Evening clouds

A clear view of the western horizon might have shown me Jupiter and Mercury before they set. Venus and Mars would be higher in the sky, on either side of the moon. It would be a spectacular sight.Since I was not in a city I could walk out to a place where the horizon was uncluttered. Unfortunately, the glorious view that I had of the sky was nothing to do with distant planets; it was our atmosphere that set up the fantastic light show that you see here.

March had been unseasonally hot this year, and in the last week of the month it got worse. A constant cloud cover allowed the humidity to build up to levels where the air felt about five degrees warmer than it actually was. On this evening, my last away from Mumbai, a storm set in as I went out for my walk. I didn’t dare to take my camera with me just in case the thunderstorm brought a huge downpour.

But the camera was not needed, since the sky remained overcast.spectacular light show My phone was enough to catch the spectacular light show in the sky that day. I missed the line up of four planets (the fifth, Uranus, was not going to be visible to the naked eye) but I got some photos. Was it a fair trade? Who knows?

Presidential Bonsai

Bonsai is an art that I find fascinating. It has the same relationship to plant breeding as, say street art has to painting. A painting is made to last. A plant breeder can sit back after creating a stable new line of plants and say, “There. That will spread. That will last a long while now without my care.” In contrast, a street artist lives with the certainty that the painting will disappear in a relatively short time. Bonsai is an artistic statement about a single tree, and will disappear when the tree dies. Oh, these adolescent sighs over the impermanence of things!

The President of India has a whole division in his gardening staff whose job, it seems, is to produce and care for bonsai. Going by the results, they must be a dedicated lot, quite in love with their job. They may not have the showmanship of Makoto Azuma, but I liked their work. Click on an image in the gallery above to look at it in more detail.

Nothing is real

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The featured image is not a photo of a breakfast table being cleared. It is a portrait of one of my companions in an African safari in a coffee spoon. Why would you linger at a breakfast table while it is being cleared around you? Why would you do it when others are out hunting cheetah? Perhaps because you got back late from a dawn safari with four lions in the bag?

Let me take you down
‘Cause I’m going to strawberry fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry fields forever

John Lennon, Paul McCartney (1967)

Is that an aerial view of a lava field? A dead caldera leading down to a volcanic plug? No, just a close up of a felled tree.

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

When a live tree begins to sprout mushrooms you know you are looking at deadwood. A dense mat of the fungus has already spread through the dead corpse of the tree and sending out spores to find and colonize other dead trees.

How agonized we are by how people die. How unconcerned we are by how they live.

P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought

A photo of fractured rocks leading down to the sea? Not at all, this is a close up of the cracked mud outside a water deficient village in the Thar desert.

Still life season

Sakura bloomed this year in Tokyo by the 15th of March, one of the earliest bloomings on record. Around that time Mumbai recorded a temperature of 39 Celsius, the highest ever temperature recorded for that date. The Atlantic had the largest Sargassum bloom recorded, almost 8000 kilometers across at some places. In the US, bird migrations are affected by the weather, with males beginning to move northwards earlier than the females. Here, where I’m spending some time away from home, the weather has been very unsettled. It was much warmer than I’d expected in the previous week, whereas this week has been full of rainstorms roiling the upper atmosphere and bringing that cold air down.

Holi is over, and in a couple of days we will hit the spring equinox. Instead of venturing out for photos celebrating that astronomical event, I thought it better to stay indoors and try my hand at photographing seasonal produce. Still life is not something I’ve seriously tried before.

So here it is, the pumpkins are the last of the season (we ate pumpkin flowers after a long time), and the potatoes have just been harvested. These small bananas, a wonderfully sweet and flavourful local variety called champa, will disappear as the heat builds up. Oranges are winter fruits, and we are clearly getting the last ones. They are still tangy and juicy, thankfully. I have no idea what the season for pomegranate is, but we seem to get them the year round. And the ber! I haven’t eaten such wonderful fruits from Ziziphus mauritiana trees in years. We’re lucky to be here in this season.


Sleepwalking is how I proceed through a garden. I recognize almost none of the flowers. I can tell a rose from a marigold, and Nargis (daffodils) from rajanigandha (tuberose). But beyond that I have to tread cautiously. These flowers were not dahlias, cosmos, or zinnias. They weren’t morning glories, sweet peas, or pansies. I could rule out snapdragons, lupines, and lilies. What could they be? Dianthus? Nasturtium? Impatiens? I’m afraid I have no idea. Do you?

All I knew was that the gardeners in Bhubaneshwar’s Museum of Tribal Arts liked them a lot. They had taken some trouble to collect multiple shades of these flowers: from decidedly purple to clear pink. Looking at the photos now, I realize that my phone’s camera may not have been able to capture the distinctions of the shades that my eyes did. So which was wrong?

Presidential gardens

We’d seen many photos of the gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, so when we found that we had a uncommitted morning in Delhi that was one place that immediately came to mind. A search told us that there were seven hourly slots for entry, each accommodating a hundred people. Since people rarely spend more than two hours in the garden, one should expect about two hundred people at a time. A friend had told The Family about the tulips in bloom in the gardens, so she was keen on it. Even though only phone photography was allowed in the gardens, it seemed like a place where I could get some decent macros. We made our online bookings for a Friday morning.

What we’d not known was that school children are allowed a free visit on Fridays, so an enormous number of schools plan a trip to the gardens. We were waist deep in about ten thousand children. It was hard to get lines of sight which did not involve throngs of children being hurried about by the security, while their teachers ran ragged trying to get their bunch to keep together. I was happy to get the usual calendar shot of a rose in the foreground of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Maybe I shouldn’t say usual, because the calendars I’ve seen frame the rose more carefully. Here I found that I couldn’t budge because of the press of children around me.

In spite of all the jostling, I did get the rose in the foreground. I was happier with the photo of the tree with the guard in the background. The tulips? They were far from the path that visitors had to keep to. It was impossible to get a photo using my phone camera. I could have done with a better zoom.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan has been occupied by the titular head of India since the capital shifted to Delhi from Kolkata in 1912. The gardens were laid out first a year later by William Robert Mustoe, and have been changed many times later. Our path was lined with these interesting chest-high water spouts, each sporting a globe of spilling water. As I framed the two gardeners at rest behind it, I became the center of a curious bubble of school children. Their minders kept them moving, but there was always a bubble around me. Somewhat like the water bubble around the central unmoving spout, I thought.

Three roses

The rose garden in Rashtrapati Bhavan used to be called Mughal Gardens. The day before I booked a visit with The Family it was renamed the Amrit Udyan. Doesn’t a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Let me go with roses, not names.

I’m completely naive when it comes to gardens. All around me I notice people stopping at their favourites and reeling off the name of the cultivar, talking about the soil and the humidity needed to get the best blossoms. I listen, and the words drip past me. All you need, in order to grow the best roses, is to be the President of India, and have a huge garden and staff.

She does have the best roses I have seen in a while. I do like the spotty white one, although the rose-tending-to-purple is pretty eye-catching too. Interestingly, not one of these three had a sweet smell.

People and pigeons

A short auto ride from the Janpath Metro station in Delhi is a lovely old step well called Agrasen ki Boali. Ever since someone pointed out that these step wells are a water management system known since the third millennium BCE, I’ve tried to take the time to look at examples whenever I heard of one. After all, a system which has been in use for five millennia is a part of the human technological heritage as old as cities, and certainly older than history. So The Family and I entered the gate to this old step well.

How old? No one has a clue. An information panel put up by the Archaeological Survey says this quite explicitly. Wikipedia pointed to the architecture, which resembles that of 14th century buildings in Delhi. The structure is the simplest possible: a single flight of stairs led down to the reservoir. The step wells are no longer being maintained, but an open reservoir of this kind is wonderful for harvesting rainwater and recharging ground water. In these days, as we begin to run out of usable water, it is good to look at, and adapt, a technology which had been useful throughout our history. In that spirit, one can also figure that the well could be easily older than the current walls that we see around it.

I walked down to the level of the dark water. Although pieces of plastic were floating on it, there was no sign of eutrophication. Does this mean that the baoli can be made usable again with some cleaning? In these days of municipal water piped into your house, there is little use for this expense, but it would be worth finding out. Unfortunately, I could not find any articles on the hydrology of this well.

I looked at the surrounding walls. They are made of dressed sandstone with the surkhi mortar which was common across northern India. The highest level of the wall looks different. The stone is badly dressed and the mortar is barely visible. At some time the outer wall was clearly raised. Why? And by whom? There seem to be two kinds of niches on the walls: one level seems to be deep niches, and another looks today like architectural fancy. Both sets are topped by well constructed load-bearing arches. Why would you go to the trouble of building them? The lower set is at the same level as the main entrance doorway. Could they be ghost doors, ie, doors which served a proper doorly purpose before they were filled in? There are more questions in this quiet place than answers.

Sport or chimera?

The gardens at the Rashtrapati Bhavan turned out to be more interesting than I had expected. One of the fun things was a bed of pansies around the base of a tree. The gardening staff have been putting out interesting crosses with the Viola tricolor base stock in recent years. Having seen the photos from the past years, I looked carefully at the bed. The featured photo was taken by The Family. You can see two different stalks of the same plant have flowers in two different colours (the one behind is closer to the wild V. tricolor) than the main subject of her photo. How often do you see two differently coloured flowers on the same plant? Not so often that one can ignore it, right?

How can that happen at all? In any organism, different genes can be activated or silenced as the animal grows. The patches of colour on cowhide, or the stripes on a tiger are the most visible example of this. Sometimes a cell mutates during development, and the mutant cell produces more daughter cells with the mutation. This is called a chimera. Some individuals have a patch of coloured skin visible on their body, sometimes called a birthmark. This is due to such a mutation in skin cells. These two things can happen to a plant as well. If the genes for a pigment are switched on or kept off during the development of a flower, then you might have two different colours of flowers on the same plant. These are called sports in botany.

So the pansies that we saw in that one bed in the gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan are sports, and chimeras. I wonder if the flowers give rise to seeds which will keep the colour of the flower it came from. If it does, then you can breed multiple cultivars from the same plant. In that case some seeds from this plant could give violet flowers, others white, a third set yellow, and yet another set of seeds could give that tricoloured flower that you see in the featured photo. Is this one of the methods that plant breeders use? Someone with more knowledge than me will have to answer that question.

What’s the word for a wedding?

Indulgence. That’s it. Open boxes of sweets which every passer by can dip into, long and frequent meals, enough alcohol to drown those who can’t swim. Bling and glitter, dressing up, colour and noise, these are also included in the word indulgence. The words “big” and “fat” are used sometimes, but they refer to the guests after they return home.