Post 18 – Jerri’s Musings #5 – Eye Contact


At Victoria Memorial Gardens (JZ)

I’m taking a photograph of an amazing gnarled tree in the fabulous Victoria Museum gardens. The tree is identified with a name that exits my brain as quickly as it entered. Something catches my eye to my left. A very tall elderly gentleman in a long white beard and turban has stopped walking and is looking at me. He smiles and I immediately smile back. He says something to his wife and a young man that’s accompanying him. We wave and he continues his stroll down the path.


Jaspal Singh and Wife (JZ)

Shortly, we head down the same path. We step off the sidewalk to head towards the exit. I turn to my left and my striking gentleman has stopped and is looking at us – he wants to say something to me so we walk over. When we get close he immediately puts out his hand and says: “I want you to come see me at the Golden Temple. My name is Jaspal Singh. I am from the Golden Temple.” “OK,” we say. He is even more striking close up, very tall, slim, very distinguished. He looks important.

He then asks about us, what we are doing in India. We tell him about our project and give him a postcard. We shake hands to part, and again he invites us to the Golden Temple. “In Punjab,” he says. I quickly try to remember where Punjab is in relation to Kolkata and surmise that it is not very close. “Oh, so sorry,” I say, “I don’t think we will have time to visit you this trip, too far.” “You call me, you come to the Golden Temple.” “OK,” we say. Alan & I smile at each other – life is good.

We exit out the front gate. It is filled with people, including beggars. To our left, an old man in a decrepit wheelchair-type contraption comes up next to us. An emaciated, truncated right leg/stump is perched on a small platform. He points to it and says something. I don’t look – no eye contact. He follows us, keeps talking, pointing to the stump, which moves up and down, banging on the pedestal. I keep on not-looking. We walk faster and eventually we leave him behind. My heart sinks, I’m almost in tears. My feeling of well-being a moment ago evaporates into the heavy air. No happiness here. No ‘life is good’ here.

What do I do with a stump? What do I do with the children that come up to the taxi and point to their mouth indicating they want to eat? What do I do with the baby that’s thrust in my face by a pleading mother: “Mama please, mama please?” What do I do with the stick-like old lady with her palm outstretched? No eye contact. I walk on, otherwise the eyes eat me up for hours. There’s no solving the situation.

My mother spent three years in a German concentration camp, and spent the rest of her life telling me about it. Starvation, lice, filth, sickness, beatings, depression, 14-hours of hard labor, no privacy, no respite. But she did have hope that an end will come to this madness. Do these people have hope? Will they ever see an end to this madness? It haunts me at times, angers or depresses me at others. I feel totally powerless, sitting in my comfortable two bedroom flat, while on my street there are three families living, bathing, cooking, eating, sleeping on the side walk, behind plastic tarps. A little boy does his homework squatting on the sidewalk. They have never asked me for money – we are fortunate to live in a neighborhood that does not include beggars. I do make eye contact and smile as I pass and smiles are returned. I wish I could stop and talk to them. Ask them about their life, their feelings, any hope that they’ll get off the street, any hope for their children. I don’t really want to photograph them – I don’t want my motivations to get misinterpreted.

I wish I spoke their language.


On our block (JZ)


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9 thoughts on “Post 18 – Jerri’s Musings #5 – Eye Contact

  1. Jeri, I am you, averting my eyes.

    I have seen a lot of this, poverty, right here when I was growing up in NYC. You feel guilty walking away from a homeless man in a doorway on a frigid night. Here you drown in it, in your own blindness, but the heart sees all. And it hurts.

    Merry Christmas in India, dear friends. I think of you fondly at the DELI, the NEW DELI? and wish you were here to share a holiday meal. When you get back, perhaps.

    In the meantime, I’ll read on and laugh and cry with you.

    Safe journey.


  2. Dear Jerri,

    I am grateful for your honesty and scrupulous documenting of all your reactions, but especially of your response to the hopelessness and poverty. I don’t know what to say, because everything you describe, including your mom’s time in the concentration camp, is beyond saying. Something that has helped me in my thinking about this is the poem by Jack Gilbert below. I think you’ll find it helpful too.

    Best to you both, as always,


    A Brief For The Defense

    Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
    are not starving someplace, they are starving
    somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
    But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
    Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
    be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
    be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
    at the fountain are laughing together between
    the suffering they have known and the awfulness
    in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
    in the village is very sick. There is laughter
    every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
    and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
    If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
    we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
    We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
    but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
    the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
    furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
    measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
    If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
    we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
    We must admit there will be music despite everything.
    We stand at the prow again of a small ship
    anchored late at night in the tiny port
    looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
    is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
    To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
    comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
    all the years of sorrow that are to come.

    • This is so absolutely fantastic that I can barely reply! And the fact that you took the time to write it out makes us especially touched. I’m sure Jerri will write separately. What a poem! We had never heard of him before.

  3. JZ




    “If you contribute to other

    people’s happiness,you will

    find the true goal,

    the true meaning of life.”

    His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lame

    Carry my Love with you


  4. Oh Jerri, this is why I don’t have the courage to go to India. Just hearing you tell it, I am there. Even the homeless in Berkeley are never far from my thoughts. It’s so damn hard.

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