Moths are back!

After two years I’m beginning to see the moth population in our garden slowly recovering from the frequent chemical baths that became part of the hygiene theater of the pandemic. One of my favourites is the one in diaphanous tutu with a gold border that you see in the featured photo. It was a little more than two centimeters across in size. Most moths do not have common names, so I know this only by its binomial Cydalima laticostalis. It is a member of the grass moth family, Crambidae. I should start calling it the gold-and-satin moth. Maybe it will catch on.

I find it useful to think of moths first by size. The two that you see above are between one and two centimeters across. One of the reasons moths do not have common names is that it is very hard, impossible, to pinpoint species by sight alone. The spotted yellow moth is clearly a member of the genus Conogethes, but this is a massively speciose genus. An attempt at DNA barcoding found that there are many species which were not recognized as different until the genomes were studied. By appearance this moth seems to be a member of the Conogethes punctiferalis complex, one of the many agricultural pests. The other, ivory and chocolate banded moth, is a member of the genus Nosophora. Both these are grass moths, in the family Crambidae.

This moth is smaller, about half to one centimeter across. It is enough of a pest that it has a name: a teak leaf skeletonizer. It is a member of the Paliga damastesalis species complex, containing also the P. rubicundalis and the P. machoeralis. It is impossible to tell these three grass moths apart by sight. I had no desire to extract its DNA in order to identify it better.

Previously I’ve completely ignored moths which were less than half a centimeter across, like these two. But now with my macro lens I can see that they are both likely to be grass moths, ie, in the family Crambidae. That brilliant wine red colour should make this quite recognizable, but all the web sites I consult for identification also seem to ignore these smaller moths. Let me see whether I can nudge them to start working on these smaller ones. Whether I can identify them or not, I’m glad to see that the local population of moths is slowly recovering from the COVID-induced hygiene theatre of spraying everything around us with strong pesticides. Perhaps the bee-eaters and fly-catchers will also be back in a year or two.

The city around me

When you’ve lived in the same city for a large part of your life, you start noticing what visitors often don’t see. In cricket-crazy India who even knows that there’s a football stadium and a dedicated football subculture (only very few of whom buy jerseys from the ManU shop next to the Hard Rock Cafe). And not many visitors may come by to see the vistas of the city painted on the walls outside the football stadium.

You notice the constant small crowd outside this ice-cream shop which has been selling ice-cream sandwich for three generations. The crowds formed ever since the shop lost its battle in court to stay in the place where people like me found it as they wandered out of one of the city’s major local train stations. Every day there are people as old as me coming with youngsters to memorialize one of the city’s old landmarks before it passes. We have been among them, bringing a niece here with her boyfriend.

You pass an unremarkable restaurant where you’ve had a couple of nice lunches maybe fifteen years ago, and stoop to take a photo of street cats hanging at the entrance. You tell them, “Yes, the fish is quite good here,” as you walk away. That’s what you’d come here for, and remember years later.

Or you are caught in a traffic jam next to a blank wall whose texture you’ve admired for years. You’ve always hoped to get a photo here, but nothing really happens against that wonderful wall. Now, as your car idles, you see a (possibly) interesting intersection of shadows, and you take a photo. Does it work? Somewhat. Perhaps. But you’ll still be on the lookout for a better photo to take against this empty wall by a busy road.

Maybe along a cluttered lane which you have not taken for forty years, you see a clean white-washed house. An entrance door stands open as well-dressed women pass in and out. A widow’s home! Curious. You take a photo, meaning to find out later what kind of endowment runs a charity like that. And who they help. There are always single mothers in need of help in this city.

One weekend you walk out of a convenient coffee shop, on your way to buying a growler of your favourite craft beer, when you see the Yacht Club looking nice in the sunlight. You juggle the cup and your phone to take a photo, and realize that you’ve caught Mitter Bedi’s studio in the corner of the photo. It’s not a great shot, but it is a homage to the first industrial photographer in India, one whose photos are a foundation of the visual language you know.

Or you pass one of those dead end alleys which has better potential for discarded garbage than the tourist trade. The sunlight makes you pause. You take a photo of a green metal gate, rusting quietly and unremarked. Remarkably, the gate fronts a tiny shop where someone repairs swivel chairs! I wouldn’t have paid it any attention if the shop was open.

Sometimes you notice how a little temple has grown over the years. In the middle of the business district what once was a little stone idol on the pavement has grown into an idol-encrusted south Indian-style temple. And some time in the last two years it has fenced off the corner of the sidewalk. It seems clear to me that the temple will grow in coming years. It is one of the constant changes in a living and litigious city.

Soul Food for The Family

The Family visited the part of town where she grew up and was immediately full of memories. The old bakery was not baking any longer, it just sold biscuits and bread delivered to them. The corner laundry had shut down long ago. But there was the old sandwich man. His sandwiches are still the best in town. I found them good: a spicy chutney, and fully loaded with slices of onion, beet, potato, and cucumber, all wrapped up in newspaper over a clean white sheet of paper. Wonderful indeed. “Papa used to give me money to buy these,” she remembered. I said later that the old man now making the sandwiches may have been just a little older than her then. “The sandwiches are good anyway,” she said. I agreed.

Dahi handi

What did we do yesterday, you ask? We went for a walk. There’s nothing quite as pleasantly surprising as trying to set up a meeting and realizing that it is a holiday. The Family and I took our umbrellas (the monsoon is not over yet) and walked out of the door. And we came across a dahi handi. If you are not from Maharashtra you might want to know what this is. On Janmashtami, celebrated as the birthday of Krishna, it is customary in this part of the country to string up a pot (traditionally, filled with dahi) high above a road. Teams form human pyramids to reach it.

In the old days the handis were strung pretty low, and the pyramids would consist of one ring of men on the ground, a ring above them, and an agile young boy climbing over them to break the handi. This recalled the story of Krishna stealing curd from his mother’s kitchen. People would stand at their windows and throw buckets of water at the pyramids, in order to stop them. Now with these things strung from higher and higher floors this is too dangerous. Some of the pyramids can be as high as six levels. We were happy to see four levels (with the boy being the fifth).

Everyone’s attention is always on the pyramid and, eventually, on the boy who breaks the handi. So was mine. But it was interesting to look at lower layers in the photos, especially during the time the pyramid disassembles. The team contains members who do not climb, but who are dedicated to safety. Look at the outstretched hands in the featured photo, and the look of concern on their faces. It is truly teamwork that wins these large cash prizes today.

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.