Dreamland

Pandemic changes are still rearranging my life. The Family asked “Why do you need so many small holidays?” Every few months a hale and hearty colleague or friend dies suddenly. Most are male, between the ages of 50 and 70. They include diverse people like Himalayan trekkers and yoga enthusiasts. What they share is the manner of their sudden death, a matter of seconds when their heart stops beating in the middle of a mundane day. One sitting at a beach with his family, one in the middle of a presentation, one at dinner with wife and two young daughters. Such incidents, all in the last two years, can change your perspective on what is important. Watching the sunlight filter through sal and pine into a grassland, in the coolness of autumn, two kilometers above sea level, seems as important as the work that I continue to love. In my travels now I meet a lot of people, often in their 30s and 40s, who have become more nomadic than me. I don’t doubt that people with other interests are also following them more passionately now. Pandemic and death, perhaps even the expectation of an imminent climate disaster, have changed our lives more deeply than we see yet.

Near these foothills the landscape changes within an hour’s drive. In the plains below I stood near a village where some partition refugees from Punjab settled a lifetime ago. Their children and grandchildren now till the land. Tractors and harvesters have set the bullocks and horses free, but they are still loved and tended. Another dream, of escaping the madness of the partition, of settling into a quiet slow life, of being untouched by history, is coming true.

Across the bund on which the horse stood was a huge reservoir created by the Haripura dam. We stood on the bund looking at water birds through our binoculars. This is the season when the winter visitors begin to arrive. We were not surprised by the water birds and small warblers which have come down from Tibet and central Asia. But I was happily surprised when a resident pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) dived into the water and came up with a catch.

Halcyon smyrnensis, white-breasted kingfishers, can be found everywhere in this landscape. They don’t require water, being able to catch lizards and frogs from the ripe rice fields they are poised over. The farmers watched us curiously: Who are these people with binoculars and cameras? I explained to one that we were watching birds. The young Sikh farmer took a look, then told me how one of the birds which used to nest under roofs here is disappearing. Everywhere you go, there are stories of slow extinctions. He invited us for a cup of tea. Very reluctantly, we refused. We had to be in the hills in a short time. He understood.

The berms are overgrown with Lantana. But among them are other plants which can beat them at the wild game of growth. There are vines of morning glory, pumpkin vines topping out the Lantana to spread their edible yellow flowers to the light. And there are these small white flowers with their incredible petals, like the wild dream of a botanist who tastes every leaf she sees. But for all its wild fantasy look, it is a real flower. I’ve seen it before, but haven’t identified it. Can anyone help? (It turns out to be parval, परवल, Trichosanthes dioicha. Now I’ll remember this flower every time I eat parval. Thanks for pointing to Cucurbitaceaea, Profundareflexion.)

Another dream is slowly emerging into reality. For years I would see the work of those wonderful wildlife photographers who post fantastic photos of predators with prey. In my own small way, I’m getting a chance to do the same thing. I saw a blue-bearded bee-eater (Nyctyornis athertoni) on a wire. If you stand and watch for a while you see it sallying to catch an insect on the wing. I was lucky to get a shot of it with a wasp in its mouth. I remembered Lotte Eisner’s voice narrating the Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation myth, in Werner Herzog’s movie called Fata Morgana. The paradise of the myth is a place where food flies into your mouth. That’s what the photo of the bee-eater with its prey looks like. So that’s my answer to The Family, it’s a way to change a nightmare into a halcyon dreamland.

Earth Day 2022

Counterculture or moon shots? Rachel Carson or James Lovelock? What prompted U Thant, the Secretary General of the UN in 1969, to sign the declaration to bring about an annual Earth Day? The first one was celebrated in 1970, the Paris Climate Treaty was signed on another. Now in a year that has seen record breaking heat waves simultaneously at both poles (40 Celsius above normal in Antarctica, 30 Celsius above in the Arctic) in a week in early March, and a heat wave in April covering south east, south, and central Asia, Earth Day has come around again. All tipping points are long past, now it is a matter of survival.

The risk of Armageddon has risen dramatically. Stay bullish on stocks over a 12-month horizon.

Attributed to BCA Research in a tweet

We have known for quite a while that climate changes in the past couple of million years drove the evolution of the genus Homo. A brilliant new paper gathers archaeological and computational evidence that Homo sapiens arose in a climate change event 300-400 thousand years ago. If we are the product of a climate change, it stands to reason that large changes in the global climate can drive us into extinction, or at least into a population crash. If the weather is not the end of us, it could be the end of civilization. Quite a storm? Place a buy order with your broker. Better still, read some books or listen to an interesting lecture. Some suggestions follow.

Grasslands of India by Jayashree Ratnam (on Youtube)

Yesterday I listened to Ratnam’s talk about the unrecognized savannas of India. She gave a very clear definition: if the tree canopy is not continuous, then it is a savanna. The sunlight percolating to the ground allows lots of ground layer plants to grow. As a result, the competition to reach the sun does not drive the ecology, and it is totally different from a forest with a canopy. Whenever I’ve traveled in the last couple of years I’ve come across a savanna mis-classified as a degraded forest. As a result of this colonial-era mistake these habitats are being destroyed and species which need such a habitat are now endangered: the black buck, the Indian elephant, the great Indian bustard, the Bengal Florican. Ratnam gave a wonderful account of the under-counting of biodiversity in such biomes. She went on to talk about the cost of this mistake in climate mitigation efforts. Large scale tree planting in these biomes kill the undergrowth and release soil carbon into the atmosphere which is not compensated by the trees. The discussion at the end was specially interesting.

A take-away lesson: by merely re-focusing on highly modified ecologies like cities, roads, their verges and those of farmlands, the very large economy that has been built around carbon-neutrality can work without endangering grassland species.

Otherlands by Thomas Halliday (Penguin)

Traveling across the planet can give us a view of the enormous variety of life that shares this current climate with us. But they are mostly limited to what grows in this current range of temperatures, humidity, or oxygen and CO2 in the atmosphere. Halliday then takes us on a tour of what kinds of biomes the earth supported in vastly different eras. The billion year journey is illuminating: our current crisis is not a crisis for the earth, it is for our own survival. A changed climate will support different animals and different plants.

A take-away lesson: the earth endures, species don’t.

A Natural History of the Future by Rob Dunn (Hachette)

If you live in a city you might have noticed the life around you. Not just the gardens full of roses, other colourful flowers, and the weeds, the songbirds, pigeons, and crows, dogs and rats and their individual fleas, the mosquitos, flies, and the cockroaches, but also the lichens and mosses that grown on concrete, SARS-CoV-2, and other diseases, all live in an ecology we have created. Dunn writes about how the human-modified environment drives evolution. One of the interesting chapters in the book looks at the particular ecological niche that we humans occupy. Interestingly, most humans continue to occupy this niche even today. Across the globe today, and in recorded history, less ideal climates, or extreme climate variability, generally contribute to a fall in GDP and an increase in violent crime.

A take-away lesson: free movement is essential for the survival of species as the climate changes; so one needs to create green corridors joining different biospheres. It is an interesting political exercise to think that the same lesson also holds for humans.

The road to Bhutan

Bhutan was locked away from the world. This is one of the responses that countries have taken in response to the pandemic. The Manas National Park of Assam is part of a larger biosphere reserve that includes the Royal Manas National Park of Bhutan. It is a wonderful idea in these changing times. As the climate changes, one expects species to begin migrating up into the cooler heights, and this biosphere reserve is one of the corridors through which species will manage this. But on this hot day I was an individual in a species which was barred by closed gates. Seeing a small group of Indians on the road, a masked border guard came to watch.

We had no intentions of crossing. This was just a little walk after lunch to a point where I could indulge my romantic memories of a trip made fifteen years ago. Bhutan has changed since then, become a democracy, and bristles at India’s inept advances. I remember the wonderful experiences I had with the utterly friendly Bhutanese long ago, and would, in spite of the changes, like to go back there. Often people do not change, only governments come and go. I circled the border marker as wonderful memories of Bhutan passed through my mind.

The Family and I had long talked of entering the Manas biosphere reserve through Assam and going over to the Bhutanese side to see how the wildlife changes with altitude. We would have done it earlier, except that this was then a disturbed region. On the Indian side, Bodo tribesmen were in revolt against the Indian state. On the Bhutanese side, the Nepali insurgents had hidden away in these forests. Now the Bodos manage the Indian side of the forest, having come to a settlement within the Indian federation. On the Bhutanese side the ethnic conflict has been shut down by the military. But then the world has been struck by a virus and passage is again blocked. I wonder though, whether no wildlife can become a cross-border reservoir of the virus. After all, these forests do have pangolins. The only safety seems to be in the uncertainty of vaccination.

We were a group of birders, eight in all. We spent a while there, loitering at the border. Each of us had to take photos of the border marker. Having taken my photo, I walked around the perimeter of the border guard’s post, at least the part I was allowed to. The fibre glass tiger glared at me as I looked at the old familiar signboards from Bhutan enforcing discipline. Interestingly, unauthorized research was deemed almost as offensive as poaching!

The pre-Buddhist traditions of Bhutan include customs derived from an animist belief system. This is reinforced by the Tantric stream of Bhutanese Buddhism. One visible result is the use of skulls as symbols. I wonder which animal’s skull guards this border. Certainly a carnivore’s, given the long (broken) incisor. But not a tiger’s, the jaw is too long for that. Perhaps not a jackal’s either, since it would have had tearing teeth all the way to the incisor. There are bits of Bhutan which are still a mystery to me.

Cheesecake

“Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar,” Freud is said to have said. In the same way, this attractive cheesecake is only cheesecake.

I took this photo two weeks ago, when we met a friend in a deserted restaurant for lunch. I’m happy that this Lebanese restaurant has continued to produce good food even after two years of scarce diners. I saw that there was only one other table occupied for lunch on a weekend. The omicron wave was just beginning then, on the first Sunday of January. “This won’t be good for business,” I thought to myself.

I scanned the menu and the rose flavoured cheesecake seemed to be the most interesting dessert. Not only was the flavour interesting, the cake was also light enough to round off a long lunch. The brass plate, the rosy dessert, the light, everything looked like a photo would come out well. So for once I remembered to take a photo before digging into the food.

For the last two weeks the wave of infections, now tens of thousands of new cases daily in the city, has kept people at home. Traffic has thinned out, shops and restaurants barely have customers. The number of new infections may be levelling off, but the number of deaths has just started increasing; it takes two weeks or more for critical cases to resolve. Hospitalization rates have been low, since the city is almost fully vaccinated. So one expects that deaths will be much lower than in previous waves. That is what the vaccine was meant to do. Nice to know that it is working.

The normal strikes back

Last Friday we went to hear Ustad Rashid Khan sing. It has been more than two years since the two of us sat in a darkened hall full of people. Everyone had to carry a certificate of complete vaccination in order to enter, and even then there was the mandatory temperature check at the gate. The seating was alternate, and everyone was masked. But people mingled in the foyer. In any collection of people there will be those who are more careful and distancing and masking, and those who are not. In recent times we have never been in a crowd except at airports, and there we could keep our distance. Still, this didn’t set our teeth on edge.

Why? I asked The Family after the concert. Perhaps because everyone was vaccinated. Vaccine coverage in Mumbai is very high, with almost everyone having received one shot, and a large fraction being fully vaccinated. The case load has not disappeared. There are between 100 and 200 new cases discovered every day. Even in our moderately large apartment complex there is a case every few weeks. But beds in COVID hospitals and ICUs in the city are now freely available. People have buckled down to work again, although there is more work-from-home than in the November of 2019. The pattern of sickness and mortality has shifted over time. The pandemic began with large risks for people above 60. Now the largest fraction of mortality is for people in their 50s. The number of children, under 10s as well as teens, infected is no longer a negligible fraction. As the pandemic comes under better control, attention has to shift to the less vulnerable population. No one is invulnerable.

Ustad Rashid Khan has perhaps the best voice of his generation of singers. It was good to begin the season with him. We have tickets for the next couple of performances. It was interesting to find that at the end of the concert there was no crowding at the doors. People spontaneously remained in place and maintained a constant trickle at the exit. That is the kind of new normal that I would love. The initial vaccine hesitancy in certain pockets of the city was quickly overcome because all political parties supported the vaccination drive. I came across a very well-researched news story which talks of the slower spread of vaccination in villages. India’s population is immense, and even though it hits new records of the number of vaccine doses given, only about a quarter is fully vaccinated as yet. It will be a while before one can safely gather in large numbers indoors everywhere in the city.

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.

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.

Redundancy

Some weeks ago I noticed that junk calls from telemarketers was decreasing in frequency. I put this fortunate circumstance down to the pandemic. After all, these immense telemarketing operations are super-spreading venues, and must have been closed down. I suppose that meant that some of these jobs went into a gig economy. I guess that the extreme incoherence of some recent telemarketers, and the high levels of background noise in their calls could be due to this. Now the market has stabilized again, not due to vaccines, but because of automation. Today I was woken in the morning by an automated telemarketer.

I always fall into the bullshit. Why?
Socks on in bed—the devil is a lie.

Pentametron++

Travel agents were losing business for a while, and the pandemic has killed them off. Retailers have bounced back, but not exactly to where they used to be. Online marketing has taken on a larger share of the market, and the pandemic has moved a larger number of people into delivery gigs. A couple of times I opened the door for a delivery and saw a man older than me. I wonder what their stories are. Sudden loss of a job? Death of the main bread-earner in the family? While this low-paying job market seems poised for growth, how long will it be before delivery is further automated? The gig economy is a passing phase: it is the automation of shops and customer service counters. Now the automation is reaching deeper: right into the service being provided. The pandemic provides a window where accepting this change becomes easier.

Yet in a circle, pallid as it flow
By this bright sun, with his light display,
Rolled from the sands, and half the buds of snow,
And calmly on him shall infold away.

Deepspeare

Complicated jobs requiring simultaneously human judgement and manual work have been automated: for example, large cargo ships now run with crews of ten or so. My two cataract operations at the end of last year were performed, in about fifteen minutes each, by a robot which calmly intoned the purpose of each part of the process before beginning on it. I found it soothing. The doctor was in the operation theater and supervising, but it will not be many years before she is redundant. How long before the rest of the chain around her is also automated? Perhaps you will get your glasses from a vending machine in a few years. And instead of me, an artificial neural network will be writing these posts.

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.