Argiope days

For the past few years life has been about building walls around myself, and focusing on fewer things, with increasingly shorter time horizons. Nothing brought that necessity to the fore more than 2020 where everything got upended, but strangely remained the same. It was again about hunkering down and surviving, but in different and more difficult ways.

It was also strangely a time of peace for me. The lack of traffic all over, the lack of school buses honking through the mornings, the lack of the every day commute (which I actually miss), but most importantly the lack of a constant urge to be somewhere else was strangely becalming. It was easier to just be and not have to worry about being elsewhere. Days with less expectations and planning, with a premium on getting through each day.

Through this time, the world seemed to reveal itself in ways that I hadn’t bothered to observe before. The more often I walked around, the more I just stood around, watching and observing, the more there seemed to be to observe. I was discovering a whole new world in the small 6 ft X 6ft space in front of my door, where the iron railings separated my house from the Pongam (Millettia pinnata) tree.

In this tiny world, in September, I saw a colony of wasps coming up just above the gate – paper wasps (Ropalidia cyathiformes), and such nests are common around houses.

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Continue reading “Argiope days”

Books list from 2020

As I mentioned earlier, this was a year of tomes. Even though I finished with fewer books than in 2019, I ended up spending time on more pages than every before. The average book length was close to 350 pages as against 300 the previous year.

This was also where I picked books a lot more consciously and ensured at least 50% were written by women. Without much ado, the books list: Continue reading “Books list from 2020”

The books of the pandemic

I kept the annual chewing of the cud on books of the year, till the end. Turns out, to the very last few hours of the year. It is 10:05 PM on Dec 31st as I start writing this post.

At the start of the year, T.R. Shankar Raman, wrote a post on Goodreads about how he chose to read only women during 2019. It made me count the number of women authors on my list of 2019, and it was around a third of all the books I’d read. Committing to a full year seemed difficult, and given how things panned out, would have been foolhardy and difficult to manage. I chose a more respectable fraction of half.

How different would it be from a normal year? One, you second guess every book you read, you plan, you give yourself windows. And second, more importantly, you seek out books. There were the familiars – Shashi Deshpande, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Munro, Thrity Umrigar, Ruth Ozeki. And beyond them? And what about non-fiction, which I realised is more heavily dominated by men than fiction. I still pulled out a Molly Caldwell-Crosby, an Angela Saini, and the best of all the books read – Isabel Wilkerson. Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” also led me to Donella Meadows’ excellent “Thinking in Systems”. In fiction, I finally managed to read “Wolf Hall” which had been lying unread for years, quietly judging me, and also Daphne Du-Maurier’s “Rebecca”. There were also Joyce Carol-Oates, Madhuri Vijay’s excellent “The Far Field”, and Amrita Mahale’s “Milk Teeth”. I managed to reread Jhumpa Lahiri, Anjum Hasan and CK Meena. Towards the end I managed to finish with slightly more than half the number of books by women, the total count being odd, you’ll see when the final list is out next month. This is something I should continue for 2021 too.

This was also a year of tomes. Even though I read fewer books than last year, I ended up with more pages than ever. A quarter of the books read were more than 400 pages long, just under half of those were 500+. This meant an average book size of close to 350 pages over the whole year.

In terms of the fiction/nonfiction ratio, this year turned out fewer non-fiction than the last, even in terms of the fraction. While last year, it was 45%, this time it was 40%. I wonder if this is a consequence of the domination of the non-fiction market by men, and my 50% women target made me tilt towards fiction more?

This was also the year of Black Lives Matter, and I ended up reading some really good works on the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement. First was Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”, and then Isabel Wilkerson’s epic “The Warmth of Other Suns” detailing the migration of Blacks from the oppression of the Southern states to friendlier shores of the North and the West from the time of the First World War to the 1970s. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how an entire population can be kept from realising their aspirations over generations.

This was also the year I discovered Barry Lopez, who passed away last week. First through this essay. And then through his epic work “Arctic Dreams”. This was one of the slowest books I’ve read in ages, making you pause, reread paragraphs and understand every word of what he’s got to say. The book is painstakingly written, every word precisely worked over. There’s an entire chapter written on the different kinds of ice that form in the Arctic. More than a book, this is what should be called a meditation, a meditation on a place and, sadly, a time. The Arctic that he writes about, in the 1980s, is no longer there. The permanent ice is increasingly being lost replaced by young ice every winter. It is only a matter of time before the northern passage becomes a common feature every year. In 2020 it reads like a memoir and an elegy for a long-dead place.

It is left to those who are left and carrying his torch to guide and remind us of all that there is to lose and being lost. The likes of Robert Macfarlane and Robin Wall Kimmerer, whom I am yet to read. In some ways I am putting off reading her, as the sense of having read a book sometimes overwhelms the sense of knowing that there are excellent books waiting to be experienced. How does one balance the two? Maybe hope they are more prolific?

This was also the year of the pandemic. And the only book I managed to read on that was David Quammen’s excellent “Spillover” which is about zoonoses, diseases that spillover from animals to humans, like the Covid virus did. Written some 4-5 years back, this is mainly about the other viruses that have done the jump and wiped out lives – the SARS virus of 2003, Nipah virus, and biggest of them all – AIDS. A must read.

For 2021, I am already looking forward to reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life”, Barry Lopez’s “Horizons”. There are other fictions in line, Anita Desai, Anuradha Roy et al. What I am really looking forward to and hoping for most from 2021 is being able to walk into a bookstore like Blossom’s or Goobe’s and browse at peace for books. Here’s hoping that that happens!

The one ride for the year – Basaralu

Enough has been said of the year that 2020 has been, and I don’t want to add more to that litany. As the year wound down, there was a bit of hope, especially in how the numbers in Bangalore and Karnataka have kept low over the past couple of months. We are now averaging around 600 per day in Bangalore and around 1000 in Karnataka. This is approx 5 cases per lakh in Bangalore, a reasonable number.

The lockdowns starting in March meant that I had not done a single ride this year, the last being the one to Nuggehalli, end of 2019! Feeling hopeful, I decided to set out on the 29th Dec, this time to Basaralu, which I had last visited in March 2019, which was also my first visit. I picked Basaralu because it is closer to Bangalore, just a hop, skip and jump from Huliyudurga and then Magadi. Little did I know what awaited me on this route. More on this at the end.

I set out as usual around 7:00 AM, stopping for breakfast at Swati Delicacy. The place was unusually crowded and I first decided to have it near the parking lot, but there was a lot of movement there, from the waiters and the cleaners. I moved to the entrance where they had setup some standing tables. This turned out to be close to the hand sanitizer. It was amusing to watch idiots walking with masks up pull them down as they approached the entrance, see the sanitizer and conscientiously spray their hands, all the while masks on their chins. I saw that the chaat counter opposite was empty and shifted there. That place was relatively quiet and I wasn’t on the path of anyone there.

My staple of Idli-vada arrived, and I washed it down with coffee before setting out well before 9 am.

PXL_20201229_030951446.jpg Continue reading “The one ride for the year – Basaralu”

Bangalore rain patterns for 2020

Wrote on Bangalore’s rain patterns this year for citizenmatters.
You can find it here.

A lot of it flows from this table about the monthly rain this year since March.

Month Normal Actual Departure from Normal 
March 18.5 18.4 -0.5% 
April 41.5 121.1 191.8% 
May 107.4 128.6 19.7% 
June 106.5 114.8 7.8% 
July 112.9 158.3 40.2% 
August 147 75.9 -48.3% 
September 212.8 300 41% 
October 168.3 204.3 21.4% 

Also, added additional info on state of the Kaveri reservoirs, which are full.

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(source: KSNDMC reservoir data) 

Please read here.

Actual article: https://bengaluru.citizenmatters.in/bengaluru-excess-rain-flood-patterns-2020-variances-54014

COVID cases: How Bangalore’s really doing

Something I wrote up for citizenmatters. Can be read here. Please to read.

Raises a lot of questions about fatality numbers. I suspect we might be under-counting Bangalore deaths by (optimistic)500-1000(pessimistic). And that difference would be higher for other districts.

A lot of things are suspicious. The rate at which fatality rate dropped while the number of cases per day was going up rapidly does not make much sense. At best you’d expect it to stay stable. Only explanation was that the demographics tilted towards the younger side. Except that it didn’t, and in fact the share of those older went up a bit from earlier days!

The other thing was ICU data. As cases climbed, the numbers in ICU suddenly started declining. And now, they are rising again. It does not seem to have any relationship with the number of cases, which is odd. Something is black in the daal looks like, no?

Rest in peace SPB….

How does one write about a loss that feels personal? How does one make sense of it?

A voice that meant your childhood. The one that you literally grew up hearing, on the radio, in the mornings as the announcers repeated day after day for years – SP Balasubramanyam mathu Vani Jayaram, or SP Balasubramanyam mathu S Janaki, or just SP Balasubramanyam.

And then in the evenings, dusty evenings in the golden hour, with the Philips radio playing a Tamil Station. It took you a few years of growing up to realise it was the same person. But you put a name to a face when you saw him singing in Thirugu Banna. The concept of Playback singing new to you, you could not make out how he would sing to others. That when Vishnu or Shankar Nag or Anant Nag sang during Chitramanjari, it wasn’t them, but SPB singing in the background.  This was our growing up with Cinema.

I go back to Baradwaj Rangan’s obituary to MS Viswanathan, where he writes about his “Home” the one he grew up with.

When you’re young, you absorb pop culture intensely. Your mind is a blank slate, and gradually songs and stars and movies begin to leave their mark on it. These songs and stars and movies become… home. Then you grow up and, at some point, there’s no more room on that slate. Thereon, you still listen to music or watch a movie, but because your mind has more to do, more to process, with work and family and other things that make up life, pop culture no longer becomes personal. Thereon, it’s a kind of disengaged participation. Luckily for me, MSV was around when the slate was still being filled. And at least some of the tears were due to an image, however fuzzily recalled, of me tying my shoelaces and making sure I had the right textbooks in my satchel while Kaatrukkenna veli played on the radio.

SPB was that home for us, the generation growing up in the 80s. Along with, in fact, through Shankar Nag, Vishnuvardhan, Ananth Nag, Ambareesh and Srinath. You cannot think of one without the other. Remembering Vishnu through Noorondu Nenapu is not possible without remembering SPB now. (God, how easily language has slipped to remembering now!)

It was much joy to see him succeed (albeit briefly) in Bollywood (and also much disappointment to note that his accent was a big deal for actual Hindi speaking folks). But he was around, there were those TV shows, some interviews given during his birthdays, which you stopped to watch or to read during busy days, because… it was SPB. Like how I do with Anant Nag (speaking of whom, we beg you, stick around for another decade at least please!!).

I don’t want to do lists, that’d be picking parts of childhood. I don’t want to do a technical rating, how he could sing classical etc, that’d be othering him. What he gave us was a background voice for our childhoods, for those growing up in Karnataka, TN or Andhra is the 80s, to hum while playing cricket in overcrowded grounds, while we skipped along to buy some urgently needed grocery, to school or to friends’ houses. Yes, the Floyds, the Coldplays, the U2s, the Dylans and the Cohens all came later. But SPB was home, where a song wasn’t about itself, but about you, your past, your growing up.

Part of growing up, I guess is that many of those icons of your childhood will pass. But then, what else is growing up but the end of Childhood in every way possible?

Today we mourn not just the loss of a great artist, but the loss of a big part of our childhoods.

Six months on – STAY HOME!

Almost 6 months since the start of the lockdown. As much as everything is “Unlocked”, I still stay in. Visits to shops are planned to avoid minimal interaction. Even though I meet the cousin at times when we go birding, and these days, spidering, I haven’t gone out to any place in particular in all these months.

At around 3000 cases per day, we are in for the long haul here in Bangalore. I track the data everyday, put it into an excel file and see what comes out of it. And so far it isn’t good. Daily cases are rising at an average of close to 3000 per day if you look at a 2 weeks window. And all this is a function of testing which has been haphazard at best, following a 2 steps forward, 1.5 steps backward approach. The fatality rate seems to be trending quietly at around 1.25%, which seems good. But I guess this is expected as the number of cases per day keeps going up.

Continue reading “Six months on – STAY HOME!”

Spiders be with you

One of the things the lockdown has done is forced everyone indoors. This has cut all traveling, even within the city, to almost zero. Before the cases exploded I did manage to get a visit across to Blossom’s once to stock up on books. Other than that I have been mostly homebound.

This also being the Monsoons, the rains and their numbers keep me busy. Being monsoons, this is also the time of signature spiders. Have learned to look for them during these months, and even though the ones near my place are pretty small, I ran into a pretty big one during my daily walks with the mother.

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You might know her from an earlier post. This is a Signature spider of the Argiope sp. Continue reading “Spiders be with you”

Farm away

Like most people I also harbour plans dreams of eventually getting out of the corporate rat race, leaving the big bad city, and settling down in a farm far far away. Like the magical happily ever after, such a plan also stays right there in the horizon, neither coming closer nor going away entirely. Such topics also keep popping up in drunken conversations with much hand-wringing about how in Karnataka you have to either be part of a farming family, or earn less than Rs. 25 Lakh per annum.

In real terms, this has of course meant that a lot of folks have been buying up farm land, and farming in places right across the border – the Hosur/Krishnagiri belt or across the AP border. Recent changes introduced last week have now removed such restrictions making it a free for all. These changes have turned up along with a host of other changes like cap on income from agricultural sources, relaxations on restrictions in land holding etc.

As I mentioned this is something I have been following for a while, so just putting my thoughts down on what is happening. And it also has been a real while since I wrote anything.

For starters, it looks like a great idea, that those who want to get out of agriculture can now sell their lands and get a good price for it. Other states haven’t had any such restrictions, so why should Karnataka? This also seemingly opens up the market and prevents mafias like that of DKS from operating in the farm real estate area.

While this is good, the fine print and the other noises the government has been making don’t seem too encouraging. One claim is that “educated folks can take up farming“. Another claim goes that “IT/BT folks can bring innovative techniques to farming”. The trouble with these claims is that they assume that the problem with farming is the current bunch of farmers, who are illiterate and don’t know how to manage their own lands. Some years back, there was even someone who went on record saying that there’s nothing to farming – “sow a seed and water it, and the plant grows out, what’s there to it?”. (I don’t remember who, but if you remember, please comment below.)

This also assumes that engineers and folks who might have done some graduation and done a good job in a corporate structure, and know how to check the internet will be better placed to grow our food than inter-generational farmers who’d have learnt the job growing up.

It isn’t to say that people from the cities don’t know how to grow their crops. There have been people who have taken that step towards a farming life, and have done a good job of it. But from what I have seen, the scale tends to be lower than that of a farmer who’s livelihood depends on the produce. It is nice to be able to grow your own food, and some extra stuff that you can send to your friends. But growing tons of cereals per acre might be a different thing to manage.

Also, the goal seems to be to solve the farming crisis by encouraging farmers to sell their lands and getting away from farming. But this assumes that the farming crisis is about productivity which will be solved by IT/BT folks. For a new person coming in from a corporate job, getting the same productivity might be a hard task that would take a few years of effort to understand and manage. And we’d be nowhere closer to solving the crisis in farming, either.

First, the issue of climate change induced erratic weather events is not going to go away. Farmers who work in cities and do the job part-time of growing food are not going to solve it. They might move towards crops that are more weather resilient, and change their own diets. They might be ok with lower yields as the “experience” would be what matters. And anyway they won’t be dependent on the yields as there will be other sources of income. But the main issue is not going to go away.

The issue of food pricing is not going to go away either. Combined with the Central Govt’s move to get the market into the act, this would mean government price support will be a thing of the past. And given that the PDS and FSA were also part of the same deal, we can expect a lot of whittling down there, to loud cheers from economists.

The question also remains as to what farmers who sell their lands are supposed to do. The desperation that can cause a farmer to sell his/her holdings would usually stem from mounting debts, thanks to weather and pricing induced crises. Given this, and farming is all they know, the most likely scenario that will unfold is farmers selling their lands to richer farmers or their creditors, and ending up sharecropping on that land. Basically you do the same job as before for the same miserable outcome, but you no longer own the land.

There is also the worry that this will allow industries and other players to move in. This has, in fact, happened already. Even if a farmer is doing well, a not-so-lucky farmer next door might sell his land to an industry which might pull out ground water from under the whole village. Where does that leave the rest of the farmers? Also, this doesn’t seem like a great way to “encourage IT/BT folks to take up farming”. How likely are you to buy farm land when you know the above can happen at any time?

Combine the multiple “reforms” and you know who the real beneficiaries are. Caught between climate change, debtors, increasing input costs and an ever-more exploitative market, farmers will be forced to sell their lands. The govt then paves the way for anyone to buy land, with no limit on ceiling. And no clearance needed to convert agricultural land to industrial use. Where will the farmers go after selling their lands? If the land gets converted, even sharecropping won’t be viable.

What was needed was a lot more hard work.

  1. Understanding the need for climate-change friendly, drought-resistant farming. The moves towards millets and markets for millets was in the right direction for this.
  2. Getting farmers choices apart from BigAg companies. Again, the push for millets was a necessary move in that direction.
  3. Govt procurement, or good Minimum Support Pricing, and implementation of that. This is necessary for farmers to be protected from the vagaries of the market, which they cannot foresee or have control over.
  4. Stronger govt involvement in deciding how much food to grow and what to grow. All farmers growing sugar, or all growing rice will lead to high yields on good years and lower prices. Protecting against market vagaries can also be done by spreading the produce across different kinds of produce. And govt involvement need not be at the state level, but at the Taluk/Hobli level.

All these require a lot of grit work, with no immediate results that you can make votes off. But there is no market for such work anymore.

As always, farmers have been left clutching at air. Even the straws have gone.