August’s end

July was a really wet month. When the rains let up early in August we were happy to see the sun. It is astronomical summer after all, so when the rain stops it gets hot very fast. In spite of the heat and humidity, it was nice to get a few days of sunshine. Unfortunately for me that also coincided with an upkick in work. So I spent these sunny days indoors, looking out at a garden.

I was looking forward to the mid-week break we’d planned in late August. Visions of walks in the hills, getting wet in the sprays from seasonal waterfalls, ran through my head. But the night we were to leave the skies opened up again. Our walks were going to be different.

The monsoon of late-August is different from that of July. No more storms which threaten to shake mountains apart. The monsoon clouds gather, it rains hard for an hour, or a day. And then the clouds are gone again. Till they are back. It is no use saying “We’ll wait for the rain to pass before …” You have to carry on regardless.

Mid-week trips replace WFH by WFA, work from anywhere. While I was busy in a meeting one morning, The Family sat on the sun deck of the hotel watching the hills. At breakfast I’d noticed that the rain had washed the air clean. So, despite the moisture, you could see pretty far. The Family took the series of photos you see here: a sunny monsoon morning turning abruptly cloudy.

Low-lying clouds blew in to the mountains from the sea, up the expressway. You can see it meeting the mountains, climbing up, getting denser. But you have to imagine the rest: The Family leaving the deck in a hurry as the rain started, me finishing my meeting about the time she got back, and then us leaving for a walk in the rain. That’s August for you, all rolled up in the story of a morning.

Here is a composition by A. R. Rahman in raag Megh Malhar. It is a raag which is said to be appropriate to the early monsoon, but it will do for the changeable season of August too.

One tree, sky

For about ten years I carried a camera in my backpack wherever I went. Then, as smartphones took over, I began to leave the camera at home. My old photos show that the two instruments are not yet interchangeable. You do different things with them. There is a tree which I pass daily on my way to work. I took photos of it every now and then. I stopped doing it when I began to leave my camera at home.

The featured photo is from one March at midday. The winter’s smog is gone, the sky is a lovely blue. This photo was taken in the late years, after I started carrying a smart phone, but before I began to leave my camera at home. But it is the earliest time of the day that I took a photo of this tree.

The images from the month of April span eight years and cover the time from late afternoon to sunset. This is the time of the day that the western shore of the city gets its best light. The tree is more or less a flat silhouette though.

There is a gaping hole in the record during the monsoon months. The sky is drab, the light is flat, and it is almost impossible to keep the camera dry next to the sea. I think I took this photo in a particularly dry monsoon year.

September is still a monsoon month. The sky is often overcast, but there is less rain. I have a couple of photos from this time of the year. This one was taken in the afternoon, at about the time when, in other months, the shadows would be lengthening.

This is a photo from one October. The sky is clear. The light remains good after sunset. Good enough to see the colour of the sea, and the green of the grass. What a difference the month makes!

Then, as the sea begins to cool in December, smogs begin to envelop the city. The colours of sunset remain spectacular, but the sky fades quicker. Lights come on in the garden early.

I thought I was photographing the tree. It turned out that I was recording the six seasons, and the way the light changes with the weather.

The monsoon arrives

The monsoon’s wind reached us on Tuesday, two days early. It had been raining on and off since the weekend. The trees outside my window had been thinned in the storms of the last two years. But through grishma, the summer, the remainder of the canopy had deepened in colour. Even the late-growing new leaves of the mango tree had begun to turn green. The weekend’s pre-monsoon showers had cleaned the dust of summer off the leaves and turned the picture to a vivid red and green. On Tuesday morning as I took this photo I saw the sea had turned grey and choppy. Varsha was imminent.

The monsoon rains started within an hour of my taking the featured photo. In one day we received 44% of the month’s rainfall. I might have thought of this as part of climate change, if I hadn’t lived here long enough to know that about 50% of the season’s rains always came in a few short episodes, may be a day or two long. That is why the monsoon is a boon for school children and hard for adults.

I tried to imagine the coastal ports bustling before the monsoon, as the trading ships from Malindi, Zanzibar, Alexandria, Berenice, arrived in Bharuch, Muziris, Karachi; cargo from the west being unloaded, other ships taking on cargo for the eastern ports of Vietnam, Malacca, and Java. The oceanic trade lent its name to the monsoon: trade winds, as we learnt in school, without understanding how it had once linked us with Rome and China, Venice and Japan. Reliance on fossil fuels has cut the cord between our lives and the weather. But as we transit to renewables, taking advantage again of the trade winds should be a logical consequence. Perhaps my nieces will live and grow old in a world of Meghdoot, cloud messengers crossing the globe on trade winds.

Monsoon is coming

The golden hour becomes decidedly more golden just before the monsoon. The science behind this is simple; in such humidity, light is scattered by microscopic droplets of water in the air. When the suspended droplets are roughly of the size of the wavelength of visible light, we get this incredibly golden hour at sunset. Far from the coast of India, these golden hours will last through the monsoon. Unfortunately, here, at the coast, the months of monsoon will be mostly overcast and gloomy. If you are not living around the Indian Ocean and its monsoon, you might still get such incredibly golden light on extremely humid days. Let me know if you do, and also if you have a very humid day when you don’t have this golden light.

The lips of time leech

On a walk through a wet and sunny garden I remember the poem that made Dylan Thomas famous.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

More than half a year at home; thrown back by two generations, into a time when infectious diseases could kill you. Almost a year since I traveled out of India. But the seasons change as usual. Varsha has given way to sharad, exactly as the calendar dictates it will. The motion of our world around the sun drives the seasons. The nuclear fusion that powers the world’s most destructive bombs powers life. Walking under trees you see death and life.

I turned the leaf over, and under it a caterpillar had drawn a cocoon around itself. A butterfly will emerge in days.

Marine Drive on a weekend afternoon

The weather is clearing up slowly as the monsoon dies down. Brilliant sunshine and no haze is the order of the day right now. On Saturday afternoon The Family and I decided to go for a walk to Marine Drive; we’d not seen it for six months. It was different. Not very crowded. People were mostly masked. These two youngsters without masks looked so much a throwback to earlier times that they gave me a twinge of nostalgia. I know that they should not be doing this, but I can hardly blame them. At their age you think you are immortal. I don’t want to take that away from them, though I hope they have sense enough to mask themselves when there are more people around.

There are reminders chalked on to the promenade. People took photos. I took one. The Family, who has been reading newspapers more regularly than me, told me that it appeared in the papers some days back. I think it is heartening that so many people are obviously being sensible. Hospitals are no longer over-run. The result is that the fraction of deaths in hospitals is decreasing. I’m sure many people are not getting themselves tested, and the actual number of deaths will only be tallied by historians in future. But the epidemic is destroying the country in other ways: jobs and incomes are lost, other diseases are unchecked, school meals have been stopped, less well-to-do children are missing school because they can’t go online. It’s too depressing to think of during a lovely walk by the sea. Let’s go back to admiring the view.

Blue skies

When I went to sleep last night the oppressive humidity of the afternoon had given way to a cooler breeze which brought rain. I woke to a clear morning. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon, but the orchestra of birds was in full swing. A coppersmith barbet supplied the metronimic rhythm as the competing trills of green bee-eaters and purple sunbirds rose over it. The parrakeets joined in, and I thought I could hear an Alexandrine call amongst the rose-ringed.

I made my tea and looked out. The break in the clouds was the promise of the approach of sharad ritu, that interval before autumn that the English named an Indian summer. The sky was a blue that was almost impossible to see in Mumbai since the 1990s. The anthropause has made a big difference to the quality of the air. The crows had just begun to get into the swing of things. I was always a night person, more familiar with the late rising constellations than sunrise. But I’ve begun to enjoy this interval between sunrise and the start of human activity.

Post-human sunsets

Long after the microscopic soot from human pollution has been flushed out of the air, when only the greenhouse gases remain to heat up the seas, what would sunsets be like? We got a look at that during this nearly rain-free week in Mumbai. It was so spectacular that The Family changed the time of her daily walk to synchronize with the sunset. Cameras rarely see what the human eye does, but you may still get a sense of what we have been seeing in the slideshow below.

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Soot and other particles in the air are relatively large, and serve only to dim the colours of the sunset. The colours are brighter when they have settled out of the air. Normally we see these monsoon sunsets at most for a day after heavy rains, before traffic pumps particles into the air and obscures them. Now we can see it for days on end. I understand now why people are calling this time the anthropause.

In cold and dry air, the colour of the sunset comes from sunlight scattered by molecules of air. The result is a gentle wash of light, changing colour from east to west, and intensity in the north-south angle from the sun. The sunset colours of tropical monsoons come from a more complex process: the sunlight scattering from aerosol droplets of moisture in the air. This explanation can be developed using a scheme invented by Gustav Mie. I wonder if he saw colours such as this during his youth in the German port of Rostock.

In any case, we are seeing the sunsets on a hot and wet earth, free of ongoing industrial pollution. These are the colours of the postanthropic world.

Rain Fall Season

When I was a student, a professor coined a new name for the monsoon semester. He announced a course for the Rain Fall Semester. Everyone had a good laugh about it and the phrase stuck for the rest of my life as a student. He’d managed to gently point out that a phenomenon, Fall, may have multiple causes; that the world is full of diversity. The memory of student bodies at universities decays fast, and I think four years afterwards no one would have remembered his coinage. I was reminded of it during my walk today.

The rain has stopped for a couple of days, and the afternoons are becoming uncomfortable again. The paths I took were strewn with flowers battered down by the rain. The glow of the copper pods which I’d photographed through the hot season of grishma has been wiped clean by the rain. The tree is a gleaming green, and the flowers carpet the ground under the tree.

Every path I walked today was full of leaves, a little slippery, calling for care. In another two days they’ll be gone, swept into the surrounding hedges, where they’ll produce mulch for the rest of the year. What’s not swept away will be crushed under passing feet, and turn into mush. Fall is a good name for this season. How interesting that in different parts of the world the word “fall” fits different kinds of weather.

Mumbai: this too shall pass

I walked out to the sea on Friday evening when I saw a patch of sky opening up. These are moments of dramatic light. I was not disappointed. I got a Turneresque framing of the skyline of Mumbai with the last of this week’s rain clouds, with the setting sun breaking through it. This rain will pass. This epidemic will pass. The seas are still getting warmer. This city, reclaimed from the sea, will also pass. That promontory which you see will be the last thing to remain above water by the end of this century.