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 39 – Salua Part II

Shortly after we left Kharagpur a month ago, we contacted Helen LaFave, the American Consul General in Kolkata to secure permission to explore the restricted airbase. Helen came to our talk at the Victoria Memorial Hall (the subject of a forthcoming blog post) and took me aside. “This may be more difficult than it would seem,” she said. Apparently, she had to go through the West Bengal Home Minister. When we hadn’t heard back only days before we were to leave for our 2nd trip to the area, Jerri contacted her again. It didn’t look good. But then, already in Kharagpur, we got the good news that our proposal had been approved and we could gain access to the base. We emailed our Gurkhas who were thrilled.

Jajo-w-Ghurkhas_webOn Sunday morning, we went to Salua with Asid. Pranay Rai, Bishal Tamang, and Dawa Syangbow, the three soldiers who had been most enthusiastic were distraught. They had never received any confirmation. They were rightly concerned about allowing us into the interior of the base and spending unapproved time with us. For the next half hour, we tried to contact Helen but it was Sunday, the Consulate closed, the chances of reaching her slim. After repeated calls, a security person at the Consulate answered and I explained the situation. He asked if the CG would know me by name. I told him she would, and, to my astonishment, he finally put me through. The Commander wasn’t even at the base that day—he was in Kolkata. I put Helen on with Pranay. She explained that she had gotten a text message from the Home Secretary granting permission. But protocol insisted that the soldiers needed something more substantive. Helen said that she had done as much as was possible.

We had come so close, but it looked as though we were not able to go much further. India has changed us, made us more accepting of the world around us and our place within it, more aware of the simultaneous random yet inevitable nature of existence. But that still doesn’t rule out disappointment or longing.

Canteen_webDejectedly, we all piled into our cars and Pranay and the others took us to see some sites we had missed earlier. We went first to the remains of a U.S. Army canteen, now on private property, outside the base. The owner didn’t mind us wandering about photographing. When he started making not-so-oblique references to payment, and his alcohol level became apparent, we decided to leave. But just then Pranay ran over to us, literally jumping up and down. “Sir! M’am! Something miraculous has happened!” Helen must have called in some markers behind the scenes. We had our permission.

It would take an hour or so for the paper work to go through, so we decided to check out a possible match to one of our two remaining unidentified temples. Someone on the base assured us that it was the same; this of course has happened before. We drove far out into the country, on vanishing roads, stopping several times to adjust our direction. Finally, our small caravan stopped, seemingly in the middle of the fields. It was noon, 100 degree heat, a blazing sun. Our temple was far off in the distance, barely visible. We walked on the small ridges between now dry rice paddies, sharp remnant stalks mixing with the brown dirt at our feet. It was absolutely quiet, except for the distant sound of barking dogs and the barely perceptible sound of heat.

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There, on a small hill, next to a pond, was a little temple and what seemed to be its abandoned sister. It was similar, but not the one we were looking for. We’ve gotten used to that. It was beautiful nonetheless.

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Then an old woman, shaded by an umbrella, came up to me and began speaking rapidly in Bangla. I motioned Asid, standing nearby, to help translate. Her dog was lost, somewhere out in the fields. It somehow did not occur to her than a white guy with a camera might not understand. I have arrived.

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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.

 

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Post 29 – Jerri’s Musings #9 – Some Gems

EXITING BIG BAZAAR (local supermarket chain). 12/28/13

Big-Bazaar_webSecurity guard: “Are you happy today ma’am?”
Me, somewhat startled: “Yes, very happy. Are you very happy today?
Security Guard: “Yes, ma’am, very happy.”
He punched my receipt and off I went with a huge smile on my face.

ON THE TRAIN. 12/13

Making my way in a crowded train to the door in order to bolt. I sashay left, a young man makes room for me. I turn and sashay right, another young man makes room, unfortunately blocking Alan’s exit, to his great chagrin.
“Well that was easy.” I say.
“Life is easy ma’am,” the second young man says.

IN A TAXI WITH JEET. 1/14/14

Taxi_webJeet’s sitting up front with the driver. Alan and I are in back. Red light. A beggar comes knocking at the window. No eye contact. None of us pay any attention to him. He’s very persistent and won’t go away. Finally, Jeet rolls down the window, says something to him in Bangla and the man goes away. The taxi driver laughs.
“What did you say?”
“I told him that you were wicked people & would never give him any money.”

NEIGHBORHOOD. 2/4 – after the Sarasvati puja (celebrating the goddess of art, culture, learning & music). Talking with Brishty, a 10th grade teenager.

Brishty_webBrishty: “Why are you so white?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Brishty: “Why is your skin so white?”
Me: (a bit speechless) “Well…I was born this way.”
Brishty: “But how do you get your skin so white?”
Me: “I don’t really do anything. (thinking to myself: actually, we folks spend a lot of time in the sun trying to look like you.) I’m Caucasian, I was born in Europe, and that’s how we look.”
Brishty: “Oh.”

IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. 2/14

“Hello Jerri,” I hear as I’m walking by.
“Hello,” I say, greeting a friendly neighbor man.
“I was telling my wife about you. She has very bad legs and cannot come down very often. She would like to meet you. Can you come for tea tomorrow at 5:30?”
“Of course.”
“You know, I feel like my day is not complete if I don’t see you, and I have not seen you walk by for several days now.”

IN A SMALL SHOP. 2/27

Underwear-shrine_webAlan needed a plain white t-shirt. We stop at one of the many tiny underwear shops on the main street by our house. There are several men in the store, behind and in front of the counter. It’s stuffy. It’s taking a long time to find a plain white t-shirt, no logo, 105cm. I’m getting bored, impatient, hot. Finally, one is found, right size, no stupid logo, plain white.

One of the men behind the counter is walking around with 3-4 lit incense sticks, circling them around the densely stacked packets of bras, men’s and women’s underwear and t-shirts. His lips move silently. I wonder what prayers he’s incanting. I look at the torsos of oiled muscular men in slim Jockey underwear and think of the absurdity of the scene.

Shrine_webMy gaze moves over to my corner where there is a small alter, almost hidden around a stack of boxes. It’s heavily laden with fresh marigold garlands. Ganesh, the elephant god, is center stage. To his left is the ever-terrifying goddess Kali. It is hard to see, but to his right is Lakshmi, I think, goddess of wealth. The incense man finishes his prayers, touches his chest and forehead then places the sticks in a holder in front of Ganesh. I ask him if Lakshmi is Lakshmi. His face lights up. The rest of the men quickly come over. “Yes,” he says, very excited at my interest. Then all the men proudly point out the other idols, and explain them to us. They step out into the street with us, and wave good by. They watch as we walk away, all of us with huge smiles on our faces.

AT A CORNER TEA MERCHANT. 2/28

Debasish-Paul_webWe’re discussing the merits of different Darjeeling teas, first flush, second flush, autumn flush, various tea estates. The tea merchant brews a couple of different teas for us to try. We want to take a kilo home with us and then distribute small packets to friends.

I notice a small alter at the far end of the counter. Ganesh sits with a garland of marigolds around his neck and at his feet. I see something stir. A small gray mouse pokes its head up from behind the idol, looks around, nibbles at a marigold, then disappears.

“Ah… you have a mouse in your alter!” I say, laughing. “Yes, I know,” he says. “He lives there. He comes and eats the stuff inside the marigolds, drinks the water from the small dish that we have in front of Ganesh, then goes away. He always looks up at us before he takes a drink. He is always the same size. Sometimes we don’t see him for 2-3 months. Then he comes back. He never comes into the tea shop itself. Mice don’t like tea, you see.” “And you don’t trap and kill him?” I ask. “Oh no. You see, a mouse is the vehicle of Ganesh, we could never harm him.” I make a mental note to Google “Ganesh and a mouse” when I get home.

We settle on Chamong, 2nd flush.

Post 28 – The Romance of Old Photos

1206We love this image. Of all the photographs of temples from our 1945 archive, it is our favorite. There is something about the tree growing out of the roof, the seemingly haphazard jagged line over the entrance, the three men standing in the doorway, the placement of the temple in space, the encroachment of the jungle. It is one of the forces that has motivated us over the years on this project. Where is this? If we could only find THAT one, we’d feel as thought we had succeeded.

This past Sunday, we were in an impossibly old taxi having just arrived in Khargpur to finally start our one week adventure in the hinterlands locating our temples and villages. The cab’s interior door panels were falling off, springs were coming up on the seats, the engine sounded as though it really wanted a rest. The driver wasn’t in much better shape than his car, but he was singing as he drove. And as we raced to our hotel (Indian drivers always race), we passed it. The Nandeswar Temple. I only caught a glimpse, over my left shoulder as we sped past, but it was definitely it. We don’t speak Bangla or Hindi and the driver didn’t speak English and it was late and we were tired and there seemed no way to stop. So a glimpse had to do for now (it’s a small town, we’re here for a week, we can clearly return.) But the thing is, it was totally different than the photo that has been in our heads for years. It was painted white, the tree no longer growing out of the roof, the lines now painted gold (gold?) its romanticism gone. And the jungle had been replaced by the dirty sprawl of Kharagpur. What happened to my image of the past?

1182We assign meaning to images, regardless of reality, and we do so in an instant. We see, we respond. For this photo, we created in our minds a mythic past, a quieter and simpler place, without the mess of actual life. The Shire…in India. One of the marvels of this country is its relationship to time. In some places, India lives in the future, with hi-tech companies, ultra-modern architecture, a world power.

_DSC1123-Edit_webIn others, little has changed in hundreds of years. And once we’ve frozen an image in the past, it is disconcerting to have the present intrude. We both yelled “Oh no!” on seeing the temple; at that moment, our romantic needs outweighing the probable comfort, safety and spiritual needs of those actually using that structure. But as we continually discover, unexpected adventures lie around every corner, challenging us to never be disappointed if our expectations aren’t met. They are likely to be exceeded in unimagined ways.

898The next morning, I was eager to confirm that the fleeting image of a restored Nandeswar temple was indeed our #1182 but geography dictated that first we try to find #898, the Kali temple (we had a sense of where it might be.) Our driver, sure of its location, drove up and down small alleys and streets, constantly asking people. He had no idea where it was (it is amazing how, in a small town, it is still possible to get lost.) Finally, in a narrow lane, I spotted what looked suspiciously like the Nandeswar temple, albeit somewhat different than the one we had seen earlier. I had the driver stop the car and I jumped out.

3-women_webThree women were sitting in front of the temple. I was carrying the book of photos and showed the old images to them. A crowd gathered, everyone eagerly comparing this temple with the old photos; it was not “our” temple. But a small army of school boys, eager to help, said they knew the way to the nearby Kali temple and, like reverse Pied Pipers, Jerri and I followed them, leaving the car behind, marching through the narrow alleys, book in hand. And there it was, the Kali Temple, in all its earthen red glory.

Kali-now_web Me-doorway-Kali_web  Kali-folk-art_web

One of the boys got the key from the house next door. People gathered, eagerly looking through our book. We went inside and saw an incredible folk-art-like Kali, quite different from others we had seen previously. And we confirmed that this was indeed the Kali temple photographed by our soldier/photographer in 1945. We placed a few coins in the Hundi (contribution) box and purchased a small booklet about the temple offered by one of the boys. Then, one of the kids said “There’s another temple nearby. Want to see it?”

w-cow-and-canopy_webWe followed again, and this time, they lead us straight to the Nandeswar temple we had seen when we first arrived in Kharagpur. We had been driving in circles. It was restored and no longer abandoned, in fact quite active, and still striking, even without romantic decay. They had, however, built a fence surrounding the temple and added a canopy, making it hard to see that beautiful entry.

The priest was just completing a puja. He and his devotees and temple members gathered around, looking through the book. Then, we were invited inside where Pandit R. Someswar Sharma blessed us in a ceremony, complete with drums and chanting, bells and incense. They were honored that we had come to their temple. We were honored that they welcomed us so warmly and were so thankful for the work we were doing in bringing these images home. We gave them several prints (anticipating at least some level of success, we had all the temple images printed while still in the States.) We’ll email others. And we’ll return later in the week for tea at the priest’s home.

Priest_webBucket-doorway_web

At-Nandeswar_web

India has challenged us at every turn and I think it has made us grow. I’m far more accepting. I was always open to adventure, to the mysteries of life, but in the past my innate cynicism could affect my response. I think I’m more open now, more willing to simply let things happen. I’d still rather have had hot water come from the faucet in our hotel, rather than having to call downstairs and have someone bring it up in buckets. But complaining wasn’t going to magically add hot water plumbing to this old hotel. So we poured buckets over our heads, sighed and looked forward to a real shower back in Kolkata.

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