Post 44 – Final Thoughts

We have been in India now for almost 5 months. This post is being written in the Delhi airport as we wait for our 2 AM flight back to Chicago, a 15 hour trip. Being in India, and developing our Following the Box project, has been the most remarkable experience of our lives. We’ve tried to provide a taste of our experience through these posts. They also help us to remember what could otherwise fade, the telling details disappearing in the daily, colorful avalanche. Many of the people we’ve met will become life-long friends, our memorable adventures setting us on unimagined paths that will continue to unfold for years to come. Throughout, we never stopped asking ourselves “Where are we?” Our astonishment at India’s vibrancy, complexity and painful contrasts is just as fresh now as it was when we first stepped off the airplane back in November.

We each want to share a few thoughts before returning to our “normal” lives. Jerri will post a few “Snippets,” her final Muses, in the next few days.

I’ve been struck by the way in which India pulls you in two directions. It’s more than the obvious contrasts between rich and poor, old and new, rural and urban that I’ve commented on for the past months. It’s deeper. India has an ancient culture, a delight in gods and goddesses, story and myth, a tangible understanding that there is meaning in the world—in our lives. Indian culture affirms that things happen for a reason, and that if we take life seriously, we might better enjoy the journey. It is a culture that thrives on ritual, giving form to the inexplicable forces that course through our lives. There are celebrations everywhere, all the time. And there is a history of honoring study and knowledge, not unlike the Jewish culture. Actually, the similarities are striking–the sound of the conch shell announcing Hindu prayers mirroring the shofar; the belief in education; the Star of David a pervasive symbol. The culture pulls you upward, towards enlightenment.

But at the same time, other forces are at play. This is a country marred by corruption and violence, by tragedies that count millions slaughtered. Hinduism is a belief system more than a religion, one that stresses tolerance and understanding. Muslims stress the welcoming of strangers, the belief that we are all one. Yet neighbor turned on neighbor during Partition and during the creation of Bangladesh and during Hindu-Muslim riots that occur sporadically, often with the tacit support of whatever government is in power. It’s like trying to reconcile the sensitivity and sophistication of pre-War German culture with Nazism. It can’t be done.

This pulling downward, toward our baser instincts, takes a very real form in every day life, even without overt violence. To survive in India, to withstand the onslaught of one-legged beggars and mothers thrusting their babies in your face and people closing their fingers around imaginary morsels of food and beseeching you to stave off their hunger, you harden. As Jerri says, “No eye contact.” To be able to function, you turn away. To survive, you deaden your response to pain and inequality, to poverty and illness. I don’t like this feeling—it runs counter to all my instincts and it is core to the India experience, magical though it may be on so many levels.

India pulls you up towards divinity and down towards indifference. Negotiating the space in-between is the challenge that defines us.

Thank you Senator Fulbright for making this journey possible. And thank you to all our friends, in India and America, for taking time to share our adventure. Namaskar.

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Post 43 – Some last minute images

 

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1. This image from the Kumartuli idol-making section of Kolkata. They are preparing for the Saraswati puja. Sarawati is the goddess of art, culture and learning.

2.  One of the countless stalls selling idols created for the puja.

3.  Every neighborhood has a community puja (religious celebration). We thought we would take a few photos and continue exploring. Instead, we were invited to sit and talk with our neighbors. We spent all day and ended up singing ‘We shall overcome” in Bangla, Hindi and English. A memorable day!

4.  It’s right on the street.

5.  After-puja rituals a our next-door neighbor’s.

6. The Kolkata Book Fair has over 1 million visitors each year and everyone is buying books! Imagine this in the U.S. Not going to happen.

7.  It’s Mr. K.C. Paul, the street astronomer! I wrote about his ardent belief that the sun revolves around the earth in an earlier blog. He had plastered his fantastic drawings throughout the book fair and was trying to drum up converts. I thought he might remember me, but Mr. Paul actually does not remember that he is on this earth, let alone whom he might have spoken with. And we’ve gotten used to being exotic specimens to be photographed at any given moment.

8. The wonderful New York based group Betty! It’s not all sitars and saris here.

9.  A covered head from the Graveyard of the Idols series, Kerala.

10. At the Mahabalipuram archaeology site.

11. The Hari Pradad bookstore, near the Khaligat market, near our house.

12. I’m never buying clothes off the rack again! Getting measured for a custom-made suit by Mr. Singh, a tailor featured in the New York Times. This suit cost less than what I paid when I took Max and Emma out to a fancy dinner in New York.  http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/22/the-making-of-a-quality-suit-in-kolkatas-bustling-new-market/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

13. How could we go to Kolkata and not acknowledge the presence of Mother Theresa? This is at her mission, and yes, that’s her remains in that white, marble tomb.

14. We also visited the orphanage she started. This was all courtesy of artist Ritu Singh, who actually grew up with Mother Theresa and has stories galore.

Post 40 – Salua Part III; The Darkroom!

Walk-to-laundry1Now free to explore, with the Gurkhas granted permission to escort us, we entered into the camp itself. Pranay led us deep into a forested part of the old camp where, our photos in hand, he and the others had been searching and had found an abandoned laundry. It didn’t seem to be the one featured in our photo, but it was tantalizingly similar.

Laundry1_webHe said “We’ve been wandering in the jungle for you. We want this place to be known in history.” Pranay then told us how they had taken our photographs into the village and were showing them to chai wallahs and merchants and anyone who would look, hoping someone would recognize something. When I was an anthropology student many years ago, I always thought that the most effective research would be a collaborative effort. This is exactly what we are now doing.

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They took us to see the remains of old airplane hangers, now standing like ancient ruins. I was deep into the underbrush, photographing when Dawa suggested that perhaps I should not be photographing there. Snakes. Right.

 

 

GPS-Temple_webOne of the abandoned hangers had been turned into a shrine, a seemingly perfect end to a monument to destruction. It also now served as a GPS coordinate, India again mixing old and new in its own, unique way.

Trophy_webWe drove back to headquarters, invited for lunch. Then, we were escorted to the office. Now officially authorized to do so, the wonderful Gurkhas had wanted to thank us, to do something to show their appreciation for our search into their history. Sub-commander Dhurba Lohar presented us with a magnificent trophy. This being a last minute thing, they chose what they had on hand. We now have a beautiful memento, an award normally given to soldiers on their retirement. It will be a prized possession. But we’ll never retire.

from-photo-Holster_webThe soldiers had been particularly interested in a detail from one of our photos that showed a Gurkha knife holster. On our way out, heading back for more exploring, they showed us how today’s soldier uses exactly the same weapon, confirming that our photo was indeed of a Gurkha. Jerri asked if she could see the knife. Bishal hesitated and said that wasn’t possible. Once a Gurkha’s knife has been unsheathed, he said, it cannot be returned to its holster unless there is blood on it. OK. Holster_web

Laundry-2_webBack in the field, they showed us another laundry ruin; again, similar structure, but not a definitive match. They had one more site to show us, but it was right by an active firing range. They had cut through brush to find it, but were fairly sure that this was indeed the laundry shown in our 1945 photograph, the key image to identifying Salua as our GI’s base. That one will have to wait until we return, or at least they stop shooting.

Just before we left, Pranay said: “ We are turning over every stone. You’ve changed us.” What an astonishing thing to say. He, and this entire experience, has clearly changed us as well.

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We then headed to IIT to finally get inside the darkroom that had excited us a month ago. It was a dramatic moment. The sign on the door was encouraging. When it was opened, we saw a darkroom in utter ruin, but one that contained elements that could have been from the 1940s.

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We saw an old multi-switch contact printer, possibly the kind used by the 10th P.T.U. The enlargers were newer, perhaps from the 1960s. The safelights and other apparatus were consistent. We saw a sign that at first convinced me: “Photography and Blueprint Section.” It was in English, it used the word ‘section’ that sounded military to me. But then we learned that IIT called all its departments ‘sections’ and all classes are in English. So we still don’t know! This could have been the darkroom…or not. We’ll have to do more research to be certain, research that will no doubt open more doors, closed for so many years.

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The next day we met with Professor Chakrabarti, the Director of IIT. He too was captivated by Following the Box. He would like to go to area villages, set up a projector and show the photos, hoping someone, somewhere will provide insight. This project just keeps growing.

 

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.

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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 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.