Marathon memories

The Mumbai Marathon usually takes place in January. Ten years ago I’d woken up in time to go stand by the road and watch it. All marathons are serious affairs, and the well-funded ones attract international attention. The Mumbai marathon attracted quite a few world class runners for years. That year the top ten were a mix of runners from Ethiopia and Kenya with timings that ranged from 2:09:54 to 2:12:47. Girma Assefa of Ethiopia, then at his personal peak, won that year. That run remains one of his best, although he bettered his time by about two minutes in Paris three months later.

It was already an hour into the main race when I arrived, and the serious runners were no longer bunched up. I saw the lead runners of the pack pass by. Most of them had the lean muscular build of runners, but it was still early enough that a few well-trained amateurs were in the pack. Apart from the main event, there was a half-marathon for beginners, and a short six kilometer course called the dream run.

The dream run was a fun party. Political statement and fancy dress were the order of the day. The Family had decided to join the dream run that year, running to raise money for the protection of tigers. It was a time of a hundred flowers blooming, before the approach of the cultural revolution. The stakes seemed low then, but the same problems have become harder today: the environment, health, and education.

One tree, sky

For about ten years I carried a camera in my backpack wherever I went. Then, as smartphones took over, I began to leave the camera at home. My old photos show that the two instruments are not yet interchangeable. You do different things with them. There is a tree which I pass daily on my way to work. I took photos of it every now and then. I stopped doing it when I began to leave my camera at home.

The featured photo is from one March at midday. The winter’s smog is gone, the sky is a lovely blue. This photo was taken in the late years, after I started carrying a smart phone, but before I began to leave my camera at home. But it is the earliest time of the day that I took a photo of this tree.

The images from the month of April span eight years and cover the time from late afternoon to sunset. This is the time of the day that the western shore of the city gets its best light. The tree is more or less a flat silhouette though.

There is a gaping hole in the record during the monsoon months. The sky is drab, the light is flat, and it is almost impossible to keep the camera dry next to the sea. I think I took this photo in a particularly dry monsoon year.

September is still a monsoon month. The sky is often overcast, but there is less rain. I have a couple of photos from this time of the year. This one was taken in the afternoon, at about the time when, in other months, the shadows would be lengthening.

This is a photo from one October. The sky is clear. The light remains good after sunset. Good enough to see the colour of the sea, and the green of the grass. What a difference the month makes!

Then, as the sea begins to cool in December, smogs begin to envelop the city. The colours of sunset remain spectacular, but the sky fades quicker. Lights come on in the garden early.

I thought I was photographing the tree. It turned out that I was recording the six seasons, and the way the light changes with the weather.

Relax County Drive

Vaitarna lake is four hours from Mumbai. We started at about eight on Sunday morning because we wanted to reach by lunch. Most of the drive was along the Mumbai-Agra highway: National Highway 3. It takes us more than an hour to leave the city behind. Then it takes another hour to drive through the old industrial belt north of the city. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that it has now turned into a logistics hub. This early in the morning, the trucks were parked in large bays visible from the highway. In two hours we were at our first stop.

Hurry was behind the wheels. He’s wonderful at driving. By that he means negotiating traffic and potholes smoothly and fast. So the navigation was my job. Fortunately, there is good connectivity on the highway, and our stop was well rated. A quick chai, a dosa, and we were off again. The next hour would be take us through the part of the road which is most full of history.

It is also tremendously picturesque, especially in the monsoon. You point your camera anywhere, and you get a beautiful photo of the lush green growth. Structures look weather-beaten. Human effort pales against the force of nature called the monsoon. The best way to live here is to work with it: sow when the weather calls for it, reap when it tells you to. Sell corn cobs by the road, and let the rain and millipedes convert the husk to humus. Hotel Paradise looked like you could meet Norman Bates there. We hurried past.

Soon we were in the part of the road with the steepest grade: the famous Thal Ghat. This was an almost impassable barrier in the medieval times. The ancient town of Thane to the south barely features in history because of it. The barrier also gave the Portuguese and British a safe space to establish the port of Mumbai. The tunnels and viaducts of this section of the roads and rails were built in the second half of the 19th century CE. These marvelous pieces of engineering connected Mumbai to the rest of the country. The advertisement by the road caught my mood perfectly. We were now in Relax County.

The steep grade is negotiated through many curves. I leaned out to look for Ehegaon Viaduct, a historical marvel when it was completed in 1865. It is 55 meters high and 220 meters long. Too bad I couldn’t see it. But soon we were near Igatpuri railway station. I remembered the times when I would wake in the morning up just before a train pulls into this busy station. The loco changes here to something powerful enough to control the steep drop in to Mumbai. That usually gave me enough time to follow the crowd and grab one of the vada pavs that the station is famous for. We stopped on the single lane north-bound section of the road to take a photo of the famous railway track. The electric pylons on the track also make a pretty picture I think. Late that evening the monsoon dislodged boulders which blocked the road and the trains. It was several hours before traffic started again.

Soon we reached the last toll booth we were to see. We’d climbed about 1500 meters from sea level. We were on a high plateau now. Kalsubai peak (1636 meters) dominated the landscape as we turned into a side road. This flat land is the last of the lavascape left over from the breakup of Gondwanaland and the extinction of the dinosaurs. We were nearly at the end of the journey. Four hours in a car, and we had traveled a hundred and fifty million years into the past!

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.