A Green Mantis

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.

Farm-to-table

The registrar of marriages and deaths decided many years ago that The Family and I would forever celebrate Einstein’s birthday. So this Albert’s day we went off to have a nice dinner at one of our new favourite restaurant: The Bombay Canteen. When it opened a few years ago it was an instant sensation, with its completely re-imagined Indian food.

The first time we went there we had something they called the Arbi Tuk. As you can see in the featured photo, it looks totally undistinguished: like a simple dish of chopped onions and tomatoes. A mixture like this on top of crisp puris is a staple of street food all over Mumbai. Not only does this clever dish look like the traditional bhel puri, it even fools your palate for a moment after you bite into it. Then you realize that the puri is not puri, it is fried arbi (taro). Its a lovely fresh taste. We talked to chef Thomas Zacharias, and he gave us a plateful of one of the ingredients to taste. The beans which are chopped into it are fresh, and hard to find in the markets. I asked him where he sources his flavourful tomatoes, and he shrugged. The Bombay Canteen is famous for taking extreme care to source local vegetables from local farmers.

Halim with khamin roti

Every time we go to this restaurant there is something new on the menu. This time around the list of new dishes included the Haleem. We consider ourselves to be Haleem experts. The deep umami flavour of mutton was satisfactory, but over this rode a wonderful new flavour of roasted jowar. We would go back to a restaurant only for a Haleem like this. We consider ourselves lucky to have found this place before we knew what a lovely Haleem they make.

We ordered Thomas’ version of a tarte tatin, called the Guava Tan-ta-tan. It is was the ultimate in street flavour. The Family and I love to eat guavas from street-side vendors, cut open with a little red chili and salt sprinkled on it. This tarte tatin was made with guavas instead of apples, and came with a scoop of red chili ice cream on it, placed in a plate smeared with runny and spicy guava jelly.

Alice Waters may have started the farm-to-table movement in California, but The Bombay Canteen has perfectly adapted it to Mumbai.

Deccan traps

We drove to Pune in the weekend, over a road blasted through the heart of the geological bomb which killed off the dinosaurs. The Mumbai-Pune expressway is probably the busiest road in India. Still, there are times when you can take your eyes off the road to stare at the incredible mountains around you.

During the monsoon the mountains are covered in a carpet of electric green. Yes, there is such a colour; you have to travel here to find out what it is. In this season, with the brief winter on its way out, the grasses have dried out, turning into layers of gold against the red rock of the Deccan traps. These mountains are the Sahyadris, and the red rock is the dinosaur killer.

Go off the road. Stop when you can. Look again at the mountains. Mahabaleshwar ghats The most noticeable feature of the Sahyadris are the horizontal layers in the rock. Many years ago, sitting at a roadside dhaba, I asked a geologist friend about this. Between sips of tea he mentioned the phrase Deccan traps. These are successive waves of lava which flowed out of our planet’s largest volcanic event and killed off the dinosaurs.

A shiver goes through my spine even today when I sit and look at these six and a half crore (65 million) years old rocks. The continuous volcanism lasted for a few lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of years. The lava covered an area larger than that of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh put together. Ash, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide pumped out by the volcanos changed the climate, making it first cooler, then hotter, and turning the rain acid. The dinosaurs died out, along with most of the life on earth. The earth was barren for about half a million (5 lakhs) years.

When the volcanism ended and the skies began to clear, the mammalian takeover of the earth could begin. The next time you drive between Mumbai and Pune, look at the layer cake mountains around you: they are the reason you are here.

(Featured photo by S. R. Kiran, Mahabaleshwar ghats photo by Mark Richards, map from Princeton univ)

Censership

After Ganesha clears the way, other gods and goddesses arrive. Perhaps the biggest festival across the country are the ten days of Durga. This female aspect of power is also associated with the legendary king Rama and his war against Rakshasas. The only exception to this countrywide celebration used to be Maharashtra. Not any more, since the churn of populations which is now more than a century old brought the north Indian Ramlila, the southern Dusshera, and the Durga puja of the east to Mumbai. The weekend was a good time to join the huge crowds at these pujas.

Durga idol in the Bengali style

The largest Durga icons in Mumbai are in the Bengali style. Durga in the center, on her lion, killing a demon who has emerged from its form as a water buffalo, flanked by the quartet of Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartikeya (from left to right). One of the interesting customs that the Bengali puja has is that of the banana tree as a deity: visible in the photo above to the left of Ganesha. The tree is covered in a sari, and most Bengalis interpret this as Ganesha’s wife. There is an older, and now almost forgotten, interpretation of this as symbolizing the power of Durga in the growth of plants. A trace of this is left in the ritual that the banana tree has to be decorated with other plants.

A spectacular tradition in the puja is the dance with censers.Playiing with fire: dhunoochi naach As you can see clearly in the featured photo, the censers used are vessels with open mouths. So there is an element of danger here, requiring skill. The dance used to be performed by the traditional male drummers. The featured photo shows one of them. Now it is not uncommon for others to perform this dance: see the photo alongside.

But the one thing that makes the Bengali puja accessible to everyone is that there is always more going on. The puja is part of a fair in which food stalls are prominent.Egg rolls being made in a Durga puja You can stand in the crowd around them (the stalls have inefficient service, so you do stand around a lot) and overhear comparisons with the food at other pujas. There is costume jewellery, clothes, sometimes even books on sale. I saw a placements agency doing walk-in interviews at one of these fairs. There is amateur music and theatre at most fairs. We listened to a rock quartet doing a very good medley of classic rock as well as Bollywood (the lead guitarist broke my niece’s heart). At other places the music is very professional, with very well-known names performing. If you don’t mind crowds then you can have a good time at these fairs.

The one who removes obstacles

The end of the monsoon brings the season of festivals across India. Everything always begins with the god who removes obstacles: Ganesha or Ganapati. This is probably Mumbai’s biggest festival. Many homes have their little idol, and then there are the huge idols which bring together whole neighbourhoods. Hindu rituals involve an invocation which imbues an idol with the spirit of a god. After the spirit departs, the idol is immersed in water. For the Ganapati, this may happen after a day, three days, five days, or ten days, according to the ritual used. If you stand by the designated spots where idol immersion is allowed, you get a sense of how many Mumbai holds.

A large idol of Ganapati waiting to be immersed

I walked up to the immersion point in Colaba on Saturday. Colaba is a small place, with a population roughly the same as of Paris, and the number of idols brought for immersion on an odd day is not large. Even so, these used to cause traffic jams in the neighbourhood a decade back. Over the last few years police arrangements have become much better. Traffic flows smoothly, if a little slowly, and the crowd which gather to watch the immersion is kept under control (see the featured photo). I slipped past a waiting ambulance, and walked through an outer cordon of police. With my camera in hand, I was inspected, and found to be harmless. I could walk past the police and take up position just inside the police cordon, before the line of lifeguards. I was told not to obstruct anyone.

A family's ganapati idol is taken for immersion

This was a good point to watch the proceedings from. On a day like this no one spares attention to the fact that this is the ramp where terrorists came ashore eight years ago and launched a concerted series of attacks across the city. Now the area is full of Ganapati idols, big (photo on top) and small. The big idols take up much space in the public imagination. Even here they are surrounded by crowds. Children especially, seem to be mesmerized by these large idols. I prefer the small ones, the ones which belong to a single family.

A family returns after immersing their idol in the sea

The police let in two or three men from the family with each idol. The women, children, and other men, if there are any, stay at the police cordon. Often the men forget some ritual item or the other, and the group left behind pleads with the police to hand it to them. The idol is not thrown into the sea. People walk with it into the water and, when it is deep enough, just let it go. The idol sinks into the sea. I took a few shots of people coming back from the sea after the immersion (see photo above). There is a little emptiness about them. The excitement of the previous few days has been washed away.

Later there will be a muted attempt to clean up the sea. The baked mud of the idols will sink into the bottom of the waters and eventually be pulverized. Some of the plastic and wood used in the frame and decoration will be thrown back by the waves. This will be collected into huge heaps which will be removed to landfills. Next year the idols will come again, but hopefully with less plastic around it.

One cutting parcel

A typical roadside tea stall in Mumbai serves a cutting as a default. You may ask for a chai, but the cashier will transmit your order as a cutting. You typically get this in a tiny glass. I guess at some point of time there must have been a full glass of chai, and a cutting would have been a half of that. The cheaper option must have been in more demand. So, farcically, now a “full chai” is no longer understood; I’ll often have two cuttings when I order a tea at such a stall.

I was at a busy roadside establishment last week. The small shop had an aluminium counter where people stood for a quick evening snack. I looked over their heads and called for a cutting. As I sipped it, someone else came in and called for “two cutting parcel, two glasses”. This was new to me. The cutting parcel was tea poured into a plastic bag for easy take-away. I learnt a new bit of Mumbai’s ever-evolving language. I wonder how warm it would remain when it got to its destination.

The notion of cutting extends to restaurant menus. A busy restaurant I’d walked into for lunch had a note at the bottom of the menu which said “Each plate half plate”. I guess the half portions of food were so popular that this became their new unit!

Look on his works

Outpatient building of the J. J. Hospital in MumbaiIn my decades in Mumbai I’ve passed the J. J. Hospital often enough to look up the fact that it is named after the 19th century philanthropist, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, who donated the funds required for setting up this hospital. I’d never had to visit the hospital. So this week when I had to look for the outpatient department I realized how large it was. The doctors who I know claim that interning here is the best training possible, because of the volume and variety of cases that you need to attend. As I arrived at the neo-classical facade of the out-patients building, it was clear to me how large this volume is. The next morning I read in the papers that I had underestimated the numbers of cases the hospital deals with; apparently this week medical interns are on strike, and the number of visitors has dropped dramatically. As I thought about this, I was reminded of an observation by Atul Gawande about the innovations in medical practice created in Mumbai just to keep up with the demands on services.

Statue of Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy in the hospital named after himI wandered into the administrative building for the case papers I was there for. The crowded corridors smelt of strong bleach. As I stood in the queue outside the clerk’s office one of the people ahead of me tried to take off his slippers before entering. The clerk was furious “This is not a temple”, he told the man, “You are not here to pray”. After my work was done, I walked through the busy crowds to an alcove which held a statue of the person the hospital is named after. One person came by, took off his slippers and placed a flower at the feet of the statue. There was a small pile of flowers there. I thought that it was good that the staff kept the distinction between a hospital and a temple in mind. But for the poor who come here for treatment, the availability of government health care is a prayer come true.

There is a little donations box near the base of the statue. Even if it were full every day, it would not suffice to keep the hospital running. I wish that a larger fraction of my taxes would go into maintaining and expanding such health services.

Where will I be this weekend?

lonavala

You will definitely not find me in Lonavala. Once upon a time, perhaps a century ago, this was a little town nestled in the Western Ghats. The train station and a market tell how the pleasant getaway began. It is still different from Mumbai: sunbirds can still be seen in trees. But now the best parts of it look like the crowded urban landscapes of India’s small towns. A highway runs through the heart of the town. You smell burnt diesel here, not flowers.

Mahabaleshwar is a little like Lonavala. Too much "development" has spoilt what people used to come here for. The charming little village is now a crowded bazaar where weekenders frantically shop for honey and jam. The farms which produced them in small quantities earlier are now large concerns; their products can be found in shops in Mumbai. It does not make sense to go all the way to this no-longer-beautiful hill town to buy the same bottles. The sole reason why I still go there now and then is that behind the crowded temples of old Mahabaleshwar one can gets a spectacular view of the Krishna river.

On the plateau called Matheran is the one little town near Mumbai which still retains some charm, perhaps because motorized traffic is forbidden. There are long walks across the wooded plateau. From the edges of the plateau you have views of the spectacular rock formations in the area. This weekend will be really crowded, but it is the one place in the neighbourhood of Mumbai where I might go.

Mumbai has mountains and the sea. One weekend many decades back we took a ferry from the harbour, and a bus on the other side to get to a pleasant little beach called Alibag. This has now grown to a massive destination, with a festival this weekend. Going there would be like dropping into your favourite bar: live music and friends. It is no longer a place where you can step out of Mumbai.

The double barrelled Murud-Janjira is similar. Murud was once a deserted beach where you could camp out. If you felt like it, you could take a fishing boat out to the spectacular Janjira fort. I haven’t been there for years, and as I write, I suddenly feel like looking at it again. But it is too late for this weekend.

If I leave Mumbai this weekend, at best I will be drifting off the coast in a fisherman’s boat, helping to haul the net back.

Flamingo watch

airoli

Around winter the tidal mudflats north of Mumbai’s harbour begin to turn pink with the arrival of flamingos. Every year there is a little item tucked away somewhere in a corner of a newspaper about the appearance of these migratory flocks. This year there was no news. I asked a few friendly birders, and they didn’t seem to know either. A few weeks back I’d stopped at a creek, but it was high tide. The mud was covered with water, and you don’t see any wading birds at that time.

I looked up the tide tables a few days ago, and found that over the weekend low tide was around noon. So on Saturday The Family and I made our way to Airoli bridge. This connects the northern suburb of Mulund to Airoli on the mainland. I’d only been there once before, very early in the morning several years ago. It was low tide, there was no traffic, and there were lots of flamingos visible. Now, at midday, there was a constant stream of traffic. It was very hard to stop, although the tide was out, and the mud was full of a mixed bunch of greater and lesser flamingos. Between them many other waders fed in the mud.

bhandup

We decided to take our chance at the Bhandup creek. Over the years much of this area has been fenced off, and now only a little field was accessible to the public (photo above). This gave a view on to a narrow sliver of the creek. At low tide this had shallow water with some exposed mud. Although there were no flamingos, there were a few waders visible in the distance.spoonbills We took turns to step out on to a little spit of land which gave some sighting.

There was a cormorant on a tree stump, a large group of spoonbills (photo above), a lone black-headed iris, some stilts, and, far away, the dark silhouette of a reef egret. The light was terrible. Reflections off the water made everything look monochrome: it was hard to see the yellow beak of a large egret, or the green legs of a green shank. All my photos looked like they were in black and white. Above us, a pariah kite circled slow and low. raptoraWhen it moved off we saw some gull-billed terns fly in to land in the water. Far overhead an open-billed stork flew in a lazy straight line off towards the west.

The Precious had brought along her two-year old, who was busy picking up sticks and stones to fill his pockets with. It took some time to bundle him back into the car, climb in and move off. Some newbies were just coming in. They stopped to ask where the Bhandup birding area was, and looked disappointed when we said that this was it. We were just about to pull away when I saw above us this magnificent sight: an immature Shikra sitting on a dry tree (photo here). Although the trip ended well enough, I was left wondering how it is that in a city built on the sea, most of us have such restricted access to the sea front. I can think of only three spots now where one has access to the mudflats.

Our final bird list was not larger than my laughable list from December.

  1. Lesser flamingo
  2. Greater flamingo
  3. Western reef egret
  4. Great egret
  5. Asian open-billed stork
  6. Black-winged stilt
  7. Eurasian spoonbill
  8. Black-headed iris
  9. Common green shank
  10. Cotton pygmy-goose
  11. Gull-billed tern
  12. Shikra (juvenile)

Writing a bird list is meaningless if you can see more in an afternoon sitting on a balcony. A few years ago we could not even have written down lists without twice as many water birds. Are the mangroves and mudflats hidden behind the fenced off sea-coast slowly dying?

Chor bazaar

chorbazar1

An off-beat walk that one can do in Mumbai is to stroll through Chor Bazaar. To get there, follow Mohammad Ali Road until it crosses S. V. P. Road (Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Road, if you are a pedant), then go westward along S. V. P. Road and turn into Mutton Galli.chorbazar2 Why chor bazaar should displace the mutton vendors whose galli they sit on is a topic ripe for urban historians. But the moment you turn into the road you know from the bizarre collection in each shop that you can be nowhere else.

One of the first stalls that I saw had used fans of all descriptions: exhaust fans, pedestal fans, table fans, and ceiling fans were what I recognized. The two young men selling these things were not averse to being in a photo. Further down was a bright yellow shop which sold any variety of hardware. I spotted a camera tripod standing in lonely majesty among polishing wheels.

chorbazar4

If chor bazaar was really a den of thieves anytime, that must have been long ago. It is rapidly gentrifying. A couple of turns later we came across a section of the bazaar which looked like a supply store for films. There were period object: empty tins of Cadburys from the 1950s, an empty cigarette tin of the same vintage, even some tins of patent medicines which could easily have been used by Sadhana in one of her movies. chorbazar3 Further along there was a small store selling vintage advertisements. When you looked closer they seemed like today’s idea of the 1960s. Could they have been real? It would need research to establish it either way.

We walked on and came to the section of the market which sold furniture and light fixtures. The furniture vendors were quite clear about which of the pieces were reproductions and which were new. Perhaps this depends on whether you know wood. Ten years ago I’d seen a genuine Art Nouveau piece, a tiny shelf with an asking price which was a touch more than I was ready to pay. I still regret not bargaining for it.

Today I saw an imitation Art Deco piece made of the right wood and materials, but looking too new. The price fitted my evaluation.chorbazar5 In a nearby shop I had a long chat about an Art Deco bar which seemed to have been made to the specification of an eccentric Parsi gentleman. Apparently much of the older furniture which reaches the market today is sourced from the estates of Parsi families.

It was getting very warm by now. The two days of winter in Mumbai are over. I looked across the lane from the furniture shops and saw a tiny stall which seems to specialize in lamp shades. The shopkeeper was taking a siesta. It was good to take the hint and bring the walk to an end.