Post-Delhi Durbar architecture

Architectural styles adapt very fluidly to weather and techniques. This adaptability is so abundantly clear when you compare the architecture of 19th and early-20th century Mumbai to contemporary fashions in England. The Gothic Revival in its late Victorian guise transmuted into the iconic Indo-Saracenic style buildings of Mumbai. I think of this as F.W. Stevens using the medieval sources of inspiration of George Barry, transplanted to India, rather than the details of his style. The sea-front around the Gateway of India was realigned for the visit of George V of England. The buildings in the immediate neighbourhood were built in the 1910s and 20s, and were influenced by the Edwardian style, in the same way that Stevens adapted Barry. The detail that you see in the featured photo marries the Edwardian spirit to an update of the late Maratha style of construction from a century earlier. Notice also the flat terrace, a very Indian feature.

The exuberance of the sea front disappears in the row just behind it. On good days you may call this row harmonized . On bad days you might call it industrially repetitive. I walk through this road now and then with my take-away latte, admiring the solidity of the buildings. To me it appears to be an Edwardian reworking of the basic Victorian style, but quick and commercial. Floors of Gothic arches alternate with the classical. Symmetry is a driving motive. The decorative elements of the Edwardian style are entirely missing. The houses in the row are distinguished mainly by their colour. Notice the top floor; the unadorned cornices for some protection against the rain, and the simple sloping roof, are the only nods to the local weather. I am glad that this style covers only two roads. A city full of these houses would be oppressive.

I need your help

On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.

The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?

Champa

The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream—
The Champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream

The Indian Serenade, by P. B. Shelley

White for death, white for purity. An ancient Indian custom mingled with the beautiful scent of the Champa to make it a flower of funerals. Indian gardens were full of fragrant white flowers. The rest are used in religion, and not specifically connected with death. Why was the Champa so closely associated with deaths and funerals? Was it because it was a late arrival to India, and was therefore not able to make it into the list of sacred flowers which could be used in auspicious ceremonies? Death is more accommodating. I’ve not been able to trace the journey of this group of plants from its native Central America to South and South-Eastern Asia. Presumably that happened in one of the early and undocumented globalization events, like the spread of rice or wheat across the human world.

When Indian cultural influence spread across Asia in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the association of the champas with death also became part of the pan-Asian cultural background. It is too beautiful a flower to live with death forever, and in the last few centuries has spread into a generalized cultural space. I guess my photos are part of that spread.

Winter light

What passed for winter, the season called shishir, is nearly over. The sea remains cool, but the days are longer. The sun gets enough time to warm up the sea breeze. Still, the light is mild, and oranges are in season. In the afternoons, when the sun streams into the room I work in, I can sit and enjoy an orange with my tea (in shades of Leonard Cohen!) and then take a photo of the emptiness and harmony.

Again I was distracted and opened up my copy of Achaya’s book on Indian food. Oranges were first mentioned by Charaka, who lived in the 2nd century BCE. He called it nagaranga. The traveller Xuan Zang, in his memoirs of his travel through India in mid-7th century CE, mentions them as growing everywhere, but does not use the Chinese word for the fruit. In Shah Jahan’s time (17th century CE) grafting was applied to oranges and mangos in Bengal. Presumably it was already widely available when the Portuguese came to India. ArcGIS adds that the origin of this fruit is in the southeastern foothills of the Himalayas, but misses the reference in Charaka.

Second wave

Bad news came in over the weekend. Cases are up in Mumbai, and in several smaller towns. Kerala, which had beaten back the pandemic in its early days, has been going through enormous pains in recent weeks. This week, overall, cases are up in India by about a third. We seem to be at the beginning of a second wave. Friends around Mumbai have been discussing the inevitability of such a thing ever since the local trains were opened to the general public. I have been playing the devil’s advocate (what an appropriate phrase at this time) with the argument that if livelihoods are to be safeguarded, we have no choice but to let people move around. An increase of cases today inevitably leads to the conclusion that the policy changes made two or three weeks ago are at the root of the problem. Governments agree, and sometimes have gone the whole hog again, imposing full lockdowns in some towns.

My early training predisposes me to seek answers in an engineering discipline that is called Systems Design and Control Theory. One of the things that we learnt was that you could try to control a system by using its output to influence its input. This is called feedback. There is a theorem which says that feedback with delays leads to oscillations. Every teenager who has tried to form a rock band knows about the screech of feedback which badly placed mics and speakers can lead to. Others can more easily relate to the frustrating experience of making sure that the water in the shower is a comfortable temperature as an experience of oscillations due to delayed feedback.

Why should this lead to second and third waves of epidemics? The argument goes something like this. When it becomes clear that there is an epidemic, governments put various restrictions in place. But these are temporary, and when the number of cases decreases they are removed. Clearly there is a feedback. The delay comes from two sources: it takes time to realize that there is a consistent rise (or fall) in the number of cases, and it takes time for committees to make decisions.

Fortunately, the theorem assures us that we are not doomed to be tossed about forever by waves of the pandemic. If there is friction in the system then that damps out the successive waves. Where does this friction come from? One is the brutal calculus that the most susceptible are the earliest victims of the epidemic, so successive waves of disease, eventually, find better prepared immune systems. The second source is our personal learning and initiative. When we realize that there is danger, we personally take precautions. And we learn what are the most important, and best, measures. The third is the most enlightened reason of all: medical practice evolves, so that treatments and vaccines become available.

Human behaviour is unpredictable. There are no theorems which guarantee how I will act. Still, when studying a large enough body of people, there are general principles which seem to govern how such collections will respond to circumstances. There are limits to such predictions. Different countries, even different cities, have had a their second and third waves of COVID-19 at different times.

There are just three simple things to remember about COVID-19: mask up, keep your distance when possible, and do not gather with many others.

Snacking after a workout

At two poles of the country, Mumbai and Kolkata, the same thing is known by two different names: masala bhel and jhal muri. I replaced the bhel/muri by roasted chana and peanuts. Kept the chopped veggies: cucumber, tomato, carrots, Shimla mirch (bell pepper). Dropped in a bit of chopped green chili, and ginger. This is the season for fresh turmeric root, so a little of that also went in. I didn’t want any chutneys in it, so I squeezed in half a lime, added a sprinkle of black salt. It was ready before you could say “full toss.” The tea was a bag; I’m too hungry after the weights to wait to steep leaves. A tasty bowlful of protein, fiber, and fats; and rather filling. Just right for after a workout.

I suppose it is not hard to figure out that part of the photo is in black and white. I must snap out of this. Monochrome has its place, but not front and center of modern life.

Irani cafés

Quintessential 20th century Bombay? I suppose it is a toss up between the red double-decker buses and the Irani cafés. Which is a good reason to try them in black and white. Generations of students in the late years of the century remember the aura of faded elegance: marble-topped tables, black laquered bent-wood chairs, mirrored walls and high ceilings. Earlier generations memoirized elegant afternoon meetings for tea and cake in these bright rooms. Very few have lasted into the 21st century. When I took my first digital camera into the streets of Mumbai, these were naturally the places I took it to.

Iranis were the second wave of Zoroastrian immigrants to India. They settled in the thriving cosmopolitan port cities of Mumbai and Karachi in the early 20th century. The Iranian ghavehkhane, after transplantation copied the Viennese style, and became Irani cafés. The Iranian chai shirin, sweetened strong tea, infused with cardamom or rose, gave rise to the Irani tea. Iran has a tradition of adding hot water to a strong brew according to taste. In old Irani cafés you could order a khara chai which was stronger, not having the splash of water usually added before serving. And finally, the Irani chai always came to you in a glass.

In my years as a student I would love the berry pulao served up at these places, always accompanied by a shockingly sweet pink raspberry drink made only by Duke. On days when you felt you couldn’t take it, you could replace the drink with the equally shocking Duke’s ginger. At other times there was the bun maska, a small currant bun with generous amounts of butter, or the brun maska, a fresh baked crusty bun with butter. There was the ever-dependable caramel custard, and a whole selection of cakes and biscuits, which you still get from a couple of the Iranis around Metro which are valiantly keeping the 21st century at bay. I must remember to keep them in business today.

My first street photos

Six months passed after I got my first digital camera before I thought of going out to just capture photos of unknown people on the road. I’d done several photo walks before that. But I’d concentrated on getting photos of places while avoiding photographing strangers. I have photos of Rome, the Italian Tyrole, Malmoe, Duesseldorf, Hamburg, all looking strangely deserted. The only people who appear in my photos from those months are friends and family. Why did I change my subject abruptly? I don’t remember for certain, but I remember coming back to India after six months in Europe, and being delighted with the number of people on the road. The photos you see here were taken days after I returned.

I remember watching a street vendor selling white shirts. The heap of white cloth acted as a reflector, lighting up the faces of the vendor and his customer. This was the first of the street shots from that day. The banana man in the featured photo was the second. I had some trouble getting him. I was shooting from far away, and people kept passing in front of him. Looking at the photos that didn’t work out, I remember trying again and again.

This photo was even harder. I was shooting close to the stock exchange around midday, just when this guy with the fruit plates was doing roaring business. It was my first shoot, and I was trying very hard not to be noticed taking a photo. I had to stand there are time my shutter release to find a small gap between people. This was not all. The man was much darker than most of the others there, and I had to find the right exposure for him. Between fiddling with exposure and looking for a gap, this photo took time. I learnt later that it it better to go close. After some time the subjects forget about you. But if they don’t, they interact with you, giving you even more interesting photos. I leave you with the example below, coincidentally taken a decade later.

Living in nature

I had (or should that be have?) a great-grand-uncle … No. I woke up very relaxed today, but as I wrote this I got tenser and tensor. Tenses and grammar will be the death of me. So let’s start again. I have had (That’s certainly not right. Yes, but people get the idea by now) a great-grand-uncle who became notorious for building a little hut for himself around an Alstonia scholaris tree. He is quite forgotten, but his hut and tree are still associated with the history of a place more famous for his superstar of a friend and prophet. He and some others of his time were much influenced by that polymath who decided to move away from The City and live in nature. Their children were to be taught in the open, in nature. That experiment became a movement, and was an important cultural moment. Now the place is a crowded little town, and a slogan whose spirit is lost.

Nevertheless, the experiment has a lesson for us today. We may think we are living in an artificial and constructed world, but it is part of the nature we think we have separated ourselves from. Consequences? When we forget that, we are in trouble. The scooters that you see in the photo above pump CO2 into the atmosphere. That tree is part of nature’s balancing mechanism, and soaks up that carbon to build its trunk. If we cut it down, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and heats the planet. Growing and maintaining large tracts of forests is one way to mitigate the coming disaster. Whales are another great carbon fixer, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere into their massive bodies, excreting carbon into the upper ocean where it fertilizes the growth of phytoplankton and starts the oceanic food chain, and finally carrying the fixed carbon to the bottom of the ocean after their deaths, there to feed new life for decades.

Such large re-wilding measures are bound to be effective in their own ways, but perhaps we can help too. My great-grand-uncle’s folly, Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus, and the hotel you see in the photo above, all express a desire to live in balance with nature. But perhaps that is no longer enough to save ourselves. Maybe organic farming with green manure, or neighbourhoods with Miyawaki forests are what we need. Electric cars and scooters create a different pollution, but they could be useful stopgap measures until better transport solutions can be made. Perhaps the pandemic has catalyzed a change. Work-from-home (WFH) allows us to move away from cities; and a distributed population does not need the hugely polluting chains of supply and transport that make up today’s world. Perhaps WFH is another way we can retool a greener world.

Rally on Republic Day

There are several things that happen around now in most years: many classical music concerts, the Mumbai Marathon, and (my favourite spectator sport) the vintage car rally. Unfortunately none of them are happening this year. So here are some photos from a past rally, ten years ago.

Have a fun republic day.