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!

An uncertain place

Watson’s Hotel, later called the Esplanade Building, was built between 1867 and 1869. It is the world’s oldest cast iron building. For years it looked like it would fall down at the slightest touch. Something is happening to it now, behind high barriers. I can see a scaffolding above the blue metal sheets. I hope it is repairs and renovation rather than demolition. It’s been a Grade II heritage structure for decades, but that did not apparently force anyone to keep repairing it.

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.

Image and science

At the last possible minute I managed to see an exhibition of sculptures by a friend. We were students, more or less at the same time, when he was doing physics. But, according to an interview he gave recently, he had already been very invested in art. I liked the work he’d done earlier, some in pen and ink, others digitally. When Sukant told me over a beer some weeks back that he was going to show his clay sculptures, I made up my mind to see them. The piece that you see in the featured photo seemed like it had a glazed surface. But no, he actually hand-polished the clay using glass beads; he has an interesting point of view about firing clay which he makes in his interview. The piece represents a stage in the evolution of a fractal curve that can be thought of as growing to cover the surface of a sphere while still remaining a line. It would be a terribly convoluted line, but one which, at every stage of its growth, could be drawn with a thin-enough nib never leaving the surface, or crossing itself.

I found the exhibition very interesting. Clay comes in various colours, and he’d worked with several different sorts. One set of pieces was inspired by the development of fetuses, and was just lightly interpretive. Some of the pieces were intricately folded shapes, others had interesting contrasts of texture. There are disadvantages and advantages when you turn up so late for an exhibition. He was a little upset with me, but the years of association meant that he could be very grumpy, but still give me a tour of his sculptures. The delay meant that I was the last person in the exhibition, and had his full attention. When he explained how he obtained the texture of the second piece in the panel above I was amazed by the effort that went into it.

The pieces that you see in this carousel represent abstract concepts of physics: the interactions of particles in space-time, and quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Some maths gives rise to definite forms, the precision and clarity of geometric and algebra are definite. But physics is different. It is rooted in the concrete but leads into abstraction that can be pictured differently by each person. I found Sukant’s visualisation very beautiful. The intricate texturing of the first one, built from the inside out, reminded me of a piece of coral that I’d seen. The form of the last one is hypnotizing. You can look at it from different angles and see different things, perhaps a little like the science it represents.

“Is it okay if I take photos?” I asked. “No one can stop it these days,” he said, “I’m sure many people already have. Go ahead.” He looked quizzically at the results and then said, “I like them. Please share them with me.” That gave me the courage to ask, “Can I blog them?” “Go ahead,” he allowed. So thanks to the artist’s generosity, you get to look at scientific abstractions filtered through the mind of someone who works with images.

Mumbai- an overview

Each and every time when the plane begins its descent into Mumbai I feel excited about it. Coming back to the city I live in is always exciting, whether I’m back from a weekend in the deep jungles of Central India, a holiday in a big city in some other part of the world, a relaxing time in the middle heights of the Himalayas watching the sun rise over the world’s highest peaks, or the fussiest week of work away from home. Not for me the ennui that comes from the realization that I can have only four hours of sleep before I have to get in for a meeting. On the first day back in Mumbai even that work seems exciting.

As the plane glides over the densely packed apartments in the suburbs, the vast stretches of high density housing clutching desperately to hillsides (only to slide off sometimes in the monsoon) I realize that I am in a minority here. For some the four hours of sleep are a part of their daily routine. But even so, there is something miraculous about an enormous mass of people so focused on work that everything goes like clockwork. You don’t find this in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru. So, as the plane slides over the blue tarp covered roofs on hillsides, the multi-storied acres of the suburbs, as a taxi speeds past the stalled development in mid-town, I love coming home.

But which part do I love? The calm oases of gardens, full of flowers and trees, birds and insects? Or dense crowds, sometimes a crush? Everything, I suppose. I started carrying a camera in my backpack years ago to capture every mood of the city. I’m glad that over the years that equipment has shrunk to a little phone in my pocket. Mumbai offers an unending cascade of images, if that’s what you are after.

Or, if you want, there are lovely restaurants and specialty food shops. Once upon a time, word of mouth was the uncertain means of getting to know them. Now, of course, the right new is just a thumb swipe away on your phone. There are foods, fusion of India and the world (Lebanese influenced on the left, Norwegian inspired on the right), which you cannot get elsewhere. I see a touch of this in Bengaluru too, a smidgen in Delhi, but the taste for the new is definitely more widespread in this city. It gives odd hybrids, but some really good stuff.

I know a few people who visit once a year, and love to walk the streets of Mumbai, looking for the odd and zany. One of them told me of a street vendor selling used dentures. I haven’t seen something that crazy. But the oddest of graffiti (why would you even bother to write down that particular stray thought?) or odd evidence of constant hustle (not exactly a Lincoln Lawyer, yet) can come your way even when you aren’t looking. That’s why a camera in your pocket is useful.

Hustle is the way of life in the city. The guy around the corner from your workplace, the chap who serves you the best vada-pav in town, or the bhel-puri guy setting up his stall there, they are all in the city seeking fortune. They are totally focused on it, like the cabbies who take the late night shift and have time to talk to you. They come here, thinking of making money and going back to their failing farms. But they stay. Their wives come to the city a few years later, they raise their children, who, sometimes, get the kind of job they want. But they never go back to the dust bowl they left behind. If you really look, under the blue tarp roofs you will find the Indian middle class. Everyone else in the city is the one percent, even if they spend two hours commuting to work, or think hard before buying their first phone in five years.

That’s Mumbai for you, the Mumbai of an old film song in the voice of Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt. That’s the Mumbai that doesn’t stop even when terrorists attack. Hustle drives Mumbai. Everyone came here to find fortune, the Portuguese, the British East India Company, the Scotsmen who followed, the Armenians, the Baghdadi Jews, the Parsis, the Chinese traders. And it will remain the happy hunting ground of fortune seekers until the sea reclaims the city that was raised on the sea bed. It’s this transient place that I love coming back to.

Flowers of May

Through the hottest part of May the treetops outside our window were a sea of bright red. The Flame of the Forest (Delonix regia, aka Gul mohar) was in flower. It is the one pleasure of this burning season. Between the peaks of the seasons for two major varieties of mangos, the best way to engage your senses is to stare out of the window in the morning or late afternoon, to see a golden light play on the flowers.

June is when the blooms are shed. True flowers of May, these, short lived, dropping into a red carpet on the ground at the beginning of June. It is more truly a Mayflower than that native of the Americas, the Epigaea repens, now commonly known as the Mayflower in the US, or even the original, Crataegus monogyna, after which the pilgrims’ ship, the Mayflower, was named. On World Environment Day, as I went to plant a neem tree (Azadirachta indica) in a clearing where a giant neem had stood before last year’s storm, I took these photos. That tiny green leaflet is one of the components of the multipart feathery (pinnate) leaves of the tree.

It is much easier to photograph these fallen flowers than to sight on a flower still on the branch. And a shot like this is enough to show you the five-petaled (pentameric) flowers, with one white petal streaked in red. What you don’t see is that when it is on the branch, the white petal sticks up, signalling to insects. These trees are not too far from its native Madagascar, and may well have been carried here in the natural course of migration. But since the 17th century the tree has been carried across the warmer parts of the world to serve be grown in gardens and along roads. Can’t think of a better way of preserving a species which is dying in Madagascar.

Street food again

After two years in repeated lock downs and extensive work from home, the crowds are back near the stock market. The traffic is back to being as chaotic as it was in the beginning of 2020. The street food vendors are not yet doing as well as they used to, but people are back. The vendor in the featured photo has been known for the freshness of his chana-sheng (roasted chickpeas and peanuts). He continued to sit here through most of the last two years, and is still at it with a smile.

Although it is burning hot, no one is going home any longer. Colourful umbrellas protect most vendors as they serve out food. The man on the left serves idli and vada. I stopped to take a photo and was tempted to try it out; the sambar smelt good. I tore myself away and looked at the next guy. He had a large pot of buttermilk, chhaas. Salt and chili flakes can be added to taste. The neighbourhood was conscious of my phone camera by now. People smiled at me and advised me on what was good. I wouldn’t get any other candid street scenes. But I’ve kept track of the recommendations. When it comes to street food, it pays to listen to locals.

Science da kamaal! Posts appear automatically while I travel off net.

Managing crowds

In the featured photo I wanted to capture a story of resilience in the face of the enormous economic turmoil that the pademic brought. These two women had probably lost their incomes, but, between waves, they had started a new business: catering quick lunches for office goers from the back of their SUV. The womens’ faces are roughly at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds intersect. Horizontal and vertical lines of thirds divide the picture into nine rectangles. The interior of the car sits in the middle rectangle, where your eye first lands, before it is drawn away to the visible faces, and then to the bananas in the lower right rectangle, and finally the off-camera man with his open wallet. There is movement in the photo, but knowing the rule of thirds makes sure you are not distracted by these compositional rules as you take the photo that you want. Rules of composition are always useful. We use a fullstop to tell people where a sentence ends. It makes reading easier. I don’t break this rule, ever, … unless my thoughts interrupt themselves. The rule of thirds is also a compositional rule. You use it as much as you need to. Any rule is meant to make communication easier, not to distract you endlessly. What is important is the message you want to give. Especially in shooting street scenes, you need to do things fast. Practice the rules, but don’t let them distract. Distil the scene in front of you to an image as quickly as possible.

After the first wave most people thought the pandemic was over. Just before Christmas day of 2020 I took this photo in a lovely open space outside Panchgani. Nothing much to the photo if you see it out of context: just ordinary people out having a nice time. But knowing the date gives you a sense of how forced this spontaneous fun was. I had my eyes on the couple and the photographer. As soon as the second couple walked past, I realized that I had my image, and clicked. The rule of thirds is roughly achieved, each couple is aligned along the vertical third. The face of the man in front is at the intersection point of the lines of thirds. He looks back at the photographer, leading your eye there, and from him to the other couple.

A year before that, on a crowded beach in Kochi, I captured two fishermen playing a game of chess. Tourists were busy taking photos of the Chinese fishing nets behind them. I took time off to watch this game. The background was too crowded and busy and I didn’t know how to bring out a sense of two people battling. Then one of them made a move that the other didn’t like, and I got my photo. The man’s open mouth is at the intersection of two lines of thirds. The other person’s hand is at the diagonally opposite intersection. The man’s eyes give you the movement that is essential in a photo. The tension is more important than the rule. Use the rule, but don’t be lost in it.

China is full of people taking photos. I began to develop my ideas on ambush photography in China: it gives you a sense of what life there is like. Here’s a couple on the city wall of Nanjing, posing for their wedding shoot. Standing well away from their photographer and his crew, I got this shot which looks like they posed for me. The photography crew was moving back and forth, the couple were walking. I didn’t have time to measure the picture space (I switch off the guide lines on my viewfinder; they distract) but clicked. The woman’s face is at the intersection of the lines of thirds. The slight fog behind them sets them off from the city, and I was really lucky with the light. November 2019, China. A poignant photo.

A few days later, in Wuhan, another wedding shoot, and another opportunity for ambushes. This spot in front of the Old Customs House was always crowded with photo crews. I had to work quickly to isolate my subjects. I’d spent a few days in the most crowded places in the city, and I was feeling a little under the weather. I put it down to tiredness, as I took this photo. The photography crew takes the center of the photo, but I created a little movement by placing the couple’s faces in the intersection of the line of thirds, and balancing it with empty grey space at the lower right. There’s a personal addendum to the story of this photo. A few months later, when the media was saturated with advise on how to tell if you have been infected, I realized that I’d already been infected when I took it. Too many symptoms matched for it to have been anything else. I spent the next few days feeling very tired, and unwilling to drag myself out of bed. Fortunately, I’d begun to recover by the time I caught my flight back.

I don’t take street photos in portrait mode very often, but this one needed me to turn the camera round. On a visit to Ujjain in July 2018, on the banks of the Shipra river, one of the holiest of places for Hindus, I got this image of the patriarchy which is part of the religion. In the center is a linga, being worshipped by a young, perhaps newly married, young woman. She is in colourful clothes, matching the flowers that she’s putting on the linga. Behind her is an old widowed lady in her mandated white. Without thinking much, I put the young woman’s face at an intersection of two lines of thirds, the other woman’s hand at another. The barge below draws the eye towards the empty third of the photo. Don’t be distracted by rules, use them as you tell the story that you see in front of you.

The arriviste

When I saw three of these spectacular moths together, they were the first I’d sighted in two years. The satiny look of their wings, with the gold forward edge makes the Cydalima laticostalis a favourite of mine. One of the sad things about our pandemic lockdown was the complete disappearance of moths. Did the virus destroy them? Insects often have analogues of the ACE-2 enzymes that the virus attacks in humans, but are distant cousins of the variant that circulates in our bodies. We know that the SARS-CoV-2 virus cannot breed inside mosquitos. So it is unlikely to have been directly affected. Instead, the extreme amount of pesticide sprays used in the health theater of the first six months of the pandemic must have put and end to them. I was happy to see them coming back.

In the next few days I saw more moths: a legume pod-borer (Maruca vitrata), one or two rice leaf-rollers (Cnaphalocrocis medinalis), and the stranger above, which I first mistook for an old friend. I began to find something odd about the whole thing. What I was seeing were moths which were uncommon or unknown in my neighbourhood before the pandemic. What happened to what were once the common ones: the beet webworm moth (Spoladea recurvalis), the banded pearl (Sameodes cancellalis) or the yellow-tailed tussock moth (Somena scintillans)? Perhaps the excessive spraying of pesticides killed them off, and now the city is being slowly repopulated by moths which have just flown in from the countryside around us into what they must see as a new world. I have to make friends with my new neighbours, so can anyone help with ID for the one in the photo here?

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