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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 26 – Jerri’s Musings #7 – Frequent Flyers

Last night we gifted Emma a trip to India by using some of our frequent flyer miles. When we checked the previous day, the miles were at 90,000. Last night they jumped to 92,466. I did everything I could to not lose control of my senses.

For almost 3 months now, we have been living a dream here in Kolkata. We have a beautiful 2 bedroom flat, live in one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Kolkata, with the greatest produce, fish and flower markets. We have wonderful neighbors who brought me tea when I got sick earlier in the week, who can sing “We Shall Overcome” in Bangla and Hindi, and who greet me on the street.

We have been able to amass a group of remarkable like-minded artists, who call us because they want to discuss a finer point in their project, conversations that morph into discussions about life and art.

I don’t think I’ve been happier than the last couple of months. India has given me the opportunity for intense soul-searching, as well as living a daily life concerned only with my own art, as well as administering a project that will ultimately turn out to be the most important thing that I will ever have done professionally.

We have been living in an artistic bubble, free of financial constraints, thanks to Senator Fulbright. Until last night. I don’t know exactly what it was about that extra 2,466 miles that set me off, but they brought out the financial negotiations of everyday life back in the U.S. And I don’t like it. The familiar anxiety started to settle unto my chest, my brow started to furl – I could feel the arched eyebrows and the ripples on my forehead. Alan and I had a long sit-down, both trying to fight off the demons of quotidian living. We have an important presentation to make this morning and we cannot let ourselves be dragged down.

 

Post 22 – Catching Up I

Please click on thumbnails to enlarge the photos. They really look better that way.

When we were in India three years ago, we worked at warp-speed, knowing we had little more than 3 weeks to do preliminary work on Following the Box; to be with Max and Emma; to meet Max’s teacher Pt. Shivkumar Sharma; to experience India. In retrospect, it is astonishing how much we accomplished. This time, given that we have 4½ months, we were confident that we might be able to work on a somewhat slower and more measured pace.

Nah. It’s like friends who were thrilled when we moved into our large home in Evanston that now we’d have more wall space and wouldn’t have to stack things one on top of the other. It just gave us the opportunity to take more things out of drawers and boxes and properly display them—one on top of the other. That’s what has happened here in India. The past few weeks have been so hectic, so crammed with remarkable adventures, that I have had no time to write.

I’ll try to catch up, starting with Christmas.

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Xmas Conga line, Park Street Kolkata (AT)

It’s insane. Indians love a party and have so much experience with gods and goddesses and festivals that throwing in another celebration makes perfect sense. Christmas on Park Street in Kolkata is akin to New Year’s eve in Times Square. Really. Many hundreds of thousands of people flock to an area filled with high-end, Western-style shops. Everyone is dressed in Santa hats, all joyously wishing everyone “Merry Christmas,” religion not even part of the equation.

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After the dance (AT)

We couldn’t get into an outdoor concert in the park, so when 60s American music wafted through the air, Jerri and I looked at each other, smiled and said “Wanna dance?” Within seconds, we were completely surrounded by hundreds of people, camera and cell-phone flashes popping. We dragged a few young people into the circle, but for the most part we were on our own. When the song ended, we were cheered and seemingly the entire crowd came up to shake our hands, wish us well and thank us. I’m sure we’re on YouTube somewhere, embarrassing the hell out of our children.

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Mike German at sound studio (AT)

A few days later, we met Jeet and Mike German, a fellow Fulbrighter (albeit some 35+ years younger) who had agreed to provide the voice-over narration for Jeet’s film. My voice is apparently too heavy with life (it sounds OK to me.) We went to a sound studio, where Mike voiced our anonymous soldier/photographer. In Jeet’s creation, he is Jewish and lonely and writing home to his fiance in Baltimore describing what he’s seeing in West Bengal. This layered, cross-cultural take on historical imagery is exactly what we had hoped for. I love the arc of stories—how a singe idea or image sparks a universe. That’s what’s happening with all our participating artists, each in their own way inhabiting that tiny 4×5” space that contains worlds.

Then it was off to Santiniketan. The 145 km train ride from Kolkata was memorable. Baul musicians (“mystic minstrels” according to Wikipedia) kept wandering through the cars, delighting us, while most riders simply ignored the flutes and drums and harmonium. Art surrounds you in India, like it or not. There is a huge and appreciative audience…but not aways.

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Baul musicians on Santiniketan Express (AT)

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Santiniketan was made famous by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore; the town centers on a university that is a mecca for artists, scholars and writers. We stayed at a small inn near our friends Julie and Babui. Babui had grown up there—his father was Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, a famous sculptor who taught at the university and was a student of Henry Moore and a friend of Giacometti. A ten foot high statue of Tagore greets you entering their home; the artist’s studio is filled with maquettes and sculptures and tools, untouched since ‘Baba’ passed away a few years ago. The place is magical. And it seems that almost any creative person in West Bengal has some connection to Santiniketan. I can see why.

We went to a mela (market) which was intense; were mesmerized by another Baul musician; visited a very poor village with remarkable friezes on the outside of each hut; met a woman weaving surrounded by laughing children who misunderstood Jerri’s name and kept calling her “Honey.”

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Then to a New Year’s eve party at the home of musician Alex and his wife singer/designer Sukanda. They’ve designed their home, using traditional methods and materials augmented by solar power. A true delight. The evening was filled with food and music. I posted a few images on facebook. People asked if this was a commune from the 60s. Could be. I certainly felt at home.

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left: AT; middle: JZ; right: AT

To read earlier posts, please scroll to the bottom of your screen, hit the ‘Previous’ button, or call me in India for help, depending on your situation.  ALSO: I am using thumbnails instead of larger images (click to enlarge.)  Do you like this or shall I go back to the larger pictures?  Please let me know.  WYSIWYG is still a pipedream.

Post 9 – Jerri’s Musings #2 – Ethics

Many years ago, Max and I were driving downtown. We got to the corner of Sheridan Rd. and Hollywood, waiting at the stoplight. A man was selling newspapers. Max wanted to buy one. I protested, being married to a paper magnet. He said he wanted to buy one to support the vendor. “Look at him,” he said “Would you like to have that job? Don’t be cheap, buy a paper.” Max had just returned from Senegal, and his sense of justice was quite acute. I smiled, proud of my son – we had brought him up well.

The vendor noticed our interest and immediately came over. “How much for the paper?” I say. “Two dollars.” He says. I hand him the money, he walks away. I look at the paper and I see $1.75 marked at the top. “I just got cheated!” I say, indignant. “Geez, it’s only 25 cents.” Says Max. “That’s not the point, he should have given me the correct price, and by charging me $2 he was being dishonest,” I say.

We then proceed into a long conversation along Lake Shore Drive, discussing the ethics of the transaction. Max claimed that the vendor had a right to ask for the $2, after all I was much better off. My counter argument was that his economic status had no bearing on the matter and that he should have been honest and told me the correct price. Of course I would have given him the $2, but it was my decision to do so, not his. Max countered by saying that the vendor wouldn’t know that, and didn’t want to take a chance – he needed the money. We never came to an agreement. I still think I’m right.

So what does this have to do with India?

A lot – every time I go shopping I am put in a situation where I have to assess whether I’m being overcharged, by how much and whether I’m OK with that.

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The Plastics Lady, Lake Market (JZ)

I’ve been buying plastic everything – containers for food and spices, clothespins, hangers, laundry buckets, floor-cleaning buckets, washbasins, water jars, stools, self-stick hooks…. I think I’m finally done now. Alan is incensed at the enormity of plastic in India and my eagerness to fall prey. I agree, but we need to keep the spices fresh and the bugs out, and we don’t have a dishwasher or a washing machine, plus I’m a bit OCD regarding organization. All of these were purchased from street vendors, of which there are thousands. I bargain, because I know that I’m being overcharged – I’m a foreigner therefore I’m rich. Which I kind of am, relative to their situation. Sometimes I’m only able to get it down 10-20 Rupees – pennies, but it makes me feel better, and I feel in control.

Last week, I was talking to Salim, the man from Lake Bluff. We were discussing the purchase power of Westerners, the guilt of bargaining someone down for a few cents, just to make us feel better. Should I let the plastic vendor have the 10 Rupees, like the 25cent guy from years ago, just because I happened to be born into a more privileged societal situation? I think I reconciled the question by saying that the 10 Rupees savings made me feel better, and the plastic vendor still made more money off of me than from an Indian, and I am OK with that. And, bargaining at a street stall is expected; it’s a game that’s constantly being played.

A couple of days ago however, I was really taken. We were just coming back from the doctor’s office – I was terribly nauseous and apples were one of the few things I could eat. We passed a vendor that had several varieties – they looked wonderful, neatly stacked in circular pyramids. I bought a ½ kilo, plus a beautiful pomegranate. “210 Rupees ($3+)” he said – “Too expensive” I said, but my spinning head was not interested in bargaining or to seek out another vendor, so I simply handed over the money. As we walked away, I knew I had been way overcharged and started to grumble. Today I bought 1 kilo of apples and paid 100 Rupees ($1.50) from a great fruit vendor I found. Yesterday I was charged 3x what I should have. I’m really angry and can’t really let go of it. He saw me coming and I fell right in. I don’t like that sense of vulnerability, stupidity, of being the gullible foreigner, the targeted victim – I feel like I can’t control the situation, which always is a bad thing. My vegetable guy gave me a carrot today, “I’ll be back,” I said. Last week, the egg man returned 2 Rupees from my correct payment. I looked at him questioning. He said that’s so I’ll come back to him. I was so taken by his gesture, that I wanted to return it. I decided to keep the 2 Rupees, as this was his token to me. I smiled with a Bengali nod. I’m a faithful shopper – respect and honesty mean a lot to me, which is why the disrespect by the apple vendor is so upsetting.

Whether it’s a quarter by the Chicago paper vendor, or the tripled overcharged apples in a Kolkata market, it all comes down to a matter of ethics.