Ludicrous monsoon sky

This annoys me. Just look at that ludicrous sky, a splash of colour that any child with a messy paintbox can scrawl on to paper. I just had to take a photo to vent about it. Look at that wash of yellow at the bottom: what an inept attempt to show the blaze of the setting sun. If this was entered in a competition where I was a judge, I would sentence it to a hanging.

Others found themselves looking at different parts of this artist’s work. Here is a view someone drew my attention to: east across the Oval to the clock tower of the University with the concrete shell of the stock exchange looming behind it. At least this part looks like a competent watercolour, not the random splash of the sunset.

But then there is this view that another person pointed out, looking northwest at the city’s skyline. Again, the same amateurish dribbles of contrasting colours, and a very ham-fisted attempt at balancing them out by putting a red building on the right and blue buildings on the left and across the bottom. Really! I’m looking forward to the normal grey of smoke and car fumes to damp down the lurid imagination of this artist with the large canvas.

A partial eclipse

Once again I’d not paid attention to the news that I would be in the path of a partial solar eclipse. When this happened to me in December I realized two things: first, that without filters photos of the sun are no good, and second, that you can’t use your phone for the landscape because it is too smart to be fooled by bad light. So this time, I set my camera on manual, fixed the aperture and exposure (1/60 of a second and f6.3, if you want to know), so that as the moon passed over the sun, I would be able to record how the landscape darkened.

The eclipse was partial over Mumbai,with a maximum of about 60%. It started at 10:09 AM and was supposed to end at 1:27 PM. As you can see from the time lapse animation above, it got pretty dark at its maximum. Unfortunately, clouds obscured the sun before the eclipse ended, so I just got the first half of the eclipse.

One hundred days of parakeets

Between a post-travel quarantine and the lockdown, I’ve not left the gates of our housing complex for a hundred days today. Sitting at home, I think I’ve got more tuned to the natural world. I’ve noticed the seasons passing: vasant and grishma are over, and now we are in varsha (think of it as spring, hot season, and monsoon). On the 99th day I leaned out the window in the evening to catch the watery golden light of sunset filtering through monsoon clouds.

The air was full of the chattering and scolding of rose ringed parakeets. I looked at the canopy of trees just below me: such a variety of greens there. The parakeets seem to avoid the gul mohar tree for some reason. They would have been spectacular otherwise; imagine their green against the red of those flowers.

Why was this parakeet rubbing its beak along the bare branch it was sitting on? Was it cleaning its beak? I looked for other parakeets sitting down. There were many. Yes, and many of them seemed to be rubbing their beaks along bare branches, quite vigorously.

Could this be a search for food? Unlikely, I thought. There was enough other food available for them to be wasting the last minutes of daylight looking for insects under the bark of trees. It turns out that their beaks grow all through life, and have to be rubbed down constantly to prevent them from becoming too large. I hadn’t noticed this behaviour before,

I had to go and pare down my ever-growing stomach. But before that I tried to take a few photos of the birds launching off from their perches. It turned out not to be so easy. They seem to have planned out a route through branches and leaves before letting go of the perch: they twist and turn very fast, before coming to horizontal flight. The light was fading, and I’ll leave this exercise for the next hundred days.

Cyclone Nisarga in our backyard

I woke up in the morning an hour before Cyclone Nisarga was supposed to make landfall 40 kilometers south of us. The last bulletin I’d seen talked of sustained wind speeds up to 110 Km/hr with gust speeds going up to 125 Km/hr. I made a tea, and decided to stay in bed. The Family peered out at a cloudy but bright sky. It had rained a lot at night. We looked at the weather bulletin again. No change. By 10 it was clear that landfall was delayed.

I decided to record it for as long as I could: take a 10 second video every half an hour. By mid day we learnt that the cyclone had made landfall further south that the median prediction, so we were now 80 kilometers from its path. Saved by random chance! I kept taking the videos. As you can see here, the rain and storm is like an extreme monsoon day; thankfully no worse. There was no flooding, no power switched off in Mumbai. We had a day in bed, doing nothing except microwaving food form the fridge and washing it down with lots of tea. We were back to normal (!) the next day. Along the track of the cyclone the story was different. Sheer luck that it did not hit a city.

Today is a week since that, and I’ve just had the time to stitch that video together. The seas are warming, and such storms are going to happen again. This is a wake up call for planners. If you thought that the rise of sea levels will be like a bathtub filling up slowly, change the pictures in your mind. It will be full of storms and deadly weather.

A photographer’s devil

Take a map. Draw a line on it which joins Dwarka and Kedarnath. To the east and south of it, all the way to Cairns in Australia you’ll find the Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon). This is a photographer’s devil. The beautiful black butterfly, spotted in bright green, look so good that you will spend a lot of time trying to get a photo of one. It is no use. The little chap is too frisky. It takes barely a couple of seconds to take a sip at a flower before it’s off. It’s no use focusing on one flower and waiting, either. It is fickle and flighty, it will lose interest completely in one patch of the garden and fly off to another corner in no time, or ascend again to the treetops, which are its usual haunts.

The end of another lockdown

It was a Wednesday night and we didn’t have much food at home. Although we talked about going out to eat, we were too tired. Eventually we scraped a dinner together and sat down to see the post-prime time news. That’s when we saw the first confusing shots of what would later be known as the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.

It wasn’t for another hour that we realized how lucky we were that we stayed home. The curfew lasted only three days, but it was a month before I walked about Colaba aimlessly again. On Christmas day, The Family and I found that we were tourists in our own backyard, so to say. We walked past small restaurants which were suddenly infamous, past a familiar vegetable market into lanes which had appeared as blurry shots on TV screens across the world. Looking back at that now, I realize that lockdowns and curfews do not end when restrictions are lifted; it takes time for you to come back to normal.

The little lanes were still full of press photographers. Usually I like to talk to them; they are not in an easy profession. But that day they had no time off to chat. When I look back at my archives, I have more than twenty shots of the crowd of photographers jockeying for position without jostling. Today when I look at the photos I see professional rivalry, as well as the courtesy to let someone else rest a heavy lens on your shoulder to steady a shot. A very different world from the savage days that we had gone through. That walk bled some darkness out of us.

Tree to table

It has become a near-daily ritual to exchange photos of our food with the family. Strangely, now that we are physically distanced from each other, we know more about each others’ daily lives. After I shared the featured photo, an undistinguished apoos (Alphonso, so called by the Portuguese, after Afonse de Albuquerque), I was bombarded with photos of its better pedigreed cousins. Sad to say, our local vendor only has these unblushingly green skinned apoos. With the restrictions we have, the two of us are unwilling to try to finish a crate of six dozen which the better ones are packed into. As a result, it has been a year since we saw the beautiful rose-coloured Ratnagiri variety.

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On the other hand, I’ve never kept such a close watch on the friendly neighbourhood mango (Mangifera indica) tree before. Here is a record of the development of the mango from April 11 to May 17. I missed the first stage, the growth of the flowering stem and the initial budding. The earliest photo I have shows the opened flowers. Then, the mature stage of flowering, when some have already transitioned into fruits. Each inflorescence holds both male and hermaphroditic flowers, and only the latter develop into fruit. From the second and third photos you can see that most of the flowers on the inflorescence were male; few develop into fruits on each flowering stem. If this were a cosseted orchard tree, with enough nutrients and water poured around the roots, then most of these growing fruits would mature. In the wild, usually at best one fruit eventually remains on each flowering stem. The one you see in the fourth shot will drop off the tree in another month, unless a bird gets to it first.

Sailing in the Harbour

In a normal year, by this time the season for sailing in Mumbai would be over. Although the warming oceans mean that the monsoon is unlikely to go back to its “normal” arrival time, tropical storms are brewing in the Bay of Bengal, and there is unsettled weather in the southern part of the Arabian Sea already. It felt nice to look back at old photos of a sail in Mumbai Harbour.

I’m not a sailor but I don’t turn down invitations for a quick sail around the three lighthouses. This was a lightning class sloop. I’m happy to sit close to the water, receiving instructions from the skipper to tighten a rope or duck my head as the boom swings around, feeling the little spray hit my face. The Family likes to take a position at the back where she can keep an eye on the boom and the sky. Her brother is our usual skipper, an experienced sailor in several waters.

It wasn’t a crowded day. Once we got clear of the main lanes leading from the Gateway to the the jetties on the main land, we passed a few moored boats, a few other lightning class boats out for a sail, and one deep sea fishing boat with a crew of five, strangely busy hauling nets at the edge of the harbour. Perhaps not so strange, on second thought. The name Apollo Bandar is supposed to be a corruption of the old Koli name, Palva Bandar, for the fish that was plentiful in the harbour as recently as five generations ago.

The sky was clear, flecked with wisps of clouds. The day was warm, but a nice steady breeze kept the sails half filled, and drove small waves on the sea. The sail was smooth, no need to tack constantly, or fiddle with the ropes. The boom swung around once as we rounded the yellow and red Prong’s lighthouse and headed back for a beer on the long verandah of the Yacht Club.

Quick and new

It is still early in the pandemic, with a continuous slow rise in the number of affected. The food supply is still holding up, but with some lack of predictability about what we can get. Freshness is a problem these days, not absence. So we are forced to work a lot on the days when we go out to buy food. That’s why a cabbage soup. The Family had never tried this before, but decided to go with a simple recipe: tez patta (bay leaves), saunf (fennel seeds), and onions sauteed, then half a cabbage and one potato, both chopped, thrown into the cooker, boiled and then pureed, served with chili flakes on top. That gave us time to chop and cut other veggies, and pre-cook some for longer preservation.

The soup was accompanied with a small salad (although the tomatoes and carrots we get now are not very flavourful), and some thawed seekh kabab. A quickly prepared meal, but high in fiber and protein, with just a touch of carbs. We’re still trying to lose weight whenever possible, preparing for the bad times of the second wave. Isn’t it strange that instead of getting in shape for walks in the Himalayas, we are doing it so that our health does not deteriorate when the lockdown is removed but the chaos of the second wave prevents us from going out? We’ll be happy if there is no chaos and we get to enjoy our new trim shape by being able to go for long walks instead.

Vegetable Rescue

We are now into the second half of the second month of the lock-down. Our group of buildings is an enclave of safety in the middle of a hot zone. The supply chain has truly broken down, so finding fresh vegetables is a bit chancy. The Family rescued some sun dried bhindi (okra, lady finger, or gumbo, another of the many pieces of technology we have inherited from prehistoric human) from a corner of the room we have turned into a pantry and larder. When I began to chop it I realized that the gummy resin had got stickier as it dried. It had to be cooked dry. I threw some powdered dhania and turmeric with entire cloves and black pepper into a pan, and fried the bhindi till the gum had dried up. Then I scooped a lot of yogurt into it, covered it, and let it simmer.

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Although the bhindi had released an aroma while it cooked, I realized that it wouldn’t have much of flavour when it finished cooking. So we decided to make an aromatic pulao to go with it. The basmati took four rinses to clear, and I soaked it and set it aside. I took a handful of raisins and peanuts and soaked them in water. It is easy to remove the skin off the peanuts when it is soaked. Next I scooped a little star aniseed, cinnamon, mace, and cloves into the mortar and ground it coarse. When I was ready, with the peanut skinned, the raisins soft, the rice drained, it was time to heat a little oil in the pan. The masala is fried until it begins to release an aroma, then a finely chopped onion is dropped into the oil with the raisins and peanuts and fried to a golden colour. I fried the rice for a short while to make sure that the grains would not stick together, and then added to water to let it cook.

The Family had a large pot of chana masala ready, and we had our little epidemic Saturday lunch. In the first six weeks of the lockdown we had prepared ourselves for such food with a fat, fiber, and protein rich diet. Now there will be weeks of carbohydrate-rich food to eat before we are allowed to move about more freely.