You Can’t Go Home Again … ... Maybe
Arriving back in New York from Kolkata left me with a strange sensation. I felt disoriented and disconnected. I had returned to familiar grounds, but I was neither home, nor away from home. True, I was not facing the same challenges as the scores of engineers and scientists from Bengal. They had to struggle through their early years in a new land, living out of the cramped quarters of the Clinton Arms Hotel on the Upper West Side. As a news photographer in the Big Apple, I had been a part of every exciting beat in the city. Several years earlier, the staff at CBS Television had given me a warm goodbye party on the threshold of my return to India. Sure as heck, I did not want to go back to CBS and ask for my old job. That would be accepting a kind of defeat.
I picked myself up by my bootstraps and accepted a job as a still life ‘product’ photographer. We were way past the days of glamour fashion photography. This was the ‘catalogues’ era of Spiegel, Banana Republic, and Victoria’s Secret. In a large, old, and dark warehouse on the lower West Side, a dozen photographers set up pieces of costume jewelry, household products and sundry items on light tables and churned out pictures through old time view cameras.
They must have liked my work. Out of the blue, the manager, Jeff Goldberg called me to his office.
“Here, India Boy. This one is for you.”
Jeff handed me a business card. The address for the client was 47th street and Fifth Avenue. I packed up my camera and lights and went uptown to do a shoot.
The product was not a costume jewelry item. The Mehta family were the leading diamond merchants from India. Laid out on the small table was a diamond and sapphire necklace, worth close to a million dollars.
The client must have been quite surprised to meet an Indian photographer working in Manhattan. They took a great interest to know how I had come into this profession. Hearing that I had attended film school and had worked as a photographer for CBS Television, they invited me to their temple in New Jersey.
I was certainly not prepared for what I saw.
Spread out over a hundred acres on the outskirts of Blairstown, NJ, the Jain faithful were in the process of making a place of pilgrimage (tirth) called Siddhachalam. Ushered by their leader Sushil Muniji, they had found a spiritual home in the US, replicating Shikharji in the Parashnath Hills of Jharkhand. The Jains had bought properties around Blairstown, creating a community they planned to retire to in their old age.
I was met by Sushil Muniji and several of the elders of the community. They were very clear and direct in their approach. Would I consider making a documentary of the inauguration of their beloved ‘tirth’ that was to be held shortly?
I agreed to do their documentary. They had already made out a contract, stating my fees, duties, and obligations. They meant business!
The Jains are total pacifists, even to the point of not owning businesses that use heavy, (mechanical) machinery. They are traders and bankers. They are reportedly the richest community in the world.
I had to start somewhere so I used my American Express card to buy a Hi-8 video camera that I felt could handle the job. I had not been able to make films in Kolkata, but I would not let that experience stop me now.
I showed up with my camera on my shoulder. Basant Ruia, one the deacons of Siddhachalam, met me and asked, “Where is your Babu?”
“Excuse me?” I responded, unsure of what he meant.
“Sata Jeet Babu, the director. Where is he?”
Told the truth, Basant Ruia was aghast that a film director could also be a laborer, carrying a camera on his shoulder!
The inauguration of Siddhachalam was a joyous occasion. Thousands of Jains in colorful costumes paraded and danced to ‘bhajans’ that blared out of the sound system. Pujas were held with all the authentic rituals performed by dozens of priests. The women of the
community had cooked a feast to feed the thousands that came.
The video footage I had shot looked exciting. Now I had to edit the documentary. I had topped off my American Express card. I was blessed with having a very dear friend, Avinash Tilak. Without question he lent me $5000 to buy a very basic analogue video editing system from Sony. Avinash saved the day!
When the documentary was premiered at Siddhachalam, the audience went wild.
Making this documentary, I was on auto mode. I had done hundreds of photo journals over the years for the television industry in the US. This audience had never seen a documentary of an Indian subject brought to screen in the slick language of the western media. Both information and entertainment were integrated seamlessly into a single product.
The documentary was broadcast by Giri Raj on the Indian Broadcasting Network. The Indian diaspora was deeply appreciative of the documentary. I believe it was shown at several community events.
The word must have spread through the grapevine. Within weeks I got an invitation to attend an inauguration of a Hindu Temple in Jamaica, Queens. I was amused by the name they had come up for themselves. The temple was called America Sevashram Sangha.
I had also been quite curious about the people who had invited me to the event. They had names likes Ramkisoon, Persaud, etc. Surely there was an Indian connection somewhere. I took my Hi-8 camera along just in case it was needed.
The building was a former synagogue. The star of David was still prominently displayed from the front façade. Inside was a totally different story.
A ‘havan’ was in progress. Puffed rice and ghee were being poured into a fire. The devotees, many of them children, knew the mantras and chanted along with the priest, Swami Vidyananda, “Om suryo jyotir jyotih suryah, ….. swaha.
I was moved by the devotion of the congregation. It was easy to capture on video the emotional intensity in the room.
A small group gathered to look at the raw footage at Ramkisoon’s office on Parson Boulevard. At the end of the screening, I saw a few misty eyes around the room. Seeing themselves on screen allowed the small group to feel authenticated in a life of extreme hardships. Finally, Ramkisoon approached me and asked, “Bhai Satya, will you go to Guyana and bring us back some pictures?”
I had not asked for financial remuneration for my services and did not plan to. These people took up positions in New York as janitors and night guards to make ends meet. Ramkisoon added. “I am a travel agent, and we get free tickets as bonus. I am happy to give you a two way ticket to Georgetown. We miss our home very much. Please bring us back some pictures. You can stay at the ashram in Cove and John.”
Within a couple of days of my arrival at Cove and John, a more complete story of my hosts started to unravel. In 1952, a monk from the Bharat Sevashram Sangha in Kolkata, Swami Purnananda was on tour of the West Indies. He was given a small piece of land in Guyana by a Hindu family. He made the decision to stay behind. Swami Purnananda built a modest temple and started up a school. The school brought education to the people of the surrounding area. Over the years, the school grew to be called Hindu College.
The Hindu population did well for themselves in the newly independent Guyana. However, political rivalries ended the peace. Race riots followed. Members of the democratically elected government had to flee the country. An African Guyanese dictatorship took over the country and looted its riches. A large part of the Hindu population left the country and was allowed to settle in London, Toronto and New York.
I must have been an odd fixture at Cove and John. People from all walks of life came to see me. They were the children and grandchildren of indentured servants who had been brought on sailing ships from India to work on sugar plantations by British colonists. They poured out their life stories to me. The story of the Guyanese migration struck a chord in me.
I went back to Guyana several times and travelled the country. I received permission to visit the archives at Georgetown University. I researched the history of the Indian Guyanese people, their background in Bihar and Choto Nagpur, their journey from the Calcutta Port and indentureship. Returning to New York I built a documentary and called it, ‘The Second Journey’.
I can only describe the first screening of the documentary at the Guyana Sevashram Sangha in Cove and John as a ‘Kumbha Mela’ in the New World. Thousands of people from all over Guyana came to the screening. People wept openly, hugged each other, chanting loudly, “Sita Ram, Sita Ram”. Torn from their ancestral homes in India, these people had harbored a large void in their hearts. Seeing their own story told on the screen brought them a step closer to their identity, their home.
In New York, week after week the documentary was screened at various temples. Guyanese Indians flocked to see their story on screen. I did not know at that time, ‘The Second Journey’ was the first documentary to bring to light the story of the Guyanese indentureship. The Guyana Sevashram Sangha sold over ten thousand copies of the documentary to people in the Indo Guyanese community.
There was something else I did not know.
Dr Cheddi Jagan, the last democratically elected president of Guyana took a copy of the documentary and traveled the length and breadth of Guyana with it. After nightfall, he projected The Second Journey on a large portable screen set up in the sugarcane fields.
‘The Second Journey’ brought the Indian people of Guyana together. They voted Dr Cheddi Jagan back into the office of the President!
Some of you may recall that before the age of the internet, there was Indian Broadcasting Network in New York on Sunday mornings. The owner, Giri Raj, offered me an opportunity to make mini documentaries for his station. I accepted his offer.
The community was very kind. My first clients, Ashoke Pradhan and Avtar Ganju, agents of the Mutual of New York, were so happy with my work, they bought me a high end Super 8 camera for $10,000. The new technology of digital video and editing showed immense promise. Withing a short spell, Chandra and Sharda Bhansali of Microvision Inc. invested in the operation. Jay Ghosh of AT&T and Avinash Tilak also became shareholders and worked out the corporate details. We started Venus Media Inc. and opened our offices on Bleecker Street and Broadway in lower Manhattan!
Being a corporate CEO was an absolutely new territory to me. I had always been the T-shirt, jeans and boots kind of guy with a camera on my shoulders. Now I had become a fixture in the diaspora, receiving invitations to dozens of community events. I had become a person whose opinion was being sought by people I had never met earlier.
I had to finally put my foot down and let it be known I will only receive people from the community on Tuesday afternoons. It did not stop people from coming to Venus Media, but I could arrange a sense of order.
For the younger people, with the help of an actor Ajay Mehta, the offices of Venus Media became an actors’ studio called Indians in the American Media.
The new growth to my life demanded my personal time. I wrote short plays with Indian characters that the actors performed in workshop at the YMCA in the west side. However, I soon observed that I could not get any of my young friends to take up cinematography, sound recording or editing. They could not be persuaded to study the finer technical knowledge modern media demanded. They had come to New York for higher education and were doing well for themselves. At the same time, they were missing home! Venus Media was a place where they could express themselves emotionally through acting!
I was not always at the giving end. My new young friends were among the best and the brightest. As I became bogged down by work, one young student shared some very mature insight. She said, “A business must create goods or services that can replicate itself through labor. You are an artist; you cannot be replicated. The client wants you. You do not have a business. You have a professional practice.”
I had not thought through the corporate or business plan of Venus Media. So much of my professional life became clear to me now. I understood that I had boxed myself in. Taking a hard look at myself, I let the news agencies in town know I was available to work for them on a freelance basis.
We were at the dawn of the information age. If you can be in the center of it, it is mind boggling. With a dozen other cameramen, camerawomen and reporters, I found myself standing in the walkway in the United Nations as Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, and Queens walked toward the General Assembly. You could feel that this walkway is the center of the universe, and you are standing there watching the action unfold.
On a much-anticipated morning, President Clinton arrived to address the General Assembly. Much to my chagrin, he walked along the other side of the walkway. He chatted amicably with a reporter who had grabbed his attention. As he turned to walk away, I shouted out, “Mr. President, sir, this side.”
President Bill Clinton hesitated for a moment, put on his well rehearsed, demure smile and waved at my camera. Then he was off!
It is a moment that lasts a lifetime in a photographer’s mind. The days were often long but I was master of this domain. It was fun and paid very well.
Sometimes when I came home to my apartment in the East Village, I was drained, ready to hit the sack. However, for a news photographer, when the phone rings or the pager goes off, you have to put your tired feelings on the back burner.
It was Chris, a producer from Reuters. “Satya, I know you had a long day. I got an unconfirmed lead that a plane may have gone down in the Long Island Sound. I would like us to check it out.”
I must have been very groggy. Before I could respond, Chris added, “The car service is on the way to your place. Helen, our line producer is going with you.” Click!
The news was not widely known as the facts were not yet clear. We raced along dark country roads and dodged through police barricades at intersections. We were the first to arrive at a remote beach. A couple of hundred yards away, there was a red flare on the water lighting up the night. TWA flight 800 had gone down. Thousands of gallons of jet fuel were still burning on the waters of the Long Island Sound.
Early next morning Helen and I joined the search. A wingtip was floating somewhat vertically near the surface of the water. Slowly and bit by bit, we passed the charred bodies. The Coast Guard lifted them out carefully and put them in black plastic bags.
It was almost nightfall before I reached my tiny apartment in the East Village. I had been up for thirty-six hours and was too tired to sleep. I was just numbed by what I has seen earlier in the day.
Almost twenty-five years earlier I had attended the graduate film program at the University of Texas in Austin with the hopes becoming a film director. The University had brought in a new faculty member from Los Angeles who would be instructing us in screenplay writing. As an example of fine commercial writing that sold well in Hollywood, he gave us his work to study.
Rick Blum had penned the story of a 747 out of Kennedy Airport that caught fire on takeoff. The pilot managed to land the plane in the New York harbor. All the passengers had been rescued. As they passed the Statue of Liberty on a Coast Guard vessel, they saluted the Lady of the Harbor. They sang paeans to our great democracy that had saved their forefathers from the pogroms in Europe.
“Pure rot!” I had protested in my youthful idealism. “The 747 could not survive a fall from the skies. The passengers and crew would all perish.”
My first two words had ended my scholarship at the university. If I had to write such patronising rot to be in Hollywood, I didn’t want no part of it.
I was not a film director, at least not yet. I was a laborer with a camera on my shoulder. I held a can of Budweiser in my hands as my pictures of the inferno on the Long Island Sound kept playing over and over again on the TV screen. I took no comfort in knowing over two hundred people had perished when their 747 came down in a fireball into the dark waters of the Long Island Sound.
I had grown up admiring the archival prints of Ansel Adams. His works showed us the glory of creation. They were timeless works of art! My work was just a flicker of a cathode ray tube on the evening news. I had to settle for being immediate and relevant.
I had found a place for myself. I had found a purpose for myself. I was coming home. Maybe.
I popped open another Budweiser and stretched out on the futon.
(Posted July 1, 2023)
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