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.”

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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 42 – Jerri’s Musings #14 – Grand Canyon

Written Jan 27, 2014

We just got back from spending an afternoon on Chitpur St. It is a street like no other – everything is made, manufactured, fabricated, consumed and sold on that street and its many tributaries. One group of stalls makes brass pots, kitchen utensils and candlesticks, another aluminum, another stainless steel, another cast iron. Then there are the wood carvers: small molds to mold sweets; alters to hold idols; bowls to hold food; trays to hold whatever trays hold; utensils and tools to chop, serve, hammer or mix; stools of various heights to sit on; tables to eat on. Then there are the milk khowa kheer makers, producing large thick pale yellow discs, carefully weighed and placed into glass cabinets to be eagerly swooped up by the early morning rush of sweets makers the following day. Then we reach the basket makers, displaying fine baskets of every shape and size.

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The straw naturally leads to the straw idol makers, which then leads to perhaps the most amazing maze of streets and alleyways I have ever seen. We are in Kumar Tuli. There are hundreds, (thousands, perhaps?) of the tiniest of workshops producing thousands of idols. On March 4th there will be the Saraswati Puja, a grand fete honoring the goddess of learning, art and music.

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This is the Grand Canyon of all streets – unable to capture its true glory, no matter what you do, or how hard you try. I stopped photographing after a while – it was useless. I felt completely overwhelmed and overpowered by its magnificence, unable to act on the overwhelming visual overload. I decided to just absorb and experience its beauty and visual chaos.

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Post 41 – Jerri’s Musings #13 – Kafka in Kolkata (and beyond)

Our friend Jeet tells the following story: A friend of his went to the local government office to pay his taxes. While waiting to be served, he saw a man enter one of the cubicles, take off his jacket and hang it over the chair. He then took out several containers of food and water. He ate his lunch at his desk.

In a short while, a woman came into the room, holding a paper. She approached him and asked if he could simply stamp the paper to show that she had been there. The man replied by saying that he was not able to do so. “But why?” she said, “Is there something wrong with the document?” “Not at all Madam, everything is in order.” “Why can’t you stamp it then?” “Because Madam…. I am not here.”

December, 2013

I go to my local Frank Ross Pharmacy, to get some Eugi, a probiotic I had purchased from a different Frank Ross Pharmacy, three weeks earlier. I hand a green-smocked man the empty Eugi packet. He searches the shelves, the drawers – I see that this is going to be difficult. He confers with another employee at the back of the store, who consults a computer. They in turn go consult a 3rd man. He shakes his head. They discuss the Eugi for quite some time. Finally the 3rd man comes over to me, and while holding the empty strip says: “But Madam, this does not exist, it will not be manufactured until 2014.”

“But… I purchased it from Frank Ross in South Mall 3 weeks ago, and I’ve been taking them this whole time” I say. The 3rd man gets very annoyed with me, picks up the phone, and aggressively punches in some numbers. They speak for some time, then turns to me: “How many do you want?”

March, 2014

Alan gets a “Missed Call” on his phone.

He calls back.

The woman who answers is not speaking English.

Alan: I’m sorry. I don’t speak any Bangla.

She: pause….(in English) But I was speaking Hindi!

Alan: Oh. Well, I don’t speak any Hindi either!

She: (disappointed, in English) You don’t?

Alan: No, sorry.

She: Wait a moment.

A man gets on the line.

He: Hello Sir?

Alan: Yes.

He: pause

Alan: You called me. I’m returning your call.

He: You’re returning from Hong Kong?

Alan: No, I’m returning your call.

He: Oh. Are you in India?

Alan: Yes.

He: You are not calling from America?

Alan: No.

He: Oh, well this is only for people in India.

Alan: I am in India.

He: Sorry to bother you Sir.

He hangs up.

 

Kafka in Kharagpur

At the Park Hotel Restaurant. On the menu, in English:

. Scrambled eggs on toast

. Eggs to order (fried / omelet)

Me: (pointing to Eggs to order…) I’d like 2 fried eggs please.

Waiter: (blank stare)

Me: (repeat of above)

Waiter: (with same blank stare) No Madame.

Me: Why? Here, on menu, see…

Waiter: Not possible Madame.

Me: Look… very easy (demonstrating breaking eggs into frying pan, w/ sound effects)

Waiter: (head bobble, indicating OK)

Alan: I’ll have the scrambled eggs on toast please.

Waiter: No, not available.

Alan: But it’s here, on the menu.

Waiter: Not available, omelet only.

Alan: (somewhat confused) If you can make an omelet, why can’t you make scrambled

eggs? (demonstrates whipping up eggs)

Waiter: No sir, not available.

(Think: Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces)

Me: Just have an omelet Alan.

Alan: I’ll have the omelet.

Waiter: (smiles)

 

 

 

Post 35 – Jerri’s Musings #10 – Eleven Handy Items

ELEVEN HANDY ITEMS TO BRING TO INDIA

IF YOU’RE SETTING UP A HOUSEHOLD

OR

ITEMS THAT ARE HARD / IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND IN INDIA

  1. A good vegetable peeler – you need to peel all fruits and vegetables. If you can’t peel it, don’t eat it. Otherwise you risk “deadly dengue fever.” Actually, it’s not really deadly dengue fever, it’s just what Alan and I call being really really sick.
  1. Rubber gloves – for those ikky times. And there will be many, many ikky times. If you have a cook/housekeeper, she will not clean your bathroom. You will either have to do it yourself or hire a sweeper to do it. We’ve been doing it ourselves (without rubber gloves.) Not going into details.
  1. A bunch of those self-stick hooks. You can find them here, maybe, kinda. But the only ones I’ve found have been Pokemon themed (blech!) Landlords usually don’t let you put nails into the walls. Besides, most indoor walls are made of concrete and are nail impenetrable anyway.
  1. A kitchen timer. One of those “sorry madam, this does not exist” things. Very handy for timing boiling water, for example, as those silly looking propane stoves boil water faster than my $4K Thermador Pro stove back home. After almost 5 months in our flat, I still walk away after putting on a pot of water and it inevitably boils over.
  1. Masking tape – Another one of those “sorry madam, this does not exist” items, this time followed by a baffled look. Masking tape indeed does not exist in India. Or Kolkata at least. Scotch tape and packing tape in great abundance though. Indians tend mostly to use rubber bands to seal packages. I prefer masking tape.
  1. Labels (assorted sizes) – amazing how many things you’re going to want to label. For example, light, fan and outlet switches. Every room has a bank of switches and no room is consistent with the other, in terms of order. Color coding and identifying which fan and light can be very helpful in reducing frustration. Also, like driving on the wrong side of the road, in India, to turn on a light, you flip the switch down.

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  1. Pepto Bismal – liquid, chewable, tablets – doesn’t exist in India – a carry-with-me must. Other types of ant-acids very available, but not PB.
  1. Pill splitter. Stock up on Rx supplies here – often 1/10 the price of US Rxs, but sometimes doses vary, so you may need to split pills, assuming they are splitable.
  1. Flexible mesh ‘one size fits all’ sink drainer. I tried to replace the really gross one we have in the kitchen sink and was met with initial blank stares, then, “Must buy whole unit mam.” Right.
  1. Comet or Ajax, powder form. The only kitchen cleanser available here is liquid Ajax. Try cleaning a sink with a liquid cleanser and watch it go down the drain.
  1. A couple of good kitchen knives. Most furnished apartments have very basic cutlery. Knives don’t seem to be a priority here. Most cooks use a device that’s a cross between a guillotine and a saber. The ones in the market are awesome, in a very frightening way*. The dexterity of the handlers is astonishing. I’m amazed that their fingers stay intact. Oh, and butter knives are scarce – no one uses them.

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* When I go buy chicken parts from the chicken man, the parts are usually displayed in a large, eye-level glass vitrine. A bit gross, but tolerable. Once, the vitrine was empty. I asked for 2 and 2 (2 breasts, 2 legs/thighs.) He went in back and brought out a lovely white chicken, very much alive, hanging upside down, furiously flapping her wings. Geez, I thought, I’m going to have to take full responsibility for her demise. The man asked for my approval. Right. Like I would know. I gave the standard head bobble, signifying consent, securing her end.

I made the mistake of making eye contact with the poor creature. There was desperation in her eyes. The chicken-parts man handed her over to the guillotine man. I couldn’t stand it. Tears started to form in the corners of my eyes. Like a coward, I turned my back. Only to be confronted with a framed image of Kali on the wall, in her frightening glory. I apologized profusely both to Kali and the chicken.

The chicken man handed me a black plastic bag – 2 breasts, 2 legs. Any resemblance to its previous state of being was impossible. I paid the man. The bag was warm to the touch. I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I couldn’t get the image of the chicken’s eyes out of my mind.

I should have remembered, “No eye contact.” It’ll get you every time.