Post 9: Jerri’s Musing #1 – Time

This is the second time I’ve made tea for an Indian friend using a kitchen timer. My tendency is to set the teapot on the stove and to walk away – there are so many other things to do that need to get done! Eventually, I either remember, albeit too late as the water has already boiled, spoiling “a perfect cup of tea,” or the water has almost boiled off.

My kitchen here has one of those amazingly powerful 2-burner propane cook stoves found in every Indian kitchen. It boils water 10x faster than my fancy $3K Thermador Pro stove back home. So, as per my tendency, I’d always over-boil the tea water, and similarly, over-steep the tea. Finding a kitchen timer in the shops proved impossible last year. This time I brought my own timekeeper with me.

Tea pot 1So, after pouring my almost-boiled water into the teapot, I wound the timer to a perfect 5 minutes. It started ticking off the minutes – (I like a perfectly brewed 5-minute pot of Darjeeling tea.) My friend looked at the blue plastic timepiece and asked: “What is this?” “A timer,” I said. “What is it for?” “To time something… like tea.” I replied. “Oh, this is such a non-Indian concept,” my first friend said. “So, how do you know when the tea is ready?” I asked. “Oh, you just know” my friend said. When the exact same conversation (word-for-word) took place 2 days later, with a different friend, I knew I was on to something.

We are all obsessed with time – there is never enough of it. In our modern culture we try to cram more and more into a day – “so much to do, so little time.” Soon I/we find ourselves in our mid thirties – oh my goodness, if I want to have children, I better do it now, or I’ll run out of time. Then I/we find ourselves in our mid-sixties – oh my goodness, I haven’t done anything with my life. The twenty-something immortality concept I’ve been living by all these years comes crashing to the floor.

I recently saw the film Interstellar. Amazing film, on so many levels, not the least of which, the way it dealt with the concept of time. [Spoiler Alert]. The “behind the bookcase scene” where Matthew McConaughey is desperately trying to communicate with his daughter, in the present, but it’s really the past, because the messages are from the past. But it’s the present, and time is running out, and he needs to get his message through, but it all has already happened in the future… behind him are pulsating colored bands of light – the stretching of time perhaps? I sat on the edge of my seat, mesmerized not only by the visual elements, but also about how Christopher and Jonathan Nolan had dealt with the bending of time.

On the plane to India I watched Lucy, also an incredible film that challenges the concept of time and existence itself. For example, if you speed up a moving object to the speed where the object is going so fast it disappears from sight, does it still exist, or did it ever exist? A similar concept to the “tree in the forest” thing, but much more interesting.

So what does all this have to do with brewing a perfect 5-minute pot of Darjeeling tea? Nothing and everything. I’ve written before about how India makes me look at the world differently, how it makes me confront my values, my pre-conceived notions about just about everything. It makes me think in ways other environments have not been able to do – things are so raw here, everything is so in-your-face – the colors, the smells, the sounds, the poverty, the wealth, the art, the food.

So, why is a kitchen timer not an Indian concept?

My friend Jeet says it’s because time is a Western concept. Hindus have no romance with time – Hindus are like Jazz, Westerners are like Classical Music. Hindus believe time is eternal (hence reincarnation?) But Hindus also wear watches, turn their TVs on to watch specific shows, get their kids to school at the appointed hour, and run successful businesses, all dependent on time.

We were in Delhi recently, staying at a wonderful B&B. They had a full kitchen so every morning I made myself tea. My timer was a fixture in the kitchen. I noticed that every time Dilip, the house manager, came into the flat, he’d pick up the timer & examine it carefully. He asked me what it was and, as usual, I explained. “Oh,” he said, nodding his head, deep in thought.

I explained that I had brought it from the U.S. because it was impossible to find here in India. I told him how I’d tried to explain the item to shopkeepers: “… see, it’s this clock that you wind, and it goes tic..tic…tic… boing!” At which point I’d throw up my arms to emphasize the “boing” thing. This became the subject of much laughter in the weeks to come as I heard him explain to others the workings of the timer, in Hindi, each time throwing up his arms at the “boing” moment. Then they’d double over in laughter.

During the last week, I asked Dilip if he’d like to have the timer. “Yes,” he said, “I think it would be quite useful.” “Then I’ll gift it to you. When you use it perhaps you’ll remember the slightly crazy white lady who delighted in explaining the concept of a timer to Indian shopkeepers.”

Post 8 – Delhi Part I

Here’s the problem with Delhi if you are a white-skinned foreigner—people assume you are a wealthy tourist, there to see the sights and buy things. So they try to sell you something. Anything. Incessantly. In Kolkata, they are genuinely interested in what you might be doing in their beloved city. They ask questions, are fascinated by the answers, love the fact that you love India and their city. Usually, within a few minutes, they invite you to dinner. This time in Delhi wasn’t as bad as last time, but I did have to yell at an auto rickshaw driver who stopped his “tuk-tuk” in the middle of a trip. As soon as he turned around and started talking, knowing what was coming, I forcefully interrupted and said, “I am sorry but no, I am not interested in going to your brother’s shop. I am not interested in going to your uncle’s restaurant. No, I do not have 5 minutes to just take a look. I am sure you are all good people. I just need to go home now.”

“Home” in Delhi made all the difference. We stayed at “Diya B&B,” a project of the Salaam Balaak Trust, a program to help street kids started many years ago by Mira Nair who made the film Salaam Bombay. Recommended by friend, early supporter of our work and board member Sanjoy Roy, a remarkable man who founded the #Jaipur Literary Festival, #Eye on India Festival in Chicago and perhaps 20 other such ventures, the place was a refuge. In the normally noisy and crowded Phara Ganj part of Old Delhi, this beautiful place was on a quiet side street, an easy 15-minute tuk-tuk ride to the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, home to our Following the Box exhibit. Because the place was new, we had a small apartment almost entirely to ourselves. Dilip and Danish, former street kids, ran the place. They were absolutely wonderful and Dilip’s daughter Diya, for whom the place is named, was a constant joy, talking non-stop in both Hindi and English, constantly pointing to things and naming them, rearranging the produce we had sitting on a tray, constantly moving. The place has a rooftop garden, which we would have used more if it hadn’t been so cold. I know it’s cruel to complain about temperatures in the 40s and 50s when everyone back in New York or Chicago is digging out from several feet of snow and struggling with sub-zero temperatures, but hey…


The neighborhood alternated between the craziness of the main market street, as exemplified by a wedding procession complete with the groom on a white horse and the quiet beauty of an old building, with art-deco traces of its past still clinging to its surface. This place is simply magical.


Post 7: Ripples


This project is filled with unintended consequences—that’s one of its most exciting aspects. These old photos really resonate. There was no guarantee that we’d find interested artists or that they would react so strongly–or trust two outsiders to showcase their vastly different interpretations. But they did and we developed a creative and caring community, all inspired by our serendipitous find. We are still trying to figure out what it is in us that has kept us so obsessed, traveling now 4 times to India, seeking funding to bring the show around the world, even closing my design business. What meaning does this quest hold for us? It seems that Following the Box is a vehicle, a perfect storm of our abilities, experiences and interests. It is a window into other worlds, both within our selves and within the complexity of India, something that allows us to travel through time and space and unlock our own creativity in a surprisingly safe environment. The Fulbright award validated years’ worth of largely unrewarded work, both professionally and personally. It signified that our insights, observations and practice were indeed valid. No one should need such external validation…but it doesn’t hurt! For me, it also comes at a time of my life when I’m feeling the tangible presence and pressure of time. I don’t feel “old” and many of our friends are considerably older. But I feel I need to make up for lost time, that I want to cram in as much living as I possibly can. Time speeds up as you age; I intend to speed up with it.

It has been beyond rewarding to see the project’s continuing impact; it’s ripple-like outward movements. A Gurkha soldier stationed at the site of the former Salua Air base near Kharagpur wrote a short story in the Gurkha language about 2 Americans who find an old box of photos and bring them home! We met a ceramic artist who decided to incorporate some of our photos in her work. One of our artists was considering a curatorial career after the experience of working on Following the Box. We spoke to hundreds of students. Perhaps, years from now, some faint flicker will surface and affect their life’s direction.

The most dramatic, however, is Arunima Choudhury. Arunima was participating artist Amritah Sen’s teacher. She loved our exhibit, and came to see it 4 times, constantly finding something new and intriguing. She told us last year that she wanted us to visit her home, that she had some ideas about using our material in her work. We readily agreed and took a cab deep into one of the many parts of Kolkata that still lie unknown to us.

Arunima showed us her work—hundreds of drawings and paintings; large enamel plates; jewelry.   She and her husband, both artists, have been working quietly for years and filling their home with the results. She showed us an old quilt and thought that that format might be interesting to explore with our WWII-era photos. We gave her a digital set, excited by the prospect of the ever-expanding nature of our project.

But we were not prepared for what greeted us on our return, 8 months later.   Arunima had made 2 nine foot high pieces! One titled “War is Over” used several of our 10th PTU images, coupled with text and parts of the quilt she had shown us earlier. The second piece “War is Not Over” used Ragu Rai’s well-known image of a child victim of the Bhopal gas disaster of years ago, along with the now iconic image of the little boy whose body washed ashore, fleeing the Syrian conflict. These are disturbing and powerful pieces, inspired by our project. It’s the most dramatic evidence I’ve seen that our work does not stop with our work, that there is no discernible end point to impact, that we have no idea where our words or acts or creativity may lead. It was too late to incorporate these pieces into our already tightly curated and designed exhibit. But Arunima wanted us to have these pieces and do something with them. We are seeking a suitable home, her message needed now more than ever.





Post 1 – Back in India!

This is now our 4th trip to India and while some things have become invisible and expected in their familiarity (cows in the road, horns blaring, air you can see, sleeping dogs undisturbed no matter the crowd sidestepping them, people finding shelter anywhere they can, tiny stalls selling everything imaginable one on top of the other) others are still miraculous.  The small, intimate shrines on every street, the always curious and helpful people, the remarkable music, the vibrant life that surrounds you at every turn, the random encounters that soon don’t seem random at all. Serendipity rules. How it is possible that in a city of 13 million, everyone knows everyone is beyond me, but it’s true.

We are back in Kolkata, courtesy of a small grant from the U.S. State Department, to pack up our Following the Box exhibit. It had sat patiently in storage at the Birla Academy, the museum that hosted its inaugural exhibition last February.  Now it is being shipped to its next venue, the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts in Delhi.  The exhibit opens 11 January.  This blog will chronicle the journey of the show, but more importantly, the journey of two artists, obsessed with a shoebox filled with negatives, photographs and stories from long ago.