Post 36 – Jerri’s Musings #11 – Candles

Chennai, March 8th.  It was the anniversary of my mother’s passing yesterday. Every year we light a yartzheit candle for both of my parents’ anniversaries, even though they weren’t Jewish. We figure they wouldn’t mind.

Yesterday, I forgot. We were so busy packing for our trip to Chennai, and working on our presentation for the Fulbright conference, that it totally slipped my mind. I remembered at 6:30 this morning when we were in the cab, heading to the airport.

Tmple_webIn Chennai, Kala and Shyam took us to the Kapalishwar temple, an architectural and spiritual marvel in the usual intricate, South Indian style. It was huge, with dozens of shrines for Vishnu, Balaji, Ganesh, Shiva….

I saw a woman take out six tiny earthenware pots, fill them with oil, coil a wick inside each and then light every one of them while reciting a silent prayer. There were dozens of similar candles lit on stainless steel tables in front of each of the deities’ shrines.

DSC04259-Edit_webI thought to myself: why not? I asked Kala if it would be OK for me to light a candle for my mother, since I had forgotten to do so yesterday. She said: “Why not?” Shyam went and got 2 pots, each with oil, containing a small mesh packet of mustard seeds with a wick sticking out. I thought the other would be for good fortune for our project. I thought “Ach, my mother would die if she knew where we were and what I was doing.” But she’s already dead.

Since my mother loved elephants, I thought Ganesh would be the most appropriate god. We found a stray match. I lit one candle – “That’s for you Mom,” I said to myself silently. I lit the other pot, but the mustard seed bag flipped over and the flame went out immediately. I tried lighting it again, risking my fingers burning. It wouldn’t stay lit. “Your mother’s fighting it,” Alan said. “Oh, but I lit the first one for her,” I said. “Nah, this one’s her – she’s fighting.” I liked his version better. The first pot was burning steadily. Eventually the second pot gave up and stayed lit.

We said Kaddish. My mother would have died.

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Post 35 – Jerri’s Musings #10 – Eleven Handy Items

ELEVEN HANDY ITEMS TO BRING TO INDIA

IF YOU’RE SETTING UP A HOUSEHOLD

OR

ITEMS THAT ARE HARD / IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND IN INDIA

  1. A good vegetable peeler – you need to peel all fruits and vegetables. If you can’t peel it, don’t eat it. Otherwise you risk “deadly dengue fever.” Actually, it’s not really deadly dengue fever, it’s just what Alan and I call being really really sick.
  1. Rubber gloves – for those ikky times. And there will be many, many ikky times. If you have a cook/housekeeper, she will not clean your bathroom. You will either have to do it yourself or hire a sweeper to do it. We’ve been doing it ourselves (without rubber gloves.) Not going into details.
  1. A bunch of those self-stick hooks. You can find them here, maybe, kinda. But the only ones I’ve found have been Pokemon themed (blech!) Landlords usually don’t let you put nails into the walls. Besides, most indoor walls are made of concrete and are nail impenetrable anyway.
  1. A kitchen timer. One of those “sorry madam, this does not exist” things. Very handy for timing boiling water, for example, as those silly looking propane stoves boil water faster than my $4K Thermador Pro stove back home. After almost 5 months in our flat, I still walk away after putting on a pot of water and it inevitably boils over.
  1. Masking tape – Another one of those “sorry madam, this does not exist” items, this time followed by a baffled look. Masking tape indeed does not exist in India. Or Kolkata at least. Scotch tape and packing tape in great abundance though. Indians tend mostly to use rubber bands to seal packages. I prefer masking tape.
  1. Labels (assorted sizes) – amazing how many things you’re going to want to label. For example, light, fan and outlet switches. Every room has a bank of switches and no room is consistent with the other, in terms of order. Color coding and identifying which fan and light can be very helpful in reducing frustration. Also, like driving on the wrong side of the road, in India, to turn on a light, you flip the switch down.

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  1. Pepto Bismal – liquid, chewable, tablets – doesn’t exist in India – a carry-with-me must. Other types of ant-acids very available, but not PB.
  1. Pill splitter. Stock up on Rx supplies here – often 1/10 the price of US Rxs, but sometimes doses vary, so you may need to split pills, assuming they are splitable.
  1. Flexible mesh ‘one size fits all’ sink drainer. I tried to replace the really gross one we have in the kitchen sink and was met with initial blank stares, then, “Must buy whole unit mam.” Right.
  1. Comet or Ajax, powder form. The only kitchen cleanser available here is liquid Ajax. Try cleaning a sink with a liquid cleanser and watch it go down the drain.
  1. A couple of good kitchen knives. Most furnished apartments have very basic cutlery. Knives don’t seem to be a priority here. Most cooks use a device that’s a cross between a guillotine and a saber. The ones in the market are awesome, in a very frightening way*. The dexterity of the handlers is astonishing. I’m amazed that their fingers stay intact. Oh, and butter knives are scarce – no one uses them.

CU-Topati-and-knife-thing_web Shrimp-cutter_web

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* When I go buy chicken parts from the chicken man, the parts are usually displayed in a large, eye-level glass vitrine. A bit gross, but tolerable. Once, the vitrine was empty. I asked for 2 and 2 (2 breasts, 2 legs/thighs.) He went in back and brought out a lovely white chicken, very much alive, hanging upside down, furiously flapping her wings. Geez, I thought, I’m going to have to take full responsibility for her demise. The man asked for my approval. Right. Like I would know. I gave the standard head bobble, signifying consent, securing her end.

I made the mistake of making eye contact with the poor creature. There was desperation in her eyes. The chicken-parts man handed her over to the guillotine man. I couldn’t stand it. Tears started to form in the corners of my eyes. Like a coward, I turned my back. Only to be confronted with a framed image of Kali on the wall, in her frightening glory. I apologized profusely both to Kali and the chicken.

The chicken man handed me a black plastic bag – 2 breasts, 2 legs. Any resemblance to its previous state of being was impossible. I paid the man. The bag was warm to the touch. I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I couldn’t get the image of the chicken’s eyes out of my mind.

I should have remembered, “No eye contact.” It’ll get you every time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 34 – From an R to an A, Every Letter Counts

1081SJ and Asid, our IIT students, when looking at our album, noticed the photo of a laundry, labeled, we thought ‘Salur.’ But Salur is nowhere near here, which always puzzled us. Had our GI left the area? They promptly pointed out that it wasn’t ‘Salur,’ but rather ‘Salua,’ a nearby airbase. Everything began to fit together. If we were correct that Kharagpur was the hub from which our man operated, he could easily have been based at Salua. We had to find that laundry.

We were told that no one gets on an Indian air base, not even Indians. This base is the home of the Eastern Frontier Rifles and most of the soldiers were Gurkhas, originally from Nepal. The story is that if a soldier tells you he is not afraid to die, he is either lying or a Gurkha. But we know the power of these photos and rarely take “no” for an answer. Duncan had a Nepali friend, who, on his bicycle, delivered “mo-mos” (the Indian version of Chinese dim sum) to the base. We rendezvoused outside the walls of the base and strategized, picking the entrance least likely to stop us.

Jajo-and-soldiers_webEventually the guard at the gate waved us in, directing us to an office where we began to tell our story. Soon, a group of interested people gathered, fascinated and eager to help.

They took us to their small “museum” that contained a smattering of artifacts and photographs. We were told that the Commander was away, and that we should come back tomorrow, where they were pretty sure they could tour us around and try to find our laundry.

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Man-in-EFF-museum

The next day, the word from on high was that we could not get into the interior of the base (the likely location of the old laundry) without official permission. We said that we would contact the Consul General in Kolkata who would confer with the Ambassador if need be. We’d return in a month to pick up our Patua scrolls and we’d re-visit the camp, hopefully with permission secured. But for now, we’d be happy with the soldiers’ unofficial offer to tour us around non-restricted parts of the camp that might relate to our photos.

Wall_webThey then proceeded to take us on an amazing journey, through the harsh grounds outside the high walls of the base, into what they called the “Hapshi Camp.” This was the area where the barracks of the African-American soldiers had been located—right next to the ammunition storage area. The US Army wasn’t integrated until after the Second World War (thank you Harry Truman) so it was not surprising that there was segregation. What was surprising was the placement of their camp in a dangerous area and that the Gurkhas told stories of the “Negro” soldiers being slaves (their words.) Apparently, they did the dirty work—maintenance, sweeping, etc. We assured them that they weren’t really slaves, but it wasn’t surprising that they were given mostly menial tasks.

Subedar-Major-Man-Singh-Gamang_web In-Salua-bomb-field_web

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Jerri and Pranay, one of the soldiers, walked ahead onto the field, a stark landscape, with bits and pieces of history lying underfoot. Suddenly Pranay closed his eyes, put his hand over his heart and said to Jerri: “I can feel their presence here. They were definitely here. I can feel it. There is something about this place.” She replied “I can feel it too.”

We’ve had to force ourselves to keep our eyes on the prize and not be seduced by yet another fascinating side story. This project is a living thing. At almost every turn another really interesting tidbit emerges that demands our attention. Focusing is hard.

Especially when the soldiers relayed a rumor that the plane bound for Hiroshima had left from here. The official report states that the Enola Gay took off from the Mariana Islands. But our admittedly preliminary research always hit a snag when we tried to find photographs from this area for May 1945. A local history booklet stated that that period was “shrouded in secrecy.” It is highly unlikely that the rumor is true, but it could have some basis in fact. Perhaps the plane refueled here or somehow stopped at the base. We later learned that indeed Salua was a top-secret staging area for testing the long-range bombing of Japan, the B-29 Super-fortress planes taking off and landing right in the area where we found ourselves, those powerful rumbles long silent. Now that we know more specifically what we are looking for, we will submit a FOI request when we get back home to see exactly what was going on at Salua so many years ago. I never imagined I’d be engaged in military historical research. I was an anti-war activist!

Railway-remnant_webTracksThe men showed us the remains of an old railway platform; embedded tank tracks and other evidence from long ago. They introduced us to an older man who had been on the base many years ago and told us how the barracks and other features had been dismantled at Partition. We saw the hulking remains of munitions storage bunkers.

 

One of our soldiers said: “This place is a mystery. And no one knows about it. They don’t know the role we played in WWII.” Maybe our work can help.

 

 

Then we went to IIT where we visited their museum and met with its Director, Arnab Hazra. We started looking at materials he had collected and web sites of veterans groups that were likely stationed here. The museum is housed in the old administration building, which had previously served as a detention center for political prisoners while the British still ruled India. In 1931, guards had opened fire indiscriminately, killing two prisoners, now immortalized as martyred freedom fighters. Tagore wrote a poem about it. In 1941, the Americans gave the British 24 hours to clear out, and used the place as a command center. The Hijli Air Base controlled Salua, Kalikunda and several other nearby airstrips, as America sought a possible overland invasion route through Burma and China to Japan. The bases were used for reconnaissance, which is perhaps why photographers were involved. For years we thought that our GI must be part of the “10th PTU” (marked on the negatives.)

Alan pointingWorking with SJ, Asid and Arnab, scouring the internet now in a more focused way, we realized that “10th PTU” only refers to the processing lab, not to the unit actually taking photos. This was a major breakthrough. We are now fairly sure that our photographer was associated with a Combat Camera Crew, flying out of Salua. They had the equipment, but whether or not he was an assigned photographer is still uncertain. We now think he was likely an officer (how else would he be able to leave the base and wander the villages?) But who was he? We’re also reasonably sure that the processing lab was in the IIT building where we were now sitting. Arnab told us that indeed there was a darkroom in the building and that the room hadn’t been opened in years. But it was already nighttime and we were spent. Checking it out would have to wait until we returned. There’s only so much excitement we can take.

 

 

 

Post 32 – Taxis

DSC00883Getting a taxi in India involves a series of negotiations and is most often unpleasant. As white foreigners, we are presumed to be both wealthy and stupid. And we assume taxi drivers are crooks. We may both be right. Every once and a while, you reach your limit. This has happened to me in Kolkata, where I basically went berserk when the cabbie refused to go where I wanted him to, at the same time refusing to turn on the meter. “Just drive!” I screamed at the hapless cabbie. Gesturing madly, “Left at Guriahat! Meter!! Drive godammit!” It is doubly effective, albeit exhausting, when Jerri and I scream in tandem. This does work, but only if you are able to physically get in the cab before he asks where you’re going and then refuse to leave when he starts yelling.

DSCN1772The day before, in Kharagpur, we had taken an auto-rickshaw (a “tuck tuck”) to the train station, where it was presumably easier to get a cab. But each cabbie was worse than the other, wanting to charge outrageous sums to take us to the Balaji Temple. Finally, Jerri had had it. She began berating the cabbies for trying to take advantage of Americans, for not seeing us as people, for playing a nasty game. She didn’t mind paying a bit more, but not 200% more. I do not like confrontations; I do fine but it takes its toll on me, words and gestures and emotions playing out for hours if not days. Jerri, at least outwardly, thrives in these exchanges. And this was a case where going nuts paid off.

Any altercation in India attracts a crowd. The joke is that if you simply point to a building, 20 people will show up instantaneously and all start pointing, seeing what it is they thought you saw, even if nothing is there. Soon a small crowd gathered and a man asked if there was a problem. We responded that there was, that we were being ripped off for a cab ride. Duncan introduced himself as an “Anglo-Indian” and assured us that, as such, he would never cheat us. I was instantly on my guard, the term “never cheat you” causing me to check my pockets, but things turned out well. He’d ask his driver to take us where we needed to go, wait for us and take us back to our hotel for a fair price!

ThalesOur new driver, Thales, was also Anglo-Indian. He spoke perfect English, and became our mainstay for the next few days. We’ve learned that drivers in India are an absolute necessity, avoiding the hassles and waste of time of protracted negotiations, sidestepping the drama of a buyer in need and a seller in power. We can’t rent a car and drive ourselves—they drive insanely fast, on the wrong side of the road, pay no attention to lanes or rules and are clearly unafraid to die.

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Plus, you have to somehow avoid cows; bicycles laden with anything from entire families to hundreds of coconuts to car windshields to giant pots of rice; pedestrians; goats and chickens; trucks; buses; the occasional elephant; motorbikes; and of course dogs, who clearly own the street and will just lie there in the middle of the road, the world whizzing around them in all its fury. DSC01353 Dog-shrine_web

Post 31 – A Major Breakthrough

When we were at the AIIS archive in Gurgaon, we researched both the old way (card catalogues) and the new way (electronically.) Both methods have their delights and frustrations. One of our challenges was to identify the location of what was mistakenly labeled on one of our negatives as the ‘Biliji Temple’ (it should have been ‘Balaji.’) Several people had suggested that it couldn’t possibly be in West Bengal, due to the fact that it was a South Indian style temple. Did this mean our guy was traveling? Maybe we’re looking for more than one photographer, perhaps several? But the style is too consistent for multiple eyes—it’s got to have been taken by one person. And we found all these negatives together in one shoe box, sold off, God knows why, or by whom, or when. We bought the material at the estate sale of a photography collector, but where he had gotten it was anybody’s guess.

Success_webAdditional research soon revealed that Kharagpur was a major railway hub, containing what is still the longest platform in the world. Many of the workers recruited for this project were South Indian—and they needed a temple. So they built one in their own style, hence a South Indian temple in West Bengal. On the internet we found a contemporary photo of the temple, in Kharagpur, taken from exactly the same perspective as one of our 1945 photographs. This was a cause of major rejoicing in the stacks. I love research! But we still needed to confirm it in person.

On our third day in Kharagpur we went in search of our Balaji temple. It took a while for our driver to find it, but after asking rickshaw drivers and chai wallahs while avoiding passing cows, we rounded a corner though a narrow street and there it was, behind a gate, shining white just as in our photos. Balaji 1945

Balaji-2014_web

The gate was open but the place seem deserted; we had arrived in-between services. We wandered around, checking our book, trying to find the correct vantage points. We were confused. Some views were identical, others were not. We felt alternately elated and confused, an increasingly common sensation in India. Finally someone approached and explained that one wall of the temple had recently been replaced with new idols, causing our uncertainty. It’s easy to forget that these are living traditions, not artifacts for passing social scientists, photographers or tourists to enjoy. The old structure was falling apart, portions needed to be replaced. How were they to know that two artists from 9000 mile away Chicago might show up one day with an old photo of their temple and need confirmation? There was now no question—we were standing in the same place our soldier/photographer had stood almost 70 years ago.

Balaji detail 1945Balaji-detail-2014_web

We were already thrilled, but then something remarkable happened. A young man approached, looked at our open book, pointed to the photo labeled “Old Priest” and said: “That’s my great-grandfather!”

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He identified Sri A Narayan Swamy Naidu, who founded the temple in 1935, only 10 years before our photo had been taken. Raju Naidu and others who had gathered suggested we come back the next day, when they would bring the priest’s now 90+ year old daughter-in-law. Our dream had been to be able to identify not only the temples, but a person in the photos, to remove the abstraction of photography and to ground the images in the real, historical world, making a concrete connection from past to present. We had done so.

Padmavati-Naidu-at-Balaji_web Jerri-and-Padmavati-at-Balaji_web

The next day, Padmavati Naidu arrived; she was deeply moved when she saw the photograph. We gave her a copy, which she clutched to her chest. Photography is so commonplace now that we forget its comparative rarity years ago; it is unlikely that she had any similar pictures. If our anonymous photographer only knew the joy he provided so many years later.

1203We are still hoping to find that little girl clutching a water pitcher in front of the temple. She must now be in her 70s. No luck so far, but our entire Indian experience has been characterized by surprise, serendipity and wonder. No reason to think that the search for a little girl will be any different.

Post 30 – We meet the Dynamic Duo; The Folk Artists of Naya

IIM-students_webLast month, we agreed to address a group of graduate students at the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta, which we later found out was a highly respected business school, akin to Wharton or Kellog back home. It was hard to refuse, after receiving a wonderful letter from our student hosts at IIM’s ‘Carpe Diem’ festival that acknowledged our independent life “outside the box” and that asked us to share our “highs and the lows, successes and failures.” They saw us as “role models.” I answered, writing that I wasn’t sure about being role models, but we sure had stories to share.

When we told the students that we were headed to Kharagpur at some point to continue our research in the field, they told us about the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, possibly India’s most respected academic institution (with a .5% acceptance rate—yes, point five.) They were sure we’d be able to find an interpreter among the students. Good to their word, one of the IIM students put us in touch with a friend at IIT.

Asid-and-SJ_webSo, fresh from our bucket showers, waiting for us downstairs amid the palm trees, motorbikes, and the occasional chicken, we met Siddharth Agarwal (“Asid”) and Subhajyoti Ghosh (“SJ”) who had walked over from the nearby IIT campus.

Within moments we had bonded over the challenges inherent in uncovering clues hidden in small grains of silver made years before any of us had been born (even this baby boomer.) Asid and SJ were invaluable, and continue to be so. SJ is even creating a web site for Following the Box, which we’ve been wanting to do for some time. These guys are bright, funny, nice, energetic and now totally obsessed with our project. They seem to like us too.

We piled into a car, with a driver suggested by the hotel, and headed out to Naya village, in Pingla, relatively close in kilometers, but not in time. The road was beyond belief—washed out in areas, rocks strewn everywhere, the car bouncing and swaying. I tried to write, but my scribbles became incomprehensible. Yet bicycles traversed the roads along with the cows and oxen, pigs and goats, busses and trucks and foolish autos. We passed rice paddies, small shrines, tiny hamlets. Every time we stopped and asked how far Pingla was, we were told “2 kilometers.” This happened a dozen times.

Naya is made up of hereditary artists, known as Patuas, all with the last name of Chitrakar. They are famous for story scrolls, or ‘pats’ which narrate not only mythological and religious tales, but contemporary social issues as well. We were heading there to commission a story scroll based on our 1945 photos. Part of the process is that they also compose a song to accompany the unrolling of the scroll, telling the story both in song and pictures. One of our project artists, Amritah Sen, had worked with Swarna Chitrakar on another project and thought this might interest her. We had called her cell phone and she was waiting for us by the road, only 2 km away.

SJ-explaining_webSwarna took us to her village, where every mud hut was decorated, colors and drawings seemingly dropped from the sky, covering everything. She welcomed us into her home. SJ served as interpreter, showing her the 1945 photos and explaining our idea.

Swarna_webShe quickly sorted through the images and understood what we wanted. She showed us a scroll she had done about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and another one about the tsunami of a few years ago. We joked about the challenge it might be to do something other than a disaster. I had been concerned at first about interfering with a traditional art form, but that clearly isn’t an issue. The Patuas had decided a long time ago that theirs was a living tradition and they could use their considerable skills to tell many stories. Aside from being a consummate artist, Swarna is quite a sales person. Before we knew it, we had agreed to her creating TWO scrolls. One would be on the story of our box, the other a narrative that held personal meaning drawn from our soldier’s photos of village life. We agreed to come back in a few days to document her progress. We’d pick up the finished scrolls and record her song in a month.

Colorful-women_webGirl-drawing_webIt was an astonishing experience to be in this tiny village and to see art so fully integrated into everyday life. The houses are decorated inside and out; young children are encouraged to draw from their earliest days. A neighbor was weaving, another painting decorative wagon wheels; others painting images of Ganesh, Siva, Saraswati, Kali and others alive with meaning beyond our knowledge or experience. An amazing aspect of this is that the villagers are primarily Muslims, yet they have a history of creating Hindu narratives. We’ve become quite used to the dichotomies that India holds. This is simply another example.

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Group-looking_webSwarna’s brother showed up and began looking through our photos. Within minutes he started identifying sites.  1229He thought that the ferry boat photos were of the nearby Mohnpur River at a narrow point, where now there is a bridge. The group was fairly certain that a market scene is from Shalboni, where there was an American air base. We were firmly told that we cannot go there—it is a center of Naxalite activity (they are violent Maoists) and evidently we’d be kidnapped in a minute. It is also an area where, at night, wild elephants roam! The photo shows the drying and gathering together of sal leaves, used as serving plates, a practice still done in the villages. Other scenes were identified as being in still-functioning markets in Kharagpur. We seem to have finally located the center point of our painfully anonymous photographer’s travels. 923

Swarna was also certain that one of our unidentified temples was nearby, so we piled into cars and headed out into the country. Sure enough, a lone, derelict temple stood in a field, tantalizingly close to #1205.

1205 Pingla-East-long-shot_webSoon, seemingly from nowhere, villagers materialized. We explained what we were doing and showed them the book of photos. They argued about the details of the structure, while Jerri and I looked on, smiling at the fascination these images hold for just about anyone who spends time with them. Eventually all agreed that this temple was not the one we were looking for. We’ve repeated this pattern many times, people absolutely certain they’ve identified a “missing” temple, only to be tripped up by details. They’ll get you every time.

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Panel-layout_webWhen we returned a few days later, Swarna had made her selection of images. Realizing that one image was missing to complete her story, she simply created it, basing her composition on the existing photos. Swarna sang us a preliminary version of her song, telling the story of the box and how these photos made so long ago are now coming home. This project seems to inspire everyone it touches, providing entry points to lives and cultures across time and space and taking us places we never imagined.

Long-scroll_webSamsundar-Chitrakar_webNaya-house_web Looking-at-Swarna_web