Gray days

The fag end of the monsoon is always depressing. Just when you have seen a day or two of bright sunshine and colour to remind you of what the world could be, the endless dreary rain sets in again. This year is no different. It has been a depressing gray since the weekend. Without social contact it is even worse. On Sunday I could not stand it any more, and the Family and I put on our rain coats and masks and went out to the Gateway of India in the evening. An espresso carry out, a stroll by the sea, and the sight of other people, although distanced and masked, revived our spirits for a while.

I felt cheerful enough to take photos of the depressing weather. The Gateway looked forlorn and beaten down by the rain. Usually it is cleaned by a work crew long before Diwali; I hope that happens this year. Far in the distance I could see the usual semi-industrial wasteland of the docks below the hills, the feet of the Western Ghats dipping into the sea. I guess the time when these toes of the Sahayadris are chopped off have just been postponed by the economic depression brought on by the epidemic. One can see a silver lining in everything when one feels upbeat.

A walk in the monsoon

Monsoon stream in KoladMumbai has been hot and humid, but relatively free of rain this monsoon. Disgusted with this state of affairs, The Family and I left one weekend for the a resort in the ghats outside the city. For some reason I’d imagined a natural paradise of stony ground covered with wild plants and streams cutting their way through it. I’d completely forgotten that the region between Mumbai and Pune is full of weekenders who would like to get away from the high rises of the city into a concrete paved paradise of air-conditioned cottages.

I’m happy to have these. But they come with manicured lawns and gardens. All “weeds” are removed systematically, “wild trees” uprooted and the usual garden flowers planted around landscaped lawns dotted with fruit trees. I had to escape this stifling suburban paradise. But the weather conspired to keep me bottled in, with heavy rains through the day.

During a break in the rain I walked out of the resort and followed the road until I got to fallow ground. Here finally was the landscape that I was looking for. The stony ground of the western ghats do not easily absorb the rains. So streams cut through it, merge and become fast flowing rivulets like the one on the right. Trees hang over them.

Common balsam

The banks of these seasonal streams are held together by a dense mat of wild plants. Insects and spiders abound. Water was dripping from the leaves slowly into the ground. It is this slowed rain that recharges aquifers. At this time of the year there are few flowers. The featured photo shows one of the exceptions: the madar or Calotropis gigantea. The other is common balsam, Impatiens balsamica (photo above).

Common grass yellow

There are spider webs everywhere, which means there are insects in plenty. Just after the rain they were hard to spot, because they would probably be hiding under leaves to stay out of the rain. Luckily I got a couple of really tiny ones in the photo of the madar. Other than that all I saw were a few common grass yellow butterflies, one of which you can see in the photo above. It was my first walk of the season in the ghats.

Dolkhamb market

We tried to follow a road which petered out after the market square in Dolkhamb. It was flanked by two long structures. One was an office, and the other, which you see in the photo below, was a row of shops. This was one of the larger villages we had passed in the previous twenty kilometres. Off to one side was a little open space where several utility vehicles were parked: they serve as local buses. The market was crowded. We oozed through it to ask for directions. As we talked to the "bus" drivers, more vehicles arrived, bringing people to add to the crowd.

Market square in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra

For some time now we have been trying to eat a larger variety of vegetables and greens than what our meals had reduced to. So the sight of a village market brought out the gatherers in us. On a side of the road was a line of people who had set up makeshift stalls. The featured image shows the lady nearest to us. She had four different kinds of vegetables: tomatoes, knobbly green karela (bitter gourd), fresh okra and large green chilis. Not a large variety, but incredibly fresh. The okra was crisp and snapped easily between my fingers. After her a man sat with small heaps of dried fish. There were fruits further on. The Family bought bananas and apples. The apples were small and not very colourful, but when we bit into them they were extremely flavourful.

Once upon a time these were available in all markets in Mumbai. Now WTO rules force us to import apples which are too expensive to be sold anywhere except in big towns and cities. As a result, these profitable markets are almost completely shut to local apples. We love to eat, and we are not politically committed to local produce. We do like the fact that globalization brings us food from far away, but we are also aware of the variety that local produce can bring to our table. We have read enough about the carbon cost of pushing fruits around continents to begin to take the trouble to visit farmer’s markets.Woman selling farm produce from a truck in the village of Dolkhamb, Maharashtra It would be a pity if we were forced to make a choice between the planet and the economy without thinking through sustainable middle paths. (I’m afraid that sentence might succeed in offending both sides of a political divide which exists, but need not).

The most exciting discovery was a truck of assorted greens, presided over by a lady in a red sari (photo alongside). People walked up to a boy, probably her son, paid him and asked for the greens they needed. He would shout out the order, and she would throw it out of the truck. We bought a bunch of fresh fenugreek and coriander greens from the duo. This family also pushes vegetables around in a box which burns hydrocarbons. But they travel tens of kilometres, not thousands. With fresh produce in the car and virtuous thoughts in our heads, we ignited the non-renewable fossil fuel in the tank of our car and drove out along the road the local drivers told us to take.

Lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara

Mumbai is a megapolis reclaimed from the sea, windwards of the Sahyadri mountains. An hour inland, the terrain is usually rocky and inhospitable: cliffs and oddly shaped peaks tower over a seared land. But, during the monsoon the land turns lush green, and waterfalls cascade over every cliff.

It seems that every monsoon weekend a large fraction of Mumbai’s population spreads out over the mountains. This is a special week, with many holidays. In the afternoon of last Friday there were long traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city. The Family decided that Saturday was a good day for a drive. We started out in the morning, took the highway towards Nasik, turned off it at Shahapur, and got lost soon after as cellular connectivity faded. We were near Dolkhamb, and wanted to reach Kasara. We knew there should be a road, but there were no signboards.

Farmer and rice paddy near Kasara

The result was hours of blundering through an incredibly lush and beautiful landscape. This area is normally dry, and the farmers barely eke out a living. In this season the only way to figure that out is the fact that the land is almost empty. Now and then you come across a small cluster of huts, where each family tends a small plot. Even in the middle of such a heavy monsoon, rice grows only in the lowest parts of the terrain. Hillsides are an inch of soil covering volcanic rock: not suitable for farming. Earthen dams husband water for the remainder of the year. In spite of the fluorescent green cover, this is a harsh country.

Chicken shop in the middle of nowhere

There were no signs at crossroads telling us which way to go. We often took the wrong turn and drove for kilometers before meeting someone who told us to back up and take the other fork. At an empty crossroads we found this little shack sporting a battered board which proclaimed that it was Arbaaz’s chicken shop. They were out of stock, but easy with directions. There were no villages in sight, but I guess the road has enough traffic to keep Arbaaz in business.

Soon after, our cell phones began to receive signals, and we came to the highway again. Fifteen kilometers on we reached a roadside restaurant just before their lunch service closed. This had been a wonderful drive, although really slow.