Post 38 – Jerri’s Musings #12 – On Being…

ON BEING A ROCK STAR

“I don’t want to go home.” I started saying this when we reached the half way mark of the trip. I don’t want to go home. Here, I’m a rock star. Back home, I’m a nobody. Here, 20-something cute young men (and they are always cute) come up to me and ask: “Can I have a picture with you m’am?” Back home, no cute young man wants to have his picture taken with me. Here, scores of children have asked me for my autograph. Back home…OK, you get the picture.

W-guys_web  Rock-star_web From-rear-w-young-man_web

We were at the Kolkata airport, heading towards our gate, standing on one of those long rolling walkways that do the walking for you. We were tired. We just stood there, facing forward, Alan clutching a coffee. A young man came along side of us. He was walking as we were being propelled gently forward, keeping perfect pace. He had his cell phone poised at us, filming. “Hello,” he said. “Hello,” Alan replied. I ignored him. It was way too early, I was way too tired. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Chicago,” Alan said. He asked a few more questions. Alan’s so polite, he answered them all. I slowly looked over at him, gave him my best Greta Garbo look, and said: “You know…we’re rock stars.” “Oh,” he said. He turned off his device and let us continue on the automatic walkway to our gate. Alan alerted me that I still had my sunglasses on.

ON BEING A GURU

Emma-at-Krnagargh-2011We became rock stars on our last trip to India. Perhaps the first time we became aware of our stardom was at the Dandeshwar temple, in Karnaghar. We were with Emma, and she didn’t quite know how to handle the crowds of people that always formed around us when we opened our binder of photographs. She especially, with her blond curly hair.

Our stardom definitely continued into this second trip. Almost everywhere we went, people would stop us on the street, start conversations, invite us to their homes for a “proper Bengali meal.” Everyone wanted their pictures taken with us. I was of course always delighted when a cute young man was involved. I later learned that Bengali men have a very strong connection to their mothers, and that perhaps I was a “mother figure.” I was fine with that.

But my rock star status escalated to the guru stage on a trip we took to Kerala in January. It was the one vacation we would take during almost 5 months. I was lying on a hammock, stretched between two palm trees, looking up at a blue cloudless sky, a cool breeze was coming off the lake, removing some of the heat from the sun. A perfect Kodak moment. Occasionally I’d try to read, but usually I just dozed off.

Karishma_webAt one point I sensed a presence and opened my eyes, only to find a young woman standing by the hammock. “Hello m’am,” she said. “Hello,” I replied. “My name is Karishma. Where are you from?” she asked. And the conversation started. The inevitable question arose quickly: “What are you doing in India?” As soon as I mentioned photography, she lit up. “Oh m’am, I LOVE photography. I had a really fine SLR, but I dropped it in the water and it got totally ruined. Now I just have a small one, and I go into a camera store and ask them how to take a good photograph. They take out the camera manual and hand it to me. That is not what I want. That is not what I’m asking.”

As it turns out, she is in college in Delhi, studying business management. Then she plans to go to graduate school and get two MBAs (don’t remember in what, just remember the ‘two’). She will get married after that, and perhaps then she can pursue her real passion, which is photography. “It looks like you have it all planned out. But why do you need to wait till after you are married to follow your passion?” I asked. “Because my father says that I need to get an education and a job first and then later I can do my hobby.” “Oh, but I think you need to do what you really love NOW. Do not wait for later. That time may never come.” I was really taking a chance here, totally contradicting her father as well as the standard Indian educational system.

I don’t know what got into me, but I proceeded to talk to her about photography and the excitement of making art. Of training your eye to really ‘see’ what there is and to translate it into an image. I talked about Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment, about Eugene Smith and his remarkable vision. About Robert Frank and Dorthea Lang. About some of the incredible Indian photo archives that we had visited in Delhi just a few weeks before. About how she should perhaps volunteer at one of these places, just to be able to handle real photographs from real moments in time – to be a part of history and hold it in her hands, relishing its importance and artistry.

At one point Kala came over and both women were sitting on the grass at my feet! Very empowering indeed. Karishma was clearly absorbing everything I was saying. She had the most beautiful smile. I said I would send her a reading list. She thanked me profusely for my knowledge, for my time. “Now you are my guru,” she said.

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Post 37 – Patua Paradise

Every day for the past four months has been an adventure. But the past few weeks definitely top the charts. We took the train back to Kharagpur to pick up our narrative scrolls from Swarna Chitrakar and to record her singing her accompanying songs. This time, we stayed at the IIT Kharagpur Guest House, a considerable improvement over our last hot-water deprived, torn grey bedsheet experience. SJ and Asid met us at the guest house and we discussed the plan for filming Swarna. The next morning, Duncan and his driver appeared with their SUV, a necessity to traverse the roads around Pingla, and we headed out. After a few hours of death-defying driving (this was a new, young, inexperienced and wild driver, heavy on the brakes and light on judgment) we retraced our steps to Naya.

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The village is such a treat on every level—virtually every surface is covered in colors and drawings, look one way or another and there’s a pattern or a line or a burst of color that catches your eye. We used to wonder if Max and Emma, growing up surrounded with so much art, would crave blank, white walls once they had their own places. Not to worry. They understand that what we display reveals something about us, that to a very real extent we ourselves are on our walls.

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Swarna greeted us warmly and took out her scrolls. We cleared an area and set up multiple cameras. Asid was even filming from outside, through the iron grillwork of a window. We had Swarna ask a neighbor to stop his electric saw and ask kids playing right by the open window to play quietly. Ignoring the whack-whack-whack sound of laundry being pounded onto nearby stones, we began.

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Her work was beautiful. As she unrolled the scroll, she burst into song, pointing to the images as she sang. Her voice is incredibly strong—a Bengali Aretha Franklin. She had selected a series of images that had personal meaning, and then composed a song about following the box, how these photos made so many years ago for an unknown reason by an unknown soldier, were coming home. The refrain of her song is “It’s an amazing story.” Indeed it is.

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Talking with Swarna and her family, it became clear that these photos provide insight into a past they never knew. It was almost 70 years ago that a GI with a big camera stopped time. And it doesn’t seem to matter who the photographer was. It’s the energy, the process, the search that matters.

(Actually, I really do want to know who he was!)

Sayamsundar_webAs we left the village, we stopped at the home of Sayamsunder Chitrakar (remember…they’re ALL named Chitrakar.) I had visited him briefly on our last trip and had promised that I’d return. Of course, everyone promises that they’ll return, so when I actually did, he was wondrously surprised.

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He took out some older scrolls that he had shown me earlier, while his daughter Susama began bringing out stacks of drawings of various sizes, type and price. Then his wife Rani joined us and began singing her narrative of the ‘Wedding of the Fishes’ (the shrimp says “I’ll bring the table cloth,” the crab says “I’ll bring the plates,” etc., until they are all eventually eaten by bigger fish.  Hmnn…….)

Stretch_webShe also sang a scroll she had done about HIV. This is a living tradition, responding to current social issues as well as to myths and stories handed down for generations. They had some wonderful pieces, which will soon find themselves in various parts of America, their art traveling places they themselves are unlikely to ever go.

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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.

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* 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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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.

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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