Farmhouses by the road

Drive 50 kilometers out of Mumbai and turn off a highway, and the scene changes completely. The high-rises and crowded concrete ribbons of highways are a memory. Instead, you are probably driving down a two-lane road through countryside which is lush green in the monsoon, and dry grassland at other times of the year. The houses that you see have to deal with extreme rain, extreme heat, and, in places, fairly cold weather. I kept stopping to take photos of farm houses as we drove along. The house in the featured photo looked charming: cattle sheds faced the road, and the farm house was behind it. Trees shaded the structure, affording protection in all weathers.

Smaller houses were more common. Behind two small plots of paddy fields was a miniature version of the other house. Corrugated metal sheets covered a cattle shed, and the actual house stood behind it. In spite of its diminutive size, its placement looked charming: on a higher patch of ground surrounded by paddy fields. Of course, the fields are flooded at this time for several weeks, and mosquitoes can breed in that standing water. The lovely looking place may be very uncomfortable at night.

The land had been flat but rising away from the sea, but we were now reaching a line of hills. When I stopped to take this photo, I was actually interested in the many waterfalls you can see in those hills. But then I found an interesting composition with this tree and the three low houses behind. I still got a couple of the waterfalls in the frame though.

This was one of the few two-storeyed houses that I saw. Brick and mortar had been supplemented with steel and concrete, at least in the flat terraces. Was that a good idea in these parts? The roof would bake in heat. In the monsoon the water might pool in places instead of running off quickly. It is not at all clear that changing the local style of architecture in the Sahyadris to one derived from the inland planes is a good idea.

This was such a cheerful sight that my hands seemed to come up automatically for this shot. On a day which was mostly cloudy, the sun had broken through briefly to illuminated ripening grain. The cheerful yellow and the surrounding tender green centered on a little farmhouse. For the first time I saw a house in which the front doors faced the road. The doors themselves, if you pay attention, are sturdy jobs in wood. I love these tile roofs. A little cost-intensive to begin with, they afford easy care. This stretch of road charmed me thoroughly.

Rite/right of Passage

Traffic flows like tar along the highways out of Mumbai these weekends. With the easing of travel restrictions and the simultaneous start of work, people need a break. Mumbai’s youth always had a rite of passage. A teenager would join friends for a trip to the nearest hills in monsoon. Monsoon rains trickle down from the hills over impermeable volcanic basalt. These seasonal streams falls over the frequent cliff faces in these hills to make monsoon waterfalls. Gangs of the young spend drunken weekends under random waterfalls . Even decades removed from that age, The Family still longs to get out to the waterfalls every monsoon. In trying to avoid these crowds we decided to walk around Lonavala one Thursday afternoon.

We drove up for an early lunch and then exited on to the road leading to the lake. Pandemic restrictions have not gone completely. Just past the embankment was a police checkpost where a few people were turned away. We looked decrepit enough to be allowed through. “What are they checking for?” The Family wondered. My speculation was that they are denying the right of passage to gangs of the nearly-adult. Bad times for them. Not only do you face a tough negotiation with parents, but then it comes to nought because of the police. “Your three cameras are passport enough for us,” The Family declared. It was an overstatement; one was a phone.

It had started raining, and it would continue all evening. I wished I had fewer cameras with me. I couldn’t bring out one because of the rain. Even the waterproof camera gets drops over its lens in rain. I huddled over it to dry the cover. The rain had grayed the lake. The clouds had come down over it, hiding the far side. I loved the serenity of the place. Could it make a decent photo? I wasn’t sure as I clicked away. You can always delete things which don’t turn out halfway decent.

On the far side a stream staggers down a cliff every monsoon. We ambled round to it. It had attracted a few other people. Some couples, a family with exuberant children, a small group of young people. The light was getting worse. We didn’t have the right footwear for getting close enough to it. We looked at the falling water for a while and then moved away. Across the road there was an attractive symmetrically spreading tree. It deserved to have its portrait taken.

Even in these sparse crowds a couple of people were trying to run a business. A middle-aged man was selling roasted bhutta (corn). A more enterprising lady was offering everything from her version of a food truck. From under that awning I spotted a group of hikers walking up the slope towards the top of the waterfall. “They have the same footwear as us,” The Family remarked. The lady asked “Do you want a tea?” The Family was torn, but then decided on the tea.

Yu Garden

If you are a casual tourist like me the Yu garden of Shanghai could be the only classical Ming period (16th century) garden that you get to see. The featured photo shows you most of the special features of these gardens: white walls enclose it, pierced by round doors called moon gates, large areas of water are surrounded by trees and rocks, and there are pavilions where you are supposed to sit and enjoy the view. It is worthwhile checking out these pavilions, because the garden was designed so that the view from each pavilion is a set piece to enjoy.

What you see in the photo above is one of these set pieces. I was lucky to be able to capture this view in a little moment when there were no people in the frame. The garden was quiet, and I could hear the soft rustle of leaves. When the Ming dynasty official, Pan Yun Duan, had this garden built in 1565 I am sure the soundscape was also part of the design.

This becomes clearer in another part of the garden, a view of which you see in the photo above. The tiny waterfall is designed to produce a gentle sound of water. After meeting the sound of falling water in tens of upmarket shops across China, I am inclined to think that you are meant to hear a classical Chinese garden as well as look at it. This must be a part of culture which is so deep that little is written about it. In the same way no one really writes about the fact that a traditional Indian garden engages the sense of smell more than sight.

One of the pavilions has a view of the very special stone called Yu Ling Long (玉玲珑, exquisite jade rock) which you see in the photo above. Understanding why this is exquisite takes you to the heart of Chinese aesthetics, and its preference for artful asymmetry. The stone, said to have been collected and lost by the northern Song dynasty emperor Huizong, is said to be shou, zhou, lou, and tou (ie, it is slender, gnarly, full of channels and holes). The holes are said to be such that if you light incense at the base, the smoke pours out from each of the 72 holes in the rock. Also, it is said that, the channels are such that if you pour water at the top, it flows out of each of these holes. Since there is no demonstration of this, I expect these are the usual superlatives which you have to take for granted.

Around the tranquil pond in front of this, I noticed sparrows and turtles. Turtles are supposed to be symbols of longevity, and good luck, on par with dragons and the phoenix. Placing them in the pool was symbolic of good health and long life. Maybe I could have considered the sparrows to stand in for the phoenix. In that case I could count this as a wonderfully lucky sighting.

I am quite certain that this view is not meant to be special, just that foreigners like me find it very typical of China. The pavilion on water and the banana trees around it looked to me like a transformed village house from Assam, Bengal, or Odisha: the kind of parallel with a difference which I use as a private scheme to understand China. This garden has been destroyed many times, and rebuilt again. It is unlikely that there is a single unified design any longer.

This young girl who wheeled her suitcase up to the water’s edge and then sat down to start feeding fish, however, acted within the design parameters of the garden. The carp were seeded here to be looked at, admired, and fed. There was soon a crowd around her. She kept reaching into the suitcase and bringing out feed. That is when it struck me that the large number of people whom I saw wheeling around suitcases were not out-of-towners enjoying a stroll through Shanghai. They are locals. The wheeled suitcase is preferred over a backpack by many people in China. I find that a garden is a good place for people watching.

Fog and Rain

Tea gardens in MunnarPeople say that Munnar is pretty. When I saw the rolling hills covered with tea bushes, mist drifting in the valleys, I thought to myself this indeed looks pretty. It is the kind of place where you could walk easily across two hills. Even a movie camera can roam between those lush green bushes. You could have a whole chorus line of pretty women and handsome young men dancing right there. Didn’t they do it already in Chennai Express and Life of Pi?

But the really beautiful part of Munnar is harder to see. It was raining one day as we were coming back from a trip to Marayoor. Shankumar pointed out a waterfall in the distance. We stopped and admired the wilderness that you can still see in parts of the Nilgiris. We could hear nothing but the sound of rain. In the distance, and at an immense height above the road, water tumbled down a bare rock face. The fog was lit up by the setting sun. Everywhere below us was a dense forest. The water tumbled through rocky channels and emerged as a stream, parts of which we could see. this is a fragile ecosystem which is disappearing fast. For a brief time we had a glimpse of the Nilgiris as it might have seemed to people a few centuries ago: a wild and frightening beauty. You could send a movie crew in there and they might never come back!