India was the last and longest stop on my first journey to Asia. We boarded a small plane out of Rangoon which stopped over on what was not much more than an airstrip in the middle of nowhere, probably Western Burma. Soon after takeoff, we flew over the most extraordinary landscape, rivers in formations that looked like thousands of blood vessels that converged into a triangle that poured into the ocean. It was the Bay of Bengal.
We landed in Calcutta, my first experience of India. I had heard about Calcutta from our family pediatrician, Dr Lamy, who had his practice in an Art Deco building somewhere on the side of the Invalides. His waiting room was full of modern statues from the early part of last century, zebra skins and other objects that attract the attention of children, which meant in retrospect that he was a traveler. One night when I was burning with fever, my mother called him and he came and sat by my side. As I cooled off, I guess I wasn’t that ill, he relaxed and told us about his experiences in Calcutta, during the great famine in Bengal. My mother, Germaine and my sister Christine all gathered around my bed, listened mesmerized as he described the streets of Calcutta, explaining that people slept outside and that every morning, so many failed to rise, having died of hunger during the night, that trucks had to come by and pick up hundreds of bodies. After that, I always thought of India as Calcutta and the frightening scenes that Dr Lamy had evoked. By some twist of fate, Calcutta turned out to be the first I saw of India, the country where I was to spend most of my life.
After Shri Lanka, Burma and Thailand, which in spite of their relative poverty, exuded a relaxed charm, Calcutta was a shock. The city was vast, it’s buildings, some grand and crumbling, others, products of the 60’s, new and already worn by mildew, had a look of exhaustion. The number of people was staggering, the crowded buses, the beggars, the anguish I saw everywhere, the rawness of all this put together was of an intensity that I found hard to take in, though it evoked more fascination than revulsion.
We were taken around by a representative of my father’s Indian partners, the Firodias, and I was to discover that everywhere we went was a Bajaj or Luna man to greet us and take us around, appearing at the airport, arranging cars and hotels. This one told us a little about Calcutta, saying that there were at least twelve political murders every day. It was February, but the air was tepid, and vegetation sprouted everywhere. We had an Indian lunch in a dark restaurant and I told my father my film supply was getting low, that the twenty rolls of large format film was down to one. I still had the Leica, but had largely ignored it until then, preferring the Rolleiflex’s large format and comforting viewfinder which saved me from pointing the camera at people. My father grumbled that we should have bought film in Hong Kong, and the Representative took us to a shabby photo store where we only found 10 rolls of Agfa aged film, carefully extracted from a wooden cabinet. My father bought those and I said I needed more, so we settled for what he had, a choice between Check and Polish imported film in equally shabby packaging. This film, which was very poor in quality and the fact that I had a real problem with under exposure, resulted in my two weeks in India yielding much less that what I would have wished. There were very few personal photos, as I was trying to distance myself from the Kodak Instamatic that my mother still used, which commanded that one pose in front of each and every building. My photos were for art’s sake only, I had decided, though I did manage to dig out a few photos of my parents posing. Too few, I regretted over 30 years later.
In spite of this rough beginning, India fascinated me. Nowhere was as intense as Calcutta, and I settled into the noise, the color, the realness of what I saw around me. We did the usual tour of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur, a short jump to Kashmir, finishing with Bombay and Pune and the Ajanta and Ellora caves. I left swearing I would be back, and I was.