Category Archives: commuity

Stranger in a strange land…

I wake up at 5 AM, I’m used to that at Udayan, that’s when the girls awoke and the sound of their morning ministrations and singing was my alarm clock.  I have bags to unpack and I am now very hungry.  Making my way to the kitchen I am confronted with the huge refrigerator and lots of prepared foods – frozen, boxed nothing like what I’ve had for sometime.  In India, marketing is a must each day or things spoil so the luxury of freshly prepared foods is going to a challenge.  I make a note to get over to my organic market today and make some vegetarian dishes for the family.   I am really feeling lost – there is just so much in this kitchen to deal with. The microwave is remarkable to me as is the freezer -all these gadgets – it’s as though I’ve been away for years, not months.

modern conveniences, or kitchen culture shock!

I take Jacques for a walk and notice a can of soda someone has tossed on the ground, it looks so out of place, everything is so quiet, too quiet and so pristine. I scoop to pick it up and throw it out and then it hits me – in Kolkata I never would have done this, there would be too much to clear away!  The streets here look so beautiful, especially after the newly fallen snow. Yet it is lonely, impersonal, there is no sign of life, no people, no music wafting in the air no scent of spices cooking. Unused and overlooked.  The solitude and insular nature of this life is a stark contrast to life in Kolkata. I am missing the daily dialogue and the interest in the life going on around us. You may be walking alone, but you are never alone. The entire city is one family, very communal. Here it is segregated into your job, family; one may be part of the same village but living in a different area is as though you lived in a different part of the state.   In Kolkata it all meshed and in one day whatever you did your world merged  –  many of the same faces appeared, and even strangers reached out to help.  Work, play the daily chores all bring (it seems) the communal nature of life in India into the fore.  I felt like I lived with the whole world, everything was interwoven like the  colorful intricate tapestries they create.

some of the younger gang

a side street in Kolkata

My body is in this world but my mind is split in two worlds.  The constant blare of the TV, invasive and jarring is a reminder of  the lack of natural environment.  In Kolkata, especially at Udayan, I was one with nature and the elements in India, totally immersed in the children, art and the culture. It feels very artificial here – air conditioning and heat   are like barriers- I want to open the window all the time, even in the snow, rain and cold to let life in.  I have all the conveniences, yet it is like living in an Ivory Tower.

My cell phone rings jolting me out of my musings about the nature of my two worlds. It is my sister, just in for a few days from California.  Will I come into New York and meet her for dinner?  Of course I say, I haven’t seen her in 3 months and we always make time for each other, even if it is for just an hour or two.

Waiting for Metro North I observe that no one on the train platform makes eye contact, I see bored, stressed and depressed faces, no smiles, no interaction. Then the train comes rumbling in and the crowd exclaims that it is just “so crowded!” I chuckle to myself, I definitely have a new perspective on little things, having taken the trains in Kolkata, this one seems nearly empty…the fact that there are seats available, that no one is leaning, sitting or sleeping on me – wow- even the bathroom (which I never would have thought of using before my time in India) looks sparkling clean.

As I ride the taxi uptown to my meet my sister I am marveling at how perfect and serene the streets of Madison Avenue look, with buildings gleaming, and how orderly the traffic is . Even though I traveled to and from the same destination while working at Udayan so many times, we couldn’t go a mile without asking for directions on many a street corner. Street signs were not to be counted on and sometimes the only way I knew where I was going was by landmarks – the same fruit stands, or the way a street curved, or the stream beside the road – these were my road signs.

A landmark to the road towards Udayan

Outside New Market in Kolkata

After dinner we walk back to Grand Central together and then we say goodbye, but even though it is only 10 PM  on Saturday night – the height of travel  at the station on a weekend, I ask Cindy to stay with me.  I actually feel unsafe – this place seems sketchy. Cindy is incredulous – “are you serious” she asks.  Yeah, I am and I never felt this way in Kolkata – even though I was traveling alone, I felt safe and at home.

When I am finally seated on the train, I close my eyes while listening to my Bengali music and I can see the faces of the class 10 boys as they sang on the bus, or the beatific face of the musician who gave a concert in Jaipor.

posing at sunset

my musician friend from Jaipor

I must keep the fire burning in my heart with my music and the photographs of the children, so I can bring myself back to the special place I have just left.  And I will continue to write as I did in India and create some of my own collages – after all I’ve had the best teacher, the children of Udayan and their bright smiling souls.

Always ready for the camera!

"my girls" and dorm-mates for two months

These are the greatest teachers I’ve had in my career, and I hope my work will          be as inspired as these are. Namaskar…..



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Flying through the air in a chair…..

I head for the airport in Kolkata after a full day visiting friends and saying goodbye, one of Shamlu’s staff has accompanied me as it is the middle of the night .  The air is hot and very humid even though it is now midnight, and I am wearing my sandals.  We say our final farewell and I am off to the lounge to wait for the flight to Frankfurt.

Farewell party

I am thinking about what a friend of mine said long before I left for Kolkata. “Stacey, be aware of your reaction as you board the plane to return to the US”. I thought he meant that I would be grateful for the amenities but I was very wrong.  As I boarded the plane I felt like a visitor from another planet.  First there was the issue of my sandals, not exactly travel gear when heading home to winter.  I make a note to change into the pair of sneakers I’ve stashed in my carryon, then attempt to settle into my seat.

The gentleman seated next to me has already put on his traveling socks, adjusted his seat and is almost asleep – that is until I try to work to remote for my seat and end up with my legs and head going in two different directions. I can’t get the hang of all this technology and resolve to put my reading glasses on to consult the manuel to figure out the myriad of various seat adjustments.  This goes on for awhile and I’m almost ready to sit upright for the duration of the flight to Frankfurt when a hand reaches over and grabs the controller from me. With one swift thumb move, I am laying flat and my feet are where they’re supposed to be. My seat mate has taken pity on me (or more likely wishes to have a night’s rest) and done the deed for me.

I feel slightly stupid but I am tired so I gratefully fall asleep – until the meal is served and I can’t get the seat upright. On with the reading glasses and out with the manual, I am studying it seriously, I feel this must be an intelligence test until the flight attendant swoops down, does the thumb trick and there I am whipped to seated position for the meal. It is lovely, but there are too many utensils for me to deal with, all this silverware  – I’m used to a fork at most and my right hand.  Everyone else has turned on their personal entertainment devices – forget that – there’s no way I’ll get the hang of the video menu, my music on my trusty iPod will have to do. Besides, I haven’t seen television in two months, what’s another 16 hours?  Then I remember Ron’s little warning – “note  your reaction to the plane as you embark …..”  I realize then that he wasn’t saying I would be grateful to have all this technology and luxury, he knew I would be bewildered – a fish out of water, and he is correct.   I have such a different mindset and I wish to remain in this lovely trance of simplicity. I am most definitely overwhelmed.

Cuddly bear, waiting to lick me for a giant welcome home

We land in New York and it is reverse culture shock.  I am relieved to see my husband, all smiles and am excited to head home to see my kids and Jacques, my wonderful dog.    As we load the car I walk to the left side of the front seat and he asks me if I’m going to drive – NO! I say, then realize that that’s the driver’s side, we aren’t in India anymore and we drive on the right. Ah…think I’ll avoid driving for a while.

As we head home I am in awe at  how orderly everyone is on the road,  there are traffic signs which everyone (almost) obeys.  I am used to going with the flow in Kolkata , not always knowing what street I’m on, this is so… easy.  Hmmm, I never felt that way before while driving home from the airport.

Everyone is waiting for me, I plop down as soon as I’m inside the house to allow my dog to lick me until I am fully slathered, my kids coming in one by one, looking at my clothes and me like I’m an alien.  I kind of feel that way – there’s snow outside, tons of it, something I haven’t seen in over a year, and all this furniture. I sit on the floor for a while and chat with them.  This is going to take some time for sure.  I move the luggage upstairs and once again am jolted by the sight of my bedroom (huge by my current standards) and bathroom – aya baba – the shower is as large as my bathroom had been at Udayan. Rick says “I know you’re tired, you must be in another world”, how true, how true….. I am exhausted and fall asleep forgoing dinner.

Snow! Jacques and I are ready to play...

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One last word….

I’ve been packing and seeing friends today as I will leave at 11 PM for the airport. Hanging out in “my” room, I finish the last few uploads of my blog.   Antara comes in to chat and say goodbye and she presents me with a gift – a beautiful choker necklace which I will cherish.  She is my good friend, always there every step of the way on this journey and even before I arrived in India. We had emailed each other for many months about supplies – but more than that, we have laughed and discussed life, politics, just about everything – she is a bundle of special energy and sparks my day each time I see her.   I tearfully say my goodbye to her – I promise I will return as soon as I can.

We are taking photos of Shamlu and me and the staff when Bobo comes bounding out of his room – he knows I’m off to somewhere and that his friend won’t be here to play for a while, so the journey ends as it began, with a large black dog.

Family portrait

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Jaipor and the tears of an elephant…

Jaipor as I enter the city

Ah Jaipor, the pink city of palaces, rich in culture and beauty.  This drive is a very pleasant one, and as we get closer to Jaipor, the barren land gives way to lush mountainous scenery – we are in the foothills of the Himalayas.  I can hardly contain myself as I now see the beginnings of the wall surrounding the city, the Amber Fort. I is an improbable sight as the walls wind around the high mountainous region of the city and can be reached by elephant or on foot, but you’d have to be hardy as it reaches thousands of feet high. It was built over 400 years ago and provided security from the opposing tribes and armies.  I ask the driver to stop so I can take a few pictures and then am happily greeted by a line of decoratively painted elephants returning from their days work at the fort, carting tourists up and down the steep winding pathways to the upper palace area.  This is so different from the way I felt in Delhi, I am anxious to get to the hotel

Choki Dhani

and then go off to explore at Chokhi Dhani, an ethnic Rajasthani village.

young musicians and dancers at the village

The village is a a working one with a miniature version of the entire area of Jaipor. Families perform dances and music, magic, palm reading and  there is a shopping area lit by torches,each “shop” is beautifully painted with typical Rajasthani art. The people of this region are rich in culture and their royal heritage. their dress is colorful and ornate and their dances defy gravity and coordination. I am delighted. As one enters the village you are showered with flower petals, your forehead is painted with the ethnic colors of red and yellow.  The visit includes an entire evening of entertainment and dinner t a choice of original restaurants serving Rajasthani food in the traditional way – large chairs, lavish cutlery and serving practices. I feel like royalty and settle down to a great meal, watching the musicians and dancers perform. Then I wander through the village, I can take a camel or elephant ride (no thank you), shop for ethnic spices and clothing, weaving or just sit under the moonlit sky in a huge rocking chair built for a queen.  As I walk around the villagers ask me “mem sab” (honored one or beautiful lady – depending on who says it – to join their dance, play an instrument , and many ask to take my picture. They are beautiful people both physically and soulfully, and I enjoy my time there until the driver appears and we head to the hotel to rest up for the tons of sightseeing tomorrow.

I join in the festivities

After meeting my guide,  a very charming and knowledgeable man we drive to the Hawa Mahal for pictures, then on to the Amber Fort to see the wall and the palace buildings and to photograph the elephants .  We climb the steps to the fort since I refuse to ride the poor elephants, overworked by thousands of tourist rides all day long, and marvel at the breathtaking views from the top, overlooking the entire city. This fort is a wonder and looks a little like the Great Wall of China it has been compared to. It was built in the 16th century and is indeed amber in color.

Hawa Mahal

elephants at Amber Fort

I walk down to the court to see the majestic elephants in all their glory and stop to stroke the trunk of one who has no riders on top. She looks at me sorrowfully  and I can’t believe my eyes but she is crying. I then hear a terrific thud and see a man beat another elephant over the head with an iron rod, the noise is so loud everyone turns and I impulsively scream NO!!! . My guide tells me not to get involved, that there are animal rights activists trying to stop the use of elephants and camels for tourism. And yes he says, that elephant was crying as she was tired, hot and frightened.  These 150 majestic creatures of God must work all day carrying tens of thousands of tourists to the top of the fort and bottom. I ask if they are at least well cared for since the visitors each pay 700 rupees for a 10 minute ride and he responds that no, they are mistreated. I would think the opposite since this is their livelihood, but I am mistaken. I tell my guide I want to leave as soon as possible, my heart is aching and I can’t take another minute of watching this abuse.

the top of the fort

I can’t speak for a while and wander off to shoot some photos of the natural surroundings and then return to the car to see the City Palace, which is still home to the royal family of Jaipor. This is a remarkable building so well planned that even 400 years ago they recycled the water and even invented an “air conditioning” system for the heat and the cold weather. The place has 4 main gates, each representing a different aspect of the earth and the wildlife. My favorite is the peacock gate, with crushed gems and vegetable coloring to decorate the ornate doors and wall with images of peacocks. The summer part of the palace has vents for sunlight to come into the building but it is then deflected to avoid getting too hot. There are terraces where the Maharani and maharaja sat at night to watch the moon and constellations and listen to their court musicians perform. Water from fountains was used as a mist mixed with jasmine and rose petals to cool the rooms, the scent must have been amazing and so romantic!  Across from this end of the palace is the “winter” quarters where hundreds of jewel like mirrors have been geometrically cut in such a way that when a fire is lit inside the room, the heat is retained and there was no need for blankets. This engineering was introduced from Belgium and is both practical and gorgeous.

winter palace mirrored walls

close up of the jeweled walls

The maharani lived there until her death one year ago at the age of 94. She was said to have been the most beautiful maharani ever, and from the pictures I think tat is an accurate description. She is more beautiful than Ingrid Bergman in her heyday or even Grace Kelly. She was also a great benefactress and let out all the buildings to the families of the original artisans so that their craft of weaving and art, jewelry making will continue to be passed down to each generation.

After speaking to one of the artists there, I find out that all of the family members of these royal artisans are given the studios for free to show their wars and work in them. The maharaja also used the funds from tourism and the selling of crafts to start and maintain several schools and homes for girls.  She was much admired and in all of India, this is one principality that has remained at their original palace and are still revered.

Observatory and the sun dial

Next stop is the Mantar Observatory and museum  which is a completely natural observatory containing a sundial that is accurate within 27 seconds. It is in the Guinness Book of World records . The sundial isn’t all though, there are other instruments that tell the phases of the moon and the constellations as well as astrological timings. When a child was born they were brought to the observatory to determine the astrological aspects of the timing of the birth. If I had the time, I could have had my entire chart completed just using the outdoor instruments, no computers as we use today.

another view of all the equipment at the observatory

nearby market in Jaipor

I then ask if we can just walk to a temple and a park to get a feel for the area that is “shop free” and my wish is granted. All over Jaipor there are gorgeous and well maintained parks and gardens as the Rajasthani people took their health very seriously and believed in fresh air and sun in tier daily life of prayer, work play and the practice of outdoor yoga.  I can relax and stop thinking about the elephants for a bit.

Jol Palace (floating in the water)

The day is almost complete and I have changed my flight  – I will leave in the early morning instead of staying another full day. I am homesick for Udayan and want to get back to see the children for one more afternoon.

After a lively dinner at an authentic dinner which includes entertainment by young Rajasthani musicians singing lyrical songs in beautiful voices along with two girls dressed in traditional colorful and gorgeous scarves and jewels who twirl with pottery on their heads and dance on swords (ouch), I am off to sleep so I can make the flight at 7 AM.

Rajasthani princess NOT!

sunset in the oasis of beauty

I fly into Kolkata and go straight from the airport to Udayan for one last goodbye. As I arrive the kids scream and shout my name, surrounding me with hugs and kisses. They ask me to stay for lunch and I am called in and asked to be seated in the front of the dining hall. There I am presented with a giant garland of marigolds and a brass statue of the god Shiva. I thank them trying not to cry and ask that my words be translated a bit so the real meaning is understood. I tell them that it is they who should be thanked for allowing me the honor of working with them and for the way in which I was welcomed into the Udayan family.  I am , forever there in spirit and they will always be in my heart.

My tenure is over and I return to Kolkata  to pack up and get ready for my late night flight on Saturday. One last party Shamlu says, so off we go again – isn’t this how it all started?

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Late night in the palace with Stacey (LOL)

A view of the palace

It is Friday and Karuna is leaving for 2 days for a puja in her home village so I will be here alone. I don’t mind as I have errands to run and some of the younger people I’ve met have asked me to come for lunch and hang out for a bit . It is a nice change of pace and I relish it. I am given a car and first go to finalize the travel arrangements for the trip to Delhi, Agra and Jaipor. Then off to Erica’s flat where she is editing the documentary they’ve been working on for several months about the goat herders here in Kolkata. Her partner/editor is there, a lovely, lively Bengali man and we order in lunch and talk about the business of film making, Bengali art and life here in the city as a “westerner” – Erica is from Italy and we talk about the adjustment to this way of life, and mostly the adjustment we must make when returning to the western world. Since she has been here many times before, she tells me to take note of my thoughts as I arrive at home in the US, how it will seem strange for a while. I decide to keep journaling as this shift will be interesting to document. I am sorry to say goodbye, but I know we will see each other again and we exchange our emails and they go back to editing and I head off to meet yet another friend for a light dinner and some shopping.

After a great day, I am feeling very proud of myself for being on my own without relying on guidance or translation from anyone, taking a taxi back to the palace.  After saying goodnight to the staff I retire and am just about to get into bed but go off to wash up . Closing the door behind me to the bathroom, I here a click and think nothing of it until I remember that I must have my bottled water for my toothbrush. I try the door and it is locked from the outside. I am locked in!  Here I am in my nightshirt and nothing else. No phone of course, and the house is asleep. I bang on the walls but they are thick and the doors are massive and no one can hear me. Now I’m contemplating trying a window or some of the tiny doors but I squeeze through only to find one dead-end after another. Eyeing the length of the claw-footed tub, I am almost resigned to sleeping there but try one more time this time yelling “emergency!” and  “aya baba” (OMG). I hear a stirring and then 5 of the staff and the dog arrive to save a damsel in distress. Really.  They are laughing hysterically and I am too, out of relief mostly.  Never a dull moment with me, I somehow manage to get into trouble even in when brushing my teeth!

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Leaving Udayan, and hanging the show!

morning chores, the little ones

some of my "flowers" in the morning sun, last day

It is Monday and I am moving my bags out of the room looking around for one last time. The girls come into the room early in the morning to help take my bags and speak for a while. We sit around and talk about life, my home, family and when I will return. They tell me that they will miss art so much and our time talking, laughing and even some of the “tutoring” I have tried to give when they had exams.

As we march down the steps, the KG girls and some of the older girls are basking in the sun and they rush over to hug me, hand me flowers for my hair and stuff notes into my hand.  I take more pictures and my heart is aching, I can’t imagine being away from them for so long. I miss the long days that never seemed long enough, I was never so happy than as when I taught all of them . The “exhaustion “ at the end of the day was a good one, not tiresome at all and there was always a spring in my step no matter how early the day began. I always looked forward to what the new day would bring and I received the gift of enlightenment from the children each moment I spent with them.

The KG girls playing before school

The five boys who are to help move the artwork and hang the show with me are waiting, prompt as usual. there seems to be a slight mix up as to the car and timing and the fact that with the driver and Swapan there are 8 of us plus my luggage. After a very late start we are on our way to the framer and are trying to beat the clock – we only have from 3 – 7 PM  to get all the pictures hung. After many road blocks and u-turns we arrive at the framing warehouse. I meet with the director as the remaining frames are wrapped and then descend to the work room where the boys are waiting. We have a problem. I am shocked to see that we have 40 framed pieces to cart and there is barely room for the passengers and my luggage. What to do?!  We hail a taxi to take the boys and I go with the art and one of my boys , we will meet at the Palladian Lounge and then move the work up to the gallery and begin the hard part – placing and hanging the work.  Antara is waiting for us, thank goodness – she is always there with a smile and guiding light and hand – she “finds” us after both taxis are lost, and leads us to the Lounge where we start the process of readying the work for the show.

the exhibition hanging crew

After record time, we have hung all the paintings in 2 hours and we are wiped out. The boys have a snack and I sit on the couch too excited and overwhelmed to eat. It is an amazing sight to see – all the collages hung in this grand room. This is the first time I’ve seen all the work together in one place.  The children and I kept working for art’s sake  and I sent the finished pieces to the framer in batches, never realizing how many there were. My students have been very prolific producing over 40 works including some unframed mounted pieces as well. We have printing beautiful greeting cards from the digital photos I took of each collage and I know they will sell.  Happy, exhausted and a bit nervous, we all say goodnight and I tell the boys I will see them on Wednesday. Now I must get some rest as I will have to return tomorrow with Antara to price and label each piece.

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The last night, exchanging addresses, more gifts and tears..

our last night hanging out in my room

on top of the world, after cleaning the art room

It is Sunday and I must clean up the art room and organize the materials so that they can be stored and used when there is supervision. The girls come over to work a little more and then to sort out al the ephemera. they are very efficient so we have time to play a few Bengali songs and dance. The room is empty and sad looking – no more colorful papers gracing the laundry lines to dry, no more ribbon and papers piled high, just an empty room with many good memories.

We leave for lunch and bask in the sun. Soon it will be the boys’ turn to wash the floor and clean the bathroom that we have used to wash brushes and palettes.  It currently looks like a Jackson Pollack painting  and that won’t go over well with the staff. After a huge effort , the room is spic and span. The boys then ask for pictures to be taken and to watch some of the pictures I have taken in slide show format. Then I am asked to give them my address and phone numbers, and I give them sheets of paper to list their addresses and names so that we can keep in touch. I want to know if they’ve past their board exam so that they may continue to study at the next level school.  Many of my very best budding artists will not be at Udayan when I return next year, and they make me promise to ask Swapan to call them when I am there so that they may visit on a Sunday. The boys also ask if I will visit their new schools and I of course say yes.

Soma, hamming it up with Tara watching

Off to the girls‘ dorm, I have promised snacks and an afternoon movie on my laptop if they have done their studies.  They claim they have and so we settle down to watch a Hindi movie that I cannot understand except that I think it’s a love story with strange segues of singing and dancing. It is very entertaining, the girls are engrossed in the movie and I am enjoying being with them and watching their expressions. The movie is nearly complete when I am called downstairs by some staff members and they inform me that the girls have not done their studies and must start now. Needless to say I am mortified (way to make a good last impression) and tell the girls to “bus” (stop).  I explain what has happened and speak to them about being upfront with me and anyone else – studies come first and they know that. They are teenagers, but the timing, as it is my last night, was regrettable.

I go off to the room to pack and clean the place for the next volunteer, and dismantle all the garlands and drawings they’ve made for me. I’m working at snails pace, I don’t want to leave them yet I have to.

After dinner the girls come in to have the last of my stash of snacks and to help pack. Some are crying and most are very solemn.  I tell them that they will see me on Wednesday for the opening of the art show, and that I will return if Reverend Stevens will have me.  Teaching at this school has opened my eyes and my heart.  I know I have found my place and can’t imagine not having the privilege of being with these children again.

Everyone has my address and numbers and the girls take papers so they may pass list their contact information.  I play some Hindi and Bengali dance music and we have a little dance party before it is time for bed.

farewell celebration , we finished the big clean up!

last dance

I am walking on the green to get something from the dining hall and my “group”of boys call to me from their dorm to please wait. they are carrying something very gingerly and hand it to me telling me to be very gentle. I open it and it is a three dimensional collage of a church in Kolkata made of found materials and some papers from the art room. I try to get the words out to tell them how precious this is and that I will frame it and cherish it forever, but I can’t without crying. Finally I get a grip and speak with them. They then have a list of their addresses and phone numbers and it’s very long. I am so moved and so sad, I will miss their faces, smiles and their questions, especially when they shout from their windows “auntie, painting class today, oh just one more!”

"My" Urmela

“My kids” have blossomed and I’ve watched this as I’ve watched the garden growing larger each day and the flowers bursting with color. It is nature’s way of showing the passage of time and with that comes the end of the first chapter of my best adventure ever.

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Field trip!

all dressed up and ready to go

some sights along the way to Kolkata

Have camera, will shoot...what else to do in traffic?

Today is a concert in Kolkata at Saint John’s Church, Father James Stevens is to sing , and is accompanied by some very talented young pianists and violinists as well as many of the children of Udayan. We are to board the school bus at 4 pm sharp, and I am ready.  In the early morning, Swapan had asked me to help build and patina a donation box to be brought with us. It is a mad dash to get the thing built properly and antique it with my stash of supplies. The lettering is off though, so I harness one of the graduate students who is visiting to make it perfect, but he isn’t quite finished and we literally run to the bus with the paint still wet.

No one is on board the bus, everyone is standing and having tea even though it is 4:30. Then we are asked to take our seats, with much switching and walking over each other we do get all into the bus, only to be told that we must disembark to allow for the donation box and several collage placards depicting the life at Udayan.  Those are squeezed in and then we are told to board again, climbing over the large collages and finally, after one hour, we are on our way.  A field trip in India!!  This is to be fun, then 2 of the students vomit and we haven’t gotten 2 miles down the road. Everyone is nonplussed as this apparently happens all the time and we continue on. It is a very different experience than the train or the taxi and the children are so excited pointing out all the landmark, they are jumping out of their seats.

The children and Father Stevens

Arriving at the church a little early, we again go through the process of getting the box and the kids and collages off the bus and head inside to set up.

I am instructed by Father to comb all the girls hair, so we march into a tiny bathroom and do assembly line makeovers. Once finished the program begins, we take our seats and Father takes the podium to say a blessing and read a few announcements. I am very surprised to hear my name and and a blurb about me and the work I am doing as well as an invitation to the congregation to attend the art exhibit on the 10th.

Then the music begins and I am once again amazed  – Father Stevens has a golden voice and it is a magical event.  The children join in for the last 2 song and the we are then on our way back to the bus with great ministrations once again.

Father Stevens has a glorious voice!

Traffic!  so much so that we are hardly moving and it is now 8:30 PM.  No one has eaten dinner. As we are stuck on a street with many vendors, Swapan and I hop off to find various food for the children and for the staff. We load up on sweets, samosas, some sort of vegetarian patties and fish cakes. I had vowed never to eat street food, but this vow is broken the minute I smell the wonderful aroma of the goodies.

Satisfied, some of the kids fall sleep but I am sitting in the front with 4 of the boys and they entertain me with the most beautiful voices all singing Bengali songs. this continues for the rest of the ride and time passes quickly. We end the mini concert with Jingle Bells, don’t ask me why, and we all join in.

Arriving at 11 PM at the school, I lead the girls back to the dorm and oversee them getting ready for bed. They are angels tonight and I retire and fall asleep quickly.  Tomorrow is my last day and night  and I want to get an early start to clean the art room, pack and then have quality time with all the children.Fi

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Sunday, last minute fashion show

Even though it is Sunday, usually a relaxed day, it is a busy. I must get all the collages completed with the various students. We have 45 collages now, and three need to be finished. I am battling with the children’s exam schedules and the Hindi and Bengali different study times and exam dates. Between the language and the myriad of schools the children attend it is at times very confusing and hectic.  I am looking forward to a productive day .  I have lots of time for everyone and all my budding artists do come asking for just one more paper, just one more time to do another piece. The kids are insatiable and I am ecstatic about that.  We work efficiently and quietly with Bengali music playing in the background. They are so engrossed in their work I hardly have to help, just an occasional suggestion,  they are very focused, very much in the zone.

Doves in Love

Angels in Flight

Dreamscape by Saddam

It is almost lunchtime and the phone rings. It is Taniele asking if we should go to a fashion event in Kolkata, very dressy, all the major celebrities and musicians will be there along with beautiful fashion and a divine dinner at the Hyatt Regency by poolside. I do want to continue with the students but Shamlu has sweetened the deal with an overnight and an early return to Udayan on Monday. It is too good to pass up so I agree and promise the students that I will give them more time on Monday.

We must pack a few things, hair and nails and all that, then hop on a rickshaw to take us to the train, my first time!

I am glad I’m with Taniele, the station is crowded and very confusing. No one seems to know which track the train to Kolkata will be leaving from so we wait at the top of both staircases. ( actually there are three very fierce, rabid looking dogs blocking the stairs and I have no intention of passing by them). We are the only non Indian riders, so there’s a lot of giggling and stares, though I’m getting used to that now.  The train approaches and it is filled to the gills, I haven’t ever seen a mess like this – Grand Central at rush hour is sleepy compared to this. The train hardly waits, so you must try to find the women’s car and hop on to find a seat. There are none, so I stand along with about 200 women all vying for a space, some sit on top of one another, others cram next to you half of them fall into your lap- then there’s the occasional argument.  About 10 men are soliciting their wares and they are relentless, we are a captive audience and they repeat their promotion incessantly for about 20 minutes. It is wild and deafening.   At each new stop, more solicitors get on and some of the women depart allowing me to sit.  Another man comes on,which is odd as this is a women’s car, he places an electronic box above my head and I assume it is his luggage of some sort. WRONG!  Out of nowhere a blaring karaoke song starts playing and he sings away for another 40 minutes. I may go mad and I think I need a tylenol.

Being on the train is a great way to see unknown parts of Kolkata, not just the shops and museums, but rural areas with tents, small homes and shacks of aluminum with their laundry hanging- mundane Sunday chores, and the diversity of the landscape.  With all the noise and commotion I am still very grateful to have this time to take in another experience.  Arriving at the station, pushed and pulled by the throngs of people, to me it seems like total chaos.  We step over bodies sleeping, beggars are in abundance and everyone is walking over them and no one seems to mind, this is part of daily life.  Our railroad car was the size of a bathroom on Metro North, but with three times the passengers.  We decide to take a taxi to the house and have to haggle with 4 different drivers before finding a prepaid taxi.  Dressing quickly I am wearing a sari from Shamlu’s collection and some of the jewelry I bought during my stay.  Meera wraps me , thank goodness or I would surely unravel as I walked – not a pretty site. The affair is in full swing and the poolside garden is filled with paparazzi and glitterati.   There is a famous cricket player, Sourav Ganguly; a renowned artist named Wasim Kapoor and a nationally known actress Juhis Chalawla who will model.  Actors Kiren Kher, and Arjun Rampal are there as well.   We have VIP seats and walk about before the show starts with drinks and fantastic food and networking.  As the fashion show gets underway Taniele and I are drooling, each and every item is more beautiful then the last and we want all of them.  There is an auction at the end as this is a fundraiser for “Dream for Life” a charity for people who are “diffabled” with blindness.  The items go for more than one can imagine, some more than 10 times most people make in one year!  After this we are stuffed and make our way to the car for a good night’s sleep. Taniele says I do NOT snore, as we are sharing the room, so I must admonish my children when I return home to the States. We have a delicious breakfast at Shamlu’s house – a little break from the usual at the school, then we are off to Udayan in the very early hours with no traffic;  taking a taxi instead of the train.  It is quiet, just the goat herders returning from grazing.

We are greeted by the waiting children as though we were gone for a week, not an overnight, and I am actually very happy to be “home”.

welcome home hugs

Later in the morning I start more boys who hadn’t the opportunity to paint before, along with the “crowd” of artists who can’t seem to get enough time to create – they want to have music and art time.  It is lunch time and the kids don’t want to leave, but I shoo them to the dining hall and they return in record time to complete what they’ve started.  At 4:30 it is time to leave but the kids beg me for more time, resulting in staying 2 hours longer, they are so intent on their work. Sikandar and Happy have done 2 collages each and are very promising, so they get a private lesson in drawing with  charcoal and shami cloth,  gum erasers and after just 30 minutes of demonstrating and practice they produce  work that looks like they’ve been in art school for years. Astounding.

The other boys are gathered outside the art room as I lock up to help me carry my knapsack ant to just talk about exams, art questions and just to chat. We have a laugh and spend quite a while before the mosquitoes start their feeding frenzy. We call it a night and tell each other we will meet again in the morning.  I head off to the girls dorm.

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Back to Kolkata..more paint, (Auntie get us red – lal- and more glue)

Leaving Udayan after the Republic Day ceremonies, I head for Kolkata to get some more papers, paint and matte medium which is our glue.  Shamlu is waiting with wonderful food and Meera is there with her beatific face and warm heart.  Shamlu has some plans she must tend to and I am left with Bobo, a blossoming garden and quiet. I take advantage of the peace to write in the blog and return emails and meditate. Wow, I have neglected my meditation, always on the go at the school and it centers me, I am in a good state of mind.

Republic day ceremonies

Accomplishing a lot, Meera comes in almost without a sound and gently asks me to eat some dinner. I relish this time without the hustle and bustle of the social life here in Kolkata and as much as I am missing the children of Udayan, I am happy for the solitude. Bobo and I play for half an hour in the lush gardens in back of Shamlu’s house, then I come in, he’s tired me out and I am ready to settle down with a book I’ve been reading- “The Camel Knows the Way” by Lorna Kelly.  She worked as a volunteer here in Kolkata in 1981 under the tutelage  of Mother Teresa.  It’s a very interesting book and I’m glad to recognize some of her haunts that are still here and thriving.

Victoria memorial

One of Shamlu’s friends, Shukti, calls to invite me to spend tomorrow with her.   She wants to show me the Victoria Memorial, the Writers Building and then off to New Market, one of the oldest markets in Kolkata. There, everything is under one roof and you can get anything from saris and jewelry household items and linens. It is remarkable and overwhelming. Turning corner after corner you could spend an entire year’s salary here and Shukti knows all the best places. We go to one store where she has a relationship with the owner.  He shows me his hand made Pashmina scarves, one side silk, the other pashmina. So beautiful, I choose 3 as gifts.  Then there are boxes hand crafted by artisans working with crushed gems stones. Each one is different so you must scrutinize the design to find the most perfect piece.  After I feel like I can’t imagine purchasing another thing, he asks about the jewelry in the cases before us. I hone in on a pendant and choker and the shopkeeper then shows me the matching earrings and ring.  What to do!  Shukti tells me not to worry, she haggles for me and I do make out like a bandit.   She is a remarkable woman who is here to visit her elderly mother having grown up in Kolkata.  She is now living in Wayne, New Jersey so we are neighbors. I like her very much – she is forthright , genuine and very fun to be with. We share a little about ourselves and discover that we have a lot in common, including a love of music. So, the next stop is to find the CDs Shukti bought yesterday and misplaced them. We first go off to Flury’s, a bake shop that is 100 years old and was mentioned in the book I am reading. It is a wonderland of delicacies including Indian pastries and croissants, not to mention the chocolate treats that are so enticing. You could gain weight just looking at them. I buy a few treats for Shamlu and off we go to search for the missing music.  Ending up at Musicworld, she finds them , but I have now wandered off in search of the CD that is currently playing in the store. 5 CDs later, Shukit pulls me out of the shop before I break the bank. I can’t help it, the Bengali music is hypnotic and I love to work in the studio to music. I find a CD the girls will love and another for the Udayan boys. I will give them to the school when I leave to return home.  It is s small gift for the wondrous experience they have given me.  Then I have business to tend to, there is an opening at the Palladian Lounge, the venue for our upcoming exhibition, and I want to see how they have hung the work and priced each piece. I must also approve the invitations and make sure the information about me and the students is correct.  As I am meeting with them, some of the dignitaries I have met once before say hello as if I am an old friend. We discuss the show, and then get down to the business of logistics for my show.  As a meal is served (I am stuffed) I meet the wife of the French General Counsel and we chat away about France, cheese and wine, and Provence where my mother has her summer home. She is a lovely person, knowledgeable and so open, it’s nice to speak a little French with her.

New Market

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We end up at Shukti’s home for a quick bite of dinner, of course it is delicious, and then I’m “home” at Shamlu’s. She is waiting for me and we spend the rest of the evening chatting and laughing and I teach her a few things about editing photographs on the Mac.  Both of us say goodnight at 2 AM, we’ve talked so much. Shamlu is a great conversationalist and very funny.

Thursday comes, I’ve had some weird dreams and am surprised I’ve slept past 7 AM.  I start off by Skyping home and say hi to the kids and Rick, Meera walks in looking at me like I’m nuts – I’m talking to a computer and she comes over to see if there’s a picture and there’s none. I try to explain that I’m talking to the family, so she says “namaskar” and the children say hello back. She leaves the room laughing.   Antara and crew come in for the day’s work, and we do some work on the publicity end of the show and for the sake of fundraising for the school. They ask for the photographs I’ve taken of Udayan and then ask for a blurb to be written by me. I spend much of the day writing, and we all end up eating the goodies from Flury’s and chatting, it’s like hanging out with my girlfriends. I show them some of the things I’ve bought and they like most of them.  Antara is laughing, her eyes wide as she looks at one of the kameezes I have purchased – it is one of my favorites, definitely a little funky.  Shamlu HATES the kameez I’ve bought from a local designer, though I say it’s the artist side of me that likes it, the embroidery and design are unique.

So, here I am once again writing away, then we are off to a dinner with friends I’ve met before and a newscaster and his wife.  Socializing here is business and pleasure and I must do my part for the art show and for my passion – the children of Udayan.

It is Friday and I’m supposed to go back to Udayan, but before I return Antara and I have an appointment along the way to a frame shop that is supposed to be top notch.   I love being with her, she has been my guide, my friend and the “go to ” person every step of the way – teaching me Bengali, listening and gently offering advice when needed.  The children adore her at the school, she is on premises quite often, teaching and guiding the girls, what a natural!

After 5 attempts to find this place, way out in the far reaches of Kolkata, we enter iron gates that lead to a deserted street. I think this has to be a mistake until a guard comes up and directs us to another tunneled dark street with nothing  but what looks to be garages.  There we see the sign for the shop, it is a warehouse.  This shop frames for most of the major hotels, museums and galleries. I walk in and feel right at home. It smells like my frame shop in New York and everyone is working diligently.  Looking at the frames on display, I know we are in the best of hands.  We are escorted to the master framer’s  office and are served tea, then we get down to the technical aspects of framing a collage – acid free paper, hinged mounting and a simple but elegant frame. Satisfied, we say goodbye and are once again off to my final destination, Udayan. As we round the winding congested streets, I try to absorb everything from the character of the crazy streets to the shacks along the way – women in saris, rickshaws, people selling fruit, doing their laundry, children playing and bathing, even brushing their teeth.

I know this will be my last time this year going towards Barrackpore.  I will leave the school on the 8th of February to hang the show.  I will see the children only at the art exhibit, not at the school. It will also be the last time Antara and I share this trip together and I will miss her company so much.

As we enter the school loaded with paint and paper, glue and clothing that friends here have collected for the children the kids scream “auntie, auntie you’re here you’re here !”

I savor this, they brighten my day and then there are hugs and hand holding and curiosity about what is in the huge bag.  They don’t ask for chocolates, they are just happy that I’m back and all of them ask when their painting class will be scheduled.  I have class in the afternoon until 6 PM , the students finish 4 more spectacular collages.

I retire early as Saturday will be a full day, a big push to start more of the school in the art room, and some of the young artists who had almost finished but then had exams. We are to complete these pieces so that they can go to the framer on Monday.  I say a goodbye to the work, it will be framed and sold – I will only have the photographs and my memories to visit them again. It is an accomplishment, but difficult to part with.

The kids are amazing – they finish 4 more large collages and we call it quits.  More of “my kids” are gathered outside the art room door and greet me with “good evening auntie”. I tell them about the moon which is to be full and the largest most spectacular full moon this year too. We stare at the sky and are silent. There is a breeze, the scent of the flowers in the garden in full bloom, birds are chirping and the resident puppies have come out to play.  This truly is a beautiful place, I know I’ll mss it very much.

After the group goes off to play before dinner, the older boys are waiting to tell me about the exams and talk about art and their girlfriends. They laugh and joke with me, speaking half Bengali, half Hindi and I chime in with a mixture of both and mostly English.  This has become a routine after I finish class, they are usually waiting to hang out a bit. I so enjoy them. We say goodbye, they must study and I’m off to my room to catch up on my writing and have a cup of tea.  I feel serene and fulfilled.

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