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 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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