The tomorrows past

My hard disc is full of ghosts. Electrons streamed through complex orderings of magnetic fields. I dredged out a few images. The end of December is always a calm and quiet time it seems. In years without the omicron I have strolled through gardens, walked on deserted beaches, sailed through calm lagoons.

We seemed to have traveled without a passport on most Decembers. The furthest photo in this bunch was the beach in the Andaman’s Neil Island. We have travelled north, into the colder parts of India, or stayed by the warm shorelines.

Every time I look at a collection of photos, something different leaps out at me. This time it was this photo taken in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar. The duo look like chess players: looking into the interior of a baroque piece of ancient electronics. A very close look before the next move, I’m sure.

Odds and ends

Paging through photos I came across some odd shots which suddenly reminded me of the circumstances in which I’d taken them. The featured photo was taken in south Sikkim on a very overcast day. We’d thought of taking a walk in a rhododendron forest, but the cold drizzle put us off. Instead we walked through a small village looking for a place to have a chai. This blazing wall gave me the first photo of the day. It was a typical frame house. Mats are tacked to the frame and covered with mud. A hole cut in the mud holds a window. But the colours!

From the wonderful aesthetics of the mountains to its utter absen e in Delhi. Walking through the university, I this unlikely juxtaposition of a toilet door covering an open manhole, a bicycle on the ground chained to a post, and an office chair. The exuberant gracelessness of such sights is as much Delhi as the beautiful imperial monuments built across half a millennium.

“Out at work” is a line that popped into my head when I saw the closed doors of a trekking guide’s office. We were in Yuksom, west Sikkim. This is the start of a big array of walking trails of all levels of difficulty, and guides are in heavy demand. Clearly.

The extremely decorative facade of CST, the century and half old railway terminus in the heart of Mumbai, is reflected in the window of a taxi waiting at a red light. I was in another just behind it, when I realized that this just might be the oddest shot that I’ll ever get of that ornate building.

December’s foggy freeze

You remember celebrations by the smiles, don’t you? And the convivial atmosphere. But doesn’t the weather also play a role? From my school days I’ve been conditioned to a long winter break. Those were years when only children had a long break in winter; the adults had a day off for Christmas, and another for New Year. So winter holidays came without travel. Ever since, taking a trip over Christmas has not been on top of my mind. If it happens, it is usually a last minute improvisation.

Kolkata, 2020. Our first flight after a hard lockdown involved masks and face shields, PPEs, enforced distancing in flight. But I was glad we took this trip. We decided to go to Park Street in the evening. Past experience told me that this would be incredibly crowded, but The Family had never been to Kolkata for Christmas. It was the best possible year for us at Park Street. It was festive, there was live music, there were people dressed up, but no crowds. We sat at Flury’s and had coffee and a chocolate rum ball before walking on.

Kochi 2019. We’d just recovered from a bad flu which left us drained for weeks after (we realized half a year later that we had come through a COVID-19 infection), and welcomed a recovery trip. The Nasrani Mappila of Kerala are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tracing their roots to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in 52 CE. The western church traditions are a much later, colonial, overlay. We loved the festive look of the ancient port city, and had a lovely time eating out.

Shillong 2018. This was one of our few well-planned Christmas trips. The Clan decided to take a holiday together. You can never get twenty people to agree on anything when you are traveling, so it was a week of delightful chaos. It all started with a discussion about whether to walk down to the neighbourhood church before tea or after. By the time the decision was reached, several rounds of tea were history. The mass was a long time away, but we stood with the throng of people and had the cake and wine. I think the older nieces made sure that the under-age got their sips of the terrible wine.

Mumbai 2017. The Family’s cousin had found a beach house for a party. It was a wonderful evening: a large number of people dressed to the nines, lots of food and drink, a dance floor. I stood with a knot of people watching the sun go down. Below us, on the beach, Christmas was on. A young couple had decided to bring a bag of goodies for the poor children playing there. Why hadn’t we thought of that?

Port Blair 2016. We hadn’t thought of Andaman as a Christmas holiday. We were there to watch birds. But on the eve of Christmas we decided to stay up late and go into the bazaar. Why was there a crowd at this temple? I asked a passerby, and he looked at me as if I was from Mars. “Christmas,” he grunted and went away. Religions are not so distinct; people will celebrate.

Mumbai 2015. “Let’s go to Bandra,” The Family proposed. She wouldn’t be deterred by visions of traffic jams that keeps bears like me at home. We walked through the festive lanes of Bandra, where the old villages of East Indians have become incorporated into the city. Parties were in progress and some spilled out into the lanes. The Family found someone making hampers of the traditional Christmas goodies: kolkol, several kinds of biscuits, mango jellies, marzipan, and the traditional fruit cake redolent of spices and rum. We had to get one.

Lava 2011. This was a birding trip gone wrong. But the day had been lovely, bitingly cold, and with grand views of Kanchenjunga all day. In the evening we reached the then-tiny village of Lava, and found a Christmas procession. A group of people singing carols went from house to house, and were welcomed with something to eat or drink at each. I don’t think they insisted on a figgy pudding.

Mumbai 2008. On Christmas Day the spell seemed to break. The streets had remained deserted even after the terrorists of November 26 were all killed or captured. No one wanted to be out. We went out for a walk late that morning, and found that large numbers of people had come out to exorcise the ghosts of the trauma. The media was clustered around the collapsed remnants of Chabad House. That’s what the photo shows. We walked round to the Taj and its blackened dome and exploded wings. We looked at stray bullet holes in buildings around it. The mood was somber.

Bremen 2005. We’d planned a Christmas holiday in Vienna. We’d bought tickets to two evenings of music, booked hotels and airlines. Then, at the airport in Duesseldorf The Family’s hand bag was stolen. It had her passport. We had to cancel the trip and stay in Germany. Between visits to the embassy and police, we made a few impromptu trips. One was to Bremen, and its warm Christmas market. The week was tense, but we had a lot of support, families I’d known for years invited us home every day, or met up at Christmas markets. Eventually, The Family got emergency papers for the return trip, and the police found her bag, with not much missing.

East-Indian sausages

East-Indians are a less known community centered around Mumbai. If you haven’t heard of them before, you might be tempeted to think that they are smaller in number than the Parsis. But, in fact, there are six times as many East Indians in Mumbai as there are Parsis across the world. The East Indians were the original inhabitants of Mumbai. They are Marathi speaking fishermen, the Koli, of Thane, and Vasai who converted to Christianity after the arrival of the Portuguese, and with whom they had extensive dealings. This was at the time that the Portuguese used Vasai as their second most important port in India. I was quite puzzled by this name for the inhabitants of the western part of India, until I realized that I had to think like the confused Portuguese. For them this was India to the east, whereas Central and South America were India to the west.

The gratuitious featured photo shows two Indian Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris canidia) which I photographed in the ruins of the Vasai Fort. It is a place worth visiting. East Indians live in the villages around it, still farming and fishing as their ancestors did.

Their method of making sausage yields a wonderful product. Salt-cured shoulder of ham and bits of the neck are chopped fine and mixed with the a mixture of ginger and garlic, turmeric and cumin. A little red chili is added, but the much less than the fiery heat of the Goan chourico. The mixture is pickled for a night in toddy vinegar, yielding a fresh and mildly sour taste. I wolfed down a plateful with toast, pausing only at the last sausage to take a photo. It really is that good.

Same old, same new

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same)

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

As things open up and people start commuting back to work, my work times have begun to get back to the usual nine to five. There’s little opportunity now to finish most of my day’s work in a five hour stretch in the morning and then go for a walk. As a result I find that the last time I was out for a stroll in the middle of the day was in late August. I’ve been posting on and off about the great ferment in small businesses: many have shut, others have changed from one business to another. A corner restaurant that I used to duck into for an occasional cup of tea has shuttered down, as you can see in the featured photo.

The Family has a favourite fruit vendor. As she chatted with him, I looked at the small but elaborate Jain temple next to the street market he sits in. Religious places are set to open soon, but at the end of August its doors were still firmly shut. All around it business seemed to be on as usual. When I said this to The Family, she gave me The Look. “Don’t you remember how crowded this place used to be in the afternoons?” I don’t any longer, but I can imagine that when people again have unrestricted access to the suburban trains, the crowds here will double.

The market began to fill up by sundown. Many people are still fully masked, but sights like the one above are not uncommon. Mumbai claims to have given one shot of the vaccine to almost all residents, and both shots to a rapidly increasing fraction. In January when I saw scenes like this I was afraid (correctly, as it unfortunately turned out) that we would have a new wave of infections soon. This time, I see this and hope that it signals a return to normal. At least, as long as a new mutant of the virus does not begin to spread.

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.

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