Getting the Stuff

All digital IndiaStarting the project took a bit of perseverance; where would I find the necessary chemicals and paper? I started by asking the local ‘photo shops’, the processing outlets where people take their films to be developed and printed. Photography is a big thing here, mostly for wedding and family pictures, which get digitally enhanced and embellished with fanciful backgrounds – all done on the latest version of Photoshop, by an army of photo artists in the cramped shop labs.

The language barrier was hampering my progress – ‘not possible’, I was told countless times, ‘digital only’! But that’s the only think I was told. In the end, Laxman suggested going to Pondicherry and ask there.

The first thing we did was to have a refreshment in the famous India Coffee House. We made for the only free seats, at a table where a lady sporting jeans – an extroardinary feat in an almost all-sari community – was already sipping a drink. We started a conversation with her above the ambient noise, and it turns out she had been to Chelsea School of Art where she had studied digital art and video…. we’d stumbled one of the very few people in India who practiced it.

Aditi, as she was called, took time to explain to us how video art is not at all understood or appreciated in India, but she belonged to a small group of artists in Cochin who exhibited in a gallery. After our conversation, back to our errand.

After asking in a few shops (‘not possible, digital only!’) we were given the address of a photo equipment supplier, which we found quite easily. The manager had part of what we wanted: good old fashioned photosensitive paper, but only 3 boxes. It was out-of-date, he told us, he’d just skipped the rest of his stock… No one wants it, it’s all digital now. He gave us one box, and told us we could buy the other two after testing this one.

Sun Photo Store
Sun Photo Store in Chennai

Now I needed chemicals. We found a supplier in Chennai, unraveling a long chain of clues… I had gone to the Canon repair centre, miles away in another district of the city, to have my digital camera fixed. Waiting there was a lady who studied photography. She gave us an address, just by our guesthouse. The address no longer existed, but we discovered that our usual hotel was right next to the photography quarter… And so, going round all the shops, we discovered the only 2 retailers still selling paper and chemicals. Right by our usual hotel.

In the Sun Photo Store, the assistant knew exactly what we wanted, and flung a green cardboard box on the counter saying ‘developer’, and a further 3 clear plastic sachets of white powder and crystals. I asked what they were. ‘This what you need’. Start again. ‘What’s this?’

We didn’t manage to find what they were, except the crystal were ‘hypo’. The developer had instructions on the side of the box. We set off round the shops again, trying to find someone who could explain what to do with the contents of the sachets. We were given a phone number to ring, but I didn’t understand a word of what I was told.

Fish Curry Joint
Job well done… We have fish curry here

Eventually, a costumer in one of the shops arranged for us to visit his photography school. It was quite far, in a leafy suburb. The school was small, situated in a private house, and modeled on the latest Western design. We were expected, and after waiting for some time, ushered in the director’s office. I placed my sachets on the huge desk, leaving a smear of white powder on the immaculate glass top. ‘Nobody does that anymore, it’s all digital now’, the director said. He seemed reluctant to say anything about the chemicals, except that the crystals were hypo. Eventually we understood that hypo was the fixative, but still no idea about dilution.

Back on the bus. I had all I needed.

Setting up the Dark Room

Setting up was easier than finding the materials. I bought some plastic trays, a red light bulb, and darkened the second bathroom – to Westerners, a cubicle with a squat toilet, a wall tap and a shower. The toilet functions as drain for all three.


There was a full door that actually shut well, and a “window” made of concrete vents. I used cardboard boxes to cover the vents, and shoved paper in the door frame gaps. I got good darkness by adding a curtain of blankets. I could only stay there a few minutes for lack of air. The table was made of a tin box placed on top of the toilet.

I had a clock outside, and started the tests.

First Attempts

Pinhole Tests

My first camera was a Cadbury chocolate tin, the old type with a tin lid, which you find in India. I made the hole in the bottom, using a darning needle. The paper was taped to the lid.

I couldn’t wait to test it, so I put paper straight in there, exposed and developed it. It worked! though the picture was “failed”, some clear lines showed.

Pinhole Tests

Then I tried and tried and tried again to get the correct mix of chemicals to water, and the correct exposure…. Set up my pinhole camera outside while I exposed contact prints. Logged it all. With so many variables, I got more and more confused.

Till suddenly, 3 weeks later, it worked!

Making Pinhole Cameras

The first camera I made was based on one of the designs I saw on the Internet. I used a Cadbury chocolate tin, which in India still have the tight fitting tin lid. It worked fine, except that once I started getting results, I realised the hole I’d made was not precise enough. So I started using a piece of black film canister as a ‘hole-piece’, taped over a 10mm hole.

I didn’t use this camera much, because of its small size, and immediately made a big test pinhole camera using a cardboard box I negotiated for at the supermarket. They don’t like giving their boxes away…

This box worked remarkably well, and I used it till it fell apart. I made another camera on the same model, and started experimenting with cylindrical cameras using tins, which produced round pictures.

I made the smallest camera out of a black film canister, which produced excellent miniatures.

The Second Dark Room

When we moved back to the ‘jungle house’, there was no bathroom I could use. We only had a shower with no door, and the toilet was outside in the woods.
By then, I had a fairly good idea of what to do, and what I needed.

The dark room in the jungle house So I set up in the brick-and-mortar garden shed, which I shared with a fairly un-wild brown rat. The rat would walk off as in a huff when I walked in, and gnaw at the cardboard I’d placed over her favourite vents overnight and tear them down. I would replace them in the morning. In the end we came to a compromise where I took the cardboard down after use. The ants made damp piles of sand on the floor, so I had to store my cameras on higher shelves – the ones the rat didn’t use. I brought the water I needed for rinsing and diluting chemicals in a bucket.

Darkening the door, corrugated with big gaps top and bottom, was more of a problem. I couldn’t fix nails anywhere. I did manage to jam cardboard on sticks, and hang blankets somehow, and hook the door closed with bits of string.

But it worked fine, as long as I only used the darkroom when the sun didn’t shine on the door. I couldn’t prevent it to seep through the corrugated gaps.

I’m Back

It’s been two weeks now and I saying I’m back, even after 2 weeks, is an approximation of what I would normally have considered “being back”.
It feels like it’s time to draw some kind of conclusion, no matter how hazy and temporary. And what for? Maybe because all good stories have an ending! It feels impossible though.

I remember posting in December that I was going to use this trip as a gateway, because lots of endings were near – important relationships, one very close, my home, and, as I found later, my work too, were suddenly ending in their current form. It felt as though my trip to India was going to act like a sieve, filtering the old from the relevant at this point in my life voyage.

It was exactly like that.

But I’m not quite sure what the filter was made of, and what philter it contained… Do you use the word philter in English? It may be better known in French: philtre.
The sieve added so much. Or maybe, it’s my personal sieve that’s morphed, lets the universe in differently. Whatever it lets in, it feels ok, and it doesn’t need so many epithets all the time, like it used to.

Everything is still here, in some form or other, everything is the same – not at all rosey, it just looks so different. Adventure around every corner. Still walking around Arunachala daily, Laxman commented… “It sounds life is keeping you amused while you are seeing with new eyes; shivas eyes?”
Could well be…! I haven’t a clue. And that’s ok.

Chennai Airport

I’m killing time trying not to fall asleep in front of this computer, waiting for my night flight.

How different it looks from the first time… when I arrived, it looked rather exotically shabby, and now, it looks very luxurious. Hm…. I’m expecting an even greater culture shock a the other end!

I got here by bus. It’s a 5 hour journey in a jam-packed bus, rucksack jammed between my legs, squeezed on a bench with 2 women and a kid and more bags. But it’s ok, it’s always like that, and it’s quite friendly.

Usually when the bus reaches a town, merchants pass the buses calling out with their wares, sweets, bowls of fruits, samosas… The lady next to me decides to buy some fruits. I’m by the window, so I reach out for the stainless steel bowl and pass it to her. She tips the fruit into a plastic bag that start to rip, I pass the bowl back out, then she passes me 50RP, which I pass out of the window…. by then the bus has started off again. The seller starts running along the bus. She doesn’t want 50RP. The lady doesn’t have change, there’s a bit of confusion, she starts picking up the ripped bag to pass it back, but by now, we’re speeding up down the main road and the seller has disappeard out of sight, leaving the fruit on the lady’s lap…. Someone passes a few bank notes to me from behind, which I pass to the lady next to me. She passes money back. It turns out somone at the back of the bus had paid for the fruit, and was passing some change in exchange for the bank note.

Off we ride.

We reach the coast road, an impressive dual carriageway, which we take the wrong side, driving towards the would-be on-coming traffic.
A few miles down, we grind to a halt. Traffic jam. There seem to be a political rally ahead, in prevision of the coming elections. Men get off to pee.

At the next junction, a policeman gets us to cross back to the other side of the dual carriageway, but not to join it: with his long stick, he motions the driver off the road onto a single lane road. A whole convoy is diverted that way, going deeper into the countryside, villagers watching and kids cheering every vehicles that passes through their village. I assume the main road was blocked for the rally, and we have to go another way.

The long column stops in the middle of nowhere. Some trucks have taken the wrong turn, and are backing their lorry to take the other direction. Passengers get on and off the bus, commenting, stretching…

Suddenly it’s dark, and there’s only one lorry ahead. Again we stop. This time it’s a level crossing. The driver gets out again, there’s some discussion. Kids arrive to sell us tea. People stretch their legs. And we’re off, and soon back onto the main road.

Amazingly, I think the bus is more or less on time.
I’m dropped off outside the airport, just need to cross a ditch, a car park, and I’m there.

I’m leaving India. I think I want to cry, but I’m still too overwhelmed to think about that.

Full Moon in Tiruvannamalai

Every full moon, pilgrims come in their thousands – between 20’000 and 100′ooo that is, according to what I heard – to walk around the mountain.

So it was full of anticipation that we boarded the bus back to Tiruvannamalai on Sunday, ready for the small big event – the biggest festival being held in December.

I started the week by bumping into my ‘old’ friend William with whom I’d arrived here the first time. He’d gone somewhere and had just come back. It’s like that here, you keep bumping into the same people.

So later that day we went swimming in the lake and walked around the mountain, and bumped into Laxman again. We decide to visit him in his new house the next morning, the other side of the mountain, and go swimming nearby.

And that’s how the full moon started, walking half way round the mountain already, to find a wonderful little house hidden in a clump of trees, behind a quarry.
Some of the quarries are full of the most wonderful green water. More arrive, and later we set off to do the full moon walk.

It starts relatively quietly, as it’s still daylight.
By the time we’re half way round, back in town – our normal starting point – the place is heaving. The traffic is diverted, buses can’t enter town anymore.
The best way to describe it is a river of people, peaceful, just walking all in the same direction. Most of them are bare foot, so there is no sound but the soft patting of feet on the tarmac and a little talking.

4 lifts to the main road

After one night in Pondy, 3 nights in a thatched hut on stilts, overlooking the ocean. This is Auroville Beach.
It’s an interesting version of paradise marred with apartheid. We’re staying in a locked, guarded compound on the edge of the beach. Don’t imagine barbwire and watch towers though: the hedge is azaleas in full bloom, the lock a number bike lock and the guard dog a great daft pup who digs himself little nests in the damp sand under a hut and sleeps there belly up, legs dangling in the air….
But still, the measures are necessary for our enjoyment of paradise itself.

The beach is a working beach, with fishing going on every day. There is a section for swimming, full of white folks – more to the point, white women in bikinis. And a life guard.

It’s ok to swim elsewhere if you don’t mind some kind of interference. Offering one’s skin to the sun in that way anywhere else than in the restricted area attracts men, alone or in groups, within minutes. They sit a few meters back and to the side, and watch, and watch…. Kids, and the more daring of the men, will address you: Which country? my name? married?

They sometimes wander inside the guarded area, but never too close. Still, it’s nice not to have to swim in a sarong.

Women on the other hand, try to ignore you.

But if you wear a sari, everything changes: they will instantly talk to you, starting by commenting on the sari, then the questions: “How much (did the sari cost)? Gold (chain round my neck)? Married? Children? And sometimes, give me your necklace, or indignant comments about those women who wear things down to there and up here – all in Tamil, but the mimicking leaves no room for false interpretation.

Auroville itself is 8 km inland, off the main road. There is no bus from the “junction” with the main road, the junction being where the dirt track starts. You have to hitch hike by bike. I’m now travelling with Joy and another girl we met in Tiruvanamalai, Svenia, and again at the gate of our beach hut “guest house”, by chance.

The 3 of us get individual lifts within minutes, and here we are, Auroville Solar Kitchen. That’s where working Aurovillian get fed. I know nothing of Auroville, or Sri Aurobindo.
And we can’t get food at the kitchen, because there is no money in Auroville, and you have to stay there for a minumum of 7 days to benefit from Aurovillian services and guest account.

Fortunately Svenia knows someone here who invites us all for dinner on his account.
Later, we find the information centre, watch a video about the place, and see the Matrimandir from outside. It seems there are guests rules to get in, also.

And off to the main road again.
It took 4 lifts to get there, but all within less than a minute waiting.
One Western woman on a scooter who asked me which way to go (she was new), another on a Bullet, a local guy going back from work (I sat in amazon), telling me about his 6 month baby, but I think he meant his wife was 6 months pregnant, because he didn’t know the sex of the baby, and a school teacher who told me about the school in Auroville.

I was vaguely aprehensive to come to Auroville, thinking the people there would all be quite cliquey and unwelcoming, like in all these utopic places – the LP guide warns of how difficult it is to see anything, partly due to the spread-out geography of the place.
But I found that’s not the case. People are there to work, or on placement, and are quite happy to share what they know.

On the 3 day there, we went for a dance class in the healing centre. I think this gave me a good feel of the nature of what is going on here. A big experiment, where people create a kinder version of living and living together.

The spirulina farm was interesting. I was wearing my sari, and we got great treatment by the women there, and multiple photo opportunities….

After swim, sun and sand and coconut beach, back in Pondy now, where Joy and I are going to meet with EJ and Sophia.

Sorry ’bout that

A little bug crept in somewhere into the blog theme, so I’ve reverted it to a classic look till I have time to sort it out.