Recently I've been watching The Story of India on public TV. Well, watching when I can. It's a six-part series, two hours over three weeks (Mondays) and that's a bigger commitment than I can make right now. But I've been checking in. (It's an outstanding series, and one of the few times I've really wished I had a high-def telly!)
I find India interesting in part because it's where my dad spent his military service.
In a somewhat futile attempt to clean the art room, I went splunking under the desk and found a box with photos and letters he'd written.
I also found (again) his photo album from that period.
Photos of the Indians in pose...and those who look caught unaware.
And at work, here on a tea plantation.
He spoke of his leave in the mountains where the tea plantations were, and of the farms in the north.
He also mentioned spending time with the daughter of a tea plantation owner, whom he described in a letter to my grandparents as being very easy on the eyes. (I wish he'd had a photo of her -- maybe I'll find one when I spend more time with these books!)
My parents were both fairly skilled amateur photographers and even as a child I remember posing for my mother against a backdrop with big lights. Spending time in the darkroom watching the images magically appear on the paper always fascinated me and while it wasn't a skill I picked up, I still mourn the loss of the magic of film (although the computer now seems to hold that magic.)
The point is, in discovering these photos, I realize that this was an interest that my dad developed long before he and my mother met. And some -- like the photo of the Indian woman and her baby, the snake charmer, the beggar -- almost seem to have a documentary-like quality that I find intriguing, especially given his innocence of the world at that time.
(Another thing I love about the originals is that they are all very small -- wallet sized. Yet when enlarged, really quite clear.)
His camera picked up sacred cows...
Even the street beggars were captured in the camera lens. I wonder -- did he take this as a shocked young man who hadn't seen this before -- something to show the folks at home? Did he see it as a social commentary?
My dad always had a profound sense of compassion for others as well as a sense of acceptance that struck me as unusual during my time of adolescence. Beautiful, but unusual. Still, it wasn't until he died when the first African American to move into our all-white-bread neighborhood came to the funeral home that I realized how this made an impact on others.
"Your dad was the first person to come to come to our door and welcome us to the neighborhood," he said. "I will never forget his kindness."
Did this farm kid from Michigan learn that people were people, whether they looked like you or not, during his time in India? It sure didn't hurt.
This is one of my favorite photos -- the snake charmer! I can imagine him being fascinated by how the charmer was able to lure the cobra from his basket.
(I know this photograph fascinated me as a child. I sometimes wonder if he took it just to send my grandmother into a tizzy -- she had always been afraid of snakes, one of the few phobias that may have rubbed off on me a bit!)
Although I know he became very ill while there (malaria and something that popped up now and then in later years), he really found his time in that country fascinating.
It intrigues me, this look into the images that affected a man so many years ago. He was probably in his late 20s, maybe 30. I can't help but wonder if the young men in Afghanistan are experiencing the same things, and will their encounters with people different from themselves lead to acceptance and understanding as they age, or will the terrors of war override these experiences. India wasn't a hotbed of combat when Dad was there, and I'm not sure as a communications specialist if he ever even saw combat. That has to present a different image of a country.
Yes, I have some things he brought back with him -- an ivory box with elephants; two rosewood (I think) boxes he gave my grandmother; a prayer wheel, tarnished with the passing of time.
But the memories -- those are his. And how I wish I could ask him more about them.
My friend, the wonderful photographer Jane Rosemont, recently returned from India.
Her camera captured the people, the colors, the places -- and (if you visit her site) you will see they really look much the same.
An ancient civilization that has since become a highly industrialized nation in some respects -- and in others, anything but.
If you're interested in the series or the other features on PBS' website, stop by. Another two hours airs next Monday night at 9 p.m.
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