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 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 40 – Salua Part III; The Darkroom!

Walk-to-laundry1Now free to explore, with the Gurkhas granted permission to escort us, we entered into the camp itself. Pranay led us deep into a forested part of the old camp where, our photos in hand, he and the others had been searching and had found an abandoned laundry. It didn’t seem to be the one featured in our photo, but it was tantalizingly similar.

Laundry1_webHe said “We’ve been wandering in the jungle for you. We want this place to be known in history.” Pranay then told us how they had taken our photographs into the village and were showing them to chai wallahs and merchants and anyone who would look, hoping someone would recognize something. When I was an anthropology student many years ago, I always thought that the most effective research would be a collaborative effort. This is exactly what we are now doing.

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They took us to see the remains of old airplane hangers, now standing like ancient ruins. I was deep into the underbrush, photographing when Dawa suggested that perhaps I should not be photographing there. Snakes. Right.

 

 

GPS-Temple_webOne of the abandoned hangers had been turned into a shrine, a seemingly perfect end to a monument to destruction. It also now served as a GPS coordinate, India again mixing old and new in its own, unique way.

Trophy_webWe drove back to headquarters, invited for lunch. Then, we were escorted to the office. Now officially authorized to do so, the wonderful Gurkhas had wanted to thank us, to do something to show their appreciation for our search into their history. Sub-commander Dhurba Lohar presented us with a magnificent trophy. This being a last minute thing, they chose what they had on hand. We now have a beautiful memento, an award normally given to soldiers on their retirement. It will be a prized possession. But we’ll never retire.

from-photo-Holster_webThe soldiers had been particularly interested in a detail from one of our photos that showed a Gurkha knife holster. On our way out, heading back for more exploring, they showed us how today’s soldier uses exactly the same weapon, confirming that our photo was indeed of a Gurkha. Jerri asked if she could see the knife. Bishal hesitated and said that wasn’t possible. Once a Gurkha’s knife has been unsheathed, he said, it cannot be returned to its holster unless there is blood on it. OK. Holster_web

Laundry-2_webBack in the field, they showed us another laundry ruin; again, similar structure, but not a definitive match. They had one more site to show us, but it was right by an active firing range. They had cut through brush to find it, but were fairly sure that this was indeed the laundry shown in our 1945 photograph, the key image to identifying Salua as our GI’s base. That one will have to wait until we return, or at least they stop shooting.

Just before we left, Pranay said: “ We are turning over every stone. You’ve changed us.” What an astonishing thing to say. He, and this entire experience, has clearly changed us as well.

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We then headed to IIT to finally get inside the darkroom that had excited us a month ago. It was a dramatic moment. The sign on the door was encouraging. When it was opened, we saw a darkroom in utter ruin, but one that contained elements that could have been from the 1940s.

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We saw an old multi-switch contact printer, possibly the kind used by the 10th P.T.U. The enlargers were newer, perhaps from the 1960s. The safelights and other apparatus were consistent. We saw a sign that at first convinced me: “Photography and Blueprint Section.” It was in English, it used the word ‘section’ that sounded military to me. But then we learned that IIT called all its departments ‘sections’ and all classes are in English. So we still don’t know! This could have been the darkroom…or not. We’ll have to do more research to be certain, research that will no doubt open more doors, closed for so many years.

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The next day we met with Professor Chakrabarti, the Director of IIT. He too was captivated by Following the Box. He would like to go to area villages, set up a projector and show the photos, hoping someone, somewhere will provide insight. This project just keeps growing.

 

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 38 – Jerri’s Musings #12 – On Being…

ON BEING A ROCK STAR

“I don’t want to go home.” I started saying this when we reached the half way mark of the trip. I don’t want to go home. Here, I’m a rock star. Back home, I’m a nobody. Here, 20-something cute young men (and they are always cute) come up to me and ask: “Can I have a picture with you m’am?” Back home, no cute young man wants to have his picture taken with me. Here, scores of children have asked me for my autograph. Back home…OK, you get the picture.

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We were at the Kolkata airport, heading towards our gate, standing on one of those long rolling walkways that do the walking for you. We were tired. We just stood there, facing forward, Alan clutching a coffee. A young man came along side of us. He was walking as we were being propelled gently forward, keeping perfect pace. He had his cell phone poised at us, filming. “Hello,” he said. “Hello,” Alan replied. I ignored him. It was way too early, I was way too tired. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Chicago,” Alan said. He asked a few more questions. Alan’s so polite, he answered them all. I slowly looked over at him, gave him my best Greta Garbo look, and said: “You know…we’re rock stars.” “Oh,” he said. He turned off his device and let us continue on the automatic walkway to our gate. Alan alerted me that I still had my sunglasses on.

ON BEING A GURU

Emma-at-Krnagargh-2011We became rock stars on our last trip to India. Perhaps the first time we became aware of our stardom was at the Dandeshwar temple, in Karnaghar. We were with Emma, and she didn’t quite know how to handle the crowds of people that always formed around us when we opened our binder of photographs. She especially, with her blond curly hair.

Our stardom definitely continued into this second trip. Almost everywhere we went, people would stop us on the street, start conversations, invite us to their homes for a “proper Bengali meal.” Everyone wanted their pictures taken with us. I was of course always delighted when a cute young man was involved. I later learned that Bengali men have a very strong connection to their mothers, and that perhaps I was a “mother figure.” I was fine with that.

But my rock star status escalated to the guru stage on a trip we took to Kerala in January. It was the one vacation we would take during almost 5 months. I was lying on a hammock, stretched between two palm trees, looking up at a blue cloudless sky, a cool breeze was coming off the lake, removing some of the heat from the sun. A perfect Kodak moment. Occasionally I’d try to read, but usually I just dozed off.

Karishma_webAt one point I sensed a presence and opened my eyes, only to find a young woman standing by the hammock. “Hello m’am,” she said. “Hello,” I replied. “My name is Karishma. Where are you from?” she asked. And the conversation started. The inevitable question arose quickly: “What are you doing in India?” As soon as I mentioned photography, she lit up. “Oh m’am, I LOVE photography. I had a really fine SLR, but I dropped it in the water and it got totally ruined. Now I just have a small one, and I go into a camera store and ask them how to take a good photograph. They take out the camera manual and hand it to me. That is not what I want. That is not what I’m asking.”

As it turns out, she is in college in Delhi, studying business management. Then she plans to go to graduate school and get two MBAs (don’t remember in what, just remember the ‘two’). She will get married after that, and perhaps then she can pursue her real passion, which is photography. “It looks like you have it all planned out. But why do you need to wait till after you are married to follow your passion?” I asked. “Because my father says that I need to get an education and a job first and then later I can do my hobby.” “Oh, but I think you need to do what you really love NOW. Do not wait for later. That time may never come.” I was really taking a chance here, totally contradicting her father as well as the standard Indian educational system.

I don’t know what got into me, but I proceeded to talk to her about photography and the excitement of making art. Of training your eye to really ‘see’ what there is and to translate it into an image. I talked about Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment, about Eugene Smith and his remarkable vision. About Robert Frank and Dorthea Lang. About some of the incredible Indian photo archives that we had visited in Delhi just a few weeks before. About how she should perhaps volunteer at one of these places, just to be able to handle real photographs from real moments in time – to be a part of history and hold it in her hands, relishing its importance and artistry.

At one point Kala came over and both women were sitting on the grass at my feet! Very empowering indeed. Karishma was clearly absorbing everything I was saying. She had the most beautiful smile. I said I would send her a reading list. She thanked me profusely for my knowledge, for my time. “Now you are my guru,” she said.

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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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