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.









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.









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.



Post 6 – Thanksgiving and Chanukah in Kolkata, the FFRO, Alyque Padamsee Nov. 28-29

Along with the other Fulbright recipients in the area, we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Helen LaFave, Consul General. Ironically, the U.S. Consulate is located on Ho Chi Minh Street. History does have a sense of humor.

I foolishly thought that this was a dressy affair, having been to several dinners at Consuls’ General homes in Chicago (ah, the rules of address…although I’m not 100% about this one.) Things are different here. We were hopelessly over-dressed; my sport jacket spent the evening on a chair.


Consul General’s home (JZ)

We met a few other Senior Scholars (that’s us—it has nothing to do with age, if you don’t mind) as well as several young Fulbrighters. Some were teaching, others doing research. Everyone was fascinated with our project. We spent most of the evening with Helen and “JJ” (the Director of the American Center, who is from the midwest) talking about what it’s like to be in the Foreign Service. It really is a different world. Neither woman could ever take the train, because of security issues; both told stories of local security excesses that were hilarious.

The food was spectacular. I imagine a military transport full of turkeys, not exactly an Indian staple. Maybe they were shipped live, filling the cargo hold, gobbling all the way. It also being the first night of Chanukah, we went home and lit candles on a small tin plate, our improvised menorah. There is not a singe American (and to our knowledge only one European) in our entire, large neighborhood. Clearly we are the only Jews for miles, our little colored candles a reminder of a community we’ve temporarily left behind.


FRRO Office (AT)

The next day was spent registering with the Kolkata police as foreign residents. This was a scene reminiscent of Kurosawa’s ‘Ikuru,’ with piles of paper everywhere, despite the fact that computers were sitting there, hopeful. The ‘FFRO’ is housed in a beautiful art deco building (on the outside.) Inside, the walls were old and yellow; everything was lit by fluorescent lights (Indians seem to have a fascination with these harsh lights); a noisy ceiling fan demanded attention. Foreigners were all waiting, signing never-ending papers, arguing. People kept bringing old wooden chairs to a back room, which must have become jammed, though we couldn’t see who might be sitting in them. At one point, someone brought out a tray full of rubber stamps. It looked like flowers at first, but there were literally dozens of different colored stamps, which an official proceeded to pound onto one paper after another. We managed to get out in an hour and a half, which must be a record.


Alyque Padamsee (AT)

That evening, we met Alyque Padamsee at the Grand Hotel, a remnant of colonial days (the hotel, not Alyque.) He is the father of Indian advertising, a film and theater director and actor, a political advisor, and a friend of Max’s girlfriend Priya, who had put us in touch. He is best known as Mr. Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan) in Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi.’ He is currently starring as Willy Loman in a production of ‘Death of a Salesman. ‘ Alyque gave us a copy of his book A Double Life: My Exciting Years in Theater and Advertising. He wrote: “To Alan and Jerri—India is not a country—it is an adventure!” This is proving more true as the days go by.


Heating the cauldron on the rooftop (AT)

The highlight of the following day was a Moghul feast at the home of Salim Mohammed, from Lake Bluff, who we had met at the airport in Delhi. He and his driver picked us up and took us to their newly constructed 5-story home. We went up on the roof deck, where we met one of his uncles. We thanked him profusely for the honor of their invitation. He extended his hand and said “We must all welcome and respect each other.” I know this is a tenet of Muslim belief, but it is quite wonderful to experience it in person. And experience it we did. We were honored guests and met Salim’s extended family. Carrying_webVast quantities of magnificent food were prepared in giant bowls, and carried downstairs with difficulty.

Music was filling the air. It was coming from a club only a few doors away, where we had actually been invited–another Fulbright fellow was performing. Despite it containing 14 million, Kolkata is a small town.


Salim Mohammed (AT)