A priest during a ceremony is from the Nandeswar Temple in Kharagpur
Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral are Following the Box, that is following the box of 1945 photographs of India to the other side of the world. Their quest has lead this Chicago couple to India more then once as they search for clues as to who took the photographs in India they found at an estate sale in Illinois. Their journey has resulted in many opportunities’ to reflect on cultural traits, and connect with amazing artists. Eye on India is proud to support this compelling project, as it crosses boundaries, cultures and reaches our most human center.
We are delighted Alan and Jeri have chosen to share their journey with us here. This last post for Eye on India is from The Following the Box Blog in 2014 blog. It is Alan’s closing observations as their Fulbright-Nehru came to a close.
India pulls you up towards divinity and down towards indifference. Negotiating the space in-between is the challenge that defines us.
I’ve been struck by the way in which India pulls you in two directions. It’s more than the obvious contrasts between rich and poor, old and new, rural and urban that I’ve commented on for the past months. It’s deeper. India has an ancient culture, a delight in gods and goddesses, story and myth, a tangible understanding that there is meaning in the world–in our lives. Indian culture affirms that things happen for a reason, and that if we take life seriously, we might better enjoy the journey. It is a culture that thrives on ritual, giving form to the inexplicable forces that course through our lives. There are celebrations everywhere, all the time. And there is a history of honoring study and knowledge, not unlike the Jewish culture. Actually, the similarities are striking—the sound of the conch shell announcing Hindu prayers mirroring the shofar; the belief in education; the Star of David a pervasive symbol. The culture pulls you upward, towards enlightenment.
But at the same time, other forces are at play. This is a country marred by corruption and violence, by tragedies that count millions slaughtered. Hinduism is a belief system more than a religion, one that stresses tolerance and understanding. Muslims stress the welcoming of strangers, the belief that we are all one. Yet neighbor turned on neighbor during Partition and during the creation of Bangladesh and during Hindu-Muslim riots that occur sporadically, often with the tacit support of whatever government is in power. It’s like trying to reconcile the sensitivity and sophistication of pre-War German culture with Nazism. It can’t be done.
Sad small tightrope walker, Kolkata
This pulling downward, toward our baser instincts, takes a very real form in every day life, even without overt violence. To survive in India, to withstand the onslaught of one-legged beggars and mothers thrusting their babies in your face and people closing their fingers around imaginary morsels of food and beseeching you to stave off their hunger, you harden. As Jerri says, “No eye contact.” To be able to function, you turn away. To survive, you deaden your response to pain and inequality, to poverty and illness. I don’t like this feeling–it runs counter to all my instincts and it is core to the India experience, magical though it may be on so many levels.
To learn more about Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral’s adventures visit http://www.followingthebox.com/