I took the portrait above in the late 70s on a trip in the Himalayas. Photography was a way for me to cope with the deep homesickness I felt when I first moved to Minnesota for university. I felt isolated in a strange land and desperate to retain a connection with the country I considered home. The camera was an instrument that allowed me to ‘capture’ an idealised remembered childhood as well as sustain me while I was away. Making pictures is one of those streams that has always flowed through me. It is a part of me that has always demanded a seat at every decision making table.
To understand the ending you have to know how the story began.
Being born and growing up in India has been the single most important influence in my life. From that twist of fate has flown most of the important streams of my personality: education, philosophy, passions and career. To put in another way, an Indian childhood has been the filter through which I’ve made many of the important decisions in life.
My choices of what to study in University were based to a large extent on how easily the skills or knowledge would get me a job in India. I tried anthropology then journalism and even, bizaarely considered carpentry. Eventually, I said “Bugger it,” and signed up for South Asian languages and followed that up quickly with a MA in South Asian History. All I really knew was that if I didn’t find a way to get out of America or at least be engaged with South Asia in some capacity I’d go postal.
I knew nothing of the aid world at this point. I knew in a vague way that certain people responded to disasters like the Ethiopia famine but who they were and how they got those jobs was a mystery. Not that I gave it much thought. I had my eyes were set on an academic position at Chicago or Berkeley as the surest way to keep the connection with India alive. Starving Ethiopians were just a news item and a bad All Star pop song. Working there did not come into it.
Career was an intimidating concept. I knew I had to have one and guessed I would probably like one. But how the hell did I get one? Whenever I stared into that blank canvas of the future I felt excited but sick to my stomach at the same time.
Though career guidance was poor in my world there was absolutely no doubt that a good job, a respectable job, a job that reflected well on the family, a job that elicited proud congratulations from friends was essential to success. And if I was to retain my status and identity as a nice, well-liked boy, which I very much wanted to, then a “Good Job” was mandatory. Along with this knowledge was ‘you never turn your back on a Good Job’. Photography and other passions were, like the family dog, cute, even endearing but their rightful place was outside the house, not on the sofa.
And so as 1986 rolled into town I was pretty comfortable. I had negotiated a truce with America, could see myself as a future South Asianist academic and was ready to embark on the PhD train. My worldview had been constructed with the only intellectual and emotional tools I was familiar with: evangelicalism, loneliness and longing for India. These were all things I knew intimately. If not exactly happy, I was contentedly resigned to my world. In August I was awarded a MA in Modern Asian History.
In September my mind was blown away.