Strawberry fields

Large mugs of strawberries with cream were a la mode in Mahabaleshwar this season. I managed not to exceed two a day, but sometimes one of these mugs could be a little larger than your garden variety. I wasn’t really looking for the strawberry fields. But when The Family and Leafless decided to set off for one, I could not leave them to it. That is how we chanced on a high density farm: the farm of our future. It was set in the inner courtyard of a typical semi-urban two storey family house, the front given over to a little restaurant and shop. When The Family asked for boxes of strawberries, the woman in charge asked, “Anything else?” A look of indecision on our faces opened the door to a little wonderland.

She led us to the courtyard and its dense farms: drip irrigation, natural light, organic manure, hand control of pests. She offered a herbal smoothie. We tried one. Then we tried another. Wonderful combination of sweet and peppery herbs, with bits of leaves we could identify, others that seemed familiar but elusive. We took a guided walk between the rows, looking at the wide variety of things that were growing there.

Strawberries were in flower and fruit, pak choi and Swiss chard were looking great. I saw the leaves and plant of wasabi for the first time (we later found that the leaves make a great addition to our daily salad). Iceberg lettuce. Chinese cabbage. Kale. A whole corner full of microgreens. The ladies said they regularly fulfill orders from Mumbai. The two women were really chuffed to have The Family and Leafless ask how to make this or that, and we were given samples of cooked exotic greens, Indian style, from their kitchen. They also had jars of jams: strawberry and blackberry. We left with several kilos of leaves, with their assurances that they will stay fresh for a week. They did.

The six seasons: 6

Shishir, the season of dew, winter, is mild over most of India. In places you might want to bring out a sweater or two. In others, a tee would keep you warm. I’m not talking about the Himalayas, the pictursque towns in valleys, or the foothills, where winters can be severe, with snowstorms cutting off passes for weeks, and roads impassable due to snow. Nor am I talking of recent disruptions in the world’s atmosphere, which causes the polar vortex to come down to the mid-latitudes and brings weeks of awfully cold weather to the tropics. Otherwise, this remains the mildest and most enjoyable of times. You sit in gardens full of flowers in the mild winter sun, eating oranges, sipping tea, socializing through weekends. Enjoy the sight of colourful butterflies, like that Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete) in the featured photo, sipping lazily at a marigold.

This is the best time of the year for quick weekend vacations. You can indulge yourself in the fudge and chocolates that are a cottage industry in the hill towns of the Western ghats. You can buy enormous quantities of strawberries, peaches, or grapes, to eat or to convert to jams and preserves. And you can do all this without putting on the kilos, because the weather is finally right for strenuous physical exercise: walking in the mountains, or beaches. Climbing, swimming in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, or the Indian Ocean. This is the perfect time to spend a couple of weeks on the beach, living in the mild sun, collecting scallop shells (photo above), or cowries, or sea snails, or cuttlefish bones,

For me this is the season of travel, chasing after large breeding colonies of local birds like the Gujarati flamingos in the photos above, or the last individuals of once common species, like the Great Indian Bustard which I saw again a couple of years back in the grasslands around the Thar desert. But mostly, this is the time of the numerous migrants: from the large ones like the Dalmatian pelicans that I saw last year in Ranthambhore (Rajasthan), or the unforgettable sight and sound of my first view of the Siberian ruby throat a few years ago in Nameri National Park (Assam). Winter is a great time to travel around the country, enjoying the sheer diversity of geography, wildlife, and culture, but united by the weather.