Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

Travelogue

Travelogue

The following two pieces (written for publication) recount recent travels in the desert country of northwest India — a mystifying and exotic a landscape as is possible on this planet. Divider-7Jodhpur MastheadThe following piece was published on 3 May 2015. A pdf of the published page can be downloaded here.

Jodhpur Map

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When Pratap Singh, the younger son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, took his team of seasoned Indian and British Polo players to visit Queen Victoria during her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, most English onlookers were enthralled by the skill of the players. But even more were intrigued by the unique attire worn by these strange, tanned men from half a world away.

At Ranelagh, one young Englishwoman turned to her fiancé, a cavalry officer, to ask about the curious long pants the “foreigners” sported — tapering creations with duck-like flaps along the thighs. They may have looked funny, yet the public found the pants so practical for horse-riding that Savile Row quickly popularized a British version known appropriately as “jodhpurs.”

That may have been 118 years ago, during the city’s prime, when it forged its reputation on the strength of its attire and polo laurels, but there remains something special about this dusty provincial town, hewn out of the southern sands of the Thar Desert, irrigated and made green and given enough character to proclaim its uniqueness from the rest of that great arid state known as Rajasthan.

No, it has nothing to do with the sound of a Soviet-era MiG-27 fighter-bomber roaring up into the blinding, white sky (Indian Fighter Command is based here), or the blue-coloured homes scattered throughout the city or even the vibrant beauty of the local architecture. It is something more elemental, which, in this city of 1.2 million, is impossible to gauge from mere maps thousands of kilometres away.

It is a veritable small town by Indian standards — and like any small town anywhere is reasonably friendly. I should reasonably, because not all small towns are equally friendly. A cynic could say that this is a friendliness contingent on the fatness of one’s wallet. After all, Jodhpur survives on the kindness of strangers. And certainly, many are out to make a buck. Touts and tour-guides wait everywhere. Even quaintly dressed Rajput women with their brightly patterned dupattas and embroidered blouses hasten in their step whenever firangs appear, their hands out, eager not to miss out. It is difficult to think of another place with such displays of exquisitely beautiful sadness.

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In the old market area, under the shadow of Merangarh Fort, the poverty is sometimes so glaring that I am reminded that this is still India, where the most gut-wrenching of indigence shares space with the most fabulous displays of wealth. But life is more colored than black and white. Looking beneath the sometimes shallow displays of greeting, one sees the spark and glimmer of true Rajasthani warmth, a quick cordiality and a shy, endearing pleasure, be it from a fat merchant in the old bazaar or a pretty Rajput girl waiting to use the ATM. Read more of this post

The Western Ghats

Western-Ghats

Sidetracked from my other projects by a commission to illustrate, design and edit a book on nature in India for an NGO, I spent a significant amount of time learning about issues that I normally wouldn’t have paid much attention to. The book, a 12″ x 12″ hardcover, coffee-table book, was finally completed in August 2014 and has had a limited print run.

This was an interesting project, primarily because it made me aware of the precarious situation of wilderness in India – a nation bursting at the seams with people. For anyone who thinks conservation is unimportant, I recommend a trip to the sub-continent. Certainly, I would be the last person to espouse a Malthusian philosophy, but the idea that an overabundance of people leads to moral haziness, social inequality, diminished value for human life, myriad societal problems such as rampant sexual abuse (and intriguingly, heightened value for family), can be witnessed first-hand in India – and other densely populated parts of Asia. But these observations are beyond the scope of this post.

Nevertheless, such a visit can leave one with an heightened appreciation for conservation and ecology. Was it Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau who wrote that people need to be “surrounded by green?” Absolutely right.

Many thanks to my co-editor Ian Lockwood for being such a splendid and affable person to collaborate with, and for his magic behind the lens.

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Below appears an important component of the book. This core map took a significant chunk of my time — about 120 hours of work, and used a combination of information from National Geographic, Google Earth and ultra-detailed US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency maps for reference. It covers the central area of the Western Ghats, the 1,000-mile strip of rain-forested mountains which wind down India’s western coast — a biodiversity hotspot (with species found nowhere else on Earth), under siege from a unrestrained, growing population in need of increased living space and raw materials.

Western Ghats Map (Sectional) Divider-7

Java Apple This watercolor of a cluster of Java apples (for the book) took about two hours of work, and was much a learning experience as anything else, considering that I hadn’t worked in the medium since I was eight. This was my second watercolor image for the book. The first image — of a ginger plant, is well, too embarrassing to post online.

Frame-V-Clove Frame-V-Turmeric Frame-V-Basil  Frame-V-Field Mint Frame-H-Wild-Mango Frame-V-Cinnamon Frame-H-Indian Gooseberry Frame-H-Wild Egg Plant Frame-H-Bottle Gourd   Frame-H-Wild Banana Divider-7

Asked for and struck by the conundrum of trying to describe the culture of the people of the Western Ghats within the larger confines of ecology and nature, I thought a three-page foldout graphical representation was perhaps the best way. The graphic was ultimately scrapped because the idea of talking about the local culture of the western Ghats (which has several negative connotations to it), proved a distraction from the central theme of the book. All photographs © Richard Kalina, London.

Foldout(Richard)-A-v1 Foldout(Richard)-B-v1 A note on the process — The upper graphic took about 10 hours of work. The ribbons and area contours were done using Adobe Illustrator. But the rest of the image was completed using Photoshop. All photos and text were laid out in the Indesign document. 

The War in Biafra

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The following art is for a new research project, titled: The War in Biafra.

(Temporarily on hold until several other book projects are completed)

If you were a participant in the war, or were a witness in any way or form to the conflict, or happened to be in Nigeria during the critical years from 1964-70, worked for the Red Cross, the PR outfits or the churches, or even protested the conflict in the United States and Europe over continued British aid to Federalist Nigeria, or stood against the Biafrans, or simply have something to say, I am interested to hear your story. Drop me an e-mail by using the “contact me” page linked in the menu above or leave a message on this page.

All images are in medium resolution; click for larger picture.


What this is all about (a brief explanation): Look at world maps today and you will find no mention of the nation of Biafra. It has  suffered an attempt at being expunged from the consciousness of human history.

The country of Nigeria in West Africa, recently known for its e-mail scams, is at the center of this story. Essentially a British construct brought into a national identity without considering regional loyalties, Nigeria can best be identified as the unnatural union of three culturally disparate territories often at odds with each other — the largely-Muslim North, the traditionalist West and finally, the Christian East which in 1967, seven years after Nigerian Independence from Britain, christened itself as Biafra and broke from the Federation because of violent persecution. Biafra’s most numerous peoples are the Ibos, the so-called “Jews of Africa” because of their formidable intellect and perseverance but also as one historian recently argued, because of an ancient link to the tribes of Israel.

But the stunted potential of the Ibos has been written about in the past. One famous writer, Frederick Forsyth, was so committed to Biafran cause that he wrote one propagandized book on the matter and later published a bestselling novel about mercenaries who conquer a new African country for the Ibos (remember The Dogs of War?).

Nigeria, incensed by the Biafran secession, engaged in a police action which soon transformed into a full blown war, fought not only in part over oil in Biafra, but also over personal ambitions and British interests in policy and investment — reasons which gave the world its first prototypical image of the starving African child, and the combatants the ignominious honor of conducting the first modern war in Africa. It was also a war between two English-trained African armies, internationalized by mercenaries and adventurers, gun-runners, journalists, pilots, aid workers, the clergy and the World Council of Churches, who as the months wore on stepped in to aid the starving and a country.

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A Note on the Process: All art was drawn using Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator and are in the guise above for purely illustrative purposes on this site. The map, composed at 1:1,000,000 scale, took about 47 hours of work, spread over 5 days. It survived to see completion despite my working while on a three-day visit to a friend’s house at the other end of the state, in a house packed with overzealous little kids and hyperactive dogs. The version of the map posted is at medium-low resolution. (11-02-2011)

The Thin Red Line: A Second Look

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In the summer of 1998, two important American movies arrived in theaters that inadvertently triggered a renaissance of books and films on the Second World War. Both were classified as “war films,” and both were so in completely different senses of the term.

The first: After a brief, unexplained interlude at a war cemetery six decades after the war it went back in time — Long lines of landing craft plow through choppy gray seas, carrying clammy, nauseous faces straining with anticipation and fear at the ominous dark country ahead. The crafts crunch up the sable, chilly beach. The ramps drop and men are torn to pieces by a hail of machine-gun fire.

The second film preferred to be more ambiguous but soon more landing craft appeared, this time with the gray of the English Channel replaced by the blue spray of the South Pacific. Once again nervous and fearful faces occupy the screen; groups of men huddle together and pray. And as the landing crafts ground up on the beach to the sounds of Taiko drums, men scramble out, ready to confront the enemy only to find…nothing. Not a single bullet, not the whistle of one. The suspense shattered into anti-climax, the film goes on to meander, skirting art and poetry, often focusing on the rich landscape of the South Pacific instead of what it had been advertised for – warfare.

Obviously the first film is Saving Private Ryan, which went on to garner 11 Academy Award nominations of which it won five. The second is The Thin Red Line, directed by the reclusive Terence Malick, nominated for seven Academy Awards – of which it won absolutely zero. But while Private Ryan has established a reputation as a timeless masterpiece, Malick’s film, based on the James Jones classic novel of the same name,  has continued to enrage and enthrall viewers since its release.

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I saw both films within a year of each other. Private Ryan on the big screen; Thin Red Line on television. Private Ryan with its scenes of savagery and careless evil forced me to reconsider the subject of my growing expertise, the Second World War. The Thin Red Line, in contrast, filled me with contempt. Yet ten years on I find myself with a reevaluated opinion of Malick’s visually stunning, deeply enigmatic picture.

Saving Private Ryan, in short, was made by a great director, but it is not a great film. The Thin Red Line, on the other hand, is a great film made by a director “of towering reputation.” It can arguably be called the greatest war film in the history of cinema to date – If only it shed some of its distracted meandering. But those who criticize the film as a bad movie have clearly misunderstood what they have watched. I certainly misunderstood it on my first viewing. Treating combat as a necessary aside, the film is a philosophical examination of the effects of war on man – but that is not to say that the scenes of warfare are substandard. Combat when it comes is harsh and unannounced, callous but also strangely impersonal in its depiction of human beings at war.

The original novel was a sequel to Jones’ epic From Here to Eternity with a few central characters from the earlier book transposed into the second book although under different names. Malick’s focus is on one of these, the Christ-like Private Witt (brilliantly portrayed by Jim Caviezel), whose spiritual ancestor was Private Prewitt (literally pre-Witt) in From Here to Eternity.[*] Still, Witt was only a minor character in the second book compared to the others. Malick actually shot seven hours of film focusing on most of them, only to cut it down to three for theatrical release – with the deleted footage capable of supporting an entirely different version of the film – he says.

All this effort was in aid of Malick’s desire to remain faithful to Jones’ writing. But repeated consultations with the late novelist’s wife, Gloria Jones, led to a certain degree of creativity. “Terry, you have my husband’s voice,” she told him, “You’re writing in his musical key; now what you must do is improvise. Play riffs on this.”

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