Backstreet Bandra

Take a sleepy neighbourhood. Add some builders. Shake well. Let the lucre float to the top. Let it stand for a while. Then you get Bandra. Hip bars and cafes turn over as fast as the would-be fashion designers’ signature stores. They don’t quite put the car repair shops and vada-pav stalls out of business. On a walk down Waterfield Road I passed Bora Bora, Chocolateria San Churro, Farhan Electricals, Flutter Clothing, Israr Auto Air-conditioning, Zest, Subhash Vada-Pav Stall and other establishments.

Fashions change fast. The shops seem to know they won’t last long, so they don’t even bother to paint both sides of plywood sheets. A shifting cast of characters throng the streets, each looking for the next big thing. Some live there, some pass through. Taking street photos is easy, with everyone’s eyes glued to their cell phones. Now and then you come across a fabulous bungalow which a crotchety old couple still refuses to sell out to a builder. I was looking for an espresso, but didn’t find one on this road.

Advertisements

Milling again

The cotton mills of Mumbai powered into history during the American Civil War. As American cotton production stalled, the Indian mills took off. They crashed to a landing only in the 1970s, when they were unable to take on the competition from east Asia, and from neighbouring states which were building more modern mills. Forty years later, the crumbling buildings have been repurposed into an entertainment hub, with lots of restaurants and pubs. On my way to one I passed the locked-up doors of this warehouse. At first sight it looked deserted, but then I noticed the air-conditioners jutting out of windows. The space inside must be divided up into offices. It will probably take a long time before the legalities of possession are cleared up in court, and these old structures demolished to actually build again. Meanwhile these ancient mills and warehouses make for great atmosphere.

Cranes of Mumbai

The two-day long monsoon shower ended around the middle of Sunday. I took this as an opportunity to walk through the back streets around the stock market. Even on a Sunday there’s usually something interesting going on here. I walked past the very busy street vendors and looked up at the tower of the stock exchange. I’d not noticed before how many data cables cross at all angles above the street. It looks like a safety net against the eventuality of a stock market crash. Poking up through this street-wide-web was a crane.

One of these old buildings had been pulled down and a new and unexciting concrete box was coming up in its place. The crane was parked right in front of it. The young man operating it looked really relaxed, feet up on his seat, moving the crane with a delicate touch of his left hand. I’ve seen people play arcade games with the same nonchalant elan. The cabin door was open and I thought that bright blue splash against the yellow cabin made a good picture.

This was a duplex crane! In the rear cabin someone was asleep, head resting on the disabled steering. I guess the operators were internal immigrants. Their work place is where they live most of the time. Usually workers who immigrate to the city share a rented room where they sleep in shifts. This man was either too tired to go back, or had decided that it was more efficient to sleep at work. I hope he is properly rested by the time his shift starts. A little inattention while manipulating the crane probably would not damage the neighbouring buildings, but could play havoc with the overhead cables.

Proboscis

This moth was probably a football fan. It flew in while we were watching one of the World Cup matches, and hid behind a curtain all night. Although this type is common in Mumbai, like most moths it has no common name. So I’m forced to call it the Pygospila tyres. I’ve seldom noticed the proboscis of moths, but here the coiled organ was so visible that the photos I took are concentrated on this. The proboscis is a tube which combines the functions of a drinking straw and a sponge for mopping up fluids. Ray Cannon has a very nice blog post on the proboscis of butterflies.

Scientists love to group all moths and butterflies together and call them Lepidoptera. This is useful because they have many features in common. All Lepidoptera which have proboscis are called Glossata. I didn’t think there was any need to have a new word for this; don’t all Lepidoptera have proboscis? After all, since the time of Darwin, people have studied how flowers and proboscis have shaped each other. You might be as surprised as me to read that there are some, although very few, moths without this organ. Some of them have mouths designed to masticate pollen, and some finish all their eating while they are caterpillars!

The proboscis is weirder than I’d ever thought about. Once it is uncoiled, Lepidoptera suck up fluids using muscles analogous to those in our cheeks and throats, so a drinking straw is not a bad description of it. Uncoiling uses a mechanism similar to erectile tissue in our bodies, in the sense that body fluids are pumped into the organ to flex it. Moreover, the adult stage of the insect forms the proboscis after it has emerged from its cocoon by fusing together two different appendages. But the oddest thing is that there are flexible sensory organs all along it (think of sensitive fingers) which give the insect a clear picture of the shape of the flower that it is probing.

Further searches led me to even stranger information. It seems that fossils of Glossata have now been found which are 212 million years old. This was a time when flowering plants had not yet evolved, so what use would there be for this organ? It seems that the era during which the newly discovered fossils lived was a time of ecological crisis. The ancient super-continent of Pangaea was beginning to break up and the atmosphere was full of greenhouse gases from the volcanoes which were tearing apart the continent. In this hot dry atmosphere water loss from the body would have been a major issue, and proboscis could be used to lap up even minute quantities of fluids. Even today Glossata ingest fluids from puddles of mud, mammalian sweat and avian tears.

The football fan was not interested in my tears or sweat. When I opened the window and flicked it off the curtain it disappeared into vegetation with strong beats of its wings.

A decade of midsummer

Where have I been during midsummer in the last decade? I thought I would look at my photos to jog my memory. I don’t have photos from the solstice on every year. For example, the last photo I took this year was a week ago in Mumbai; that’s the featured photo. So I just put together a photo selected from June each year, as close as I could get to the solstice.

2017: Granada (Alhambra)

2016: Frascati

2015: Beijing (Lama temple)

2014: the stratosphere

2013: Mumbai

2012: Thane (railway station)

2011: Paris (the Eiffel tower)

2010: Germany (countryside)

2009: Mumbai

Street food heaven

The new moon was sighted last night, so today is the Id that ends the month of Ramazan. I thought this might be a good time to bring out this year’s collection of photos which show the food available at nights during the month of religious remembrance in Islam. As always, click on any of the photos to start on the slide show. For the practicing Muslim, Ramazan is a month of daytime fasts; food is allowed only between sunset and sunrise. The food streets around Muhammad Ali Road in Mumbai are brightly lit and dense with people during this time.

I missed most of the month due to travel, but made sure that in the last week I tried out my favourite places. The food street is surrounded by shops selling shoes, clothes, jewelery and perfume: all of which are de rigeur for the Id lunch. Id-ul-fitr, as you might guess, is a major festival with a daytime feast being a focus. Id mubarak to all.

Monsoon – the season of love

Kashchitkantavirahaguruna svadhikaratpramattaha
Shapenastangamitamahima varshabhogyena bhartuhu
yakshachakre janakatanayasnanapunyodakeshu
snighdhacchayatarushu vasati ramagiryashrameshu

Opening stanza of Meghdoot by Kalidasa (5th century CE)

A year from amorousness: it passes slowly.
So thought a Yaksha by his master sent,
For scanting duty, to the Ramagiry:
To mope in penance groves as banishment
By rivers Sítá’s bathing there made holy.

Translation by John Holcombe

In the temperate latitudes, the seasons are creatures of astronomy: does the hemisphere point towards the sun or away? In the tropics it is different; circulation in the atmosphere create the seasons. Just now over the Indian peninsula the monsoon winds are chasing away the heat of summer.

Here, in Mumbai, during the first monsoon rain I spotted a young couple walking along the sea wall on Marine Drive. Classical Sanskrit poetry associates the monsoon with love (sringara ras). I had to take this seasonally appropriate photo as my taxi sped by.

I fumbled with my phone and nearly lost it in the tailwind of the taxi, but I got the shot. The grey monsoon clouds hide the sea; the road is slick with rain, and a young couple walk along the sea wall, wrapped in the weather, lost to the world. About two millennia ago, poets were writing about such couples.

Wildflowers in the city

In neglected patches inside the city, one sees wild flowers blooming. In the late 16th century, when Garcia da Orta began to record the flora of the islands which became Mumbai, the vegetation was quite different. Over the last 450 years, urbanization has changed the balance of plants so that only the hardy and quick-growing survive in the city.

What you see in the photos above are weeds which flower in Febraury. The balance of flowers changes from month to month. I wonder whether I should take my camera with me on a walk to look at what is flowering this month.

The entertainment mill

My first sight of Kamala mills came many years ago, when I went to the then-new passport office in the compound. By then the place was already a big media hub. I finished my work at around lunch time, and walked around a bit trying to locate a place where I could get a quick bite. There were already several restaurants and pubs there, although the main entertainment hubs were then a couple of other mills nearby.

Mumbai’s enchanted years started during the American Civil War, when its cotton exports boomed. The cotton mills expanded until the beginning of the last century, and collapsed after the Japanese industrial resurgence in the middle of the century. The Govani brothers bought the moribund Kamala Mills in the 1990s when the government stopped trying to revive the mills and decided to allow redevlopment.

Now this is a landowner’s paradise. Decrepit buildings have been retrofitted into acres of restaurants. It is amusing to walk around a tall block which looks wonderfully swank from the front. The back is a crumbling post-industrial dump-yard (see the featured photo). Kamala mills comes alive in the night when the young arrive in droves to the water holes hidden behind each of the windows that you can see. The back is dark and invisible at night.

Look around and you find other lucrative reuse of land. Part of the parking lot has been turned into a go-kart track. Just next to it is what looked like a mini bungee-jumping set up. Opposite to that is a paint-ball hall. Is all of this legal? This remains a matter of debate even after last December’s fire. Still, the rentals are expensive, and restaurants have to make very large profits to survive. There is quite a turnover, as you might expect. Behind the mills stand the stalled towers of mid-town, brought down by the sluggish economy. Everything here seems to be marking time for an upward turn in the economy. But at night it does not look like the economy is doing too badly.

The rest of the story

I’d started a story from the middle when I posted about flamingos in the backwaters of Mumbai. In order to finish the story, I have to give you its beginning. We gathered before sunrise in the region between the Thane creek and the aeration ponds of the Bhandup pumping station. As The Night drove in, a flock of flamingos flew overhead. The sky was the light grey just before dawn. A coucal flew into the bushes ahead of us. As the horizon dipped below the sun, and the sky began to light up, we walked back down the canal.

We saw several birds on our slow walk. I’d seen most of the waders, and could still recall their names. I’ve just begun to notice the warblers, and the clamorous reed warbler which we saw was a lifer. One interesting thing about birds is that they are creatures of habit. If in addition they are territorial, then they tend to appear at the same time in the same place every day. We met birders who come to this place very often, and sometimes they told us to look out for some bird or the other, because it should appear soon. It usually works. Passing on socially acquired knowledge is characteristic of our species, isn’t it?

Eventually we went on to ducks and flamingos, but those are stories I have already posted.