In the summer of 1986, two years before my first visit to India, I had a strange encounter with a German woman on a train bound for Greece. Without an introduction, she burst into my compartment and immediately launched into a tirade about global economics, poverty and politics. Even though a captive audience of one, I was too naive and too distracted by adventure to suppose that the world I lived in had so many troubles. After all, instant communication was but an imaginative concept of science fiction three decades ago.
As the woman’s voice faded into white noise, I focused on her ratted blond hair, weathered hands and calloused, sandaled feet. With strands of colored beads hanging around her neck and the faint smell of dust and hashish wafting with every move of her loose, long skirt, she was nothing more to me than a bohemian cliché. Included in her meager possessions were hundreds of pages and diagrams, which she shoved across the table while desperately trying to convince me that I was the person she needed to accompany her to India. Her insistence was perplexing considering she had no idea who I was or where I was going.
Knowing little more about India other than its extreme poverty and Mother Teresa, I began to imagine it as the most horrendous place on earth filled with wretched souls committed to hell and imprisoned by starvation, wars and bad karma. Of course, I thought this German lady was crazy for traveling there by herself, though I was heading to Africa alone. I couldn’t help but imagine her lost among the swarms of bodies and getting stuck, or worse, trapped there forever. After politely informing the woman of my plans, which included a trip to South Africa, she offered a brief lecture on the evils of apartheid and then disappeared. I was relieved to see her get off the train and out of my sight.
In 1988, just a month after returning from a year of traveling, I had another strange encounter—this time with an older gentleman on an elevator in an apartment building in Manhattan. I was going up and Arnold Michaelis, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, was going down. “I like your coat,” he said in passing. Those simple words ignited a friendship that eventually led me to the sub-continent, where I traveled for more than a year getting lost among the swarms of bodies… while pursuing a book on India’s children.
I was young and reckless, yet fortunate to have crossed paths with individuals who offered their support and guidance. One in particular—a cynical Indian photojournalist—cautioned me from the start: “These people were here long before you arrived and they will remain long after you’ve gone,” he said. “No matter the length of your stay, you will never be able to penetrate the depths of our culture. You may be young and sweet, but our blood is thicker than your wine.” His sage advice fell upon deaf ears, however, and I struggled to make sense of this land of degradation. When I finally surrendered, I realized I was only the messenger—sent to pick up and deliver.
I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1990 with more than a thousand 35mm slides of people and places. I also accumulated a portfolio of art and essays from Indian children who enthusiastically contributed original pieces to a slowly evolving puzzle—one which I envisioned would include the raw perceptions of an outsider, while the real India could be experienced through the eyes of its youth.
The project captured the attention of Ted Tanen, a career Foreign Service officer who was executive director of the Indo-U.S. Subcommission on Education and Culture overseeing exchanges between India and the United States. He brought the project to his close friend, Paul Gottlieb, a senior editor at Harry Abrams. As a favor, Paul allowed me to present the work while I was in New York.
Ted also secured a meeting for me with the director of the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian and mentioned the project to Jackie Onassis, who was an old friend and editor at Doubleday. She telephoned me unexpectedly one morning while I was in Minnesota beginning my yearlong bout with hepatitis, which I contracted in a remote region of the northwest Indian state of Mizoram. It was probably a good thing I was delirious with fever, otherwise I may not have had the nerve to accept her invitation to come to New York and discuss the possibility of Doubleday publishing the book, with her as editor.
During our meeting Ms. Onassis explained how her affinity with India and children’s books began long before I was born. She spoke about her younger years, before her marriage to JFK, and how she wanted to be a photojournalist. Looking down from her office window onto the busy street below, she fondly recalled one of her first assignments as a young reporter: interviewing men who worked in city manholes. She was kind and gracious, introducing me to several of her colleagues, confident this relationship would result in a beautiful art book. Three weeks later, however, I received a personal letter from her expressing disappointment that Doubleday had rejected her proposal for the book. Still, she encouraged me to find that “perfect home” for the project, quite certain the right publisher would come along.
I persevered until a children’s book publisher in Minneapolis offered me a contract. Carolrhoda Books, Inc., a division of Lerner Publishing Group, had just launched a new series titled The World’s Children. They felt my photographs would fit nicely within its context if I agreed to rewrite my original manuscript and omit the writings and artwork of the children. Though disappointed by this caveat, I was overjoyed by the offer. As I retooled the book keeping my young audience in mind, I made a deliberate decision to accentuate the positive—find the silver lining—knowing deep down that what I documented for the publisher and what I actually experienced were two different things. In fact, I was counting on the youth of India to tell the truth so I wouldn’t have to.
Regrettably, I lost touch with many of the young artists over time. But I never lost sight of the fact that the best of India remained trapped in those paintings and hand-written passages that quietly languished underneath my bed, awaiting the light of day while I was sound asleep in a kind of self-induced domestic coma for more than a decade.
When I was forcibly awakened in 2006 I found myself in the heart of an almost unrecognizable New Delhi. International hotel chains, clusters of new apartment buildings, shopping areas and a thick layer of smog now camouflaged the landmarks I once relied on to navigate from New Friends Colony to places like Chandni Chowk and the railway station. In addition to scores of new American fast-food restaurants and a generation of teens being groomed to staff off-shored U.S. call centers, Delhi had engineered a pristine underground subway system. Quite a contrast to the India I left behind in 1990. She seemed so steadfast, determined to hold the Western world at bay by conjuring up her own rendition of Coca Cola and Marlboro cigarettes. The India of the new millennium, however, had undeniably flung open its doors to foreign interests. And with the gates unlocked, the young and educated from India’s upper class seized the opportunity to study and work abroad, creating a burgeoning diaspora of tens of millions worldwide. It was clear this country that inexplicably held my heart and soul hostage was drastically reinventing itself in all outward appearances—at least in the large metropolises. In the prophetic words reiterated by 14-year-old Sanjay Ghosh, life had hurried on, and the leaves that were green turned to brown.
Back home after that brief visit, I combed through those old essays and paintings and found new resolve to bring this winding road to a complete circle. I returned to India the following summer, reuniting with old friends and reconnecting with Jigmat Norbu and Sanjay, two of the few youth with whom I stayed in touch over the years. Now young men in their early 30s, they were still engaged in the arts but in very different capacities and with disparate points of view. For better or for worse, adulthood had settled in.
Jigmat, who grew up in the remote Himalayan village of Shey in Ladakh, fulfilled his dream of becoming a fashion designer and was working in Delhi as chief of creative for the denim brand Guilty Jeans. He was happily married to a beautiful Ladakhi woman, who was also a designer and also named Jigmat. While we sat drinking whiskey and talking into the early morning hours, they confidently told me of their plans to launch a clothing label of their own one day in Shey. It wasn’t more than a couple of years before I received word they had indeed returned to their remote childhood village, their infant son Jigmat in tow, and created an eloquent couture clothing line to preserve the rich, cultural heritage of Ladakh.Sanjay, who invited me to his home in Chittaranjan Park, was still painting and living with his parents but had plans to return to academia to pursue a higher degree in art aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He talked about how little in his life had changed, how he now felt about the world and how a higher standard of living still didn’t mean a thing to him. After our three-hour lunch he presented me with an updated self-portrait: the artist at age 32.
When I returned to the states I used the power of the Internet, hoping to find traces of the young people I had met and the places I had visited. For years, I searched in vain for Himanish Das, whose work appears throughout this book. By age 15 he had mastered various techniques and conveyed a spirit in his writing and his paintings that one might strive to achieve over the course of decades, perhaps even a lifetime. It was only by chance I came across his photo in 2016, which I instantly recognized. I sent an unsolicited message to the architectural firm in London that was referenced with the image and Himanish immediately replied. He was happily married and a proud father, still painting between architectural projects in the UK. Several months later I found Bornali Datta, the 17-year-old artist from Delhi Public School who wrote the essay “It Doesn’t Touch Us.” She had followed medicine and was an MD practicing in New Delhi after spending six years in England navigating the British healthcare system. I also learned that Pooja Jagadeesh, the 13-year-old artist who wrote about and illustrated her life in Bangalore, found her passion as a graphic designer. When I contacted her through social media she vaguely remembered who I was or which paintings she had contributed. I also reached out to Deependra Dev, the South Indian artist who painted the portraits of Lord Krishna and Jesus. He had made his way into animation—no small feat for the son of an impoverished intellectual in communist Kerala. And finally, I found Tenpa Dhargyal, a Tibetan Refugee who lived in Dharamsala and wrote about life as a refugee. He made his way to Canada, where he has settled into family life and writes poetry.
I stayed in contact with Sanjay just long enough to discover he had returned to academia, the only one of the young artists I know of that continued on the path of painting, referring to his works as satirical commentaries on Indian life. Before we lost touch again he gave me one last gift: another self-portrait and his candid thoughts.
As I move forward with this project, it is my hope that this book contributes to a long lineage of historic accounts documenting the evolution of our planet’s largest democracy. Had it not been for the collective perspective—in past and present—my experiences would have been limited and shallow. To the German woman, India was a problem to be solved. To Arnold Michaelis, India was to be celebrated. To my friend the sage, it was an ethereal mystery intentionally sequestered from the uninitiated. But to the youth—and to me—India was more than the sum of all of its parts. It was life itself.