Yesterday I heard the call of the hornbill again. In the last few years a pair has nested in one of the tall trees in the garden. The nesting season is before March, and the birds are gone by April. The featured photo was taken in early March this year. Mid-October seemed a little too early for these birds to nest.
I was discussing this with The Family when she floored me with a bit of nature lore. Apparently hornbills prey on small birds, and have been spotted raiding the chicks of rose-ringed parakeets. Our garden is full of flocks of these raucous bright green pests. The parakeets nest from September to December. So this is a time when the first chicks have hatched. Maybe these Hornbills were here early to hunt. If so, we should thank them for keeping the population of the parakeet pests in check.
For a few evenings there was a beautiful yellow light which would bathe the world around us after sunset. As the red glow on the clouds faded, moments before it turned dark, the world would become a magical yellow. If you mentioned this to someone on the streets of Mumbai, they would smile and agree. The featured photo was taken quite a while after sunset; you can see that the camera, while trying to compensate for the light, makes a blur of the birds.
This is not a light we see every year. After the monsoon the skies are generally clear of dust. If there is the normal pollution of the city, it just creates a haze and reddens the sunset. This colour came with a clear view of the horizon. It wasn’t even as humid as it could have been. It was a mystery until people started mentioning a raging fire on Butcher Island, off the coast. The fuel that is stored for ships on this outer island had caught fire and it took days to bring the blaze under control.
Light effects at sunrise and sunset depend so much on what the air contains. Moisture, dust and smoke are all things that produced beautiful sunsets. What was this due to?
After the monsoon ends the weather turns unbearably hot again; that’s what an Indian summer is. In the sweltering heat of October it is a minor disaster if you forget to water plants. The rose bush has been putting out flowers through the monsoon, because the rains keep it from drying up. Today I saw that two days of not watering it has begun to affect it.
Many plants are beginning to bud. I look at the methi (fenugreek) shrub. Every stalk is budding new leaves. The hairy surfaces of the leaves catch every piece of lint which floats by. You have to carefully wash the leaves before you use them in the kitchen.
But really this is the time of the year for insects. The hibiscus bush is beginning to push out flower buds. As soon as one opens, ants swarm over it. Soon they will bring their aphid cows up the stalks. The vegetation below the spectacular flower will be thick with aphids, as ants run up and down their farm milking them.
Moths have pupated too. I saw this lovely October visitor on the wall today, sitting out in full sight. The lore about bright and visible butterflies and moths is that they are poisonous. Many birds would see this yellow on the wings of the moth more brightly than we do, so it is definitely signaling that it is inedible.
Well back on the wall I found a few green lacewings. They are nocturnal and have probably come here to eat the aphids from the ant farms. Lacewings are not poisonous: birds and bats will happily eat them. That’s the reason this one was sitting far back on the wall, under an overhang. In another month all these showy insects will be gone. That’s when migratory birds begin to arrive.
One of the biggest festivals of India is the Durga Puja. One part of the festivities is a dance to the goddess performed with live coals in earthen pots. There was a time when only men were allowed to perform this. The times are changing. At least in one place in Mumbai this year the only dancers were women.
The Indian Ocean monsoon is a massive planetary scale circulatory system which we are just beginning to understand. Much more easy to see are the things that happen at our scale. In the last decade or slightly more, there have been longer dry spells between heavier showers. Thirty centimeters of rain or more in a few hours is no longer rare. There’s an emergency of this kind every couple of years in Mumbai.
If you face the open sea on the west of Mumbai you will see very often a storm coming in. You can take a photo, and then look at the satellite map to marvel at the scale of the storm cloud. Sometimes it covers hundred of kilometers. The new views that a phone can add enhance the sense of wonder that one feels about the monsoon. You are not alone. Across the country a million others are seeing this storm coming.
When the storm passes and the sun comes out, there are pools of water which evaporate slowly. Above the clouds it is astronomical summer: the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. The humidity and heat can be hard. You long for the rain to cool you down.
In the poem Meghdoot, an epic about love in the time of the monsoon, written one and a half thousand years ago, Kalidasa described the monsoon rain on these mountains as “painted streaks on a elephant’s hide”. Watching the clouds roll in over the hills, you understand that he wasn’t talking about water streaks, but the green that suddenly sprouts between rocks.
Low clouds roll relentlessly over the Sahyadris. When it invades a dance floor, it becomes a light which hangs over everything and at the same time hides everything. The dance floor is all music and light and warm moisture. I peer at The Family; we are walking on a cloud. What message does it bring?
Sometimes, you think the monsoon is bleak. Roads are washed away. Dark clouds rob the world of colour. But it is warm rain that beats down on you. The hills are alive, really, and growing. When the sun comes out you see the electric green that will fade between the end of monsoon and the beginning of winter. That will be the season of festivals all over India.
This is a season of festivals in India. It started with Ganapati a couple of weeks back. Now the festival of Durga just got over. In one form or another Durga’s is a pan-Indian festival. A few more smaller festivals, and the season will end with Diwali. The Bengali version of Durga puja is a grand party. Like all grand events, it requires many hands to make sure it goes off satisfactorily. Drums and drummers are an important part of the ceremonies. The featured photo shows a couple of drummers waiting for their cue.
Food is a large part of a festival. Crowds which come to see the puja and the associated amateur singing and plays stay on to eat. The crew in the photo above are making the rolls and wraps which are an important part of the meal.
Cheap little toys have been associated with these festivals for as long as I can remember. I used to beg uncles and aunts to buy me tops at such places when I was a pre-school child. I wonder if children still want these things. You see little families hawking them late into the night, so there must be buyers.
Fairground rides have become popular over the last decade or so. It must have become easier to hire out or assemble some of these rides. This one was waiting for customers even after midnight.
You see sleepy children drifting in the wake of their parents at these pujas till the early hours of the morning. This balloon seller hopes to snare the attention of a few who are awake enough to buy one.
It is the middle of an unusually dry monsoon in Mumbai. But when it rains it seems the traffic becomes even worse. Stuck in traffic last week I edged past the obstruction and noticed at the last minute what it was. As the featured photo shows, a huge image of Ganesha was being transported, wrapped up in plastic sheets to protect it from rain.
Now the roads are full of images being taken from home to be immersed in the sea. A speciality of the Ganesha festival is that different people keep it for different durations: starting from a day up to eleven days. Over the years the management of traffic during the festival has improved. This year seems to be the best in recent memory. There were little slowdowns as we passed groups of people like the one shown here, but no blocks at all. This one was large, so it was clearly something a neighbourhood had got together for. The crowd with it was also of a corresponding magnitude.
Two thirds of the year are over. The eleven days of Ganesha will be followed by the festival of Durga, and then Diwali. Before you know it, December will be on us. January seems just like yesterday. Did the year really pass by?
Learn from the almond leaf
Which flames as it falls.
The ground is burning.
The earth is burning.
–Eunice de Souza, 2016.
Eunice de Souza died this rainy weekend. She was 77, and a member of a generation from Mumbai who remade Indian poetry in English. She was never as well-known as Arun Kolatkar, the older Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla (who was, for a while, her colleague in the Department of English in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai) or Gieve Patel. However, the enormous outpouring of emotion from her erstwhile students this weekend testifies to the deep impact she had. One thing that emerges from this is her personal flamboyance.
This arose from her not taking much account of what others thought of her. One tiny example of this can be seen in the photo alongside. It shows her in her kitchen with her pet parrot Koko. He appeared in her poetry. He was also brought up as an excuse when she didn’t want to leave home: "I don’t think Mr. de Souza will want me to go." Her friends knew this for a joke. She alludes to this in-joke in a poem called Guide to a Well-behaved Parrot: I shout at him/He shouts back/Really, I may as well have been/married.
In recent years I remember her from her weekly column about literature. They were clear, free of academic jargon (but not of humour), and spoke to her readers as equals. It was hard to connect this to her bleak last collection of poems, Learn from the Almond Leaf, many of which have been quoted in this Sunday’s newspapers. I will end this post with another poem from this collection:
My mother’s bones in a niche.
My aunt’s ashes likewise.
–Eunice de Souza (1940-2017)
How can you remake pastry into an Indian sweet? Every time we talk to a chef at one of our favourite innovative restaurants in Mumbai our questions turn upside-down. Should we have asked "How do you take a traditional Indian taste and turn it into a sweet?" A few months ago we ended a meal with a tarte tatin reimagined with guavas. Yesterday we ended with a pastry filled with unripe mango, salted and with a dusting of chili flakes on the plate. See the red powder in the featured photo? Pastry chef Namrata Pai is on a roll.
Apart from the food, the main thing which keeps us coming back to this mid-town restaurant is the constant change in the menu. As the seasons change, different produce comes fresh into the market. Chef Thomas Zacharias prides himself on bending with the seasonal winds. The pastry in the featured photo is a late hold-over from the summer menu. The rest of the menu has moved on to the monsoon. This places the restaurant smack in the middle of the global farm-to-table food movement. A wonderfully flavourful tiny fish, mandeli, is back on the menu.
One lovely thing that is not easy to spot in the photo above is the fact that the hot kitchen has a significant number of women chef. This is a healthy trend. I worry about the elitism inherent in organic food and the fresh food movement, even the word sustainability, but gender balance cannot have downsides.
Sometimes when I pass by a hedge I look down at the leaves, hoping to see an interesting insect. This small green mantis counts as one. As you can guess from the photo, it is a tiny insect.
You can identify it as a mantis by its triangular head and the bulging compound eyes on the sides of the head. If you look closely, you can see three grey dots on the head between these large eyes; they are the three simple eyes which these animals also have. The spiny grasping forelegs cannot be seen, presumably they are hidden below its body.
A mantis has to be a gardener’s friend. It eats other insects almost constantly, and is effective in controlling pests in a garden. If they were not so common in India, gardeners would probably buy them by box-loads and release them. It could be less dangerous than pumping a garden full of poisonous chemicals in order to kill insects. Unfortunately they also eat up all the probiotic insects: the ones that help to pollinate plants, for example. Still, it is better than pesticides.