A butterfly and a flower

Just because I am not out in the Sahyadri mountains this year doesn’t mean that the usual things you see in late August have disappeared. I’m sure there are several million people now looking at the flower of the kalmashi shrub (also called karambol, binomial Justicia procumbens). For several years, I didn’t realize that the cylinder is an inflorescence and the individual flowers usually bloom at different times. I would think that I came on it late in the season when the petals had fallen off. The genus is widespread in tropical regions of the world, and has possibly the largest number of species in the Acanthaceae family. This particular species has attracted some attention recently because of a chemical isolated from it which could be useful in treating tumours. I like them for a different reason: they attract butterflies.

Equally common at this time is the butterfly called the common crow (Euploea core). I think this photo, taken almost exactly thirteen years ago, could be my first one of this species. It was taken in the same hour as the photo of the kalmashi, in Matheran. I used to see the common crow everywhere in Mumbai before insecticides began to be used widely. Now one hardly sees butterflies in the city.

Sawan Bhadon

Traditionally, the monsoon is supposed to span the months of Sawan and Bhadon. We are at the beginning of Bhadon now, so one should expect rain for about a month more. It had been raining almost constantly through the last week of Sawan, but on the 4th of Bhadon the rain let up for a while. The Family and I put on our walking shoes and dashed out of the house.

Perhaps others did not have cabin fever like us, or maybe they were still dithering. Whatever the reason, we saw few people on the walk. In other years at this time we would have been planning a long drive and monsoon walks in the ghats, looking for wildflowers. This year I have to make do with photos of weeds growing on the lawn. I like weeds; you get more butterflies visiting them. They (the butterflies) usually begin to emerge around this time, but I suppose those which emerged in the last few days would have drowned in the rain. I guess those which pupate later will have a better time.

The heavy rain had not removed all flowers from stalks. On some hedges along the paths I could see flowers still managing to catch the sun. In the photo above, you see a typical sight: leaves heavy with pooled drops of water, flowers peering up from among them. Exactly fifty years ago a completely forgettable movie was released: Sawan Bhadon. The only reason it isn’t totally forgotten is that it introduced one of the super stars of that time, Rekha. She is likely to be over seventy now (contrary to press releases), but every now and then newspapers still write about her.

At one point on our walk sunlight found a little gap in the clouds and landed just in front of us. The effect was so dazzling that I stopped and took this photo. The long days of rain had brought down so many leaves; they were rotting into mulch now. This is the light of monsoon, astronomical summer. So beautiful when you get to see it.

Twelfth night

Twelve nights? Definitely more. By the second half of August I usually reach a milder version of the mood I am in now. It has been raining almost continuously for two weeks. I can’t even get up the enthusiasm to go for a walk. My shoes don’t dry by the next day. Even in the rain it would have been lovely to drive out to the Sahyadris and go for a couple of hour-long walks between mountains. But even that is not possible with this lock-down. And to top it all, one of the buildings I would pass on my daily walk has been sealed due to an infection. On days like this I just land up eating junk food and feel even worse the next day. No inspiration at all. I will just copy lines from a better writer.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Breaking up is hard to do

During the last week the air has been full of the mellifluous song of chain saws, hacking away at the trees and branches felled by the storm of August 5, 2020. I looked out of the window to see two men wrestling large pieces of wood while another held on to the saw. A supervisor sat on a chair near them, hacking away at smaller smaller branches, reducing the bushy growth to something that the saw could more easily get at. Chopping the branches, breaking them up, is a hard job. Across the city, people are still at it.

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Ever since the Mumbai cloudburst of 2005, when parts of the city got a meter of rain in half a day, the media treats every climate story from Mumbai as a story of a flooded city. This time was no exception. This story is not totally false, because there was a fourth of a meter of rain in the day. But this kind of rain happens once in the season without so much destruction. By slapping a label on the story before investigating, the media, and, because of it, the rest of the country missed what really happened.

This year’s story was of a storm. The wind speeds were high enough that this could have been a named tropical storm. Property was damaged, extensively, by the wind. The 200 trees felled by the storm, and the numerous damaged trees also destroyed more property. Recovery will take time. In the rainy days that followed, our window sills have been crowded by mynas, pigeons, and crows, more than usual. We know this because they have been singing, cooing, and cawing outside our windows and waking us up very early in the past week. They are the refugees whose habitats were destroyed in the storm.

Like the media, I could just put a convenient label on it, perhaps “man-animal conflict”. This is not be totally false because it is annoying to be woken up by crows, but it would be misleading. The real story is that they, and we, will suffer as a result of the storm. The correct label for this story could well be “anthropogenic climate change”.

Dance with me

On Wednesday, I went for a walk in the rain at 11 in the morning. It was not pleasant. The blustery wind pushed the rain through my poncho. At the end of half an hour I realized that it would have been easier to walk without rain gear; at least it would have presented a smaller surface for the wind to push against.

By noon, the wind had picked up further. The remnants of our cyclone preparation for June served us well. The windows rattled, and only a little water seeped in from the balcony. Outside was a scene from a nightmare. Trees swayed crazily in the wind (between 80 and 100 Km/h, as we found later, double that when channeled between buildings). I could hear cracks of branches breaking off, so close that it sounded like thunder. You can hear it once in the video above. The next day I would see the extent of the damage when I went for a walk; the featured photo is one from that walk.

Grainy photos kept coming in all day from friends: flood waters and destroyed traffic lights on Marine Drive, the roof over the DY Patil stadium (where some IPL cricket matches are held) destroyed, the iconic sign atop the stock exchange tumbled by the winds, knee deep water in one of the largest hospitals in the city, even the unloading facilities at the port damaged.

TV is pretty bad at reporting anything unexpected. Coverage started late in the evening, and talked only about flooding of roads. The rain was no worse than the extreme rain that we get once in the season. The “editorial oversight” that TV channels are so proud of completely missed the real story: the wind. Google News reflects perforce the editorial biases of media, so until now there is no overview of what happened. I had to mark every photo I got on a map to see where the winds had hit hardest: it was everywhere in the city. I suppose the surrounding areas were not spared either.

If the photos above don’t tell you enough, this last video should tell you how bad the storm was. No individual event can be attributed to climate change. But when events like Wednesday’s become more common, uncommitted thinking cannot blame anything else. The seas are hotter than they ever were in human memory. By heating the air above them, they are bound to create deadly storms.

Even now I can hear gardeners cleaning up the remnants of the trees (two hundred were uprooted in the storm, most trees lost branches). One of our neighbouring buildings lost electrical power until its basement could be drained of water; this took twenty four hours. The high density houses along the sea were completely flooded for a day. If the people who live there move away they will lose their livelihood. But when they do, the middle class will lose their maids and cooks. This is what climate change looks like: a mounting burden of problems, unequally borne by different people.

Post-human sunsets

Long after the microscopic soot from human pollution has been flushed out of the air, when only the greenhouse gases remain to heat up the seas, what would sunsets be like? We got a look at that during this nearly rain-free week in Mumbai. It was so spectacular that The Family changed the time of her daily walk to synchronize with the sunset. Cameras rarely see what the human eye does, but you may still get a sense of what we have been seeing in the slideshow below.

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Soot and other particles in the air are relatively large, and serve only to dim the colours of the sunset. The colours are brighter when they have settled out of the air. Normally we see these monsoon sunsets at most for a day after heavy rains, before traffic pumps particles into the air and obscures them. Now we can see it for days on end. I understand now why people are calling this time the anthropause.

In cold and dry air, the colour of the sunset comes from sunlight scattered by molecules of air. The result is a gentle wash of light, changing colour from east to west, and intensity in the north-south angle from the sun. The sunset colours of tropical monsoons come from a more complex process: the sunlight scattering from aerosol droplets of moisture in the air. This explanation can be developed using a scheme invented by Gustav Mie. I wonder if he saw colours such as this during his youth in the German port of Rostock.

In any case, we are seeing the sunsets on a hot and wet earth, free of ongoing industrial pollution. These are the colours of the postanthropic world.

Rain Fall Season

When I was a student, a professor coined a new name for the monsoon semester. He announced a course for the Rain Fall Semester. Everyone had a good laugh about it and the phrase stuck for the rest of my life as a student. He’d managed to gently point out that a phenomenon, Fall, may have multiple causes; that the world is full of diversity. The memory of student bodies at universities decays fast, and I think four years afterwards no one would have remembered his coinage. I was reminded of it during my walk today.

The rain has stopped for a couple of days, and the afternoons are becoming uncomfortable again. The paths I took were strewn with flowers battered down by the rain. The glow of the copper pods which I’d photographed through the hot season of grishma has been wiped clean by the rain. The tree is a gleaming green, and the flowers carpet the ground under the tree.

Every path I walked today was full of leaves, a little slippery, calling for care. In another two days they’ll be gone, swept into the surrounding hedges, where they’ll produce mulch for the rest of the year. What’s not swept away will be crushed under passing feet, and turn into mush. Fall is a good name for this season. How interesting that in different parts of the world the word “fall” fits different kinds of weather.

Mumbai: this too shall pass

I walked out to the sea on Friday evening when I saw a patch of sky opening up. These are moments of dramatic light. I was not disappointed. I got a Turneresque framing of the skyline of Mumbai with the last of this week’s rain clouds, with the setting sun breaking through it. This rain will pass. This epidemic will pass. The seas are still getting warmer. This city, reclaimed from the sea, will also pass. That promontory which you see will be the last thing to remain above water by the end of this century.

A walk in the rain

I woke up once very early in the morning, listened to the sound of a hard rain and fell back into sleep. When I woke up finally, the rain had stopped, and it was bright outside, but without a break in the clouds. The Family had finished her morning chai and gone out for a walk. When my last meeting got over in the evening I changed quickly, put on my mask and raincoat, and went out for a walk. I’ve not had a long walk for several weeks, and I found I was itching to go although it was raining.

Problems arose immediately. My glasses began to fog up because of the mask. That usually signals a bad mask, because where your breath can get out, contaminated air can come in. I made a mental note to try a different mask the next time. But it was raining, so there was really no one on the streets. For now the mask would suffice. A wet mask is no good at filtering, but my raincoat has a long hood and protects the mask quite well. Unfortunately the hood falls over my face, so I can only see the ground in front of me. With fogged glasses and an overhanging hood, I was really glad that there was no traffic and no walkers either.

It was a difficult walk, but I enjoyed this season’s first long walk in the rain. Unfortunately, in this COVID-19 year I can’t do the usual thing of getting wet in the rain on a long walk, but at least I can go on a walk. What good is a monsoon if you don’t go out in it?