Post 45 – Jerri’s Musings #15 – Final Snippets

April 14 – 22, Evanston, IL

We’re back home. It’s so very odd. I feel as if we had never left, everything is so familiar. But of course it’s familiar. We’ve been in this house for 22 years. I’ve been living in the Chicago area for over 40 years. Of course it all looks familiar – this is my home. But so was Kolkata. We did not just go to Kolkata – we moved to Kolkata, albeit for only a short while. We set up a home there, made friends, got to know our neighbors, the shopkeepers, the city. Every day we did what we love – work on our project.

I actually miss the noise, the constant din of activity, telling me there are other people out there – lots of them – all with their own lives, living noisily. There are lots of people here too, but they just don’t let you know they are there. This morning I woke up from a complicated, chaotic dream, and swore that I heard “Dab” shouted from the street. Our coconut man! But I was mistaken. Thank goodness we have photographic evidence, otherwise this all could have been a dream.

I miss my friends back in Kolkata terribly – our remarkably talented artists, our fabulous neighbors. I miss the blue-shirted coconut man, the chicken roll man, the kurta man, the chai wallahs, the vegetable lady, the egg man, the street people who soaped up by the water pump, the women in beautiful saris, the marigold garlands. I miss seeing the remarkable shrines at the foot of trees, in shops nestled between kurtas, underwear, or stainless steel pots. I miss the daily blowing of conch shells, thinking of what puja was underway, reminding me of the annual blowing of the shofar, welcoming in the Jewish New Year.

But I am also glad to be home, away from the scorching heat of Kolkata right now. I am glad to be back with my very special friends, understanding even more the true meaning of friendship and community.

This is my last posting, for now at least. I am including some bits and pieces – miscellaneous snippets that never made it into an actual Muse.

A HIS & HERS BATHROOM

A dream come true. Of course I picked the better of the two. I noticed right away that I would not be alone in this bathroom. A brown lizard clung to the ceiling the first day we were there. The landlord shooed him away with a broom. He came back the next day. His name is Charlie. He is a very plain lizard, with parallel spots running down his back, nothing unusual. He would often come visit, watch me shower and disappear. I’d be talking to him, soaping up and the next time I looked up at the ceiling, he’d be gone. Then he brought a friend, Maybelle. They were so cute together. Then they disappeared for quite a while.

One day I was washing my face, and bam, something fell into the sink. It was a lizard. At first I thought it was Charlie or Maybelle, but then I realized that this character was very tiny. So that’s what they’ve been up to! Geraldine was extremely inquisitive and friendly. She crawled up my arm when I held out my hand and stared at my face. “Never seen a white woman before have you?” I said. I placed her on the window. The next time I went in, there she was again, running over to me, crawling up my leg. Then she tried following me into the apartment, but that’s where I drew the line. Bathroom is one thing, my living quarters, not a chance. It took several on-the-window ledge repeats before she got tired of the routine and left to rejoin her own kind. I miss her.

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ON THE TRAIN, KOLKATA TO KHARAGPUR. March 21st

We are in the “sleeper car” section of the train, although we don’t intend to sleep here – it’s only a 2 hour ride, but it was the best we could do. No A/C and very hot and sweaty. I’ve kind of gotten used to the smell of sweet, acrid sweat – doesn’t bother me anymore. So totally natural, actually. I’m not saying I prefer it… just sayin’…

Vendors come by, tea mostly, but also Q-tips, safety pins, hairpins, magazines and books. Yes, books. You can buy real soft cover novels on Indian trains. Most are in English, which is odd since it seems the majority of people who ride trains don’t speak English. For them, there are books in Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, probably others too.

Alan and I are talking quietly, the train has just left. The seats are very uncomfortable because they are upright fold-down semi-upholstered beds. A woman in a beautiful sari comes by, with a very cheery “Hello.” I look up, surprised. “Can you give me something?” She holds out her hand. I realize she’s a Hijra, a eunuch. She’s very pleasant, but since my knee-jerk reaction to beggars is always no, I politely decline. She smiles, moves away, down the rows of sleeper compartments. I immediately regret my reaction. Alan and I talk about it.

Hijras are a very marginalized group in India, mostly shunned, not able to work, so are often reduced to begging. To support themselves, they often perform at festivals, Pujas, weddings and other important life cycle events. It is also believed that if you give a Hijra money, she will bring you good luck. We need good luck, I thought, so I started to take out some money to go after her.

But I never got the chance. Within 2 minutes, a woman with a sleeping baby in her arms comes by, out-stretched hand. Oh no, here we go…. I look the other way. I absolutely refuse to give anything when a baby is involved. Eventually she leaves. It’s too late to go after the Hijra. A few minutes later, a crippled old man is shuffling down the aisle, on his behind, dragging his emaciated legs. One in front, one behind. It’s a horrible sight. He holds out his hand, I give him 10 Rs. He’s ecstatic. He keeps putting the note to his forehead and thanking me.

So I had to think long and hard about the last 10 minutes and what had transpired. Was I willing to give money to the Hijra because it was the decent thing to do, or was I doing it for my own “good luck?” I felt my motives were impure and I didn’t like that. Why did I eventually give money to the crippled man? Because the condition got progressively worse with each new approach?

The last to arrive was a morose young boy, crawling on the ground, sweeping under each passenger’s feet, then holding out his hand. Alan gave him some change. He had sores under his feet. He took the money, didn’t look up and crawled away. I asked someone why there are so many beggars on this train. “No A/C ma’am. In the A/C compartments, they don’t let beggars on the train.”

A DAY AT THE RACES. Saturday, March 29th

Royal-Calcutta_webChhatra invited us to an art event at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. It was the last horse race of the season and there was a benefit art auction to mark the event. We were in the VIP section of the track – a beautiful day, great food, lots of mingling. We decided to place some bets. I gave myself a 200 Rs limit.

It was race #5. I looked over the beautiful horses in the preview, #13 caught my eye. He was sleek, completely black, spunky and unruly – he wasn’t taking any crap from anyone. I decided to place 100 Rs on him. When I looked at the board to see his standing, the bookmakers hadn’t even bothered to list him. Never mind, says I – he’ll come around at the last moment. I’m quite confident that one of these days his moment will come. Just not that day.

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Alan placed a bet in race #6, on a horse named “Flash” – and another 100 Rs went to line the pockets of the race masters.

Race #7 was the last race of the day, and the season. I was ready to spend my last 100 Rs. This time I consulted the Bookmaker’s Favorites. Numbers 13 and 4 were at the top. I was going to split between them. Then I saw #4. The horse’s name was Swastika. The jockey wore a bright red satin tunic, with a very large white in-your-face swastika covering his entire back. I gasped. “I can’t do it,” I told Alan. I started walking down the stairs towards the booking window. I suddenly stopped, turned around and said: “I’m going to do it. I’m going to face my demons.” We watched in anticipation as Swastika led the pack the entire way until another horse came up from behind at the finish line, placing him second. I was thrilled, as I had inadvertently bet him ‘to place’ (come in 2nd)! I had won! But when I went to collect my winnings, it only paid 75 Rs. I was still happy – I had faced my demons and won.

As Alan took my photograph, he said: “You may be able to master your demons, but it isn’t worth much.”

At-window+web Payout_web

 

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.

Alan-Teller-and-Jerri-Zbiral_web

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

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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.

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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.

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On our block (JZ)

 

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