Eating during a pandemic

One of the nice things about the pandemic is how we have been thrown back to basics. Our food consists of whatever is available at that time. The Family has newly discovered a knack for cooking, and the two of us have finally found that we can work together in the kitchen. So one day, when she found a large packet of liver at the back of the freezer, I cleaned it out and marinated it while she chopped up a quick salad. While the liver marinated, I took a bunch of spinach leaves off to the dining table to clean. Just as The Family has discovered a knack for cooking, I’ve found that I don’t mind the tedious jobs of cleaning leafy vegetables and shelling peas. So the spinach was ready by the time the salad and marination was done. We managed to use two burners simultaneously, she sauteing the spinach as I cooked a liver curry. It looked nice on the plate, and it tasted good.

Multigrain bread is not available in our neighbourhood, so we have to make do with toasted white bread. In any case, our target through this lock-down is to lose enough weight to get close to the lowest healthy BMI. Between eating moderately and working out daily, I think we may reach our target in a couple of months. And if the lockdown ends earlier? We may not have reached the target, but we’ll still be in a good healthy range. Lovely, the ways you can find to distract yourself.

Clear the air

It is time to say this. The epidemic and the enforced lockdown continues to show what a strange universe we had locked ourselves into. The walls we had built around our complicated social and economic world have collapsed and through these gaps we can see new possibilities. When we build up again, there will be a push to instantly return to what we had earlier, but it will be good for us to see how flimsy the supporting arguments were.

The air is so clear ten days after the beginning of the lockdown that from the rooftops of Jalandhar one can see the high Himalayas. We’d driven through this city almost two years ago, when we spent a week in the lower Himalayas. Passing through the traffic snarled up in the city I never realized that we were only 450 Km from Srinagar in Kashmir. This air can be kept clear. Change from oil to electric. Electric scooter technology is cheap and widely available. Just the will to change the tax structure to favour a new industry is lacking. Autos on the road are another major polluter, but changing their two-stroke engines to battery would be another step towards clean air. It can be done at a cost much smaller than the lockdown.

Dolphins on Marine Drive in Mumbai! Whales visiting the oil rig at Bombay High! These are not fake videos. We saw different dolphin videos taken by a lot of people, from a lot of different angles. So this we can be take as verified. Just one day of reduced noise pollution in the sea brought dolphins into Backbay. That’s not something I’ve seen written about even in the literature from a century ago. The incidental conversation in the whale video indicates that this is probably not fake. We will not be able to recover this perhaps, because the world’s supply chain moves through the seas. On the other hand, I know some extremely good engineers, and they should be able to put their minds to lowering the noise made by ships, if they can make a living doing it. After all, energy lost to noise is produced by burning fuel, so less noise is an incremental increase in efficiency. In any case, it is good to see how quickly nature can begin to reclaim the earth.

Peacocks dancing through the streets of Mumbai! Who would have thought! I didn’t even know there were peacocks left withing the city. That’s hope for the future. We do have small green lungs in the city. I hope videos such as this give people a reason to hope that planning for more patches of greenery will help preserve these wonders right here, next to our homes. I think a lot of small patches with trees will help.

Away from the big bad city, one has seen videos of elephants roaming through the streets of small towns. That may not be to everyone’s liking. There is a growing body of scientific thought that says that the increasing instances of new diseases, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, and COVID-19, is due to human activity encroaching on parts of the world which were the natural range of other species. It sounds reasonable, because the new diseases are not coming from the already-dead lands of Europe and the US. They are arising in parts of the world where there are ancient ecosystems newly destroyed. We have known for years that human-elephant conflict is due to us taking over their land. Now perhaps we are facing bigger threats as we take over new ecologies.

Enough of a Sunday sermon. Let me end with this wonderful video of a fawn of the spotted deer, Cheetal, galloping in the waves of the Bay of Bengal. The video is verified to come from Puri, that famous temple town and beach resort. What a wonderful sight! I cannot go out to see wildlife right now, but it is coming in to see us today.

The intense social life under lockdown

Our culture is changing so rapidly now. Some of it is bad: a constant worry, leading to a tendency to be prescriptive in our little lives and dictatorial in powerful circles. But others are wonderful. The Family and I are in much closer contact with our globally dispersed families.

Apart from calling more often, we have family meals together at least twice a week. We find ourselves having dinner as others join us on video with an evening’s tea, or an elaborate afternoon meal, or a mid-morning break for tea, or even brunch. Sometimes these are formal occasions, where everyone dresses up (except an occasional hilarious couple who have just woken up and appear looking disheveled). We chat about our daily lives (I’d never pickled onions before), while the children run around and come up now and then to monopolize the conversation for a bit (they have seldom had such large audiences). Sometimes two or three of us wander off for a private phone chat, and join the conversation later. It is all a bit like a messy family weekend that I remember from my childhood.

Is this the shape of our lives for a while? I will be happy. WHO recommends that we do physical distancing. That’s what it feels like: social togetherness and physical distancing.

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan

There are times when I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else than the heart of Mumbai. I like to think that I stalk these familiar lanes all the time, renewing acquaintance with the little things that I love, and frowning disapproval of the new. But I just discovered that I’m wrong. I see two sets of street photos from Mumbai, the featured photo is one of the group which comes from a long walk the day after Diwali 2019, and the photo below from a walk in January this year.

Niece Mbili will finish her long course in architecture this year. When she visited in January I took her for a walk to see the parts of Mumbai she didn’t know. I like this view because you see three completely different styles of architecture standing cheek by jowl: the grandiose tower of the stock exchange looms behind a dilapidated Art Deco building from the 1930s, while a newly painted chawl, probably from the early 20th century, stands off to the left.

I led Niece Mbili to a few of Mumbai’s lesser known Art Deco buildings. The photo above is of the crumbling Lalcir Chambers on Tamarind Road. The beautiful Art Deco front door still remains. The wonderful lettering in the facade is another clear Art Deco feature. If you step back and ignore the inept repairs, the data and electrical cables stapled to the walls without any consideration of aesthetics, and obscure signboards, you can see the clean Art Deco lines emerge. Niece Mbili is an expert at this kind visualization. She was suitably stunned. She didn’t know that Mumbai has almost aa many Art Deco buildings as Miami. Now she plans to visit for a longer while. When she does I’ll plan a good walk.

My earlier walk had brought me to an unexpected sight: this artful wooden door. I was quite surprised by what looked like a street art duel: one artist painting a Picassoesque face, the other replying with Pacman. But equally interesting were the padlocks on the door. I was certain that I could tear the padlocks out of the wood, if I wanted, much more easily than picking the lock. The unthinking things that people do for their peace of mind!

But that day’s highlight was the guard sitting on the road, guarding a building which was under renovation. I like the totally relaxed attitude of the man, his chair blocking what would have been an extremely busy road on a working day, slippers off his feet, knowing that no one in their right mind would walk in through that doorway. Oh, and that doorway! It must have been all the rage in the 1880s to sculpt the most modern things into arches above doors. The locomotive is great: progress and trade, and what not. Some day I should post a photo of my favourite: a sculpted stone representation of a complicated theodolite.

Let me leave you with this song by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt, from the 1956 movie CID, with Jonny Lever and Minoo Mumtaz (I think) in this scene. For many of us, that is the anthem of the city: you can’t bear to live here, you can’t bear to leave.

Watching the walls of Mumbai

I’ve been keeping a close eye on walls near my flat in the last few months, ever since I realized that many kinds of moths on brightly lit walls at night, and can still be seen in the morning. The moths change from month to month. Perhaps part of this is just chance, but there seems to be some connection to the changing weather. As it got warmer, I’ve started seeing these green moths (featured photo) make an appearance. At rest it appears between 1 and 2 centimeters in size. I thought first that they are a widespread grass moth called Parotis marginata, but now examining the photo, I suppose it is not. P. marginata holds its deep green wings in the same triangular configuration when resting, but it has a brown margin to the wings, not white. I guess it belongs to the same superfamily (Pyraloidea) and I could just lump it into a species complex named after its commonest member Parotis marginata.

Another morning I spotted several of these Asota producta (superfamily Noctuoidea, no common name) sitting on the wall. They are among the largest moths I’ve seen in the last three months; at rest they are easily more than 2 centimeters long, and the wingspan is said to be as large as 6 cms in some specimens. It is widely reported across Sri Lanka, India and the Sundaland, which is Malaya peninsula and the islands around Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. Little more is known about it. We do not even know what it normally feeds on. I guess a strikingly coloured moth like this deserves a common name. Do you think that the spotted orange and brown is a name which is easily remembered?

The end and the beginning

Niece Tatu passed through and spent a night with us. We decided to take her and Niece Moja out for dinner to our favourite restaurant. This generation refuses to be surprised, so Niece Tatu researched the place and pronounced herself satisfied. When I mentioned this to The Family, she said “Who does that remind me of?” Don’t look at me, I don’t do that with restaurants. Okay, maybe some times. But how do you go beyond the curated experience? Our simple solution was to order every dessert on the menu. Fortunately, this restaurant turns over its menu rather frequently, so while there were a few old favourites (deconstructed and dressed up, like the gulab jamun and ice cream in the featured photo) there was also enough new to keep me interested.

By the time we got to the desserts, it had been a long evening, even though Niece Moja managed to come in earlier than her usual (she must have cancelled a few appointments). Before she breezed in, we’d worked our way through the first round of cocktails. Niece Moja had chosen to follow The Family into non-alcoholic terrain for the second round. I wanted to settle in with something solid and interesting, but new. After some quizzing, our evening’s guide through the menu suggested that I try an Eight Finger Eddie. The bottle and Niece Moja arrived together. She inspected my drink, decided to be my poison taster, and then ordered something else. The proven-safe drink turned out to meet my expectations. It was new to me, but not to the youngsters. They were fun kids, but so much more interesting as adults.

A gold and satin moth

It is hard to believe the diversity of moths visible in a city like Mumbai. In recent months I’ve taken to scanning external walls of my flat, near lights which stay on all night, and usually I’m rewarded with the sight of a few moths which seem to like to stay in the open all day. Recently I came across an auld acquaintance, the spectacular Cydalima laticostalis. Before you begin to wonder whether you should dedicate your life to recording moths, I should warn you that it is hard. Unlike birds and butterflies, no one has bothered to give them wonderful common names, so you will often have to remember the Latin binomial. Also, there are too many varieties to capture in field guides, and the colours are extremely variable, so you might see a green moth which turns out to be the same species as the brown moth you saw three days ago. Conversely, there are myriads of species complexes, which are groups of species which are so closely related that they cannot be told apart by eye.

The featured photo was taken this moth on an east facing wall in the morning sun, and my smart phone’s AI assistant was left a little confused about colour correction. The true colours of this moth are more easily appreciated in a photo I took on one October morning in 2006 in a well-lit but shadowed area in my flat. I was struck by the satiny appearance with the gold marginal border. It took me a couple of years to get a good ID (yes, there are very few moth experts) and to find that it is a leaf skeletonizer, a moth which lives by munching the green crunchy bits off leaves, leaving a beautiful but useless skeleton. Reports are so sporadic that I think this blog may be the first report of it being spotted in Maharashtra in Febraury. I have no idea when it breeds, or what it looks like as a caterpillar. After the box tree moth, Cydalima perspectalis, became an major invasive pest in Europe, the first modern genetic-taxonomic study revealed that its closest cousin was this leaf skeletonizer. Progress is slow.

Harbour line

Another Monday! Another day to quietly nurse the hangover of a lovely Sunday spent in the open air; the pleasant drowsiness of waking in the morning after spending a day walking through air so polluted that you can cut it with a butter knife. My lungs feel more tired than my muscles, but it was a nice weekend.

This post is a guest post in spirit, with photos by The Family. She took them from a launch which puttered through Mumbai’s harbour. Strange creature! You can see the gulls craning their necks to look at it.

The weather’s been a little cooler than normal but does that mean it is winter? You wouldn’t know till the brown-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) and black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) arrive. They have spent the summer in the cooler altitudes of the Himalayas, and the cooler latitudes of Central Asia, China, and Mongolia, and in the last month they have arrived here ahead of the displaced polar vortex which is currently shedding snow across the Himalayas.

I like this lovely shot of Mumbai’s skyline at sunrise with a whole bunch of gulls following the boat in hopes of a snack. Why call these birds brown or black headed, when they clearly have clean white heads? That’s because they have brown or black heads in the summer breeding season, something that we’ll not get to see in Mumbai. In these waters they have black-tipped yellow beaks, white heads, and a small comma of black on the head behind the eyes. The patch of black on the head distinguishes these two from the slender-billed gull, which has sometimes been seen here. The beak of the brown-headed is distinctly stouter, but that may be hard to see when the bird is flying.

An easier way to tell the difference on the wing is to look at, er, the wings. Both have black-tipped wings, but the mature brown-headed gull has a patch of white inside the black. The wing colour of the immature black-headed gull is more brown than black. It is a pity that the harbour is not the center of Mumbai’s leisure life. The western shoreline: Backbay and Marine Drive, the Worli seaface, and Madh island get mentioned a lot. But to enjoy the sea you need to be in the water, and there is no place other than the harbour where you can do it.

Just my desserts MCMLXIX

Yesterday The Family and I had wonderful and innovative food at a restaurant which looked like it was right out of the bad old 60s: very bright and uniform lighting, tables too close together, and with 1970s tunes managing not quite to stay in the background. The food was terrific, but the celebrity chef had succeeded in clearing the restaurant of almost anyone born in the last forty years. The Family conceded that presentation and ambience was a thing that had crept up on us over the decades. You can walk into any hole in the wall now, order a caramel custard, and be presented with the work of art that you see in the featured photo. The Family does not agree with my argument that this happened during the decade of Masterchef Australia, but I see no other driving force for this wonderful innovation. I love this, as long as the food is as good as it looks.