Archive for the ‘Home As the Space We Live In’ Category

The story being told in Quartet is of strong, creative individuals not yet in the fourth stage of life but certainly approaching it. (I defined “fourth stage” in the previous post.) Six of the seven splendid actors playing the main characters were in their 70s while making the movie. Maggie Smith was 79. The characters are attractive and believable, and moreover, the extras who surround them, including a number who are shown being quite active, are of that age or older, and delightful to watch. All are residents in Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians, nicely filmed in a handsome Georgian style mansion, the Hedsor House near London, where a good number of movies have been filmed. The lovely grounds, with gardens, parkland, wooded areas for walking, and a small church are all used to good effect. With Quartet, at age 75, Dustin Hoffman made his debut as a Director.

The plot of the movie is given here, in Wikepedia.

The four central characters are opera singers many years out from having been on stage, from having been enormously successful in their long careers. Maggie Smith plays Jean; Tom Courtenay, Reginald “Reggie”; Billy Connolly, Wilfred “Wilf”; and Pauline Collins,”Cissy.” Jean was the famous diva and an international star, but all are still known to the public as a magnificent foursome who for years performed the Act 3 quartet (“Bella figlia dell’amore”) from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

The one actor in the movie who actually was a widely admired, much honored opera star, and who looks the part, is Gwyneth Jones as Anne.

Do go to this site for the Quartet’s wonderful soundtrack. I especially enjoyed the string quartets.

The reviewers did not enthuse over the movie. From Roger Ebert — “This movie will no doubt be pitched to the same audiences that loved “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” It even brings Maggie Smith along. But it lacks that film’s life, intelligence and spirit. It has a good heart. I’ll give it that. Maybe what it needs is more exotic marigolds.”

What did he mean by “a good heart?” Quartet tells a different story. Marigold is about people in the third stage of life with a small income and no obligations looking for and finding a place where they can live comfortably and interestingly within their means. The setting, in Jaipur, is photogenic.

The other major reviewer, A.O. Scoot of the NY Times, is only a little more favorable toward Quartet. I suppose not many younger adults will be intrigued by how artists, or creative persons of any occupation, reconcile themselves to the loss of capacity that comes with aging. The grand Jean is something of a curmudgeon, isolating herself, expecting her former status and privileges to continue forever. Cissy has dementia, but she is sweet and funny and becomes the person who brings the four together to fulfill the meaningful goal set for them by their community. Fortunately for the movie, Pauline Collins, whose mother had suffered from vascular dementia, knew from experience how to make Cissy’s behavior touching and authentic. Wilfie and Reggie look after and protect Cissy. The two men are life-long friends, Wilfie mischievous and unwilling to give up his Casanova inclinations, Reggie staid and conscientious, the two still fussing and complaining at one another.

A number of the minor characters, and even the extras, are special. Every one of them is a former musician Dustin Hoffman located and hired for the movie. They add depth, plus much of the music, to many of the scenes. At the end of the movie, in the credits, each actor in one of the smaller roles is shown in a photograph as s/he appears in the movie, along with a photograph taken in the past, from his/her days as a performer. The movie’s introductory scene is also remarkable. It is of an ageless, truly beautiful woman. The image of her at the piano is a pleasure to see and remember.

To me the movie’s story is about coming to terms with the loss of abilities and qualities that made for success in one’s public life, that of work and in the community. And of coping with the inevitable illnesses and disabilities. Jean, who had built her life around achieving the heights and being the best, grieves for the loss of her musical instrument and of her art. She seeks comfort in mementos of her past glory. Toward the end of the story we learn from a knowledgeable critic that Reggie had been a brilliant performer with a voice like Pavarotti’s but we are already aware of his having sacrificed career to the value he placed on living a full, principled personal life. At one point, as Jean and Reggie are working through their past together, he brings out a written statement on the nature of art he keeps with him and she reads it aloud. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the words sufficiently to reflect on them.

I watched the movie a second time, listening to and following Dustin Hoffman’s engaging, informative commentary. He meant for the movie to be the story of conflict and love between Jean and Reggie. He used his art and emotional intelligence to show the two overcoming past errors and continuing to learn and adapt and find meaning in an accepting and loving relationship.



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indonesia mapIndonesia was different for me from other countries where I had worked, and different also because in Indonesia I was in my empty-nest years, no longer a mother and wife keeping house and managing an active family social life while teaching part-time at the university or engaged in a research project. This had been my lifestyle in the U.S., in Somalia for two years , in Turkey for four years — mother, sometime home-school teacher, wife, housewife and part-time professional working in the environment that was also our home. In India I did not keep house but we did stay for extended periods of time in the homes of Ravi’s extended family; things Indian were woven into our lives. Then the children were off to school and I went to Indonesia as a full-time consultant, a place and culture unconnected in any way to my past or present. For thirteen years, from 1978 to 1991, I did consultancies there for health care programs, each time with a different international organization. Flying in from Ravi’s and my Paris apartment, I arrived in the Jakarta airport (clove scented cigarette smoke in the air) to be officially met and driven to the organization’s office that would be my base and from where I would go to meet my Indonesian colleagues, the persons who shaped much of what I saw and learned about their people and their land.

Fortunately, I liked my colleagues, enjoyed being with them, and will write about that, but first must make sense of the hundred or so photographs of Indonesia scattered over my desk. I rarely carried a camera when traveling; Ravi did that for us, but for my six months long consultancy across Java, Madura, Bali, Sulawesi (known also as Celebes) and Sumatra, probably because Ravi insisted on it, in the Singapore airport stopover I bought a camera and film. It also happened that my interpreter/assistant, Loung Ie, liked taking pictures and I went along with it. He took on the responsibility of getting the film developed for us. Unfortunately, I failed to write information on the back of most of the photographs, so now sit here, going through them, some of me sitting with people in a meeting, others standing with people at a vehicle, others walking with people along a road, trying to remember who they are, where we are. I’ll figure it out, even though I spent only two or three days in each village, then had to move on. I have my fieldnotes and the report I wrote and am matching photos to activities. These were fine people and we were doing good work together, which is the reason I wanted a photo memento of each occasion.

Usually, to get to a particular village I was scheduled to visit Loung Ie and I stayed in the District town hotel or government facility and commuted by government vehicle. On occasion, however, a village family could host us, and such a time was where we took these photos. It was in South Sulawesi, north of Makassar, in the rural area of what had been the Makassar Kingdom and other urban centers the Dutch encountered and also photographed. The village headman and his family took us into their home for two nights and helped me during the daytime with my interviewing.

I have to remind myself that the international organization and/or the Ministry of Health street scene from the villagesent me into a village to observe its health care program, not to analyze the people’s social system and economy. Nevertheless, knowing a little background information helps. As the street scene indicates, this village was relatively prosperous. In other villages, houses were built with more bamboo and less wood, and as I have in other photographs, not many villages had so many houses so neatly surrounded with a fence. I talked with the teachers, so knew the village had a primary school, and I heard that besides rice the villagers grew a cash crop, tobacco. Like villages generally in Indonesia in those years, it did not have electricity. Water was from traditional shallow wells.

Indonesia plowing field in bangkalan 2014Indonesia rice cultivation bangkalan maduraI did not walk out into the fields around the houses but think these photographs of rice farming taken in Madura, off Java, but would be similar to the way the people of Sulawesi farmed.

with the health care program volunteers

with the health care program volunteers

under the houseI can attest to the house being a pleasant space for spending time and for sleeping. The gentleman is relaxing under his house in the morning. The girl is sitting on a ramp that leads to the kitchen area attached to the rectangular of the house itself. The entire structure rests on pillars and can be, and on occasion is, picked up and moved elsewhere by as many men as there are pillars. The form and traditional materials of the structure are in a graceful balance, ideal for the climate. The use of wood and glass presents an updated version of the traditional house.

the district health centerNaturally, I met with the doctor and staff at the District Health Center and recalling all this has me thinking again of how difficult, with even the best practices and intentions, it is to remain healthy in the tropics without the aid of modern technologies. The continual heat allows insects and other disease vectors to breed and grow at rates unimaginable in a temperate climate where a winter freeze keeps much of that in check. And water – In the rather rainy U.S. state where I live, the average rainfall for most months is between 80 and 90mm, 10mm or so higher in March and in August. In Makassar monthly rainfall is near or over 200mm, a bit below 150mm in Sept and Oct. Think of the consequences for malaria and for water carrying parasites. Sanitation is a continual problem. People defecate on the soil where they also walk barefooted, being exposed to intestinal parasites and diarrheal infections. In cold climates people wears shoes, and have since at least the Iron Age, more than three millennia ago. For Indonesia’s preventive health program volunteers promoted the digging and lining of a pit called comberan for disposing of household trash and the digging and construction of pit toilets for sanitation. In America, when I was a child, many, maybe most, rural households had an outhouse, a deep pit under a small one room structure built of wood with toilet seats and a door to close for privacy. As for household trash, before the era of plastics, it was thrown somewhere away from the house and composted into the soil. In the Indonesian villages, floods or heavy rain frequently destroyed the comberan and backed up the pit toilets. Another concern for the health program was hygiene; people washed themselves but soap was expensive and not generally used. (On a later consultancy I saw women using a harsh detergent for laundry, and also for washing themselves, which I thought had to be hard on the skin.)

The headman and the teachers actively set examples for others in the village by adopting the preventive health program’s recommendations, one of which affected my stay with them. The headman had built, attached to the house, a small enclosure over a pit toilet with an important innovation: a floor level pan set in a cement slab over the pit. The pan was made of light plastic and shaped for a water seal called a gooseneck that prevented gases from rising into the enclosure. In this private space, a container of water was included for cleaning oneself and for flushing the toilet. If the price of cement is not too high, if the pit can be maintained and if water is readily available, this is an appropriate technology for a household. From what I read, it is used in parts of rural Indonesia but I find no mention of it in any other country.

Sanitation remains a huge problem in much of the world. The villagers I knew in India and Indonesia were much healthier then than they had previously been and certainly healthier than previous generations. Smallpox was eradicated and the incidence of tuberculosis, leprosy and malaria had gone down. Antibiotics were hugely important for treating infections. Access to modern medications through rural health clinics and doctors with private practices made a difference, as had, in Indonesia, the widespread acceptance of boiling the drinking water, but several basic causes of preventable diseases were still not being addressed.  I once repeated to a village headman what the District Health Center doctor had told me, that 90% or more of the children had intestinal parasites, and asked him why it did not worry people enough for them to take serious action to protect the children, such as wearing sandals, installing pit toilets and insisting on everyone using the toilets. And antihelminth medications were not expensive. The headman responded that formerly a child was a head and a big round belly with arms and legs like sticks, and now children look normal.

boys with Ascariasis (2)In two little boys I noticed the extended belly I was told is a sign of intestinal parasites but said nothing about it to anyone; it would have been inappropriate on my part, so I simply took this photograph to add to my fieldnotes. How very sad. I read that in Indonesia 37% of people in urban areas and 43% in rural areas still practice open defecation. I describe here my experience with this problem in India and wrote here of its devastating effects in India. For solutions to the problem here. For Indonesia here and here.


rice knifeI close with a photograph I took this week of my ani-ani, my one souvenir from the villages. I had seen the small tool lying discarded in a corner of the house and remarked on it, calling it by name. I am not certain how I recognized it and knew its name, maybe from having read, decades before I ever dreamed of being in Indonesia, a famous study (famous among anthropologists) of Indonesian culture. Whether from there or elsewhere, for some odd reason I knew that women harvested rice by carefully cutting the grain off the stalk with a knife called the ani-ani. My host family explained that with the new strains of rice the yield was more abundant and people were harvesting with the sickle, freeing women from their slow, frugal salvaging of every single grain. He and the family were so amused by my recognizing the ani-ani that they gave it to me. —  And nostalgia has me adding a second photo. The people I met and worked with in Indonesia were so kind and hospitable. This is a family I stayed with in Sulawesi.

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I took these snapshots to remind me of my daily life in 1963-64 as a mother and wife in a part of Mogadiscio different from Hamar Wein and the Italianate city. The pictures are of the compound and the road, and only incidentally of the house, which I described in “Tales of Mogadiscio.” It had little more than a kitchen area, two bedrooms and a bathroom with basic plumbing, plus appallingly expensive electricity that we used for two light bulbs and a tiny refrigerator. The piped-in water was brackish, so we bought drinking water from a rattling old truck on its rounds in our mahalle. It used at least half the water in its tank to keep the rusted-out radiator full and leave a trail of wet sand as it passed by.

We spent our days at home under the bougainvillea arbor in front of the house and the children played in the compound. The photo is poorly done but it shows the outside wall of louvered wood panels, painted dark green; a chair and table for sitting under the arbor; and a cotton mattress from one of our beds spread across them to air in the sun. The photo of Ravi with Azad and two Somali men shows more of the compound and the house. I explain the scene in “Tales of Mogadiscio.” The children and me on the walkway to the gate. The boy looking into the compound is standing at the driveway gate, undoubtedly more interested in the car than in the foreigners. Ravi had a tiny Fiat 600 so lacking in power that it could not climb one of the steeper hills up to our road. He drove the children to the American primary school supported by the U.S. Embassy and to all the appointments in the city for his research. He was not one, like me, for walking everywhere within walking distance.


Our house/compound was in Bondere, a district on high ground, above the city, on Nasib Bundo Steet. At the time it was a road, not a street, and I had no idea of its name. Standing across the road from our compound, near the corner with Gen. Da’ud Street, looking toward the east, I took two photographs. our compound wallFirst I caught the wall and gates of our compound, then in the second photo the entry gate of our compound wall, electricity lines, tin-roofed wattle-daub structures, a part of the compound wall and gate across from us. Our house/compound and those around us, including down along Gen. Da’ud Street, had been built by the Italians, and when they left at Somalia’s independence,1960, Somalis and foreigners moved in. The husband/father in most the families living near us was a United Nations professional. acros the road from our compoundCompared with their houses, ours was small and minimally equipped. The personnel of foreign Embassies lived in the city, the higher ranking among them in beautifully appointed houses in gardened compounds, served by Somalis trained to work with household appliances and a modern lifestyle, to drive and maintain motor vehicles. There were twenty-six Embassies in Mogadiscio, population approximately 100,000, and many additionally ran a development program. They, and international organizations, were quite a presence in the city.

Standing across the road from our compound, at Gen. Da’ud St., if I had turned my camera to the west, I could have photographed the compound wall of our friends’ house, an Indian couple, the husband with a firm exploring for oil in Somalia. I often walked over to visit Hanim, the wife, but never beyond her house. I do not recall compounds further on along the road in that direction and was totally unaware of the President’s house. I walked two or three times behind our compound to a large, multigenerational house sitting out there, all alone, to visit with the women of the household. I think they were Yemeni. Pastoral nomads came to the area from the bush, bringing goats and cows and a few camels to the Bakara market, then a bare open area.

I walked once down Nasib Bundo road to the Somali neighborhood. No one spoke to me and I did not linger. I remember only that the houses were wattle-daub and to me it looked like a village. It did have a market place where Asha, the woman who helped me keep house, bought vegetables and meat for me each morning. She was Hawiye, Abgal, the clan of the region. One day, standing at the compound gate, I watched a family walking to the village, its camel padding and swaying along soundlessly, carrying on its back all their worldly possessions. I like this photograph because at the top of the goods the camel carries is a stool, upside down. We have two like this, leather seat and wooden legs. I commented here on a stool shown in the etching of economic activity in 19th century Mogadiscio.

For our second time in Mogadiscio we lived in an ordinary modern house near the Juba hotel, near Corso Somalia. Our compound gate was opposite a mammoth printing press, a gift from Russia, that required more electricity to run than the Somali government could possibly afford. I describe this house in the book and here write in detail about the kitchen and my cooking for the family. Admittedly, as a family we were far more comfortable there than in Bondere, but for me it was not nearly as interesting. I did not bother to take snapshots of the house or the compound.



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This is the third account from my month in Kerepuram. I wrote here about the town’s doctors and the townspeople relating to them in ways similar to patient behaviors in early 19th century England, as shown in the movie “Middlemarch,” and here about Swamiji, a well-known Vaidhya, and his ashram.

It was 1983 and I was in my Empty Nest years (explained here), in the fifth year of having worked in a good number of preventive and primary health care programs, beginning in the U.S. with a preventive/primary care program for children, then off to Paris in 1976 to set up a home for Ravi and me. Beginning in 1978, I was doing consultancies in Turkey and in Indonesia, evaluating clinics being established by the governments to provide primary health care services for people in rural areas of the country. 83673316-SLD-001-0016I had not yet found an opportunity to work in India. So, being comfortably situated in the home of Ravi’s lovely aunt and having free time, I did what came naturally to me– an anthropological study of people, of the health care services available to them and how they used and perceived the services. I published articles from the study in academic journals, which was nice and looked good on my résumé. I wish, though, I could have done something useful to alleviate at least some of the illness I saw in the children and the women. Two years ago I wrote about a huge source of health problem, here.

While in Kerepuram, I learned most from Dr. Mohan about the specific illnesses that children presented with to the doctor. His examination room had a hot plate for boiling water, a sink, medications on a shelf. No refrigerator. This is from my fieldnotes:

Many people in the neighborhood got their water from a tank, a stepwell, and from the water they got roundworms. They also had hookworm. (from eggs excreted in feces onto the soil. The eggs become larvae that penetrate the skin of anyone walking barefoot. And even rubber sandals were expensive for families in the neighborhood.) Dr. Mohan diagnosed from symptoms — reduced appetite, diarrhea, stomach ache. Patients did not expect to pay for the consultation, for mere words, so he prescribed an anthelmintic medication, for which he charged 2½ rupees. (Paying the doctor is covered in the first of these three accounts.)

83673316-SLD-001-0021One morning in Dr. Mohan’s clinic — Three women, each carrying a baby. One of the babies already had roundworms. (All the babies wore charms for which the mother had paid 7 or 8 rupees at a popular religious shrine. ) One man looked as if he had a bad cold (Doctors said upper respiratory tract illnesses were common). Two men came in with injuries from an ax while cutting wood. (Women cooked over small wood-burning stoves.) An old woman brought in a vomiting baby. A pharmaceutical representative came. A girl was suffering from a high fever; Dr. Mohan gave her an injection. (I assume the injection was an antibiotic.) He told people they should treat fever early with aspirin at home but none did. He saw TB at least once a week. When deciding on treatment, especially for the men, Dr. Mohan took into account how little they earned, about 10 to 12 rupees a day, barely enough for food, and could not miss a day of work.

I had my snapshots of the neighborhood made into slides for presentation at a conference. They are unprofessional and on my computer have this red tint. I’ll redo them but want to show pictures now of the people and how they lived.

Shakuntala and the neighborhood children

Shakuntala and the neighborhood children

I read my fieldnotes and remember the people with whom I spent my days. It has me in tears – kind, brilliant Dr. Hemareddy who explained things for me; conscientious, cheerful Dr. Mohan from whom I learned so much; pretty, bright Shakuntala and her child; 83673316-SLD-001-0020poor, brave Savamma; dedicated, hard-working Dr. Kamla and all the other doctors, and all the wonderful women who shared their experiences with me. Without Nanda as translator, fluent in English and Kannada, intelligent and tireless, I could not have done the study. I warned her at the beginning that her memory as well as my own would be important for my fieldnotes, which I wrote after lunch and again at the end of our day. She was with me as I explored the town and met people. This is the only photo I have of her. She is in the police/constables compound, dressed in the salwar-kameez worn by students.

The people I came to know best in Kerepuram lived in a neighborhood within walking distance for Nanda and me and near the District hospital with its maternal-child health (MCH) clinic, open and free to the public, and where I went often with my new friends. The neighborhood was the town’s poor colony, a squatter settlement located at the town’s border, the only one with grass houses. Older townsfolk told me that Kerepuram was changing – more houses, four cinema theatres, main roads paved four or five years ago, former villages outside the town now incorporated into the town. Villages eight or nine miles from town were growing and villagers had more money than before. The new bus service on roads between towns and into the cities enabled villagers to commute for work in a cotton mill and a copper mine in the area, and for their children to go to school in town, plus coming more frequently, besides on market day, into Kerepuram to shop, go to the doctors’ clinics and the hospital.

83673316-SLD-001-0027Residents of my neighborhood were families coming in from the villages where they had been farmers, and some brought their animals with them. Young men probably moved into town as individuals, but the people I met lived in family settings. They came first with the man as a day laborer who, if fortunate, moved up to steady work, and most valued of all, to a job in the government. I took note of housing as a quick index of social progress; it seemed to me that the type of house showed a gradation from recent arrivals to those who had been there for some years.

83673316-SLD-001-0005The first house in the neighborhood for a couple/ family would be a grass hut with an earthen, cowdung plastered floor, soon upgraded to having a thatched roof. 83673316-SLD-001-0013Next, the grass wall would be replaced with a wall of plastered mud bricks. Then a stone floor and tile roof. A room could be added. Still no piped-in water, no toilet. Water was, however, freely available at a municipality maintained water tap and women regularly filled containers there to carry it home. (I did not inquire into where people went to urinate and defecate but assume it was out beyond what had become the residential area, out near the tank, maybe in the coconut grove.) 83673316-SLD-001-002683673316-SLD-001-0009A government employee’s house being built in a part of the neighborhood with electricity and a paved street had a stone foundation, plastered brick wall, three rooms in a row, a kitchen where a chimney would be built over the wood stove for cooking, and a room with a pit toilet. But no piped-in water. 83673316-SLD-001-0010Across from Dr. Mohan’s clinic the houses of teachers, clerks, drivers and other middle level government workers were of plastered brick, hard floor, tile roof, pit toilet, piped-in water and rooms arranged into a sitting room, bedrooms, kitchen and bath. Public health research shows that water piped into the residence makes a significant improvement in the individuals’ health status. (The Indonesia program promoted an innovative, relatively inexpensive type of pit toilet for its primary health care program — covering the pit with a thin, lightweight plastic gooseneck/water seal cover set in cement. I do not read of it being used now for rural PHC programs in Indonesia or anywhere else. It made for a more acceptable indoor toilet but most villagers could not afford the cement.)

Shakuntala, always carrying her child with her, took to keeping me company whenever I came into the neighborhood. This was her only child, born in the village, delivered by her mother. I went with her to the MCH clinic when she took the boy in for injections to treat his continuing cough. Clinic services were free, and unlike the hospital, no bribes were expected. Still, she had to buy the injection. I noticed that when she spent the day with her friend, Giamma, in Giamma’s house, the boy’s cough disappeared. Giamma and her husband, both from a village, had been in the neighborhood for more than a decade, he working for a building contractor and she as the family’s servant. Over the years they upgraded their grass hut to regular walls, tile roof, and with help from their employer, a cement floor. My idea that a child’s cough might come from crawling on a cowdung floor made no sense to Shakuntala; after all, the cow is clean, a sacred animal. (The varying concepts of “clean” and “unclean” are discussed here.)

Maternal services available at the MCH clinic included first trimester abortions, contraceptive injections and sterilizations. And Dr. Kamla was kept busy providing them. I went to the Wednesday and Saturday pre- and post-natal clinics and sat on the hard bench, chatting (thru Nanda) with women from the neighborhood and in from the villages while they waited for the ANM, auxillary nurse midwife, to take them to be seen by Dr. Kamla. These women did not give birth in the hospital; that was for middle-class women in the town who went to the in-patient clinic where the seating was more comfortable, the waiting not so long, and most likely added a bit to the doctors’ and the hospital staff’s income. In the MCH clinic I also watched the hijra, member of an ancient transgender community, come to check on boy babies to dance for at the family ceremony. Nanda was afraid of the hijras; they dressed in sari, wore make-up and jewelry like women but underneath all that looked like men.

Village women and lower income women gave birth at home, assisted by a dai, traditional birth attendant, or in the home of a government trained ANM who had set up a practice. I will write about this in another context.

Shakuntala’s husband was working irregularly for 300 rupees a month on the government electricity program, hoping for a regular job. Estimates for earnings and cost of living — In the neighborhood, one day’s food for the family (sorghum, millet, pulses, vegetables, rice was expensive) cost about 5 rupees; firewood and kerosene, 1½ rupees. (Dr. Hemareddy spent 5 rupees a day per person for his family’s food.) A haircut 1½, cinema 1½, a child’s notebook for school 1½ rupees. 83673316-SLD-001-0015Here the children’s entertainment, costing a few paise.83673316-SLD-001-0014 Taking an auto-rickshaw to the farmers’ market where food was cheaper cost 1½ rupees; everyone in the neighborhood walked. The estimate given me of the town’s median income, including income of businessmen, local level government officials and workers, was 500 to 600 rupees a month. A factory employee earned 400 rupees a month, a coolie, day laborer, 5 or 6 rupees a day; laborer in the coconut grove, 100 to 200 rupees a month. A fully middle-class house and lifestyle would cost 1000 rupees or more a month. In Bangalore, it cost at least 2000 and probably two incomes.

A household servant in Kerepuram was paid 30 to 50 rupees a month. Savamma worked in our aunt’s house. I guessed her age as middle twenties. She had four children and her husband worked irregularly as a laborer in housing construction, earning 6 or 7 rupees a day. I heard she was a sweeper woman, a Dalit, Untouchable, but not knowing India beyond visits with the family, it did not fully register with me. I was not surprised, either, by her speaking enough English to carry on a simple conversation in this English-speaking household. I was used to Ravi’s various family households having English-speaking servants and never inquired into how she had picked up enough of a vocabulary to fit in. I saw Savamma simply as a small, nice-looking, gentle, shy woman; I did not understand what being Dalit meant for her, how she lived with continual fear, anxiety, deprivation. That being difficult enough, she was pregnant again, for the eighth time.

Savamma was still only two months into the pregnancy, so I talked with her about getting an abortion, and she agreed. I knew Dr. Kamla and my way around in the MCH clinic; I would pay any additional expenses for the hospital care. Our aunt also agreed with the arrangements I was making. Savamma would not lose income while getting and recovering from the medical procedures involved. After much discussion, including Savamma having her husband’s approval, she and I went to Dr. Kamla at the MCH, and she bravely endured the pelvic examination, terrified. She agreed to an abortion and sterilization, to be performed in the hospital. The cost would be for IV fluids, penicillin, and a few items, totaling 30 rupees. If I had not been there, Dr. Kamla would have arranged for these to be free for Savamma. Dr. Kamla made an appointment for the procedures and we returned to the house.

The following day Savamma asked me to visit her home and we walked together, toward the town, to a neighborhood I had not seen before and no one had mentioned to me, as if it were invisible. On the way, she told me that all her children were boys. That was a good sign for making her abortion acceptable. The family could afford school for only two of the boys and only for the Urdu (Muslim) school because although government schools were free, there were charges for books and the Urdu school charged less. She had never gone to school, but that did not surprise me; neither had Shakuntala or Giamma or most of the women in their neighborhood.

When we arrived at Savamma’s home I was take aback. There were no grass huts, but the small apartment-like dwellings were worse; they were in terrible condition. The place was fly infested. Everything looked poorer than in Shakuntala’s neighborhood. The people were dirty, unlike even the poorest people in the neighborhood of migrants from the villages. (I did not see a municipal water tap.) And the children looked extremely malnourished. Adults carried the mark of poverty; women growing up small and men growing up gaunt. Savamma put down a mat in front of her house and we sat there while women came to watch us. Two of the women, each with ten children, said they had undergone sterilization at the hospital and Dr. Kamla had given each 100 rupees for it. The government rewarded doctors for doing sterilizations and Dr. Kamla had passed at least some of the money on to the women.

As we sat there, Savamma signaled to an older boy to go and bring tea for me. (This is not from my notes. It was seared into my memory.) The boy brought the glass of sweet, milky tea and as she handed it to me, my eye caught the way two of her boys were reacting, startled and excited. I sat for a moment, holding the glass, then told her I had already had so much tea that day, would she mind if I passed this on to someone. Almost before she could respond I handed it to the older boy and he and his brother sank into utter bliss as they slowly shared this rare treat of an ordinary glass of tea.

On the day of Savamma’s appointment I was ready to accompany her to the hospital, but she came to the house dressed in what must have been her sari for special occasions, which puzzled me. She seemed dressed to please someone instead of for a medical appointment. She had come ready to tell me she could not have the abortion. Her mother-in-law, who lived with them, had informed Savamma’s husband that since she already had four grandsons she wanted to have a granddaughter. Savamma was to have another child. I fumed and fussed, probably shouted at Savamma to keep her appointment, but there was nothing she could do. Docile and depressed, she changed into her usual dress and went about doing her daily chores in the house.

83673316-SLD-001-0006I have no photograph of Savamma but remember her well, as I remember Shakuntala and Nanda and the doctors and all those good people in Kerepuram.


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I was sorting through a box of family photos and found this photograph, wondered for a moment what in the world it could be, then remembered when and why I took it. A chain of memories followed. First, an explanation of the picture.


I took the photograph from the living room of our apartment on the Place du Panthéon in Paris. The Place, and how we came to live there, is described here and a picture of Ravi and me in the living room is here.

Panthéonhenge areal view

The Lycée Henri IV, a famous Paris high school, is shown in the lower center of the aerial photograph, behind the Panthéon.  It’s the four-story buildings set around three courts, a paved area for sports, and a large garden on rue Clotilde. Our apartment building is across from the Panthéon, on the corner with the cars in front, seven stories high and rooms under the Mansard roof. There were two apartments on each floor and ours was along rue Clotilde, not on the Place. We lived in the sky, on the top floor of a building on high ground, the Montagne Ste.Geneviève, with a view over the Lycée garden and the rooftops of Paris. The sounds most often heard were of children playing, not of traffic circling the Panthéon. The windows of our living and dining rooms were glass doors opening onto narrow balconies. In summer at sunset the light was magical.

The Panthéon faces onto rue Soufflot and opens to the west, as does the church, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, alongside the Lycée, across rue Clovis. The Lycée’s tower was inherited from the Abbey of Ste. Geneviève that originally stood on that royal ground. For my photograph, I pointed the camera toward the northeast, to the horizon, including the Lycée’s dormer windows and chimneys plus a nearby large building in the foreground and Paris in the distance.

It took some thought deciding on the date of my strange photo. I remember the circumstances and believe it happened in early July, 1990. A friend and his wife were staying with us so they could honeymoon in Paris, and hence a camera in the living room; they were continually taking pictures. We were standing at the window in the late afternoon, admiring the view and I was telling them that in the previous summer at about this time, at sunset, I had seen a building on the horizon struck by the sun, as if set on fire, and pointed to the area where I thought it had been. Suddenly, as I spoke, the fire blazed again, an explosion of light, and I caught the image before it faded into a glow.

I recalled an article in The New Yorker magazine about an incident in the same genus as mine and located it in the March 30, 2009 issue, p. 23. Trevor MacDermid of Brooklyn described what he called his celestial occurrence, a patch of light that came briefly through a window onto his bathroom wall at about 6:00 p.m., and again the following year on the same day, at the same time. It happened at the vernal, spring equinox. He introduced his readers, at least this reader, to the grander and more public celestial occurrences to be observed in New York City and in other cities with streets laid out in a grid.

ManhattanhengeThe most dramatic has to Manhattanhenge, referring to Stonehenge in England and the massive stones arranged to align with the sun on the solstices, June 21 and December 21. In Manhattan, east-west streets lead to a clear view over the river to the horizon but their alignment is slightly off a true east-west for viewing the summer solstice setting sun. Instead, the ball of the sun descending on the horizon is best seen, to spectacular effect, when looking down the high-rise canyon on May 30th and July 12th. 

Chicago streets are laid out north-south/east-west. At the equinoxes, on September 25 and March 20, the setting sun lines up with the grid system, a phenomenon known as Chicagohenge.

Another person fascinated with solstices presents us with wonderful photographs here of sites that mark them in different cultures across the world.

Most of the people I know, however, are totally unaware of solstices and of equinoxes, and this, I feel, is a sad loss in our lives. For millennia knowledge of these fundamental celestial events was part of the culture. They were observed, used as a calendar indicating when to plant and to harvest and to perform ceremonies; they were deified and worshiped. In France, until the time of the Revolution, a celebration was held for St. John the Baptist on June 24th. It was a Christian ritual designed to replace the Celtic pagan Feux de la Saint-Jean celebration on the 21st, but people continued to light bonfires to the Sun on the solstice eve and pray for it to protect the crops and the harvest. And the Scandinavians have the day of the midnight sun.

Recently, since 1982, June 21 is the day for the Fête de la Musique in Paris and hundreds of other cities around the world.

Ancient vernal equinox practices that celebrate spring and renewal, such as colored eggs and the bunny rabbit, have been incorporated into the Christian Easter. The American Groundhog Day derives from a German practice related to a day between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, as described here. I can think of no ceremonies held for the fall equinox. For the winter solstice we have rituals and beliefs pre-dating Christianity that have become part of Christmas celebrations. I like this comment on it.

Whatever awareness I have now of solstices and equinoxes and the movement of the earth around the sun came to me slowly as I adapted and learned while making a home for my family in different latitudes of our planet, both at the equator and in the temperate zone, in Mogadisico, Ankara and Paris. Traveling to see the sights, or even a long stay in a foreign land to visit or to work, as I did in tropical countries, does not inform in the same way as living there, keeping house there, participating with the local people in the daily routines.

world map

I grew up in a Temperate zone, with four seasons, in Ohio and Pennsylvania (latitudes 41°N and 40°N) and moved to Wisconsin (43°N) the summer I turned seventeen. This state, further north and at edge of the Great Plains grassland, has a continental climate with long, cold, snowy winters and warm to hot summers. Ravi grew up in the Tropics, in Benares, Bangalore and Bombay. We met, married and taught at the university in Wisconsin. Both of us were city dwellers, had spent our childhoods in school and with adults whose work, interests and leisure activities had little to do with the natural world. Neither he nor I were inclined to be out in nature, hiking, camping or even going often on picnics.

From Wisconsin, Ravi and I and the children moved to Mogadiscio, to living at the equator. For him, the environment looked familiar. For me, it changed the way I saw the world. (More of that later.) Next we lived in Ankara (39.9°N) for four years. The technology and the culture were unfamiliar, but not the climate nor even the food, with some differences, all positive, like yogurt as part of the diet.  After Ankara, the children and I lived in Chicago (41.8°N), the windy city on one of the Great Lakes. Ravi went to Paris and I joined him there in 1976.

I was not prepared for Paris. In Chicago I had begun what I thought was a new career, in health care, and here I was, again setting up a new home in a new place, to be repeated three more times during our twenty years in Paris. The children were in college but often at home, along with a steady stream of visitors and friends staying with us. I worked periodically as a consultant evaluating and planning primary health care programs in developing countries. All that, not Paris or France, was on my mind. Eventually, though, I did look at a map and realized that Paris (48.8°N) is considerably further north than my previous temperate climate homes. Hmm, so that is why my houseplants were not happy during the winter months. Short days, less sunlight. (But why were the ceilings in two of our apartments so high? High ceilings are for a hot climate or a public building.) At one of Ravi’s conferences held in June, whoever organized it failed to take the summer solstice into account and Scandinavian colleagues did not show, did not think they would be expected to attend. They were busy at home celebrating the longest day and shortest night of the year. Attending a conference in Oslo (59.9°N), on the first morning I woke to the light in the window, dressed and went downstairs to find no one else around. It was 2:00 a.m.

Paris is different from southern France (Cannes 43. 5°N and a Mediterranean climate) and Parisians are different from the southern French, surely in part because of differences caused by different climates and environments. It surprised me that Cannes and Wisconsin, with very different climates, are at nearly the same latitude.

I now live in North Carolina (35.7°N), near major universities and a high-tech industrial park, at the western edge of an area bordering to the north on Virginia, in a local cultural area that is more similar to the Mid-Atlantic States than to the American South. I still feel like a Midwesterner, nostalgic for Chicago, for its great architecture and art, then I remind myself of the long, cold winter there and of the springtime here, long and warm. I have taken to gardening, to understanding the land around our house, the soil, the water, sunlight and shade, to thinking of latitude when selecting plants, considering whether each will be an annual or a perennial for me. This is our first home with air-conditioning. Summers here are hot and humid and life would be most uncomfortable without air-conditioning. High-tech industry and the new economic development would be impossible without it. In the north, cold was the barrier against residential density, urban life; our native Americans never overcame it. Replacing wood fires with coal for heating was the 19th century solution, used until fuel-oil after World War II and natural gas today. Industry was based on coal and iron ore. As a child I assumed that dirty air and the smell of burning coal was perfectly natural.

Next, a note on living at the equator and working in the tropics, where religious celebrations, Islam and Hinduism, follow a lunar rather than a solar calendar. It was a time full of surprises and much to learn. –

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For some reason, I found writing about Benares difficult and kept thinking if only Ravi were here he would help me. Fretting over my writer’s block, I went to his collection of books on India and browsed, looking for I did not know what. We had hauled these books, along with hundreds and hundreds, thousands, of others, with us from one home to another, across countries and continents. Two he had brought from India in 1951, one by Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, 1946, with the price paid, 11 rupees, and Ravi’s tiny signature on the page inside the cover, and the other The Armies of India, Painted by Major A C Lovett, Text by Major GF MacMunn DSO, London 1911, with beautifully painted pictures of soldiers and their uniforms. The surprise for me was finding Diana L. Eck’s Banaras, City of Light, 1983. Ravi had written his name inside the cover, as he always did, in the upper right-hand corner, and knowing his handwriting, I would say it was from his last years. This and the three bookmarks suggest he was reading and thinking about his past.

Eck begins Chapter 8, titled City of the Good Life, “There is a special spirit among people who call themselves Banarsis, whether they are rickshaw-pullers, merchants in the market, or old aristocracy. They call it masti (joie de vivre), mauj (delight, festivity), and phakkarpan (carefreeness). … It is the enjoyment of life without ostentation. … … It is an ambience of urbanity, good living, and culture, all of which comes to be synonymous with the word Banarsi.” Chapter 9 is titled City of Death and Liberation. In both chapters Eck elaborates on the enormously complex concepts of Hinduism and relates them to the physical Benares, to the Zones of the Sacred City.

This is daunting. I acquire information about Benares, trying to see it through Ravi’s eyes, as with the other two cities, Bangalore and Bombay, where he spent his childhood, and instead discover that Benares is not a city like other cities. Every thing, every part of Benares is suffused with meaning, symbolic of a sacred person or event in the Hindu past; Benares must be regarded, like Jerusalem and Mecca, differently from other cities. Nevertheless, I want to know how child Ravi saw Benares. He was old enough, thirteen, before the family left for Bombay to have walked in the city. Given his preferences when we traveled, he for a café to sit and read the guidebook and I for the casbah shops and oddities, I suspect the narrow streets of Benares were places he tolerated rather than enjoyed. I doubt that he went often to the ghats. His grandmother did, and participated in rituals lead by the Brahmins. Perhaps a servant accompanied her, but not Ravi. Activities in temples and on the streets did not appeal to him as an adult; they would hardly have appealed to him as a teenager. He had been taught little to nothing of Hinduism in the home and his formal education took place in English medium schools. Still, Benares was an expression of his culture. He need not have believed the religious stories literally for the underlying messages to resonate with him. He occasionally said things to me I thought odd, such as telling me I should live in the moment. I thought I did but must have in a way that he felt was missing a certain indefinable something. I wonder how he would have expressed the thought in Hindi.

So, here I am, reading and thinking about Benares. I feel Ravi in the room, just out of sight. He was used to my research projects, in the States, in Somalia, in Turkey, my studying an ethnic community in another part of the city. Later, with the children grown and my doing consultancies in health care, I was off to other countries. He accepted this. He took his vacation time to come with me for a while when I worked in India, in Turkey, in the States. He could not manage to visit me in Indonesia but had hoped to travel there one day to see where I had been. I can imagine him now watching patiently while I explore Benares. This time, though, he could have explained things for me. I am feeling lonely.

What do I want to know about Benares? – A simple picture of the city – the economic base, residences, streets, markets, transportation, education. With one exception, I could find nothing about how the city was governed.

I cannot even begin to outline the history of Benares; it is too ancient and too complex. For a quick summary see.

My first thought on seeing pictures of the city ghats was that they must have resulted from long occupancy of the site. Until quite recent centuries a city, a dense urban settlement, rose through time above the level of the land around it. Were the Benares ghat steps built to reach the present high level of a city that was originally not much higher than the land at the shore of the river? And how can such an ancient city still be in that location? Ancient cities beside a river, and most began riverside, have been either lost to inundation or isolated onto dry land as the river inevitably shifted course through time.

I searched and discovered here that “… The nature and the character of the banks of the Ganga river has made the position of Varanasi so stable and enviable that it is among the few cities of the world which show little shifting in its site. The city proper is built on a high ridge of kankar (lime concretion) that forms the left bank of the Ganga for a distance of 5km, being quite above normal flood level. But it does flood. In the past there were small rivers and ponds between the Varuna and the Ganges. …” (the limestone, “kankar”, contains clay and hardens with water into cement.) The steps and the city’s present height above the river result from a combination of the site’s permanent base plus the more usual effects of a city’s long occupancy in one location. I discussed this usual process in another context, when writing about the history of Paris. See here.

Contemporary Benares

Contemporary Benares

I also wondered why Benares has no traces of a city wall from the past. (City walls fascinate me. I’ve written about this, especially for Paris, here.) Many Indian cities had forts and were walled. In the 1840s, James Kennedy, a minister of the London Missionary Society based in the cantonment, lived in Benares and traveled in the countryside with his family, mostly as a diversion, as something interesting for them to do. He noted that farmers in the area surrounded their villages with tamped earth walls for protection against thieves and bands of armed men. (I prefer “tamped earth wall” to “mud wall,” his phrase, because tamped earth realistically represents the process of building and maintaining a wall.) Ancient Benares, capital of the mighty Kashi kingdom in the 8th to the 6th centuries BCE, was, according to legend, surrounded by a wall. The city sat high above the rivers, on the Raj Ghat Plateau where the Varana River flows into the Ganges. Archeological excavations there revealed evidence of a 9th century BCE city wall. By the end of the 12th century CE, Muslim invaders had destroyed all traces of a wall. However, the Raj Ghat plateau is known as the Raj Ghat Fort because at the time of the Indian Rebellion in 1857 it was, indeed, heavily fortified. Today’s walled Ramnagar Fort across the Ganges is the Maharaja’s residence.

Beginning in the 1200s, armies of the Delhi-based Muslim Sultanates periodically razed Benares. Its temples were destroyed and mosques were built. Emperor Akbar and his son Jahangir in the mid 1500s promoted religious harmony but under Aurangzeb (1618 -1707) Benares’ temples were definitively leveled. Quoting from City of Light: “During the 18th century, Banares had to be substantially rebuilt. The city which had sheltered the rebel Maharata hero, Shivaji, in his challenge to Mughal power, now became the recipient of the gratitude, the wealth and the energy of the Maharatas. … Temples were rebuilt and ghats were constructed. … Lakes, ponds and streams were drained. … The Deshashvamedha-Luxa road was built running west from the river toward the cantonment railway station. … The north-south artery called Chauk cleared through the business district.” The Marathata builders continued the Mughal architectural style, influenced by earlier styles from other regions of India.

Dusaswumedh Ghat by James Prinsep 1834

Dusaswumedh Ghat by James Prinsep 1834

Deshashvamedha Ghat is the main ghat.  James Prinsep  was a talented artist and architect. In his drawings he preserved much of the history of Benares and he contributed to urban planning in both Benares and Calcutta.

Bénarès Raj Ghat

The great mosque at Panchaganga Ghat, as drawn from the north near Trilochana Ghat by Captain Robert Elliot, Views in India, 1853

We have a copy of this drawing framed and hanging on the staircase wall of our house. I bought it decades ago in a Paris shop of antique maps and prints. It shows the gate across a road into Benares, and the remnants of a wall. One of the  two men standing together is armed. He is (I think) wearing a fez, carrying a shield and holding a spear, most likely a policeman or a guard at the gate. The other man has something with him. A musket? It occurred to me, because of his hat, that he might be a sailor. Is the man sitting on the seawall smoking a hookah? A woman is approaching the gate, carrying something on her head. The boats on the river — Boatsmen kept their boats nearby, at Raj Ghat, to take people up the river and ferry them across the river. Reverend Kennedy wrote that sailing the Ganges took great skill and knowledge of the river.

The Trilochana Ghat was about where the Prahlad Ghat is on the map above.

Benares in 1859, by J. Schroeder

Benares in 1859, by J. Schroeder

The drawing of British families on an outing is another view of the same road. From Rev. Kennedy’s essays I gather that British families came from Calcutta to Benares by boat to the Raj Ghat plateau, a forested and open area, and proceeded from there to the cantonment, where they lived. This part of Benares would have been most to their liking. The men at the seawall may be sailors and we see a second scantily dressed dark-skinned man.

The road has to be the Grand Trunk Road at the point where it comes to the Ganges and boats ferried traffic across to the road at the other quay. On the map above it is the Grand Trunk and Rajghat Road. I write about the Grand Trunk Road here. The railway later followed the course of the Road.

The river and boats in a festival 1880s

The river and boats in a festival 1880s

For sheer curiosity about the past – This shows Benares before the railroad replaced the river as the region’s great highway; ships and boats were the primary means for transporting goods and travelers. In pre-industrial cities, major buildings and houses of the elite were built at the river, fronting on the river. Usually, temples/churches/mosques were located in the interior, perhaps for protection. An enemy invader was certain to destroy the conquered people’s religious symbols.

Benares Panchaganga Ghat on the full moon day

I scanned in the picture Diane Eck has in her book of the Panchaganga Ghat on the full moon day of Karttika. It shows housing at the river and an enormous number of people engaged in joyful worship. In this case, “sky lamps” are hung in the evening in little wicker baskets on the tops of tall bamboo poles.

Benares archectural detail the Ganges bank here is privately owned and densely built-up; access points are fewFor more pictures of the residential architecture –The Ganges bank here is privately owned and densely built-up; access points are few.

Man Mandir Ghat Maharaja of Jaipur, Rajput architecture

Man Mandir Ghat, Maharaja of Jaipur, Rajput architecture

from the Maharaja's palace

from the Maharaja’s palace

From Rev. Kennedy’s accounts of Benares —

“Benares is a great commercial as well as religious city. If it ceased to be Hindu, we cannot suppose its commerce would be paralyzed; but as a considerable part of its ordinary trade is dependent on the thousands of pilgrims who resort to it, on the money they expend on food, on gifts to the priests, and on the purchase of articles exposed for sale, great loss would be in the first place incurred. The many artisans now employed in making images of stone and brass would find no purchasers for their goods. In addition to the pecuniary loss which directly and indirectly would fall on all classes, the whole community would feel the glory of Kasee, the Splendid City, had departed, when, stripped of its sacredness, crowds of pilgrims no longer filled its streets, frequented its temples, or bathed at its ghats.”
And —
“The city has two great squares, occupied as market-places, in which goods of every description are exhibited and sold in the Eastern fashion. They present a stirring scene of an afternoon, which is the principal time of business.” I wonder if Ravi’s mother shopped in Benares. Surely, she went to cloth market.

Rev. Kennedy gave us information from a census the British took. They counted 16,023 masonry houses, and 21,551 houses of tamped earth or sun-dried bricks. “I do not wonder at the disappointment felt by some who have been much impressed with the front view of the city, and have then traversed its streets.” He described a typical house, having a flat roof, with small, low rooms entering from one into another and a veranda extending along its front. The best houses would have a view of the river.

Continuing with Rev. Kennedy’s description — The city extended inland about a mile.

A view of the Benares rooftops

A view of the Benares rooftops

The streets behind the ghats were long and narrow, with lofty stone houses on either side. The buildings were of hewn stone and substantial. Each had a narrow doorway opening into a quadrangle around which were apartments for the inhabitants.

Jukaso Hotel, built of local stone in the traditional style

Jukaso Hotel, a quadrange in the traditional style

The streets were too narrow for a vehicle and other conveyances passed each other with difficulty. Sun did not shine into the narrower streets and lanes. Where an owner had houses on both sides of the street, a bridge at the roof level linked them.

The Thurtheree Bazar by James Prinsept

The Thurtheree Bazar by James Prinsept

Prinsep wrote: “…a street takes an oblique direction, which is indispensable, where cities are built on rivers deviating from their right line, it encounters a succession of projecting corners on either side, leaving spaces to be filled up with chubootras or raised seats; these are let out as stalls to vendors of trinkets, toys and confectionery.” The details of the buildings and people shown here are wonderful.  The man on horseback has his servant carrying a flywhisk.

At the edge of the original Benares the streets were wider and the houses more humble. (In walled pre-industrial cities, poor people lived at the wall, at a distance from the central city, away from where the elite had their houses, but close enough to serve them.) Further inland, on open fields, wealthy families had mansions, each set in a garden but surrounded by streets of the poor.

In 1822 James Prinsep took a census of Benares for the East India Company. Benares had mehales, neighborhoods, with a policing system, the Phatekbandi. Phatek means gate. Prinsep reports that in earlier times the mehale gates were closed at night. Each mehale had a watchman who knew all the houses and circumstances of each family. Additionally, a mehale chumar entered each house at night to take away the trash and waste. Prinsep counted 30,000 houses in Benares, with a population of 180,000. For Secrole and the 16 villages in its vicinity the population was 20,000. Similar castes were grouped into a corporation with a headman, a Kotwal. He kept a list of each person and arranged for gifts at the festivals they held. The city had many Brahmin subcastes and the Kotwal of each kept a list of its Brahmins for the wealthy men who gave them alms.

A city needs a water source. We see in the film Aparajito that water was piped into the building. Historically, Benares had wells, streams flowing down through city and tanks where water was stored. The urban problem was drainage, not the supply of water.

What was the Benaresi lifestyle in the 1930s and early ’40s when Ravi’s family lived in the vicinity? Hints from the past, luxury and workplace —

The Maharaja's Barge ca 1883

The Maharaja’s Barge ca 1883

Benares watchmaker and mechanic to Maharaja in house training his son 1870

Ideally, houses were built around a courtyard. Craftsmen and artisan shops were located on the ground floor, at the street, and the families, or people renting rooms, lived above the shops. It is likely that this picture of a watchmaker and mechanic training his son in 1880 differed little from such a family fifty years later, in Papji’s lifetime.

On the road to Benares in the 1920s

On the road to Benares in the 1920s

This photograph, from an interesting blog, shows a mode of transport used by peasant farmers. I have never seen this sort of heavy wheel.

The saris of Benares are famous, incomparable in their beauty and quality. They are the best known Benarsi product, but I could find no paintings or drawings of the weavers, of their looms or their surroundings. (except for the poet, Kabir, shown in a drawing with a primitive loom. Incidentally, he was born Muslim.) I found almost nothing on other crafts, either, such as the metal workers whose brass vases and lamps were so popular in Britain, and nothing on the merchants who kept the economy moving.

Benares was a major center of education and of philosophy; of Ayurveda, the traditional medicine; of yoga and astrology.

Pandit Bapudeva Sastri_(1821-1900) teaching a class of astronomy

Pandit Bapudeva Sastri_(1821-1900) teaching a class in astronomy

The Preacher by James Prinsep

The Preacher by James Prinsep

Street scene in Benares 1953, by James Burke

Street scene in Benares 1953, by James Burke

In an article in the New York Review of Books, April 9, 1998, Pankaj Mishra wrote of his four months in Benares in 1988. He stayed “… in the old quarter, in a half-derelict house owned by a Brahmin musician who gave sitar lessons to German and American students. … and … was part of a world of old Benares that was still intact in the late Eighties, and of which the chess games in the alleys, the all-night concerts in temples, the dancing girls at elaborately formal weddings, the gently decadent pleasures of betel leaves and opium formed an essential component. In less than two years, most of this solid-seeming world was to vanish into thin air. The old city was to be scarred by a rash of fast-food outlets, video-game parlors, and boutiques, the most garish symbols of the entrepreneurial energies unleashed by the liberalization of the Indian economy, which would transform Benares in the way they had transformed other sleepy small towns across India.”

This brought to mind scenes and the music and dancing in Satyajit Ray’s great movie Jalsaghar/The Music Room, set in Bengal and filmed in the mid-1950s. Ustad Bismillah Khan, a famed musician from Benares and from a long line of court musicians, is in the movie.  A review here.

Ravi’s family would have lived in one of the mansions Rev. Kennedy noted. It was outside the Old Town but part of the larger Benares. I wonder if the family servants were from the Old Town. Ravi told me that Ramsingh, the teenage boy servant the children loved, was a village boy, but we do not know that as a certainty. Next – on to the Cantonment, the other part of the larger Benares.

April 3, 2014

A note —

I discovered today online and continued reading for hours a wonderful book. It is authentic, written by a delightful individual:

Kumar, Nita. Friends, Brothers and Informants: Fieldwork Memoirs of Banaras. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6x0nb4g3/

Nita Kumar writes brilliantly of her time doing an ethnosociological study of Banaras. I recalled my own fieldwork experience and recognized in her account so many of my views. Additionally, I saw Banaras through her eyes. Her farewell to her friends, brothers and informants had me in tears.

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I was searching through old family photos today and found a small picture I had cut out of a magazine two or three decades ago. It has me feeling nostalgic. I post it now while I transition and reorient myself from thinking about Ravi and his experiences with Werner Bischof to thinking about Ravi in Benares and Sarnath and especially about Buddhism. I have long wondered why Buddhism, along with Christianity and Islam, is as one of the world’s three international religions, and now, along with learning something of India’s founding civilizations, I am arriving at a tentative answer. In the meantime, let me reflect on a small picture (and on a friend’s painting of a winter scene here.)   —

An elm-lined street, 1950s

An elm-lined street 1971

The picture is a photograph of an American street in the upper Midwestern part of the country, very much like the streets I came to know in the 1950s and early ’60s. (Susan Stanton Burke helpfully informed me that the photo is of Detroit and taken in 1971 by Jack Barger of the U.S. Forest Service) The street is in a middle-class neighborhood with wide sidewalks and lawns in front of the houses. Since cars are parked beside the house or on the street, most likely the houses were built before World War II, before many families owned a car and needed a garage or a carport. (I had originally written the photograph was from 1950, but Jerry Gosch, see Responses below, corrected me.)

I saved the picture because it is a familiar scene of tall elms lining the street.The leafy branches of each tree spread outward in an open V and those over the street met to form a cathedral arch. In the summer they gave a dappled shade and in the winter, their leaves having fallen, the sun shown through and the branches looked like lace against the sky.

American elm trees, photo by Joseph O'brian, USDA Forest Service

American elm trees, photo by Joseph O’brian, USDA Forest Service

In the 1960s the Dutch elm disease. a fungal infection spread by a beetle, struck and in a few years destroyed more than 95 per cent of the American elm trees in Eastern Canada and the United States. (See here for Barger’s photo of the Detroit street in 1984.) The American Elm nearly disappeared but is gradually being brought back through finding that one tree in a hundred thousand that tolerates the fungus and grows and produces seeds or can be cloned

Massachusetts American Elm, photographed on May 26, 2012

Massachusetts American Elm, photographed on May 26, 2012

Disease resistant elm tree cultivars have been developed. However, since the disease can spread via the intertwined roots of trees growing side by side, the city horticulturalist can no longer plant a row of stately, long-lived elm trees down the street, along the sidewalk. Oak, maple, linden and other deciduous species from abroad are possibilities, but as important to urban life as trees are, in too many cities, in too many neighborhoods, none at all are being planted to shade the streets.  I remember walking dreamily on warm summer afternoons along a column of elms under a patterned archway of dark branches and green leaves. That is gone forever.

Childe Hassam, Washington Arch with elm trees, 1893

Childe Hassam, Washington Arch with elm trees, 1893

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