Walking through Ballard Estate on a Saturday with my camera, I saw a balcony with these old cast iron railings. It has been a few monsoons since they were painted. The mild shadows of a large banyan tree interrupting the sunlight on the flaking paint, the elegant curves which bore that paint, and the line of such curves intersected by the sloppy diagonals of wires seemed like it might make a decent black and white photo.
An art installation featured a city made of plastic crates and plaster. This was the biggest draw in the exhibition; the aisles between the stacks of crates were packed with curious people peering at the small balconies and windows. Humans are openly curious about other lives when it becomes socially acceptable.
Was it patterned after a real city? I felt that it was. The long verandahs on each floor of a chawl, the dense living spaces with high rise towers looming over an aerogel of low-rise buildings, the dilapidated Art Deco buildings, all seemed to evoke Mumbai. The impression was solidified by a model of a slum, the towers of a temple and a mosque poking out of a ramshackle slope of shanties; the blue plastic resembled the ubiquitious blue tarpaulin that you see from the windows of an incoming flight.
Views of an installation at St+Art Mumbai 2023, Sassoon Docks
Every now and then I see something so out of the ordinary that I feel like I’m a tourist in my own city. This view of hell in the making made me stop whip out my phone for a photo. A city which already has about 1900 cars per kilometer of road has added these large towers right in its midtown. As you can see from the photo, there are still many of the old eight storey houses left. But they are being sold to developers quickly. I’m so glad that there is a highway out of the town close to where I live.
Another uncommon sight: a stretch of road was being repaired! But why not? This patch of road is such a favourite of film makers that you’ve probably seen that door, that facade, in a hundred Bollywood movies set in Mumbai. That road roller will trundle away before the lights and cameras move in. I grabbed the opportunity.
There are pleasant things to photograph too. An artist with a conscience decorated the junction box right in front of Conde Nast’s Mumbai address. Is that a love letter to fashion? Or to glossy magazines in general?
Khari, the puff pastry that melts in your mouth is a staple of Parsi and Irani cafes. Of course it had to be from Iran. Sure enough, when you search for puff pastry from Iran you get lots of recipes and names of sweets like Zabaan and Naan Khamei. They are sweet, unlike this, whose very name means salty. Apart from the sugar, the recipes seem like they could be for this. A khari and a cutting chai is the typical Mumbai pick-me-up, but it may have started life elsewhere.
Nothing is impossible, declares the message on a barrel of drinking water mounted on a handcart. Impossible sentiments, echoed by advertisements for expensive shoes and worthless sugary drinks. The barrel, on the other hand, testifies to the seeming impossibility of getting clean drinking water from taps. The cart was parked on a lane behind Mumbai’s stock exchange.
A little further around the globe, in another city by the sea, an abandoned shop off one of Istanbul’s most visited streets speaks of three eras: the high noon of the Ottoman Empire is referred by the street sign whose edge enters the photo, the early years of the republic can be seen in the bollard, and the 21st century in the graffiti.
Kochi’s history as a major port in the thousand year history of Indian Ocean trade can still be seen in shops across the town. The Yehudi Kochinim had settled here at least 900 years ago. Their mark is subtle but visible everywhere in this ancient port city. It is part of the cosmopolitan air of the town.
The Art Deco frontage of banks in Wuhan’s Hankou district talks of another bit of history, the end of the Chinese empire as it collided with European powers and was forced to cede “Treaty ports” to foreign powers. Subsequent events gave rise to the Chinese nationalist movement which crystallized around Sūn Zhōngshān, aka Sun Yat Sen
From the shreds of one empire to the ruins of another. When we visited Hampi, the village which has grown around the remnants of the 16th century capital of the Vijayanagar empire, this design greeted us outside the gate of our homestay. The empire traded with Arabs and south east Asia, was counted among the most prosperous of its time, and then was utterly destroyed. This design, the kolam, is made fresh every day, to be walked on, blown by the wind, and its remnants washed away for a new design the next day. I thought it was a good metaphor for the rise and disappearance of empires.
Stuck in Nairobi’s traffic I watched the brightly painted trucks and buses that fill its streets. There is an energy in the city that I found very refreshing. These paintings are part of that energy. Our driver told us that there are artists who earn money doing them. All artists and artisans are referred to as mzee, a respectful term whose literal translation would be old man. But the artists are often young men, so appropriate for a continent whose time is to come.
The final message I selected for this post comes from the most ancient imperial capital that I know. Just after Alexander of Macedonia crossed the Indus, a young adventurer called Chandragupta took over the kingdom governed from Pataliputra, today’s Patna, and founded the empire that took Buddhism across Asia. Outside the airport of Patna I saw this mural in the style practiced by the women of Madhubani district. The style has evolved very rapidly in the last few years, and the content of this painting may have been impossible a few years ago. I found that it was done by a traditional painter. So, perhaps some things are not impossible after all.
Views of an installation at St+Art Mumbai 2023, Sassoon Docks
Blog images from the past year: 403 ME
When you try to structure a retrospective of your favourite photos from a year’s worth of blog posts, you have a lot of choice. You could rate them in various ways, arrange them by colour or theme or chronology. But no matter what organization you choose, you still leave yourself a bit of leeway with the introduction. So it was with me. Having chosen to structure this post chronologically, I still had to figure out what to use as a featured photo. When it comes to visuals, I think you should be able to tell a book by its cover. Since my year was full of birds, I will start with a photo where I managed to get close enough to a hunter to see the colour of her eyeballs.
It seems hard to recall now, but the year started with the last of the major variants of the virus which divided our life story into before and after. January was omicron time, and I was mostly at home. Highly infectious variants of a virus run through the population very fast. So the wave was over earlier than I’d expected. As a result, I could spend the next month walking through my own city after a long time. I still had time left over to try my hand at blank verse in iambic pentameters. I discovered that counting syllables is not easy, and I had to approximate.
But soon enough we were back in the wilds. One special sighting was of the lost Taiga bean goose, probably separated from its west Siberian flock, and tolerated as an honorary member of a flock of bar-headed geese. I spent some time with maps trying to understand how this strange companionship might have developed, and learnt a valuable lesson about the world unsettled by us.
Between visits to the wilderness, it was interesting to watch the city come alive. Those were the last days of continuous working from home, and I could finish my day’s work early and roam the streets of Mumbai as life resumed after the pandemic. Most people were already vaccinated, and although the latest variant had infected large numbers, most did not need hospitalization. There was palpable relief on the streets.
India harbours a large variety of cats, and it’s a pity only the big cats attracts so much attention. In 403 ME we were lucky to sight several of the small cats. They are elusive creatures, wary of humans, The jungle cat is the most common, and I’ve seen it only thrice. I’ve never seen a fishing cat, the manul, or the Asian lynx. I’ve seen a caracal briefly as it sped off as soon as I chanced on it walking along a deserted road. So I feel I was lucky to have got photos and a video of one which was probably the desert cat. I was a bit puzzled by the ecology of its desert habitat, and it helped me fill in a bit of the puzzle.
After that I went tiger hunting in the same place where Bungalow Bill, made famous by the Beatles, shot his tiger. But more than half a century on, I was happy to see that not a single visitor had either elephant or gun. I have shown photos of these tigers too often; having seen them after three years. So here I post a photo of two butterflies, one called the common tiger, and the other the common crow. Pat yourself on the back when you figure out their names, but remember that there’s a whole lot we do not know about these two milkweed butterflies.
When you spend most of your leisure time in the jungles of India you cannot fail to notice the unremarked creatures which shape the land: termites. The jungles would regenerate slower without them, because these distant cousins of cockroaches are the most efficient metabolizers of wood. I was astounded when I found how old some of their cities are.
As July came along, we left for the hills. In the high desert of Ladakh, headaches and worse stalk those who forget about the lack of oxygen in the air. Among the most interesting sights here are signs of ancient humans who lived and left their art on rocks in this unhospitable part of the world. But the most interesting photos were from the cham at the Hemis monastery. I found the juxtaposition of masks interesting: one set elaborate and hand made according to several hundred years-old tradition, the other set stamped out in a factory for export to a foreign culture. Trust children to create something new.
Meanwhile, in the plains, the monsoon had set in. During breaks we travelled the Sahyadris, as we’ve been doing in the past two years, looking at the blooming of wildflowers in the otherwise arid volcanic soil. I hadn’t seen the misnamed Glory lily for several years, and had almost forgotten its name. But I remembered a true crime story associated with it.
A collateral pleasure of this new passion for wildflowers is the glimpse we get into life in small villages in the middle of Maharashtra. These places were traditionally very poor, but in the last seven decades roads and irrigation projects have made a very great difference to the lives of people who live here. Earning a living is by no means easy, but I think someone from my grandfather’s generation would be surprised. As for me, the differences from city life sometimes surprise me as much as the similarities.
After the monsoon it was time to get back to the mountain wilderness in the Himalayas. In this short trip around Diwali I was happy with the number of birds I saw. This pied kingfisher was not the most difficult to photograph, but it certainly gave me one of my favourite shots of the year.
Before you realize it, the sun picks up speed as it falls towards the lowest point in its orbit. The northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, which sits at the focus of the orbit, and for me it is winter. No one in their right mind goes to the mountains at this time. But did I claim to be sane? Winter weather is clear and cold, perfect for views of four of the five highest mountains in the world (Chomolungma in the center, Lotse to its right, Makalu at its left). The zoom required for this photos excluded Kanchenjunga, which is just off the right margin of the shot.
An finally, when the earth whirls past its closest approach to the sun, it is the true new year, 404 ME. We are ready for another whirl around our nearest star. It is unlikely that a new Buddha will arise soon, and even less likely that he will be the Manjushree Buddha, one who cleaves ignorance and fear with his sword. But we can all wish such a happy new year to each other, can’t we?
Parsi bakery treats
Last winter we got our Christmas treats from an East Indian catering service. This year we walked into a Parsi bakery for their winter specialties. The biggest draw are the plum cakes, rich rum soaked treats which the bakery has made for a century or so. But they had much more besides: marzipan marbles, sugar cherries, and fruit jellies. The Family asked whether they had anything more. Yes, there were macaroons, gingery and spicy things made with coconut. Not her favourite, but she was shopping for the nine year old nephew who was to visit on his school holidays.
The painting on the bakery’s door seemed to conflate Santa Claus with the Old Man 2022, one whose earlier incarnations used be burnt to usher in the new year. That old custom which I’d seen in some areas of Mumbai seems to have been overshadowed by the commercialized version of Christmas that has taken over the city’s malls in this century. But it didn’t look offensive or out of place here. In this little bakery full of locals it seemed cheerful.
Moths are back!
After two years I’m beginning to see the moth population in our garden slowly recovering from the frequent chemical baths that became part of the hygiene theater of the pandemic. One of my favourites is the one in diaphanous tutu with a gold border that you see in the featured photo. It was a little more than two centimeters across in size. Most moths do not have common names, so I know this only by its binomial Cydalima laticostalis. It is a member of the grass moth family, Crambidae. I should start calling it the gold-and-satin moth. Maybe it will catch on.
I find it useful to think of moths first by size. The two that you see above are between one and two centimeters across. One of the reasons moths do not have common names is that it is very hard, impossible, to pinpoint species by sight alone. The spotted yellow moth is clearly a member of the genus Conogethes, but this is a massively speciose genus. An attempt at DNA barcoding found that there are many species which were not recognized as different until the genomes were studied. By appearance this moth seems to be a member of the Conogethes punctiferalis complex, one of the many agricultural pests. The other, ivory and chocolate banded moth, is a member of the genus Nosophora. Both these are grass moths, in the family Crambidae.
This moth is smaller, about half to one centimeter across. It is enough of a pest that it has a name: a teak leaf skeletonizer. It is a member of the Paliga damastesalis species complex, containing also the P. rubicundalis and the P. machoeralis. It is impossible to tell these three grass moths apart by sight. I had no desire to extract its DNA in order to identify it better.
Previously I’ve completely ignored moths which were less than half a centimeter across, like these two. But now with my macro lens I can see that they are both likely to be grass moths, ie, in the family Crambidae. That brilliant wine red colour should make this quite recognizable, but all the web sites I consult for identification also seem to ignore these smaller moths. Let me see whether I can nudge them to start working on these smaller ones. Whether I can identify them or not, I’m glad to see that the local population of moths is slowly recovering from the COVID-induced hygiene theatre of spraying everything around us with strong pesticides. Perhaps the bee-eaters and fly-catchers will also be back in a year or two.
The city around me
When you’ve lived in the same city for a large part of your life, you start noticing what visitors often don’t see. In cricket-crazy India who even knows that there’s a football stadium and a dedicated football subculture (only very few of whom buy jerseys from the ManU shop next to the Hard Rock Cafe). And not many visitors may come by to see the vistas of the city painted on the walls outside the football stadium.
You notice the constant small crowd outside this ice-cream shop which has been selling ice-cream sandwich for three generations. The crowds formed ever since the shop lost its battle in court to stay in the place where people like me found it as they wandered out of one of the city’s major local train stations. Every day there are people as old as me coming with youngsters to memorialize one of the city’s old landmarks before it passes. We have been among them, bringing a niece here with her boyfriend.
You pass an unremarkable restaurant where you’ve had a couple of nice lunches maybe fifteen years ago, and stoop to take a photo of street cats hanging at the entrance. You tell them, “Yes, the fish is quite good here,” as you walk away. That’s what you’d come here for, and remember years later.
Or you are caught in a traffic jam next to a blank wall whose texture you’ve admired for years. You’ve always hoped to get a photo here, but nothing really happens against that wonderful wall. Now, as your car idles, you see a (possibly) interesting intersection of shadows, and you take a photo. Does it work? Somewhat. Perhaps. But you’ll still be on the lookout for a better photo to take against this empty wall by a busy road.
Maybe along a cluttered lane which you have not taken for forty years, you see a clean white-washed house. An entrance door stands open as well-dressed women pass in and out. A widow’s home! Curious. You take a photo, meaning to find out later what kind of endowment runs a charity like that. And who they help. There are always single mothers in need of help in this city.
One weekend you walk out of a convenient coffee shop, on your way to buying a growler of your favourite craft beer, when you see the Yacht Club looking nice in the sunlight. You juggle the cup and your phone to take a photo, and realize that you’ve caught Mitter Bedi’s studio in the corner of the photo. It’s not a great shot, but it is a homage to the first industrial photographer in India, one whose photos are a foundation of the visual language you know.
Or you pass one of those dead end alleys which has better potential for discarded garbage than the tourist trade. The sunlight makes you pause. You take a photo of a green metal gate, rusting quietly and unremarked. Remarkably, the gate fronts a tiny shop where someone repairs swivel chairs! I wouldn’t have paid it any attention if the shop was open.
Sometimes you notice how a little temple has grown over the years. In the middle of the business district what once was a little stone idol on the pavement has grown into an idol-encrusted south Indian-style temple. And some time in the last two years it has fenced off the corner of the sidewalk. It seems clear to me that the temple will grow in coming years. It is one of the constant changes in a living and litigious city.