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

the delta

Three days in the Sunderbans.

Water like glass. Mud mangroves boats birds. Time slows, a beautiful deceptive stillness.

into ether: water

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.

into ether: blood

He speaks of his father, my brothers' father. He tells me about travelling with his governess, Miss Cox. They are on the docks in Bombay, standing beside a ship. His father is there, and he is saying goodbye. It is only now that he realises what is happening, that he is being sent away. He remembers clutching on to his father's tie and crying, not wanting to let go. His father is upset, angry and keeps releasing his child's hands from the tie. This is the last time he will see him, the last memory of his father. He is five years old.

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.

faithful hato death

My headstone letter writer adds his own interpretation to Sarah's inscription.

Abhijit tells me that in Hindi 'hato' means shoo, go away.

It stays.

Monday, November 23, 2009

early morning riser

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.

the armenians

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

men with guns

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.

i love locks

I'm thinking of starting a collection.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

augustus somerville

An excerpt from Augustus Somerville's 'Shikar near Calcutta with a trip to the Sunderbans', W. Newman & Co., Calcutta, 1924 (illust. George Grant)


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.

building a canvas canoe

Augustus Somerville wrote 'Shikar near Calcutta with a trip to the Sunderbans' in 1924. I spent the best part of yesterday afternoon reading his accounts at the National Library. Its pages were a lacy network of holes from insect trails.

I am looking at a range of writings from the 1920's and 1930's as this was around the time that my grandfather's tiger cub came to their home in Barrackpore.

I want to share a chapter and my copy of its accompanying illustration (by George Grant), in my next post. It's fairly certain that Somerville has employed some poetic licence. He mentions 'friends' but nowhere in the book is anyone named. I was also curious about the changing gender of the snake where, at his initial encounter, it goes from being a mother defending her young, to when he must confront the reptile and it switches to a masculine gender. Also, the location of the incident is different in the text and illustration.

And here is a handy diagram (my copy) from the book on how to build a canvas canoe.

this land

This article by Arundhati Roy was published in Outlook magazine a couple of week back. It is compelling and insightful reading.

Friday, November 20, 2009

netaji bhavan market

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

baul music

Bauls are musicians from rural Bengal, both Hindu and Muslim. Their songs are devotional and mesmeric. Their tradition is an oral one, and according to Wikipedia, they 'themselves attribute the lack of historical records of themselves to their reluctance of leaving a trace behind.'

These performers were part of an awareness day for Climate Change held at Dakshinepan Mall.

khoj kolkata

Here are the Khoj Kolkata folk.

Chhatrapati Dutta, Paula Sengupta, Abhijit Gupta, Tamal Mitra, Saikat Surai, Kaushik Chakraborty (l-r).

(Pooja Sood, on far left was visiting from Khoj in Delhi)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

drawing (iii)

Here is another thought in red velvet.


The Ramakrishna temple for the goddess Kali at Dakineshwar is north of Kolkata on the river. Ruma Dasgupta took me there last weekend. It was built in 1847 by Rani Rashmoni, who was a devotee of Ramakrishna. The temple is a beautiful structure and am important pilgrimage site.

Kali is an awesome figure, the goddess of time and change, destruction and birth. She holds a severed head, stands on top of her consort, Shiva and wears a garland of skulls. She has particular significance in Kolkata as there is a connection with the name 'Kalikata', one of the three villages that formed the city of 'Calcutta'.

The red hibiscus is associated with Kali and on the river in front of the temple at the ghat, I saw red flower islands float past.

Monday, November 16, 2009

P. Thankappan Nair

A visit to the National Library courtesy of Amitava Mukhopadhyay has given me another avenue to explore for traces of my great-great grandfather, Edward Alkin. After a tour of the Rare Books section (where I saw a copy of Hicky's Bengal Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser, 1780; William Carey's 1806 Grammar of Sungskrit Languages; Edward Fry's 1799 Pantographia 'containing accurate copies of all the known alphabets of the world' (and a dedication to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society) and a Tibetan manuscript written in 1670 and gifted to the Library by his Holiness the Dalai Lama), I was slightly stunned to meet P. Thankappan Nair. Mr Nair is an esteemed historian whose area of expertise is Calcutta. He has published 48 books and I had just come across some references to his writings at the Asiatic Society last week.

His work includes four volumes of the history of Calcutta, one volume per century from 16th to 19th; a history of the Calcutta Police; a history of the street names of Calcutta and a history of the actual name of the city. Unfortunately, most of his books are out of print and I plan to go to Bow Bazaar and College Street to scour some of the secondhand bookstores.

P.T. Nair was sitting at a desk preparing a lecture he is giving on 23rd November to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Ashutosh Mukhopadyay collection being donated to the Library ... some 87,500 books. That is another story!

We talked for a while about Calcutta, Australia, cricket, James Prinsep and air-conditioning. He advised Amitava to take me to the Calcutta Port Trust which has a good archive, and a copy of something he had written on the Hugli Shipping Pilots. And also to try the Officers Club as they also hold some documents and archives.

P.T. Nair said that he is at the library most mornings if I had any other questions. He tapped his chest and said that the room gets too cold to stay all day. He was wearing a woollen jumper underneath his shirt.

chowringhee road

when you look down

Sunday, November 15, 2009

drawing (ii)

Here is a thought in red velvet.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

team bengali cooking lesson

This weekend is becoming a feast of Bengali home cooking ... last night I was treated to a wonderful meal with Paula and her family. Sadly no photo!

Lunch today was with Smriti, Abhijit and Bhutu ... and Smriti is a fantastic cook. Look at this ...

Clockwise from top left:
pumpkin and coconut
rice cooked with lime leaves
moog dhal (divine!)
machher jhol (fish with cauliflower and potato)
lal saag (eaten with a mustard dressing)

It is important to eat the dishes as courses rather than just piling all up on your plate at once. Rice you have with all of them, starting with the lal shaak and ending with the machher jhol. This way you really taste the subtleties of each combination of 'phoron' or spice mix. Mustard oil, mustard seeds, kalo jeera (like a black cumin seed), tumeric, ginger and garlic are like the staples in many Bengali recipes.

The food was light and so flavoursome. I think I am in heaven.

And there is more! Jal jeera ... a peppery salty drink made from ground cumin seeds, lime juice and water. It's a drink taken during the hot summer months that is hydrating and cooling for the body. Heaven still.

possibilities within a space

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.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

still no words left

no words left


Bengalis are extremely passionate and totally engaged when it comes to politics. You can count on some part of an evening dinner or get together swinging round to what's hot, and it is all hot. After the general political apathy in Australia, I find it inspiring.

The CPM (Communist Party of India - Marxist) has been in power in West Bengal since 1977 and Abhijit told me this story.

Most of the street names here in the city have been changed from British to Hindi. Chowringhee Road becomes Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Free School Street becomes Mirza Ghalib Sarani and so on. There are of course the Communist chaps as well like Lenin Sarani and Karl Marx Sarani.

Ho Chi Minh Sarani though is very sweet. It was formely Harrington Street and one of the residents of this street is the US Embassy. Abhi said that the CPM changed the street name in the late 70's so that it would be a small geographical thorn in the side of the Embassy and beyond, a constant reminder of the Vietnam war.

Can you imagine ... every letterhead, every business card and envelope, every single piece of paper, every correspondence and communication will always say these three words ... Ho Chi Minh.

It is poetry.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I realised this morning while working in the studio that I'm suffering from a blog backlog. There is much to tell.

Yesterday I went to the offices of The Statesman newspaper at Chowringhee Square, which began publishing here in Calcutta on 15th January, 1875.

Wikipedia says of The Statesman: 'It opposed the shifting of India's capital from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911 in the following terms: "The British have gone to the city of graveyards to be buried there." '

I am hoping to find some information on the death of Edward Alkin, my great-great grandfather. The staff were very helpful, and made some phone calls on my behalf to their Archives Store in Majherhat. Someone drew a map with instructions on how to get there and gave me an introduction to Nimai Ganguly who I will meet next week. I'll begin with December 1895 and January 1896.


India Parcel Post has a service that is both practically and aethestically unequalled in any country I've visited. If your goods don't fit into an envelope, you find the person who is usually right outside, selling envelopes, staplers, glue sticks, cellotape and pens or sometimes sits on the footpath with a bundle of white material. They will then proceed to stitch your parcel into a perfect sleeve of white calico or cotton with white string. The seam is finished with a red or brown wax and each spot of wax is pressed with a seal.

The completed item is beautiful. I marvel at the contents being reduced to a form of clean white simplicity. I admire the touch of the hand in the sewing and sealing. And while I am slightly reluctant to let it go, it gives me a lot of pleasure to think about the receiver at the other end.

It's my friend Fenn Idle's birthday today. He is fifteen. I sent a present to him last week from Rashbehari Post Office. He lives in Darlinghurst, Sydney.

When I handed the parcel across the counter, the woman took it and began to type in the address. She looked up with a smile and said 'he lives somewhere called Darling? How nice.'

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

streetscape soundscape

The Khoj residency apartment is on a small lane that gets some vehicle traffic but its mostly a pedestrian thoroughfare linking Purna Das Road with Lake Terrace. The windows are always open and the sounds of the street flow in and out. I've grown to like it very much when I'm working. I don't have any music or tv here so during the day when I'm in the studio, the street is my connection to the world and what is happening outside.

Sweeping in the morning, the sounds (and smells) of food cooking in neighbouring apartments, conversations between mothers and children on their way to school, the guys downstairs loading the bottled-water truck, car horns from the street.

What I love though are the chants and calls of the different wallahs who take their wares and services around the streets. I think I've even started to recognise some. There are the broom and duster sellers, key cutters clanking their chains of keys, a man who sells coconuts, another with bananas and guavas. They come into range once they get into the lane and their songs gets louder. I stop working and look out to see who is going past and what they carry. If they stick close to the building, I can't see them at all. I can only hear their chants.

My favourite is the gadda-wallah, the mattress man, who carries a long stick with a wire attached. He plucks at the wire to accompany his song. It's quite loud and a bit twangy, like a loose guitar string. This instrument is also used to flick on to a mattress, which fluffs up the cotton inside.

calcutta rescue

On a previous visit to Kolkata, I met some people from an organisation called Calcutta Rescue. Set up by a British doctor in 1979, it's just one of many NGO's working to assist underprivileged people with healthcare and education. I won't go into too much detail about Calcutta Rescue, as their website has a lot of information about their work and various projects.

Last Thursday their adminstrator, Ben Christie, took several people, myself included, on a tour of their clinics and schools that are in Central and North Kolkata. It was a very humbling experience.

The first clinic we visited is within the grounds of Loreto Day School at Sealdah, one of the city's main railway stations. They mostly deal with cardio and diabetes, and some cancer patients and see up to 40+ people a day. There is also a vaccination program for children.

I was under the impression that these kind of clinics service the local neighbourhood, which they do but was surprised to learn that people also travel from outside of the city, from the rural areas of Bengal where there is little healthcare available for any serious medical conditions. I was amazed to hear that people also travel in to the clinics from other States like Orissa and Bihar.

The clinics diagnose and treat people daily, and as most of them rely on daily wages, Calcutta Rescue also gives them assistance for travel costs and provides a food package to ensure that they and their family will eat that night.

Next stop was Chitpur, in the far north of Kolkata on the river. This is their leprosy clinic, which is set up in the morning and taken down every night. This tedious daily process ensures the life of the clinic, as Ben explained to have one set up permanently would mean that in order to access the services, people would inevitably end up living there. That situation could create problems and even threaten closure of the clinic. So this is a better solution.

Leprosy is a curable disease but treatment can take up to a year or more, provided people with the disease can continue with their treatment daily. As you may be able to imagine, this is not always a simple thing. The doctor, clinic supervisor and volunteer nurses all work with the patients to help them maintain the treatment, to the point of going out to find people if they don't come back for ongoing treatment. Here as well people are diagnosed, given medication and also have their wounds dressed. It is a very practical set up, for example there is a shoe-maker at the clinic every day who individually fits the patients with soft shoes made from a micro-fibre material, a bit like neoprene. Incredibly important as when the disease progresses, the feet in particular lose all feelings. These shoes prevent injury and also make mobility a whole lot easier. I was very moved by this place, and the staff who work here.

The handicrafts workshop is also in the north of Kolkata. They have a group of about 10 people making items such as books, bags, cards and cushion covers are made. There are also weaving workshops outside the city in Canning where the fabrics are made into clothing given to the children. Both these workshops train both women and men in sewing skills to assist with giving them income opportunities.

And finally, Tala Park is where the first health clinic began and has now grown into the largest one. They treat around 120+ people a day. It was very busy, and like the one at Sealdah, people travel here from all over the city and from rural areas. Again, heart-rending. We met a boy, about 8 years old who had received second degree burns to his upper body and face. He wore a baseball cap but happily removed it to show that he had pretty much made a full recovery.

There is a school next door, with about 120 children in their 'formal' education program (structured classes and curriculum) and 65 in their 'informal' program. The informal program works with younger children to encourage them to have fun and enjoy learning and thereby getting them into the 'formal' program. It was obviously a huge success from the kids we met there. They were all busy drawing on chalkboards. Most of the children here come from the 'bustees' or very poor areas. All children are given their lunch time meal before school finishes for the day.

Calcutta Rescue, like many other groups, is doing fantastic work. Here is the link to their website:

string of pearls

At Lake Market, there are several flower vendors or phulwallahs. Right now they have red and yellow roses, marigolds, gladiolis, tuberose and lots of varieties of jasmine. I love the white scented flowers, and watching the men thread them into garlands is mesmerising. They sit on low wooden tables and work, enveloped in sweet perfume.

Monday, November 9, 2009

bagh, baaaaagh, jai bagh

Achintya was putting the finishing touches on the claywork on Saturday morning, in preparation for taking the mould during the week.

A young girl walked by. She turned and looked in, saw the tiger and with huge eyes, tugged on her mother's hand and said 'baaagh'.

She came inside and peered into the tiger's face and said:

'bagh, baaaaagh, jai bagh!'

tiger, tiger, hail tiger!

Friday, November 6, 2009

ninety nine

Last Saturday May Levy passed away.

May was born in Calcutta and lived here most of her life. I first met her in Perth when she was staying at Hazel Galbraith's home, the epicentre of Anglo-Indian gatherings in Western Australia since I can remember. Weekly card games, tennis (when they were all just a little younger) and vast amounts of delicious Indian food.

Each time I've come back here, I spend time with May. She had lots of stories and I was always keen to hear them. In 2005, she moved out of her apartment on Chowringhee Road where she had lived for more than 40 years and into the Loreto Convent on Middleton Row.

This was taken in 2007.

I called in to see May last Tuesday, the day after I arrived. When I sat down next to her bed, it was clear that the thread connecting her to this world was very fragile. She opened her eyes three times, squeezed my hand and said 'thank you for coming to see me'.

She celebrated her ninety-ninth birthday in September.

dhakuria lakes

My mother was a great swimmer in her youth. She won many races and trophies of which she is still very proud. Sylvia phoned me yesterday at 6.30 am and we talked for some time about Calcutta.

She told me that she, her sister Pam and her cousin Rita, used to go for midnight dips at Dhakuria Lakes.

I walked there again this morning.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

australia wins by 3 runs

Well to be honest, I'm not a cricket fan or at least I thought I wasn't.

Abhijit, Kaushik and I went to an exhibition opening at Akar Prakar Gallery (my newly discovered neighbours). It was a kind of tribute show for the highly respected Bengali artist, Paritosh Sen, who passed away earlier this year. Firstly, Akar Prakar is a great space. It has an open outdoor courtyard and a covered colonnade around two walls where some of Sen's works, self-portraits, were hung. The two small galleries inside were filled with portraits of Sen, by artists from the Kolkata art community. It was obvious that Sen was remembered with much love and humour.

My Akar Prakar neighbours are regular patrons of Azad Hind Dhaba ... my local favourite, so Abhijit Lath invited some of us there for some food. It's very cosy, I think there are only about 8 tables. We were under the TV screen with the entire staff and several passers-by at the other end of the room glued ... it was India batting, 298 - 4 needing 60 runs. Australia 300 and something.

Over the course of our dhal, chicken bartha, mutton dopiaza and roti, we watched Tendulkar hit these majestic arcs out into the spectators until it was just 5 runs with 3 balls, 9 wickets. Then the last guy got stumped, it was over and out and Ponting had a smug look on his face which is why I don't like cricket. And because I was once on a flight from Sydney to London that unfortunately was also taking the Australian Cricket team (circa 1983) to the UK. It wasn't that flight where David Boone allegedly drank 50 + cans of beer and broke all air travel-related beer consumption records but I think whoever was on that team and that flight came close.

I wished India had won.

I had my first taste of paan after dinner. It's an amazing combination of aromatic, sweet, bitter, chewy and momentarily mouth numbing with a wonderful fresh aftertaste.

The first thing I saw this morning ... a man riding a motorcycle, his daughter on the back in her school uniform. She is holding on to him by his earlobes.

And the last thing tonight ... a cow walking down the street but not the regular white cow you see in India. Abhijit said it was one of those new jersey cows.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


When I met Achintya Bhattarcharjee last week, he was wearing an orange and black striped shirt. Abhijit has arranged for me to work with him on constructing the tigers for my project. He's an artist who is currently doing an MA at Rabindra Bharati University as well as being a traditional idol maker from Mandirtala, on the Howrah side of the city. Mandirtala is just over the second Howrah Bridge and from Khoj is about 15 minutes on a clear run, 30-40 in rush hour. That side of the river is at least 100 years older than Kolkata, and is very different ... more like an urban village.

I visited Achintya's studio on Sunday. We met at the bus stand and then we headed down a narrow street towards his house. There are some stalls at the start of his lane. A man selling chickens, a wire cage with about 50 chickens sit below his table. On top are freshly slaughtered and plucked birds. Next to the table a dog sat dozing with a delicate beard of white feathers.

Achintya's studio looks out over a pond, surrounded by houses, with the odd small shop and local business. The path that runs around the pond can take a bike or a small cart but its mostly pedestrian traffic.

I'm envious of his studio, it's perfect for sculpture. Earth floor, two large doors opening outwards, good light. On one side, his shelves are stacked high with plaster moulds for various features and components of the gods, goddesses and deities he makes during the puja festival season. Achintya told me that the work commences in July and runs right through to November, ending with Jagadharti Puja which was last week.

His sister and brother-in-law live in the house next door and they treated me to tea, rasagullas and sandesh sweets. I also met two of his nieces. They were all curious about the project, and when I went back there again this morning, Achintya told me that his brother-in-law's mother who lives there as well, has taken a special interest in the tiger's well being and visits it twice a day, morning and night.

Tiger photos to follow.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

khira, nimbu, piyaj, dhaniya

Lake Market evening stroll
sabzi = Rp/- 75
phul = Rp/- 50
shot of tea Rp/- 2

Lake View Road =
ironing service;
street corner card game with the same players that were there on Saturday;
Motiul and Nafisa's wedding.

the gift

My father was the eldest of four children and his family lived in Barrackpore, about 20 kms out of Calcutta. My grandfather was a race-horse trainer. When his horses won, it wasn't unusual for their owners to present him with all kinds of gifts. Sweets, fabrics, jewellery, even cars.

When my father was about seven or eight years old, they were given a tiger cub. This was in the 1920's and tiger shooting was rife. A friend of my grandfather's had been out hunting, shot a tiger and then found that she had two cubs. I've read since that it was not uncommon for the cubs to be shot as well. In this case, they were brought back to the city and domesticated. My grandfather raised the cub and it became his constant companion around the house. My father told me that he and his brothers would ride their bicycles to school every day and they would return around the same time. The tiger had an afternoon ritual where it would wait in ambush in the long grass near the gates, and as they raced in towards the house, it would pounce and knock one of them off their bike to wrestle and play.

When the tiger was around two years old, it became clear that a domestic home, even with large gardens, was not the place to keep this creature. It would certainly have been an intimidating size. My grandfather had been getting complaints from various people, and finally decided that the tiger could not stay there. He donated the tiger to the Calcutta Zoological Gardens in Alipore. My father said that my grandfather would go to the Zoo at the same time every day and that the tiger would call out to greet him.

As a a child, I insisted my father tell me this story over and over repeatedly. It seemed so incredulous to me that anyone could own a tiger as you would a dog or cat. I always felt so sad and worried for this tiger's fate. Taken from it's dead mother, deposited in a family home where it lived only with relative freedom for two years, and finally imprisoned in a concrete cage for the remainder of its life in a zoo.

In 2007, I met with the Assistant Director of Alipore Zoo with the hope of finding some shred of information about this tiger. He told me that most of the records held in the Zoo were lost around World War II, and that during this time, the animals were evacuated to private estates outside of the city. I'm not even sure what I was looking for. Its name perhaps, or how long it lived. Last week, I did in fact find some references to Zoological Reports held at the National Library from this period. I may discover something yet.

This is one of the threads to my project, and although I'm not making a narrative work about this tiger, it has certainly been in the background of much of my thinking. There is also something very tangible about being here in Calcutta that makes another strange kind of connection. Visiting the zoo, seeing those tigers living in perhaps the very same cages that my grandfather's one lived. I am aware that this now is a different time, a different place and that what I am looking for no longer exists. It is simply another fiction. I suppose I just want some trace of that history, some physical evidence, even just a word.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

witches hats and tuberoses

I have fallen into the lap of south Kolkatan life, and every day presents another adventure.

Last night there was an exhibition opening at the Birla Academy of Fine Arts 'Astonishment of Being'. It's curated by Deksha Nath and includes artists mostly from Mumbai and Delhi. No wine and cheese here ... the refreshments were delicious papri chat and sweet tea. The work is interesting, a mix of video, painting, photography, installation by 20 or so artists. I'll go back during the week for a longer look, it's just around the corner from Khoj.

Archana Hande, who will also be in Paula's show next year, has a wry installation included that was made during one of the first Khoj Kolkata residencies at Baruipur. I'll see if I can find a link for it.

I went to visit my tiger maker this morning, but more on that in due course.

This afternoon I'm meeting Tamal, another Khoj member, at the Lake Market for an introduction to his vegie man, his flower man and his tea stall. I went there yesterday in search of supplies, and after some truly hopeless Hindi, came home with six eggs (21 rupees), two custard apples and a papaya (55 rupees), some bananas (20 rupees) and a beautiful bunch of tuberoses. Tamal will give me the lowdown on who to go to for what. I can't wait.