Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Today is the last day of my residency and I've been sitting at the computer most of the morning. The doorbell has been busy. One person called to see if I was interested in a portable gas stove cooking demonstration, a man from the water company downstairs came to collect the empty bottle, and someone else came looking for a Khoj person. I managed 'no thank you', 'it's here' and 'come back at three' ... in Hindi.
I haven't told anything of the Sunderbans trip as yet and I have some photos I'd like to share, so I will add some more posts post-Kolkata. However, here is one of my favourite images.
One morning in the Sunderbans, we came across some tiger pug marks. Sambhu said they were very fresh, probably from early that morning. They emerged out of the water, across the mud and disappeared into the mangrove forest. This tiger had swum across from one island to the other, most likely in search of food, a distance of about 1 kilometre. Just a trace.
It's my last day, and there is still more to write. And much more to think about. It has been an amazing experience, or rather an accumulation of experiences, that I'm sure I'll carry with me for a long time. I farewell some good friends and look forward to meeting them again. I will return in late January to finalise and install the work for the exhibition at Harrington Arts Centre.
A huge thank you to Khoj for hosting my residency, for their generosity and in making me feel so at home here. It has been great to share many things, especially all the fantastic meals we've eaten together. I can't recall how many conversations I've had with my friends about food and cooking. At the end of the day, friends, family and food is what sustains us all. I'm very glad to have been included in theirs. Special thanks to Abhida, Smriti, Bhutu, Kaushik, Paula, Chhatra, Tamal, Kazima and Sayak.
There is such a fabulous variety of breads here in Kolkata. My local dhaba, Azad Hind, has a bread maker out the front. Last night he was making rumalis over an upturned dome made of terracotta. We had a small mountain of them with dinner on Monday back at Khoj. They are paper thin, light and delicious.
Rumali means handkerchief.
As part of the Khoj residency tradition, I was requested to sing something. Blankness gave way to one feeble verse of that fine drinking song ... Nico's After Hours. My Bengali friends love to sing and have an incredible wealth of songs, from traditional to Tagore. They also have beautiful voices.
Early yesterday morning, I went to visit Edward and Kate Alkin's grave at the Lower Circular Road Cemetery, via the phulwallah at Lake Market.
The headstone has been cleaned, the lettering regrooved but without the need for reinterpretation. The back of the stone is polished to a mirror finish and some of the small plants are beginning to flower.
And although I know where his bones are now, I hope to find some more traces of his life still.
This clock was purchased for R/- 1,998 & 8 annas in 1897 by the Calcutta Port Trust.
I spent several hours there yesterday searching the archives register for any trace of my great-great grandfather, Edward Alkin and also great grandfather, Charles Macdonald Shield.
At 1.50 pm, I stopped for a cup of tea.
I compiled several pages of notes and references for another visit, and did find a report 'List of River Surveyors and Assistant Surveyors since 1878' in which Charles Macdonald Shield's name appears. He joined in 1900 and resigned in 1911.
In 1899, three River Surveyors drowned.
The file for 1895, the year that Edward Alkin died, was not available. I don't know if it might have contained anything relevant. Edward was in the Sunderbans and the Port Trust documents mostly relate to the Hugli and Calcutta, though I did find a later reference to the Matla river.
Other reports included:
'Arrival of their Royal Highnesses, the Prince and Princess of Wales', 1905;
a 'Summary of accidents etc of light vessels', 1881;
'A dying River Irrigation vs Navigation', 1902;
'Acquistion by European and Anglo-Indian staff on the knowledge of the vernacular', 1925;
a 'Petition from the widow of Mr G. Thurlow, second mate light ship, Canopus, for a gratuity', 1904.
I'm curious if Kate Alkin received any compensation after Edward died. I now want to find out what he was doing out there in Madaripore, who he was working for and what the conditions were like. It is possible that the India Office at the British Museum may hold documents that could shed some light on the Sunderbans in the late 1800's.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
The street food here is fabulous and yesterday I sought out another culinary experience. I wanted to taste fuchkas after Rupa was shocked that I hadn't tried them.
Small balls of thin crisp fried pastry, into which the vendor pokes a hole and adds some potato bhaji and green chilli. Then he adds a delicious tamarind broth. Hot sour juicy soft and crunchy. The flavour is sublime.
They are served in a shallow disposable bowl (made from dried pressed and moulded leaves), usually five or six per serve. As you finish one, the vendor has already dropped the next into your bowl. I'm going back tomorrow for some more.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Ian was told that his mother died.
My mother recalls finding a photo in her husband's bible, which was 'snatched away'. There is a young child perhaps one or two years old, in his mother's arms. She says it 'was not an open topic' and that she was 'sworn to secrecy.'
My brother Michael had been very ill as a child. He has a vague memory of being shown a photo or a newspaper clipping of a young man and woman, possibly Ian's wedding. 'This is your brother.'
It was not uncommon for British planters to have children with Nepali and Tibetan women who worked on the tea gardens. Many of these children were taken away from their mothers and sent to one of the orphanages set up for abandoned or destitute children. Out of sight, out of mind.
Ian was not abandoned. Almost unquestionably out of love for his son, his father sent him to the UK to be cared for by his grandparents. And although the issue remained 'a closed door' for so many years, the gratitude of my brothers for this decision was deeply felt during the short time that we knew him.
Ian and his family had made attempts to locate John and Michael. When efforts through official channels failed, he travelled to Sydney with his wife. There, they worked their way through the surname listings in the White Pages but my brothers both lived outside of the city and metropolitan area.
Timing is everything and we were incredibly lucky in so many ways. Within a few months of finding Ian, my older brother John and his wife were on their way to meet him and his family. Although many questions will never be answered and old bones can still be heard rattling around, the discovery of a brother on the opposite side of the world is an extraordinary gift. For Ian, his longing to make contact with his brothers finally happened. Who would have thought that some words posted on the internet would have such an impact on our lives.
We are in the dining room setting the table for dinner. I apologise for my continual staring, catch myself in astonishment. At times, I cannot take my eyes off him. His arms, his hands, a slight rounding of his shoulders as he leans in and listens to one of his grandchildren. His mannerisms and gestures mirror those of my older brother. Over the few days we stay here, I see them again and again.
He is telling me about saying goodbye to his father and the sea on which he is about to sail. There are tears running down my cheek and into the corner of my mouth, salt like a distant ocean.
I found him on the internet. He was seventy-four and lived on the opposite side of the world. Had I not given in to some distracted googling that particular afternoon, we would never have known of his existence. You see I come from a family with its fair share of secrets, skeletons that have been living in some very old closets.
This is what it said:
July 28 2004: Jackie S. on behalf of her father Ian S. is looking for information about her fathers step brothers, Michael or Alexander and John S. Jackie's grandfather John Robertson Milne, an engineer, who moved to Darjeeling, India in the 1920's from Scotland with his cousin to become tea planters. Jackie's grandmothers name was Atyok. Her father was born Ian S. Oct 26th 1930. Atyok died soon after my father was born and my grandfather later married a lady who became Sylvia S. My grandfather died in India 1944/45 and Sylvia and the boys moved to Sydney, Australia in 1946/47. If anyone has information that will help Jackie get in touch with her Dad's stepbrothers please e-mail either Jackie or the editor ...
My mother was married twice. That's her, Sylvia. Her second husband was my father. Her first husband, John, was a tea planter in Darjeeling. They married when she was seventeen. By the time she was twenty, they had two sons, my half brothers. At twenty-two, she was a widow with two small boys.
In all the years that have passed, she has rarely mentioned her first marriage or her time living on the tea estate. It mostly remains a mystery. I have gleaned some fragments of her life then and I imagine it was a difficult time beyond the romance of 'the man I married took me to the roof of the world.' In the 1940's, it was remote and a long way from her family in Calcutta. The final ascent to the bungalow where they lived was down a hillside, across a stream and up the other side on horseback. She once told me there were wild otters in the river, and that cardamom trees grew along the hillside.
I visited Darjeeling with her a few years ago. Her first time back in sixty years. One afternoon I came back to our hotel room. I heard her singing a Tibetan nursery rhyme with an elderly woman who was making the bed. I'm straying though, hers is another story.
Monday, November 23, 2009
There is a bandh tomorrow, a State-wide strike. This happened twice when I was here in 2008 and everything shuts down. Public transport, taxis, banks, offices, restaurants, the lot. Kids were playing cricket on Chowringhee Road.
I'm leaving tomorrow for a three day trip to the Sunderbans and will be picked up at 3.30am to be out of the city and on the boat to Bali Island by 6.00 am.
Blog on hold till late Thursday/early Friday.
These are the graves of Sarah Owen and Mack Owen, my Armenian great-grandmother and great uncle, at the Lower Circular Road Cemetery. My great-grandfather Joseph Martyrose Owen is buried in the grounds of the Holy Nazareth Church in Armenian Street. Its undergoing renovations right now so I doubt I can get in there.
Armenians are not ones for fancy stuff, it's all just plain and simple. I had the headstones cleaned and the letters re-done. One thing I didn't consider is that the person who repaired the letters on these headstones doesn't read English. There are a few interesting re-writes that I'll have to sort out when I come back ... like 'Faithful Hato Death'. Or maybe they can stay, hato is growing on me.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
My book reference tally from the National Library has now exceeded sixty, and I've only managed to sift through four.
'Tiger Shooting in India', William Rice, 1857 (with 12 chromalithographs);
'The Calcutta Port Trust: A Brief History of 50 Years Work 1870-1920' (with hand coloured map attached to back cover);
For a second time, Augustus Somerville's 'Shikar near Calcutta ...' , and
Mary Linley Taylor's 'The Tiger's Claw: The Life Story of East Asia's Mighty Hunter', 1956.
The most interesting part of this last book was the author's prologue - an anecdote about a tiger's claw she was given by her 'naval grandfather'. The rest is a collection of stories about a Russian hunter, Yura (George) Yankovksy, she met while living in Korea between 1918 and 1942. While he is an entomologist and ornithologist of some repute, for several decades he goes around Siberia, Korea and Manchuria blasting away at tigers, panthers and leopards. Here is an extract about two cubs that resonated with my father's story.
"On a future hunt, George did get two tiger cubs, for which the zoo in Seoul paid him one thousand dollars. After seeing the tigers, fully grown, in the zoo - where, I must say, they looked contented - I asked George how he had caught them. 'Not with a trap', he replied.
'Then how?' I asked.
'Well,' George said, 'first I had to kill the mother. Then I found the young tigers. I held their heads to the ground with a strong forked stick, while Kim tied their hind legs together. I put a stick behing their teeth, so that they could not close their mouths to bite, and then tied the front legs together, and put them into sacks. We carried them to camp, put them in boxes, and took them to Seoul on the train.' "
This image is drawn from a photograph in Taylor's book. I've seen a number of images of tigers that have been shot and killed, but this photograph of the hunter (a friend of George's) next to those massive bears holds an eerie and violent stillness. Something in his easy stance, his gaze straight into the camera and in complete contrast the vulnerable snouts and upturned paws of the bears.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
An excerpt from Augustus Somerville's 'Shikar near Calcutta with a trip to the Sunderbans', W. Newman & Co., Calcutta, 1924 (illust. George Grant)
FIGHT WITH A PYTHON
Christmas Day, 1908, dawned cold, windy and wet. A gloomier day I have seldom seen, and it was with genuine relief that we shouldered our guns when we heard that a partridge had settled in a field hard by the river.
Three of us set out. Reading the field, we separated. I took the bank along the river, and in the excitement of the shoot soon lost sight of my companions. I was at this time traversing an old river-bed, which at this point was filled with moist clay and interspersed wtih dense cactus bushes. Suddenly, from my very feet, a hare sprang up. I fired and had the satisfaction of seeing the animal fall, but on approaching nearer, it rose, and with one limb trailing helplessly behind, made off at a fair pace. Determined to secure my quarry, I followed, and after a while recovered it in a deep fissure in the bank. In order that what follows may be better understood, I give in detail an exact description of this inlet.
Hollowed out, probably by the action of the water during the rains, this fissure was about ten feet long, not more than four feet wide and certainly over seven feet deep. At the extreme end of the cul-de-sac was a dense wall of cactus bush, and the same plant bordered the bank on either side. It was, in fact, a neat trap fashioned by Nature from which there was no exit except by the entrance.
Securing the hare at the extreme end of the inlet, where it had fallen exhausted, I turned to make my exit, when I was startled and considerably alarmed by seeing a huge python entering the same way.
The reptile was evidently unaware of my presence, for it continued to advance fearlessly, and I realized that unless I did something to stop its progress it would soon be upon me. I did not dare to fire, for I was armed with a 16 bore shot-gun and the lightest of charges which would have, at that distance, served only to infuriate the snake. But something had to be done, and done quickly, so summoning up all my courage, I shouted lustily in the hopes of scaring off the snake, - for these reptiles when unmolested are usually of a timid, harmless nature. The python was in fact considerably startled, for it retreated hurriedly to the entrance, where it lay watching me with dull, malicious eyes. In vain, I continued to shoot and fire my gun in the air. The python would move away a short distance and then quickly return, and I came to the conclusion that I had, inadvertently, strayed into its lair and that probably it had its young hidden somewhere nearby. To scale the sides of the inlet was impossible. Even had I succeeded in securing a foothold in the crumbling, moist and slippery banks, the overhanging cactus bushes offered a very effective barrier against all possible means of escape.
At last an idea struck me. Taking the hare, which was now quite dead, by the hind legs, I threw it towards the python. The reptile at first refused to touch it, but after a while, hunger getting the better of suspicion, it seized the hare in its powerful jaws and slowly started to absorb it.
It must have taken that python fully half-an-hour to get that hare down its throat, but after what seemed an interminable time, the hare disappeared, and, as I had anticipated, the python, well pleased with himself, forgot all about me, and coiled up for a nice little nap. In painful uncertainty I waited quite an hour, for I was determined to give him plenty of time to get properly asleep before I attempted to make a bid for freedom.
Moving cautiously towards the entrance, I soon stood within a few feet of the sleeping reptile. Here another difficulty presented itself. The python had coiled itself right at the mouth of the entrance, which was here slightly narrower than the interior, and its huge bulk effectually blocked the exit.
There was nothing for it but to jump, and jump I did, but not with the result I expected. Whether the strain had unnerved me or my foot slipped on the moist earth - instead of clearing the sleeping python as I intended, I landed on all fours, practically on top of him.
In an instant the huge coils were around me and the flat spear-shaped head, with its evil glittering eyes, was swaying above me, watching an opportunity to strike. I fought wildly, madly; screaming in terror, pitting my poor puny strength against those huge irresistable coils, which were slowly but surely crushing the life out of me; and it was only the merest chance that saved me. While with my right hand I had instinctively clutched the python by the throat, striving might and main to keep that awful head from crashing into my skull, my left, which had been pinned tomy side by the serpent's coils as I fell, still retained hold of my gun. Working the gun slowly up my side, I soon got my hand on the trigger. Fortunately it was a hammerless and so ready for action. I now determined to take a thousand-to-one chance. With a mighty effort I swung around, striving to get the python's head as near as I could judge in line with the barrel, and pressed the trigger.
To this day I bear the scars on my wrist where the shot tore its way through my flest, but thank God, the bulk of the charge entered the serpent's head, and with one convulsive effort its coils relaxed and it rolled over - dead.
I disentangled myself and reeled to the bank, where I lay exhausted and faint. Later I returned to the bungalow, where I found my friends genuinely anxious over my protracted absence. They welcomed me with relief, but Christmas Day, that year, was a failure so far as I was concerned.
And here is a handy diagram (my copy) from the book on how to build a canvas canoe.
Friday, November 20, 2009
I am smitten by flowers. The colours, the perfume, the arrangement of them is a visual feast.
What is most compelling though is the garlanding ... the hand in the making. I could stand and watch for hours. Each individual flower threaded on to string or cotton, or woven with a twisting, tying and turning technique. Marigolds are sturdy, the red hibiscus for Kali are more fragile. The jasmine can be intricate. Some are threaded vertically so that they form a long line of thin white blooms, some spiral around and around, are thick and heavy.
This week I bought yellow chrysanthemums.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
These performers were part of an awareness day for Climate Change held at Dakshinepan Mall.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Monday, November 16, 2009
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Saturday, November 14, 2009
machher jhol (fish with cauliflower and potato)
I've been to the Harrington Arts Centre three times now and I still cannot come to a resolution about my installation.
My room has five doors, two alcoves high up on one wall and a fireplace.
I have one tiger, a very large number of small glass objects and a roll of red velvet. In my mind, they all take flight and move around the room, landing in various configurations that are impossible and hilarious.