After nine months of being confined within the immediate neighbourhood of home, watching the garden, the sea, and the sky respond to the changing seasons, I find it distressing to be elsewhere in the middle of the city. I can no longer ignore the expanses of concrete unrelieved by vegetation, the traffic, and the haphazardness of a city by the seas in which the majority of its citizens don’t have even a distant view of the sea. This is what I hear many people grumbling about. If work from home remains the way many of us work, then there will be a slow draining of people away from these congested unlovely parts of the city. There will be new inequalities of course; the people who stay will be people whose work involves being on the spot. Hard to follow the possible lines of the future. Maybe I should put together a panel discussion to talk it out.
Back in the land of the seeing, I’m so happy that I missed the news cycle, full of the elections in Myanmar and Bihar. It gives me a quieter state of mind in which to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets in my neighbourhood. I stretched the definition of sunrise a little when I went off for a walk by the harbour in the morning.
Coffee in hand, I stared at the incredible changes in the harbour. In the two weeks since I’d last walked there, the harbour has filled with boats. Sails furled, these Lightning class boats are ready to make the best of Mumbai’s sailing season. I watched one unfurl its sail and slip off into deeper waters. The air was warming, and a haze of vapour lay over the harbour, but I liked the glint of the sun on the sea. It is sailing season again for the next five months or so.
A small number of professional photographers cluster around the Gateway and the Taj hotel, hoping to find a tourist or two who wants a photo taken. This was never a lucrative profession, but times are harder now. I was wondering whether the lockdown was the last blow to the few left here, but they are back. As the long and hard epidemic begins to wind down, at least for now, more people are back. Almost everyone has a mask, although many continue to use it as a chin guard.
The morning brought back an old familiar, the moth Cydalima laticostalis. Its diaphanous wings with the golden line on its leading edge, the white body partly visible, first made me take up moth identification. Progress has been slow, but steady. This species makes its appearance towards Diwali, as the weather cools. This was my first sighting of the year.
Nights have been cool, but the day was hot today. As I came over the sea link around sunset, the inner bay was heavy with a damp mist. Two young men had parked their motorbikes on the verge and were busy taking photos of the skyline of Parel rising through the mist. It was a lovely sight, and a nice end to a lovely day, meeting family for lunch. It was our first gathering after February. In several conversations during the day, people talked about how much they enjoyed the change in work habits forced on them by the epidemic, how they gained hours of time from not being bogged down in traffic, and not having useless meetings. There is a definite shift in attitudes towards working from home. Individuals and corporations are in agreement here. The latter are happy to stop spending on office space. Perhaps, in the future, people may not have to move into cities like Mumbai any more. There are so many possibilities that branch out from here! Perhaps the sun is really setting on these unfinished high rises in south Mumbai.
Dragonflies could be seen in large numbers at the beginning of October, just after the rains. I’ve been meaning to start identifying them, so when I spotted this in Bhandup pumping station, I took photos from two different angles. It was good that I did that, because I found that the colours of the body, wing, and eyes are needed to complete an identification.
Scarlet skimmers (Crocothemis servilia, aka ruddy marsh skimmers) are common across Asia and are found, as its name suggests, in wet lands. Dredging many websites I found the perfect tool: Subramaniam’s field guide published by the Indian Academy of Sciences. This was a perfect fit: blood red face and eyes, shading to purple at the sides, blood red thorax, reddish hue on the legs. The colour of the thorax told me this was a male; females are paler, and shade towards an yellow. In confirmation of the ID, the wings were transparent, with an amber-red base, and the wing-spot was brown.
I’m glad I made a start; reading descriptions in a field guide also tell you what to look for in future. I should have taken a shot from above, to see more clearly the dark stripe which ran along its back. That identifies it as belonging to the subspecies C. servilia servilia. Its lack would have told me that the dragonfly belonged to a different subspecies, identified only forty years ago.
In the evening we walked around the Gateway of India. When I walk here, I sometimes think of the enormous expense of that last hurrah of the British empire, the Delhi Durbar of 1911, in which George V and his consort Mary proclaimed their claim as the emperor of India. The ceremony was held in Delhi, but the king visited Mumbai. The whole seafront was realigned, and the gateway was built to commemorate that visit. Less than half a century later, the last British troops in India left for a voyage home from this point. I got a nice light on the harbour, along with the shadow of the Taj Mahal hotel on the gateway. The rise of Indian traders was the shadow that grew to engulf and expel the empire. Mumbai was the epicenter of that struggle. a fact that is written in its geography, if only one looks. I’m glad I caught those two pigeons right above the gate.
“That’s not what you think about all day,” I’m sure The Family will remind me. No, of course, not. I also take the time to look at tiny moths which I can’t identify. Like this beauty, a little over a centimeter long, hanging from the ceiling. The end of the abdomen seems to end in coremata, a organ involved in excreting male pheromones. They are common across many lepidoptera species, and not of much help in identification. The shape of the snout and the way it holds its antennae back along its abdomen could mean that it belongs to the family Crambidae. Whatever it is, it does look good.
The heat and haze this October is really something else altogether. As we drove back along Marine Drive just before lunch, The Family looked out across the white and almost featureless vista on our right and said “The Anthropause is really over. Look at that smog.” She might be right about the Anthropause, but it is not yet smog that we see from the moment we wake up. It is a haze of moisture that hangs over the city right now.
October is always hot and humid in Mumbai, but this year is something else. The day before yesterday, I opened the box of detergent before I started the washing machine and found that it the soap had turned into a sticky mass. Washing powder is deliquescent, like any soap, and it sticks a little during the monsoon. I’ve never seen it turn into a solid sticky mass ever before, and certainly not a month after the monsoon has gone.
This haze signals a very warm sea. Up, at the very north of the world, arctic ice has not yet started to form. Alarms have begun to sound about the possibility of disastrous flooding from increased glacial melting in the Himalayas, a possibility that would need international collaboration in a region now fraught with confrontation. The unprecedented levels of warming this year go from global to something that I can see in my box of detergent.
As I read an article with the same title as this post, I realized that the premise was quite right. The four authors had looked at tweets from Melbourne to see how the quality of your life under lockdown depends on the neighbourhood that you live in. Do you reveal your moods on social media? I haven’t been reading tweets, but the blogs I read do reveal the ups and downs of our moods during lockdown.
Now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are able to leave home, it seems to be a good time to take stock of the last seven months. You will remember that there was a lot of despair at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was small, but growing rapidly. That didn’t last too long. Very soon I could see people reacting quite individually.
It was interesting how people reacted to the claustrophobia of strict lockdowns. The Family was never terribly interested in cooking, but, like a lot of people around the world, she dived into it. And found that she was good at it. Like many of you, we rediscovered our families, and had frequent chats on phone and video calls with far-flung family members.
“What kept us sane?” I asked The Family. She thought for a while. “The trees and gardens around us”, she eventually said. That’s what I was thinking. Waking in the mornings to bird calls, looking out at a sea of green (we live just above the canopy of the trees which surround us), the open views of the sky and the sea. “If it was not for that,” she said, “I think we might have been bickering all the time.” Niece Moja told us several times about how widespread domestic violence had become during this time. She said that the fraction of her clients that suffered from this had increased sharply. I could agree with The Family; we were lucky with our surroundings. But we also talked through a division of work in the house right at the beginning, and decided to keep fixed hours. I think that also worked for us. We could arrange our day to suit us.
The article that I had read also talked about the availability of amenities. We were lucky with that too. A bhajiwala and a store inside our complex kept open all through the two months of strict lockdowns. There may not have been a lot to eat, or greatly fresh vegetables, but we didn’t run out of food. Our help, who were locked up in their houses were unable to locate stores with sufficient food. Our security staff helped us to talk to the police and arrange for us to give them basic supplies once a month. This kind of relatively easy connection to the police and municipal services also helped us to stay sane.
Is this the first time in history that the middle class across the world has had almost exactly the same experience, and known that for a fact? All of us lived, and are still living, through a bad epidemic, closed in at home, totally dependent on small supplies, reading and watching the same news, the same entertainment, sharing our experiences through this new medium, which has suddenly become so central to our lives that we are more conscious of how it exploits us. What a difference between the global middle class and the poor. We know now that around 400 million people in India walked away from cities to their villages, crossing the subcontinent on foot. This distress is perhaps less visible in other countries, but it must be there. And that is another difference: I can read about your feelings and experiences and see how closely they mirrored mine, but I have little idea about the inner world of the poorer people around me.
These gardens were my hideaway for two months, while the human world went to seed. Now, as the garden goes to seed, the world around me does not exactly show signs of recovery. What was the most interesting thing that happened to me in the Anthropause? The sudden end to human noise in the sea brought a pod of curious dolphins to Backbay. They came, they looked, they played, for the first time in recorded history. Curiosity satisfied, they went back to the deeper waters in the Arabian Sea where they are normally found. That was a reminder that there are other intelligences in the world.
Just as we were about to leave Bhandup pumping station, there was a ripple of excitement. A golden jackal (Canis aureus) had been spotted. It stood at the side of the road far from us and looked at us warily. I couldn’t believe that jackals still coexist with us in the middle of the city! These waste lands run all along the eastern coast of Mumbai, and connect to the wildlife refuges nearby, so I guess there is a constant flow of wildlife through this area.
Golden jackals are not usually considered to be threatened species. But a recent study of reports published in media revealed that there is a large cryptic trade in jackals. This is largely fueled by superstitious beliefs about jackal skulls. Most conservation efforts in India concentrate on tigers, rhinos, and elephants. The public is aware of the dangers these species face, and there is a strong opinion against trade in these animals. The authors of the study point out that the data on jackals indicates that similar threats to less charismatic species often escape public consciousness.
At 6 in the evening, the center of Mumbai was like a ghost of itself. In the blue hour, I caught Flora fountain looking like a funeral, a few mourners standing and gawking. Niece Moja has taken the day off from counseling and spent the day with us. After her partner finished an interview (you can carry your work with you when it moves online) we drove out for a coffee and this funeral. The fountain was built in the 1860s, when the British built Fort George was finally demolished, at its former Church Gate. The antennas belong to the Central Telegraph Office. Ugly constructions like that belong to the 1960s.
Another change is coming now. The new Mumbai metro will have a station at the fountain. Metro stations everywhere have the same construction: either a single cylinder with platforms on two sides, or two cylinders passing a central platform. When that hole in the ground is filled up, this station will have a central platform, and a first underground level for customer services. The city is slowly changing. Niece Moja is one of the small fraction of millennial Mumbaikars who actually knows south Mumbai; she spent her college years haunting cafes and restaurants here.
But even she was surprised that a desirable property just next to the fountain had been entirely taken over by Zara. The blaze of lights from its open doors showed us a cyclist and a person parking a scooter. I don’t think the shop’s had a customer in a while. Mumbai has split so visibly into the two cities that it always was: the service providers who must brave the horrible lengthened commute every day to open shops which the service takers are too afraid to go into. The corona virus will become endemic, we have to learn to live with it. Care, not fear, is the future.
I’d gone to Bhandup pumping station last week in the hopes of seeing an Eurasian wryneck for the first time after a couple of years. I heard the pair, but didn’t see them. The find of the day was instead the Malabar starling (Sturnia blythii, aka Blyth’s starling). A flock of glossy birds surveying their surroundings from a high perch were a lifer. The light was wonderful and I could see all the defining details: the yellow bill with a bluish-ash base, the white head with contrasting chestnut belly, and the grey and black wings and tail. This bird is resident in India, and was split off from the migrant species called the chestnut-tailed starling (Sturnia malabaricus) with which it was confused even at the beginning of the century. As I took the photos you see above and in the gallery, I realized that I’d been hearing their chitter for a while.
Most of the other birds I saw that day were old acquaintances. We arrived before sunrise, and the early part of the day was not very good for photos. So I missed shots of a common tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius) which spent some time on a branch in front of my eyes. My photos of an eastern marsh harrier (Circus spilonotus) trying to snatch prey in midair have digital noise and are beyond rescue. Some of the others you can see in the gallery above. I should really start keeping my bird lists, but I can’t bring myself to admit that I’m slowly turning into a twitcher.