Saturday, January 11, 2014

Lost and Found

You always hear it said that people come to India to find themselves. I wasn’t lost when we left the United States for Chennai, but like Paul said- visions of “the shooter” stuck with him, fading into the distance, being trampled by careless travelers on the jet way - I can’t imagine that the shooter didn’t represent just a little bit more than the power of the Lego Chima that day.

Every time I look to be found, I head straight for the ocean for a quiet open space and for the rhythm of the sea. I certainly, in search of answers, would have never headed directly into the heat of the action. 

Nothing is particularly easy to find here, but with eight million people - a thousand villages spread end to end - nothing is impossible. Least of all something you didn't even know you were looking for.

I don’t really recall feeling lost since: I began art school, met Paul, first picked up a camera and stopped time, since I became a mom and again when I rediscovered film. I’ve been found a few times in between and don’t doubt that I will be found again. I am certainly not the lost soul I was for so long before these grand events, though; trying on lifestyles, like a teenage girl trying on clothes for school. Seattle, Palm Beach, Small town USA.

I spent my early years trying to be the round peg when I was really always the square one, but I’ve learned to be me and in that I’ve found comfort in my own skin and confidence in my own path. I’ve traded youth for wisdom again and again. I’ve chosen the path less traveled, a jet-way to a long flight to a place somewhere most people only dream of.

I don’t believe that it is possible to get on that plane from your home, leaving everyone and everything you find familiar and comfortable behind and not lose at least a little bit of yourself in the jet-streams.

Stripped of familiarity immediately upon landing and ultimately the comfort of anonymity afforded by melting into the pot that is the United States, I have not only become lost in a neighborhood of this city and in a country of millions, I have also been found in the very same insanity. I may as well be naked standing on the sidewalk at times, even with all my forbidden bits covered from shoulder to knee-cap. I can strip myself of everything I feel is quintessentially American about me and I still can’t seem to regain that comfortable anonymity that America afforded me. I don’t always want to, I never wanted it when I had it, but being naked in a city of eight million isn’t an easy feeling to process. Instead of feeling vulnerable, though I feel very welcome. I am invited to tea in people’s homes and I am greeted warmly from all directions and people are eager to share their homes, their tea and their history.

I jumped right in like I promised I would. It has made the incredible differences between life at home and life in Chennai dissolve into something my brain has begun to read as normal. I’m grasping to the initial shocking differences that my senses registered in those first weeks and am holding on to them by fraying strings. I continue to document the differences that I want so desperately to share, but cows in the streets have begun to feel commonplace, the smells of local foods, smell almost familiar like home and the colors of the seas of saris have begun to fade together like a melted box of crayons.

I attended my first yoga class this past week. A familiar setting: A clean and modern studio, plastic yoga mats laid end-to-end, men and women sitting comfortably cross legged awaiting instruction. The only thing visibly different here is the lack of ego and name brands and revealing clothing that we think is required in yoga in the States. I’ve begun to rethink yoga, as I’ve always known it and to replace the sameness of brand names and comparison of bodies with a sameness of souls; as a way to suppress everything that makes you an individual and express everything that makes you one.  

 I leave for class before the sun comes up. My head is naturally clear of chaos at that hour so focusing inward is not too hard. We begin class in an incense and candle lit room by chanting Omkar together, voices reaching, wavering, reaching again, and finally coming together in one incredible vibration, which can be felt even when I am the only one who seems to channel the moaning cow portion of all of creation, but someone has to represent.

I’ve been spending one morning a week with a group of 20 plus Indian “Gentlemen” photographers from local photography clubs I've learned about online. They accepted me warily yet warmly and, was it not for my persistence, my focus and my dedication to the sheer insanity of shooting film in this place, I might have been left behind in a vegetable stall by now.

I wake up at 5:30 and pick up a friend down the street; a 60 something retired photojournalist - turned retired Foreign Service Officer - turned spouse, who reminds me, so of my Uncle Robert. In fact, our driver, Sundar, calls him my uncle after I tried to tell him how much they looked alike. He may not know that he really isn’t my uncle, but his passion for Indian history and politics and his appetite for exploring the city, has earned him high standings with our often-partial driver and he does well to fill the large shoes of my very adventurous, mustached and much loved Uncle Robert.

We join up with a group of photographers, mostly hobbyists, from the city in a new neighborhood each week and we explore the labyrinth-like streets and markets of Chennai. I’ve run out of batteries and film on occasion and have been left with only iPhone photos, which turned out to be a delightful blessing. I’ve played with the children of the city, taken their photos and delighted them with the images on the screen of my phone. Naked babies on the hips of older siblings and cousins, proud moms, dads, shop-keepers and the elderly are eager to have their photos taken. Owners will return to their shops to retrieve their prized baby cow, will offer to pose with baskets of fruit or to engage in just the labor that you desire to capture, until you’ve captured it just right. It’s all too easy, too beautiful and sometimes too overwhelming for a daydreamer like myself.

I’ve fallen in love with the kids. No clothes, no shoes, but with more joy eeping out of them and into me that I am afraid I might burst into tears or into song. They ride their bikes in circles around us and they gather all their siblings from surrounding blocks in seconds to join together for a portrait. I can’t seem to break away from them and always end up back in the middle of them again. I show young moms pictures of Sam, Peter and Clementine on my phone and somehow - so very different - we are all one.

Photograph by me of a photograph, gifted to Paul by Ed Malcik.

I step in poop, I step over sleeping people in the streets and pass people digging for leftover garbage in piles on the street. It isn’t all-beautiful. It is not. But that story has been told a million times before.

I am collecting so many beautiful images and am foraging for the perfect way to tell the story of my time here. Perhaps this will be I am meant to find in India.

I fret that I might run out of time each day to capture every bit of beauty that I see, that I might not capture it all in a year or even two.

In one moment I wonder how I’ll stay here another second and in the very next I wonder how I’ll ever leave.

I take solace in the fact that when it’s tomorrow here, its still yesterday back at home and a few extra hours can somehow magically, be regained.