Post and police

What role does the government play in the small villages of Maharashtra? Schools and health centers are important. So is the Gram Panchayat. The post office and the police station? Going by the looks of it, they are not much in use. We walked through Vaitarna village. The post office stood well away from the road. A muddy path led up to it. One person ran in as a sharp shower came down. Who visits a post office any longer? Messaging and emails are widespread. Courier services take parcels across the country. Even money is transferred with the phone. Still, there was a little traffic in and out of this place. Post will take some time to die.

The police outpost seemed even more deserted. It stood in a little rise next to the road. Slippery moss covered steps led up the slope. A muddy rut ran next to it. It seemed too slippery for walking. It is likely that people run motorbikes up it when they need to. Probably some of the policemen. The gate was implied by the posts, but any remnant of the gate or fence had disappeared. There were more steps inside the gate, as mossy as the ones nearer to me. The roof had its own ecology. It didn’t look like anyone was inside the slightly skew building. I like the way trees shade both these colonial-era structures.

Strolling in the rain

By the time we reached the luxury tents by the side of Vaitarna lake, it was well past mid day. As we took in the breeze by the infinity lake, we met a group of young doctors who were unwinding after a year of hard work. Never an easy life, and certainly not in the last months. Lunch, then settle our stuff into a tent, and by the time we were ready to go out again, a drizzle had set in. The doctors were in and around the pool, two bottles of wine open on a nearby table, glasses in hands. They called out to us, but we wanted a walk. The scenery was spectacular after all.

There was a choice of extremely muddy tracks or a black-topped road. We’d had a bit of discussion about what to wear. Expecting really heavy rain, I’d opted for shorts and a tee, and flip flops. The rain is not cold, so this works. “No point getting trekking shoes soggy,” I’d said to The Family. She had taken normal, everyday shoes and a poncho. Also good. But our choice of footwear meant we couldn’t take muddy tracks down slopes. So the yellow-brick road it was.

Clouds were massing overhead. We didn’t know yet that the next three days would be so stormy that we wouldn’t feel like going out to the pool. There was a high-pitched call overhead. I looked up to see a black winged kite (Elanus caeruleus) hovering overhead. I missed my long lenses. A macro lens or phones are just enough to remind you of a sighting like this, but not to show what we saw. The kite hovered and dived down to the lake. “I didn’t know it eats fish,” The Family said. We moved on to watch it as it soared and stooped again. It wasn’t breaking the water. So probably it was scooping up large insects. Dragonflies?

Walking in the middle of farmlands you expect to see cattle. Sure enough, there were water buffaloes grazing in an open field near the path. This must be a wonderful time for them. Pools of muddy water form during these weeks of storms, and take many weeks to dry. The animals don’t have to move far between forage and wallow. There were a couple of very heavy showers as we walked. There was little cover. We could huddle behind bushes or under stunted thorn trees, or we could keep walking. We decided to turn our backs to the wind and walk.

When it became a little light, I took out my waterproof camera, and started taking photos of wildflowers. The Family sometimes gets a little impatient when I do this, but today there were enough things to see that she was happy walking at my uncertain pace. She pointed out a butterfly. Again I missed my long lens. Fortunately my camera has enough pixels that I could crop a long shot. This is a common crow (Euploea core), one of the commonest butterflies in the Sahyadris, especially at this time of the year. My flip flops worked better than soggy shoes would have. We compromised on a walking distance between my footwear and The Family’s, and decided that it was about time to walk back.

Puzzle flower

Puzzling is a word that came repeatedly to mind when I tried to identify the flower you see here. It was very common around Vaitarna, but I haven’t seen it in Mumbai. The plant is short, growing about 20-50 cms off the ground. I could see it on the verges of most roads, so it is perhaps hardier than many other plants. The bell-like flower is a centimeter long, usually solitary, and mostly hang down. The colour varies from a light pink or violet to near white. As you can see, it has no visible markings. I can’t place it after a couple of weeks of searching. Does anyone have a pointer to an ID?

Surfing on deep time

Vaitarna is a little river which arises in the Sahyadris and drains into the sea just north of Mumbai. It has been called India’s most polluted river, at least in the lower stretches. The upper parts have been called the most dammed river in India. This stretch is clean enough to supply drinking water to tens of millions. The 154 kilometer long river has three dams, which, between them, hold nearly a billion cubic meters of water. Why so many dams, I wondered as we walked along the uppermost of these dams.

The answer lies in the weather and the land. The Indian Ocean monsoon dumps incredible amounts of water on this land for three months every year. It has done that for tens of million years. The land itself was formed in the volcanic eruptions sixty to seventy million years ago, during the time that the dinosaurs died. The ancient lava flow cooled into the basalt of the Deccan Traps. Later it was weathered in the hot house that the earth became thirty million years ago. The weathering formed the thin red laterite soil that covers the Sahyadris. The deep channels eroded into the volcanic basalt channels the seasonal waters as they flow into the sea. The dams catch and store the rains.

This beautiful landscape is the shadow of incredible volcanic eruptions. The soil is thin, because the rain washes it away. Where it collects in deep trenches, agriculture is possible. Around the dams rich agriculture has developed in the last hundred years. You look at this land and see few trees. The highest growths are usually tall shrubs. The thin soil of the highlands is covered by low herbs, creepers, and grasses. Weird new species have evolved in the thin metallic soil. It is an amazing place for wildflowers and strange animals. The harsh land has given refuge to some hardy exotics.

Among them you may count the water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica). Although the locals do not seem to know it, it is edible. In this it is like many other morning glories in the genus Ipomoea. I’ve eaten its leaves both steamed and stir fried in my travels across Asia. It is hardy, grows in poor soil, and is a sure indicator of the presence of water. It needs little effort to cultivate. You just have to harvest it and eat it. I see it being used as a hardy decorative around the country. Why doesn’t anyone here eat it? Perhaps just the lack of knowledge about how edible it is.

Other homes

Hurry declared that the leak had not been repaired properly, and he needed to go to a car repair shop in Vaitarna village. We agreed to go along. Next to the repair shop was a grocery store. The Family decided to buy biscuits. You can’t really have tea without a Marie biscuit or two, can you? The thin crisp things, with scalloped edges, were apparently invented in 1874 to commemorate Marie Romanov’s wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh. Far from the pomp and circumstances of that time, we took our biscuits and found a place which could give us tea to go with it. It had started raining, and I got a nice photo of a quiet street in a village.

We walked around a bit, taking photos of people and houses. The unplastered wall that you see in the photo below stood out from the rest. The Family stopped to take a photo. Strangely, the paint was peeling from the doors and windows. It had the odd appearance of being simultaneously unfinished and old.

The contrast with other houses could not be greater. Even relatively poorer houses, like the one that you see in the featured photo, had a better finished look. And there were some really neat houses in the villages.

The boy you see in the photo above stood at the door of his house and inspected us carefully. When The Family waved out to him he ran in. Tin roofs seem to be common here. Is it because of the heavy rains? They may be easier to repair than concrete when they spring a leak.

This house was my personal favourite. Bright and cheerful, with some lovely hibiscus in the garden. I also liked the field raincoat propped against the front verandah. In the Himalayas you see shoes lined up outside the house. Here it is the rain gear. Stands to reason. You don’t want to get water all over the floor.

Pre-school blues

We decided to walk away from the dam and lake. The flat land rose gently towards Kalsubai peak. A road wound through the rolling countryside. We would follow the road, more or less, to avoid getting lost. This side of the plateau was less well off. Perhaps the land was not as productive as that closer to the dam. A thin soil covered the porous laterite rocks. The red mud of this area was a clear indication of the geology. Immediately after the mosoon the waters would drain away, leaving a dry parched land. It showed in the village.

Across the country, Anganwadis are essential nodes in primary health care and pre-school education for children. One essential service it provides is to track childhood nourishment, and give food to malnourished children. The pandemic has interrupted this service for the first time since it was set up by the central government in 1975. We saw a closed center. A few pre-school children hung around it, and ran away when they saw me. As I took photos, they came back slowly to stare.

Next to it was a primary school. The walls contained early-school material. Schools have been shut for almost two years now. Elementary schools provide a mid-day meal. In a poor village like this, the meal is an essential component of childhood nutrition. That is another source of food shut now. This is happening at the same time that incomes have fallen, because the few people in the village who worked in towns have lost their jobs.

It isn’t just this one Anganwadi which was closed. In the more prosperous part of the plateau, between the dam and the highway, we’d seen others also shut. Some educationists are lobbying to get governments to continue to provide children’s meals even during this pandemic. A shortfall in nutrition affects children very crucially. The effects on India’s rural population won’t be visible till the middle of the century.

Motorbikes

Held up in the slow traffic behind a heavily loaded tractor trundling along a highway, you might believe that rural India travels on tractors. This is not true. Go off the highway and travel on country roads. You’ll find that India travels on motorbikes. They are cheaper than cars, and perform better on dirt tracks than pick-up trucks. I tried to make myself inconspicuous by the sides of roads as I took photos of passing bikers. A pair in water proofs whizzed by. Sacks of greens rode pillion. It looked like paddy being transported for transplanting.

Elsewhere I saw a lone biker carrying blankets bundled up in a piece of cloth. I was caught in a sudden downpour and sheltered under a thorn tree. He stopped ahead of me and adjusted the bundle. Taking it from the pillion, he held it to his rainward shoulder, and huddled behind it as he passed. No better protection than the sparse foliage of a thorn tree, I thought. He presented a better picture than me, though.

The bucolic life

Up close, you realize that living in the countryside is hard work. Farming, especially of rice, is famously back-breaking labour. Almost three millennia ago, people were already writing long poems about a past golden age when nomadic people herded cattle. Bucolic poetry, pastoral art, a hankering after a simple life in movies and TV shows saturate culture even now.

Little concern has he with quarrels and courts who has not a year’s victuals laid up betimes, even that which the earth bears, Demeter’s grain.

Hesiod (Works and Days, circa 700 BCE)

There are still some nomadic herders in India, but they are considered to be a little outside of civilized life. Generally, farmers look down on them and their lifestyle. It is a reflection of the way that city dwellers, in turn, look down on “simple” farmers, with an added layer of hostility about their “thieving ways”. In the Sahyadri region there are large tracts of land where the top soil is too thin for cultivation. We saw herds of cows grazing on such fields. I began to wonder whether these are used by nomads.

Later, we were caught in the middle of a traffic jam of a mixed flock of goats and cows. I looked out at the livestock, and revised my opinion. This was a very mixed bunch. They were unlikely to belong to nomads. They usually herd particular breeds of cattle. They are unlikely to have the money to buy new breeds. It was more likely that farmers here supplemented their incomes by raising cattle as well.

The herders were all women. The Family got a few good portraits of the women at work. This tied in with something else we’d noticed earlier. The fields that we passed were being ploughed by men. It was possible that the work is split by gender: women to tend cattle, men on the field. This gets interrupted during the time that the paddy has to be transplanted. Then the whole family, children included, get drafted into the work.

And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men.

Hesiod (Works and Days, circa 700 BCE)

A little further on, an earth mover was standing in a rice field. The farmers here are quite willing to sell their lands to city folks intent on building hotels and resorts for people like us. They’ll take the money and move to cities. In a couple of years the plateau will be filled with city people on a short holiday. About ten thousand years ago agriculture began, and villages formed. It took at least five thousand years for the majority of humanity to convert to a life of settled farming. A couple of thousand years later, a little before the time of Hesiod, the first cities formed. At the end of the twentieth century, for the first time in history, a majority of humanity began living in cities. We are lucky, we live in a moment of unprecedented changes. In our times the cities will begin to retreat from coasts into these highlands.

Karambal

When I first saw Karambal many years ago in Lonavla, I thought the petals had fallen off it. It was only when I spotted the third or fourth plant that I understood what the matter was. Flowers do not burst open all together on the spike. One flowers and withers before the next one opens. Karambal (Justicia procumbens, aka water willow) is common in the Sahyadris. It seems to flower between late July and perhaps September. I was surprised to find that its native range extends all the way east to China and Japan and southwards through Java to Australia. I’d found some years ago that is used in folk medicine in India. But it seems to be used in Chinese folk medicine too. Not surprisingly, a large part of the recent literature on its anti-cancer and anti-HIV action comes from China.

When I saw the flowers in my walks around the Vaitarna lake, I was probably at its highest recorded reach. Late in the monsoon, when the rains have abated, I like to hang around these flowers. They are magnets for several kinds of showy butterflies. Now, quite by chance I saw a different pollinator: a fly. Whenever I see a flower with interesting colour patterns on one of the petals, I’m virtually certain that it is a landing pad for pollinators. This sighting certainly indicates that could be true. I’m pretty certain that under black light the petal will have more complex patterns. Both flies and butterflies can see in UV. I should try that out.

The literature on the origins of this species is hard to trace. The genus Justicia contains a little less than a thousand species, all tropical. They differ clearly in shape and colour. Even the microscopic morphology of pollen is very diverse. It seems that the genus may fragment under the gaze of modern techniques. It is a little too early to answer the question that I was interested in. But I will go out on a limb here and speculate. From the distribution of the plant, it is quite likely that it originated in the Sundaland, and entered India some time in the last 50 million years. I’ll continue watching the literature on the Acanthus family, to which Karambal belongs.

The rain bicycle

As the man came over the hill a thin blowing of rain met him. What had set out as a walk along tarmac lanes had turned dreamily by hedge-gap into a cross-ploughland trek, the red mud of the fields inching up his exposed legs. And now there was a wetness in the air that would be downpour again at any minute.

This was the view he had been thinking of. Vaguely, without really directing his walk, he had felt he would get the whole thing from this point. He saw the rain pulling up out of the distance, dragging its grey broken columns, smudging the trees and the fields. But as he turned, something moved in his eye-corner. All his senses startled alert. He stopped.

Over to his right a thin, black bicycle was running across the field toward the hill, its head down, neck stretched out. It seemed to be running on its toes like a cat, like a dog up to no good. From the high point on which he stood the hill dipped slightly and rose to another crested point fringed with the tops of trees, three hundred yards to his right. As he watched it, the bicycle ran up to that crest, showed against the sky – for a moment like a nightmarish leopard – and disappeared over the other side.

He ran along the top of the wood and finding no shelter but the thin, leafless thorns of the hedge, dipped below the crest out of the wind and jogged along through thick grass to the wood of oaks. In blinding rain he lunged through the barricade of brambles at the wood’s edge. The little mean trees were small choice in the way of shelter, but at a sudden fierce thickening of the rain he took one at random and crouched down under the leaning trunk.

Still panting from his run, drawing his knees up tightly, he watched the blurred lines of rain slanting through the boughs into the clumps of grass and herbs. He felt hidden and safe. The sound of the rain as it rushed and lulled in the wood seemed to seal him in.

All around him the boughs angled down, glistening, black as iron. From their tips and elbows the drops hurried steadily, and the channels of the bark pulsed and gleamed. He wanted this rain to go on for ever.

All at once he found himself thinking of the bicycle. The hair on the nape of his neck prickled slightly. He remembered how it had run up to the crest and showed against the sky.

He tried to dismiss the thought. Bicycles wander about the countryside often enough. But the image of the bicycle as it had appeared against the sky stuck in his mind. It must have come over the crest just above the wood in which he was now sitting. To clear his mind, he twisted around and looked up the wood between the tree stems, to his left.

At the wood top, with the silvered grey light coming in behind it, the black bicycle was standing under the thorns, its head high and alert, its ears pricked, watching him.

A bicycle sheltering from the rain generally goes into a sort of stupor, tilts its front wheel and hangs its head and lets its handle bars droop, and so it stays as long as the rain lasts. This bicycle was nothing like that. It was watching him intently, standing perfectly still, its soaked neck and shank shining in the hard light.

What was he to do? Ridiculous to try driving it away. And to leave shelter, with the rain still coming down full pelt, was out of the question. Meanwhile the idea of being watched became more and more unsettling until at last he had to twist around again, to see if the bicycle had moved. It stood exactly as before.

Bicycles left out by farmers in a field always make me think of them as being alive. I have a mental image of them as feral animals, racing alone through the landscape. When I saw one in a monsoon downpour while walking in the rolling fields near Vaitarna village, Ted Hughes’ short story, The Rain Horse, came to mind.

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