Empty table thought

Good lunches should end with a memorable dessert. A crepe chocolate cake sounded passable but not exactly like the thing that memories are made of. Crepes with chocolate? Been there. Done that. Why not the pandan infused panna cotta instead? But when it appeared on the table it looked fabulous, and it tasted wonderful on the rainiest day in this record-breaking monsoon month of July. The sweetness of the chocolate infused the warmly comfortable flavours of the layered crepes. There was a light feel of a thing which was half air. And the balancing tartness of the raspberry sauce, presented as blood-red drops on the side, was exactly perfect. I’m happy to find this restaurant.

Earlier, when The Family had stepped out for a moment, I took a photo of a Negroni Sbagliato (Campari, prosecco, orange) that we’d ordered as an aperitif. The server suggested this off-menu drink, and it was perfect for the Thai food that the restaurant serves. Masking is a wonderful idea for the staff, since they are going to meet a large number of unmasked people every day. I’m all for it as the minimal safety measure that they can use. The other is to reduce contact with unmasked people as much as possible. However, it does tend to reduce them to, literally, faceless service providers. That’s not something I like.

Litter and milli-machines

The sea continues to fall on our heads. It doesn’t feel like just raindrops, but then cryin’s not for me, as the song says. So I got my tiny new camera and went out to photograph the leaf litter in the garden. It’s supposed to be waterproof, and the lens is said to be good for macros. Just perfect for the monsoon, the rotting leaves, and the tiny things that scurry down below, rebuilding the world. These are the millimeter scale engines of the ecology.

The beetle on the wall was half a centimeter long. The lens is good. It does focus stacking, so I spent the morning picking up the basics of how to use that. Now I’ll have to figure out how to store the images. Having twenty or thirty nearly identical shots could fill up my disk rather quickly. I’ll have to delete more images. Once this house keeping is done, I can get to the more interesting subject of trying to identify the mushrooms and insects I saw. I’m an absolute novice, so I’ll be grateful for any help. If you can identify something down to species or genus, let me know.

Low light

Sometimes I fidget with my camera. I get distracted, distanced from a concert I’m listening to, or a conversation I’m a part of. And then I pull out my camera, or phone, and take photos. These low light photos have very little chance of coming out well, but I can spend some pleasant hours of my life trying to edit them.

This was taken at a pub. I’ve forgotten who we’d gone with. A single photo remained on my old phone from that day. That lens could hardly get any colour in that light, so I decided to convert it to black and white, and then try to balance the illumination. Which version do you like? With the amount of noise in the image, I don’t think it makes sense to push the level up.

I don’t remember why I was bored when I listened to this concert. Apart from a few photos, my memory of the concert was that it was very good. Maybe I just had my camera in my hand and fidgeted with it. Again, I can’t decide whether it is worthwhile pushing up the level. After all, this is not a photo taken for a newspaper.

The featured photo could have been. It was taken at the Gateway of India on the first anniversary of the infamous terrorist attack. The two street children make some money by selling memorial candles to the largely middle class mourners. The texture of life in Mumbai is so complex.

After the rain, me

Saturday night I fell asleep to the sound of thunder and very hard rain. We’d planned a simple trek, just the two of us, to a hill fort outside Mumbai on Sunday morning. The rattling of windows in a proper monsoon storm woke me before the alarm. I looked out of the window and decided to cancel our plans. Even if the rain stopped, as it briefly did soon after sunrise, the ground would have turned to mush, and the mountainside would be slick with water. Not the easiest conditions for a walk.

After a cup of tea, The Family decided to go for a walk around the complex. It has been an odd monsoon. Very high winds, many dry spells, but normal rainfall on the average. The result is that several trees have fallen, and lots of branches and twigs have been shaken off others. These have been piled up next to paths, waiting for final disposal at the end of the monsoon. Today the lawns and playgrounds between buildings were flooded.

On a tree quite a way above my head, I saw one of the exotic giant snails which usually hide below shrubs and fallen leaves. This climate refugee must have started its journey early, but it was far from the only one. The half hour walk yielded so many creatures that The Family threatened to leave me on my own if I stopped again to take a photo of nameless creatures. I must have really tried her patience, because she was impermeable to my argument that each climate refugee has a story worth listening to.

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

Paul Verlaine (Il pleure dan mon coeur)

Oh sweet sound of rain
Ground and on rooftops!
For a heart that is bored,
O the song of the rain!

He cries for no reason
In this sickening heart.
What! no treason ?
This grief is without reason.

Paul Verlaine (It rains in my heart)

Here is a small selection of creatures which were trying to get away from their flooded homes. The colourful millipede is extremely common along the west coast of India, and perhaps even further afield (It is Anoplodesmus saussurii. Thanks for the ID, NN; it is no longer nameless). Unfortunately there is no go-to field guide which would let me identify it. It is a creature that lurks in leaf litter, and quite innocuous. The small brown snail was new to me. It had crawled out of the pool below a tree on to a giant bracket fungus growing on the trunk. I don’t know how many kinds of slugs you find around Mumbai, but I’m sure I’ve seen this species before.

Back home after the walk, I checked my phone for messages. There was a forwarded message from the Municipal corporation saying that the main water purification plant for the city had been damaged. Flood waters had breached the pipes, and citizens were advised to boil water for drinking. Are these episodic extreme rain events due to climate change? If yes, then are we beginning to see the conditions that will eventually force us to join the ranks of climate displacees?

Two views of Mumbai

Hokusai could take a perfectly symmetric cone and find thirty six wonderful and different views of it. Lesser mortals like us take more complex subjects and are happy if we can coax one or two nice shots from it. When it comes to Mumbai, I’m a bad judge. I love even the ordinary everyday views.

Whether it is photo of monsoon clouds over Malabar Hill taken from a speeding taxi, or a blurry photo of the central city taken from a plane as it circles in for a landing, I’m happy to have my mobile phone on hand to capture yet another view of home. To think that in a century from now the haphazard mess of towers built in the last fifty years might be under the sea!

Umami and starch

On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures

William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 2)

Swells which ride on a tide never quite drain away. That seems to be the fate of the second wave of epidemic around us. Still, we brave the rip tide a couple of times a week: once by going out to eat, then again by meeting friends and family, one couple on one. On our last two outings we ordered, among other things, sausages and bread. Once it was Lebanese sausages with its flat bread (featured photo), the second time it was a Goan sausage with pao (below). These are wonderful, satisfying tastes. First the kick of the starch, then the garnish with its salts and sours and chili, and finally the long finish of the umami. If you are a meat eater, you know the satisfaction of well cooked starch and meat.

It led me to wonder about the universe of flavours that we build daily in our kitchens. Some searching led me to a well-written review of the current state of our knowledge about tastes. The first thing that surprised me is that taste and the perception of flavour are different. In fact, there are taste receptors in our stomach and intestines which order our bodies to metabolize food, but they don’t add to our perception of flavour. But the major surprise was how tightly the sensation of taste is connected to survival. It is not a complete surprise of course, because it is fairly common knowledge that many plant toxins are extremely bitter in taste, and we tend to avoid sharply bitter food. What is less widely known is that bitterness can involve pre-emptive nausea to remove the toxin from our stomach. The increased sensitivity to mild bitterness is said to trigger nausea during the first trimester of pregnancy when the major organs of the fetus begin to develop. It is also the identical response which we seek to suppress when we advise people not to drink on an empty stomach.

The ability to taste umami seems to have evolved in the pre-human lineage as they diverged away from our nearest living relatives and started foraging in grasslands, and decreased their reliance on fruits. Unlike us, chimpanzees cannot taste this component of our food. The umami taste appears as proteins denature slightly, either by rotting or cooking. We can tell when proteins in food reach the state when our stomachs and the pro-biotic bacteria inside us can begin to digest them by the glutamates and ribonucleotides that are sensed by the umami taste buds in our mouths. Fresh meat does not have an umami taste, so carnivores do not have these receptors. Sea-lions have evolved very far from other mammals by losing all sensation of taste, since they use their visual senses to identify prey and then swallow it whole. Perhaps only the dinosaur ancestors of birds had as finely developed developed a taste for umami flavours as us.

Our liking for starchy food is more subtle. I could not think of a specific taste of starch, but I love it when I eat it. Many animals can digest starch through enzymes produced in the pancreas. In us, and strangely, also in rats, this is supplemented by the production of the same enzyme in our tongues. This breaks down starches very rapidly in our mouths, so that we have no difficulty in swallowing dry toast or thick porridge. There are taste receptors on our tongue that sense both this enzyme and the malty predecessors of glucose (called by mouthfuls of names such as malto-oligosaccharides) that it produces by pre-digesting starch in the mouth. These receptors connect to parts of the brain which process taste without actually being identified as a distinct taste. I suspect that large scale addition of starch to our diets has been so recent, on the evolutionary scale of time, that our brains have not evolved to consciously processing these sensations as a separate taste.

Our brains may not have begun to process starch as a separate taste, but already our bodies have begun to evolve to identify these tastes. Some of us have more amylase receptors on our tongues. Such individuals seem to trigger production of insulin even before the starch reaches the stomach, and thereby lower the glycemic response to the food. Could the observation that diabetes runs in families similarly signal individuals who have heritably lower levels of these receptors? How did rats evolve this sense? Did they have it before they became ancient household pests, or did human agriculture and storage stimulate this evolution in rats? A tasty lunch seems to be a lesson about evolution in action.

Survivors

Downtown Mumbai is a mess of memories right now. Many of our favourite old restaurants are shut. Some lanes are completely shuttered. Walking aimlessly through them I noticed a restaurant in a lane I seldom pass. It is a survivor. It had created a pleasant space in the middle of a crowded street with a forest of potted plants. They are still green and watered. It had to give up an upper floor, apparently. An empty facade looks out on the street with open shutters on windows which are now a mere windbreak. But below that they still advertise tea and cakes. The Family inspected the menu and said “We have to come here.” She wants to support the businesses which are still open.

Bollywood has barely responded to the ongoing crisis. We streamed the anthology film Unpaused, which is perhaps the only take on the ongoing crisis till now. I liked all five stories in their own ways. None of the stories had any stars, but many fine actors. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, and Shardul Bhardwaj are among the newer actors whom I would like to see again. Vishaanu, written by Shubham, was the best of the segments: sensitive, and not a false moment. Avinash Arun Dhaware, known for the series Paatal Lok, directs this segment.

The anthology reminded me of how it is hard to break out of middle class solipsism in this epidemic. Only one of the five stories was about migrant labourers. Looking for books to read, I lingered over The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (I’m afraid I never bothered to read it) but an algorithm directed me to 1232 km, The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri, converted from his documentary. That’s what I’m reading now, a book of reportage which follows a group of migrant labourers walking home during the first lockdown.

Light and dark

A simple piece of artwork that I saw on a little walk around town last week is a pointer to a long story of trafficking. The short version of it is here. Or you can read the complementary long version here. As more people die of the pandemic, more children are orphaned, and the problem is bound to grow, unless action is taken.

Hustle without bustle

After another lunch out, we walked through the area around the stock market. The state has designated five categories of lock down, and districts move between them depending on the availability of hospital beds. This is one of the most rational ways that public health agencies can act, but it is still an awful time for business. Mumbai is now in the middle category. I chatted with the owner of the restaurant: he is resigned to the enormous losses, the impossibility of doing his full menu, and the lack of a stimulus.

Since last June we have discovered a large number of people who, having lost their previous business, turned to food as the one thing which always generates an income, no matter how meager. Associated with this is the rise of delivery services, taking their workers from among people who have lost other semi-skilled jobs. The Family worked out a way of no-contact tipping of these delivery boys. We still say boys, although a slowly increasing number are older men, perhaps compensating for the loss or incapacitation of the major bread-earner in the family.

Our walk showed us the same business model on the street. Many of the old street-food stalls are open, now to a much reduced number of customers. Businesses are working on restricted in-office personnel, and the central business district of Mumbai looked empty in the middle of the week. The man roasting peanuts outside the stock exchange, whom you see in the photo above, was joined in the lunch business by newcomers. We saw two such new businesses working out of parked SUVs. One was selling plates of cut fruits, the other was serving out plates of idlis and vadas from large vessels. I liked the views through the open doors of the boots. SUV owners turning to street catering is an indication of a fall in incomes. Mumbai has changed deeply without changing. If the streets are anything to go by, the hustle remains, although the virus may have set us back by one generation in terms of prosperity.

The Family feels like providing business to these street food vendors, but there is only so much you can eat. Paying for others is perhaps the right alternative, but how do you provide a connection between these businesses and the people who are going hungry? I ask the question here because the last such question I asked generated responses, including direct reach outs, which helped us and others in our tiny efforts to help.

Hidden world

Monsoon can bring out hidden life in the garden, as I discovered on a walk this weekend. A beginning like this year’s is not routine, but not uncommon either: a couple of days of hard rain followed by a few days of sunshine. On a tree-stump that I have inspected at such times for several years now, I found the familiar bracket mushrooms sprouting (featured photo). Through the next few weeks they will grow into amazing dinner-plate sized bodies. Are they edible? I’ve seen this variety in forests near villages and they are not harvested by locals. In the absence of evidence, I have been cautious and not tried to eat them.

Further on, I found a treasure of a tree which I hadn’t noticed before. Its branches have sprouted mushrooms in this week. The fruiting bodies of mushrooms that we see, and sometimes love to eat, are just the tip of an ecological iceberg. Beneath it all is 90% of the lifecycle, the wonderful web called the mycelium. When they intermingle with the roots of trees, they seem to be symbiotic, exchanging nutrients and signaling molecules with the host. And sometimes they seem to provide a means of communication between plants, even those of different species (A BBC article colourfully names this a wood wide web). It is also possible that the webs of these hidden mycelia determine whether or not a forest supports an invading species of tree.

But these mushrooms that I see on this branch are not the soil growing mushrooms associated with trees which are the staple of forests. Are they among the edible mushrooms native to India which are slowly being identified and marketed? I wish I knew. The wonderful umami taste of mushrooms is widely recognized, and I do not mind adding a couple of new flavours to my food. I was not very surprised to find that they are called ‘vegetarian mutton’ in parts of India as widely separated as Maharashtra and Jharkhand. On this one branch of this single tree, I found three varieties of mushrooms sprouting. Does that mean that the tree is dead, and its decay is being hastened by these saprophytic fungi? Or are these the so-called endophytes, which are symbiotic with the tree? I’m afraid it will take an expert to tell.

Looking at these photos and wondering about them led me to documentary films and other information on a wonderful world which I did not know much about. Apart from these ecological connections, there are new horizons of different kinds. An interesting article told me about the possible industrial uses of the mycelium; among others, that mats of mycelia are being marketed as a alternative to styrofoam in packaging! The next time I inhale the wonderful earthy aroma of cooking mushroom, it will not be just the omelette I’ll be thinking about.