Circus? Seriously?

We take a break from Guangzhou to take a quick look at Mumbai as the heat of October gives way to the pleasant weather of December. An evening’s entertainment happened to be a show by the Canadian circus-theater called Cirque du Soleil. The Family dragged me to this show while I shook my head and muttered “Circus!”

Once inside the grand chapiteau I quite enjoyed the music and spectacle, and took many photos with my phone. For a while there was little difference between me and that kid you see next to the stage in the featured photo. It was only much later that I was surprised by the quality of photos from my dinky little phone.


Durga Puja

We are past the middle of the season of festivals now. Ganesha showed the way at the end of the monsoon. Now Durga is gone for the year. This season is the Indian summer, the muggy period which sets in after the end of the monsoon. The season will end in another couple of weeks, when Diwali swings around again, and signals the beginning of the winter.

I took the featured photo at a puja in Powai. I love the sight of people taking selfies in front of the idol. The Family’s Instagram stream was full of such photos.

Urban Jungle

It is hardly possible to walk far in south Mumbai without passing by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This example of Victorian Gothic was designed by the architectural firm of F. W. Stevens, and completed in 1888 CE. The mosses and algae covering it have been cleared off in recent years, lights installed, and the carvings restored. As we walked past, The Family asked “Have you noticed that cat before?” I hadn’t, nor did I recall meeting its unfortunate prey, the rat.

When you pause to look at the building it is hard to tear your eyes away. I looked at the dressed stone, checking whether each piece in an arch was different, and it seemed that it was. There’s such a profusion of detail in and around the sandstone pillars and Gothic arches: animals peer out from the stone foliage dense with leaves, flowers and fruit. This is as good a jungle as a city can get

Walking past a school of arts

I decided recently that I would walk in most of south Mumbai. Many roads have been dug up for the Metro, which is under construction, and the rest are therefore blocked with traffic, so this is faster. I figured that it would also be healthier to walk. What I didn’t realize is that I would become a tourist in my own town, seeing things which I hadn’t noticed before. The first pleasant surprise was the student murals on the walls of the J. J. School of Arts.

One of the origin stories that Mumbaikars tell each other is that Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling, taught here. The story is even told in the School’s website. As a result, the Nobel prize winner for literature in 1907 grew up in a walled campus which much of the city commutes part daily. Caught in traffic jams nearby I hadn’t given it a thought. But walking past, my eyes snagged on little things behind the walls. Like the weird pipes around which a artist painted the mural which you see above.

Shabby maintenance is also evident in the work which you see above. I liked the work, with the man lying down to admire the wonderful colours around him. But the wall on which it is painted is a picture of awful maintenance. The hole which was punched into the wall to hold an exhaust fan did not account for the shape and size of the fan, and no one bothered to fill in the hole again. That this reduces the efficiency of the fan does not seem to be a concern! This in one of the country’s more popular schools of architecture!

The lovely pattern of pigeons and their coops is a rather clever trompe l’oeil. If the trick fails, it is because the real window is shabbier than the painted coops. The moss growing on the wall is doing a good job to restore the trick; I guess it won’t be long before the painting looks as unlovely as the window.

Here is a photo of the remains of a painting that I found interesting. Was this a picture of a lion and an unicorn fighting over a throne? What were the hands doing? I wish more of this was left. The more I walk around town the more I notice how utterly shabby Mumbai is becoming. Zipping across it in a car with windows down you notice only the oases of good repair. Walking, you discover the desert of crumbling buildings.

Guerrilla art

Walking down a fashionable lane in Mumbai, I spotted this striking piece of art on the wall of Nirav Modi’s jewelery shop. The shop shut down because its owner left the country with about USD 2 billion allegedly embezzled from banks. My first guess was that the hashtag at the bottom of this piece of art, “#missingirls”, refers to a well-known snippet from the 2011 census of India. It turned out that in the population of 1.21 million that year there were 940 women to 1000 men. This means that there are about 35 million women missing from India. But I was wrong. This work is part of a campaign by an NGO to raise awareness about the trafficking of young girls. The clever campaign crowd sources the creation of this piece of street art.

An unfashionable address

It was a holiday. Downtown Mumbai was empty. The Family and I walked down a narrow lane where nobody goes any longer except to park their cars. Decades ago there was an open air concert area on the road, very popular for jazz and classical concerts. Then a court order banned open-air concerts within 500 meters of a hospital after 10 in the evening. That was the end of this place. I saw the gates closed. Next to it was a workshop, its shutters pulled down for the day. In the usual fashion of buildings in South Mumbai, it looked like it hadn’t been repaired since the Battle of Khadki. I liked the contrast between the shabby white wooden doors and the blue rolling shutter.

Right across the narrow lane is the back of Mumbai’s most well-known college (featured photo). It was shuttered for the holiday. These shutters were painted, clean, and in good repair. No moss grew on these stone walls. The high walls shut off the fashionable part of Mumbai from the shabby reality around it.

A low stone house seemed to hold some municipal offices. It was pretty down; tiles were missing from the roof, the stone walls had not been cleaned. Although the windows were recently painted, they were not in good repair. The municipality does not manage to do a good job with keeping the city in good repair, and this building showed that they cannot even really maintain their own offices. That’s a shame, because this is a charming building.

There was a chawl nearby. This was full of life, of people coming and going. I liked the sloping window shades that went right round the building. They broke the boxy shape of the masonry structure, and also harmonized with the sloping roofs. I hadn’t noticed this building before. But then, I had last walked down this lane before smart phones were invented.

Backstreet Bandra

Take a sleepy neighbourhood. Add some builders. Shake well. Let the lucre float to the top. Let it stand for a while. Then you get Bandra. Hip bars and cafes turn over as fast as the would-be fashion designers’ signature stores. They don’t quite put the car repair shops and vada-pav stalls out of business. On a walk down Waterfield Road I passed Bora Bora, Chocolateria San Churro, Farhan Electricals, Flutter Clothing, Israr Auto Air-conditioning, Zest, Subhash Vada-Pav Stall and other establishments.

Fashions change fast. The shops seem to know they won’t last long, so they don’t even bother to paint both sides of plywood sheets. A shifting cast of characters throng the streets, each looking for the next big thing. Some live there, some pass through. Taking street photos is easy, with everyone’s eyes glued to their cell phones. Now and then you come across a fabulous bungalow which a crotchety old couple still refuses to sell out to a builder. I was looking for an espresso, but didn’t find one on this road.

Milling again

The cotton mills of Mumbai powered into history during the American Civil War. As American cotton production stalled, the Indian mills took off. They crashed to a landing only in the 1970s, when they were unable to take on the competition from east Asia, and from neighbouring states which were building more modern mills. Forty years later, the crumbling buildings have been repurposed into an entertainment hub, with lots of restaurants and pubs. On my way to one I passed the locked-up doors of this warehouse. At first sight it looked deserted, but then I noticed the air-conditioners jutting out of windows. The space inside must be divided up into offices. It will probably take a long time before the legalities of possession are cleared up in court, and these old structures demolished to actually build again. Meanwhile these ancient mills and warehouses make for great atmosphere.

Cranes of Mumbai

The two-day long monsoon shower ended around the middle of Sunday. I took this as an opportunity to walk through the back streets around the stock market. Even on a Sunday there’s usually something interesting going on here. I walked past the very busy street vendors and looked up at the tower of the stock exchange. I’d not noticed before how many data cables cross at all angles above the street. It looks like a safety net against the eventuality of a stock market crash. Poking up through this street-wide-web was a crane.

One of these old buildings had been pulled down and a new and unexciting concrete box was coming up in its place. The crane was parked right in front of it. The young man operating it looked really relaxed, feet up on his seat, moving the crane with a delicate touch of his left hand. I’ve seen people play arcade games with the same nonchalant elan. The cabin door was open and I thought that bright blue splash against the yellow cabin made a good picture.

This was a duplex crane! In the rear cabin someone was asleep, head resting on the disabled steering. I guess the operators were internal immigrants. Their work place is where they live most of the time. Usually workers who immigrate to the city share a rented room where they sleep in shifts. This man was either too tired to go back, or had decided that it was more efficient to sleep at work. I hope he is properly rested by the time his shift starts. A little inattention while manipulating the crane probably would not damage the neighbouring buildings, but could play havoc with the overhead cables.


This moth was probably a football fan. It flew in while we were watching one of the World Cup matches, and hid behind a curtain all night. Although this type is common in Mumbai, like most moths it has no common name. So I’m forced to call it the Pygospila tyres. I’ve seldom noticed the proboscis of moths, but here the coiled organ was so visible that the photos I took are concentrated on this. The proboscis is a tube which combines the functions of a drinking straw and a sponge for mopping up fluids. Ray Cannon has a very nice blog post on the proboscis of butterflies.

Scientists love to group all moths and butterflies together and call them Lepidoptera. This is useful because they have many features in common. All Lepidoptera which have proboscis are called Glossata. I didn’t think there was any need to have a new word for this; don’t all Lepidoptera have proboscis? After all, since the time of Darwin, people have studied how flowers and proboscis have shaped each other. You might be as surprised as me to read that there are some, although very few, moths without this organ. Some of them have mouths designed to masticate pollen, and some finish all their eating while they are caterpillars!

The proboscis is weirder than I’d ever thought about. Once it is uncoiled, Lepidoptera suck up fluids using muscles analogous to those in our cheeks and throats, so a drinking straw is not a bad description of it. Uncoiling uses a mechanism similar to erectile tissue in our bodies, in the sense that body fluids are pumped into the organ to flex it. Moreover, the adult stage of the insect forms the proboscis after it has emerged from its cocoon by fusing together two different appendages. But the oddest thing is that there are flexible sensory organs all along it (think of sensitive fingers) which give the insect a clear picture of the shape of the flower that it is probing.

Further searches led me to even stranger information. It seems that fossils of Glossata have now been found which are 212 million years old. This was a time when flowering plants had not yet evolved, so what use would there be for this organ? It seems that the era during which the newly discovered fossils lived was a time of ecological crisis. The ancient super-continent of Pangaea was beginning to break up and the atmosphere was full of greenhouse gases from the volcanoes which were tearing apart the continent. In this hot dry atmosphere water loss from the body would have been a major issue, and proboscis could be used to lap up even minute quantities of fluids. Even today Glossata ingest fluids from puddles of mud, mammalian sweat and avian tears.

The football fan was not interested in my tears or sweat. When I opened the window and flicked it off the curtain it disappeared into vegetation with strong beats of its wings.