights in superb tents in Kenya, with good wifi, four poster beds, and enormous bathtubs. That would qualify as luxury. The tent we found in Vaitarna was not quite the same. It was good enough, big room, comfortable bed, but somehow, it didn’t quite have the same decadent air of luxury. The infinity pool was a nice extra though.

The idea is simple. You build a platform in wood and concrete. Raise a wooden wall on two sides, and pitch a tent over it. It’s probably cheaper than building cabins. There was a line of tents near the infinity pool, and a couple at a lower level. The lower group is what you see in the photo above.

We’d not planned to spend long times in the tent. Our intention was to walk most of the day. But the best laid plans of men and mice (one of which scuttled across the floor) when taken at the flood, lead to misfortune. Mangled metaphors aside, there were storms every day. We walked in spite of them, but after changing out of wet clothes for a meal you don’t feel like walking out into the rain again. We ended up spending half of every day in. Monsoon storms are quite pleasant at the blue hour, especially when seen from inside a cosy room.

Fortunately, there was enough wine to make the long rainy evenings quite pleasant. We pulled up two of the garden chairs next to the window in the tent and spent our evenings going through the day’s photos, or planning the next walk. It was a nice break in the middle of restrictions.