Shadow of the White Orchid

Features Issue 14 Aug, 2010
Text by Daniel B. Haber / Photo: ECS Media

Glancing at the large dining table of the cluttered uptown Manhattan apartment, I notice a funereal white orchid occupying pride of place, a curved spray of cymbidiums planted in a mound of moss, casting its shadow in the late autumnal sun. Out of curiosity, I pick up the card below which is inscribed “To Indra, With deepest sympathy for the loss of your companion. (signed) Yoko Ono Lennon.”

“That was very kind of her,” I comment,  “It seems that those who have known death and suffering are more compassionate towards others,” recollecting that I was once introduced to Yoko by Andy Warhol as “the Buddha” when I was still with the Hare Krishnas.

The New York Times obituary had dubbed Charles Henri Ford as “America’s first Surrealist poet” and one of the previous century’s famed personalities. Hailed by Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsburg, Paul Bowles and William S Burroughs, Ford was embraced by the surrealists and pop artists alike. He knew virtually everyone—every avant garde artist and writer of his period, the mid-20th century. It also stated that in his latter years, Ford’s companion had been Indra Tamang, a Nepalese whom he had met in Kathmandu in 1972.

I recalled first meeting Charles back in the spring of 1967, in my last year as an undergraduate. It was the time of the “Human Be-In” in New York’s Central Park which was part protest against the war in Vietnam and part exuberant celebration of life—riding the wave of the then popular psychedelic drugs, pot (marijuana) and LSD embraced by America’s youthful counter-culture. Timothy Leary, self-styled guru of The League for Spiritual Discovery, had exhorted America to “Turn on, tune-in and drop out,” so at the “Be-In”, virtually everyone was stoned.  Since Charles lived right across from Central Park, the people that I had come with invited me to join them at a party at Charles’ afterwards.

While Ford with his fancy apartment was hardly a drop-out, he was avant-garde, and attracted many leading literary and artistic figures such as bearded poet Allen Ginsberg who even more than high-priest Leary was America’s counter-cultural icon. Ginsberg had called Ford “an honorable member of a very ancient literary clan of old Bohemian surrealists.” I recalled going to the toilet at the same time as Ginsberg and being shy about urinating in front of him, he exhorted, “c’mon, let it flow!”

It was nearly two decades later in the 80s before I met Ford again. The turgid 60s had brought me to the Hare Krishna cult and back and forth between New York and India. Ford was then setting up an exhibition of his photos of India and Nepal and he had a Nepalese assistant—Indra.

That was the last I saw of Charles and Indra, but as I had a mutual friend of theirs who gave me their number, I had telephoned Indra once or twice on my annual trips back from Asia to New York. And after I read Ford’s obituary, I phoned Indra to offer condolences which I left on his answering machine.

There was a gap of about two weeks before he rang me back, and it was just two days before I was to fly back to Delhi after attending my own father’s funeral, so both Indra and I were still in mourning. But to my surprise, Indra said he was eager to see me and invited me over just the day before my departure.

It was one of those lovely late October, afternoons in New York, sunny, cool and crisp with the autumn leaves just starting to turn colors and falling in swirls. As I was crossing 72nd Street and Central Park West, two red double decker buses of Big Apple Tours were pausing on the corner and rubber-necking tourists peering out in the direction of Charles’ apartment building,  The Dakota. To be sure, the tour buses and groups of tourists milling on the sidewalks were not there to see Charles Henri Ford’s home. It was a far more famous denizen of the Dakota who had commanded their attention. For it was here in 1980 that the former Beatle John Lennon was shot to death by a crazed fan, and here that his equally famous widow Yoko Ono Lennon still resided. Built and named in the late 1800s when the remote Dakota territories were being added to the Union, The Dakota had become an exclusive domain of the rich and famous. Now because of the notoriety of the Lennon assassination, morbid curiosity seekers often stop and stare and try to gain entrance to the portals of its courtyard guarded by fierce looking gargoyles and portly doormen who shoo away those who have no business there.

I was shown to a small vestibule with a switchboard and a chair for visitors. Behind the desk sat a uniformed concierge with a big broad, friendly smile. He called up Indra and told me to wait.

As I waited, two other visitors came for Indra. One was an Afro-American dressed like Rastafarian musician Bob Marley, and his more straight-looking companion. They were from a downtown gallery and were carrying a bouquet of sunflowers and a bundle of invitations to Ford’s posthumous art show called “Alive and Kicking: The Collages of Charles Henri Ford” which was scheduled to open on Halloween night (October 31) 2002.

The invitation card had one of Charles’ diptych collages on it. The panel on the left had the face of a familiar man with Asian features.  I recognized it as the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who had ended his life in ritual suicide, and Indra confirmed that it was indeed Mishima, as he had been much admired by Charles. The other panel had a close-up of the head of an American eagle with a cut-out mandala superimposed.

Indra finally comes down again and ushers me inside to #103, a cluttered apartment scattered with cardboard boxes into which Indra had put Charles’ papers, books, and paintings. One box contained a series of sketches by the late Russian surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew who had been Charles’ lover for about 25 years until his death in 1957.  “I just found them,” Indra tells me, “and had them framed.” I remembered admiring one of Tchelichev’s famous canvases called “Hide and Seek” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the print of it was said to be the museum’s most popular reproduction. The walls have a number of wooden mandala-like sculptures which Indra says that Charles had commissioned Bhaktapur wood-carvers to make.

As we sit down, Indra makes me Nepali chia out of Lapsang Souchong  which gives the tea cooked a smoky taste as if cooked over wood fire, instead of a gas-burner. We sit down with our tea and I begin to informally interview him.  I can’t help noting that his sallow-complexioned face has a haggard look—perhaps from nursing his aged companion for so long, or just living in dreary New York, as opposed to sunny Nepal, and none of the exuberant joie de vivre that most Nepalese seem to have in their own country.  But like his compatriates, Indra still seems curiously interested in meeting other people. He asks if we have any mutual friends in Kathmandu, and we do have a few.

Indra says he and Charles were also friends with Desmond Doig, the author of “My Kind of Kathmandu”. I  had also once met in Tangier the late expatriate composer/writer Paul Bowles who had also been a friend of Charles.

First of all I ask how he and Charles met.  “We first met in 1972 in Kathmandu,”  Indra tells me, as he sips his tea. “I was about 18 or 19 and already married . I had come from a village near Dakshinkali and I was working at the Panorama Hotel in Khichapokhari, near the old American Library on New Road. Later Charles and I moved from the Panorama Hotel into a house in Gyaneshwor, a two-story Rana house with a corrugated tin roof.

We rent out some rooms to one foreigner, Dennis Ramsey.  Charles also rented a room in Bouddha and rode a bicycle there from Gyaneshwor.”

“I had always wanted to go to America, but I had only heard about it and Charles offered me a job.  He took me to the American Embassy—there were no lines in those days. He told them, ‘I am taking Indra with mto America’ and they gave me a visa just like that.”

As Charles was a famous writer, having co-authored with Parker Tyler in 1933 what is credited to be the first gay novel in English “The Young and Evil” (at the time banned in the USA), Indra asks me if I’d read any of Charles’ writings, and I had to admit that I hadn’t.  Knowing my Hare Krishna background, Indra tells me that “in 1979, Charles wrote a book of poems titled “Om Krishna” which attracted the attention of the Hare Krishnas and someone from the Krishnas in New York called up.”

I tell him that it was me, as I remembered attending a gallery event of Charles’. It must have been the “Om Krishna” poetry reading in which he had also displayed his photos. I too had been intrigued by “Gopala the Cerulean”, as Charles wrote, the cowherd youth who“resembles Kamadeva the god of love.”

Indra had only applied for his green card in 1988 and then couldn’t travel for ten years, only returning to Nepal in 1998.  Asked if he misses Nepal, he replies,

“Nepal is so far away.  I like wherever I am right now.” Unlike his friend Reepak Shakya whom Charles had also brought over but couldn’t adjust, Indra says that he never felt overwhelmed by New York.

Before I leave, Indra presents me with two of Charles’ books, “The Young and Evil”, reprinted in 1996—which he says is an unauthorized edition of a copy taken from the New York Public Library and “Water from a Bucket” frank diaries of Ford’s life (1948-1957) with Tchelitchew.  I suggest that Indra should write his own story with Charles and he confesses that his English is not that good, never having had a formal education.  I offer to edit, if he dictates.

On the long flight back to Delhi I am happy to have those two books to read.  However “The Young and Evil” turns out to be dated and without any discernible plot or narrative making it unreadably sophomoric except for the fascinating biographical introduction.  However, “Water from a Bucket” is as one reviewer put it “a compulsively-readable diary for its gossip” and a seamless blend of the dreams and private, often erotic musings on life, art and literature by one of the 20th century’s last surrealists.

Two weeks later back in Kathmandu, at a birthday dinner for a mutual friend, and I’m introduced to Dennis, the denizen of Charles Henri Ford’s old house and after a few days am invited over for coffee.  Set in a once secluded cul-de-sac of Gyaneshwor, like other Rana-era buildings, the house exudes a certain mystique of exoticism and decadence reflecting the hothouse atmosphere of its previous orchidaceous occupant.  Outside, the slatted shutters cast ribs of expressionistic shadows on the white stucco walls.

Pasted on one of the doors, there is a tantric drawing with Tibetan mantras surrounding a devilish figure being devoured by scorpions, and I had recalled reading an incident where Ford had once crushed a scorpion in Tangier.

Once known as “Dangerous Dennis” for his wild partying, American photographer Dennis Ramsey, had met Ford’s on his frequent sojourns in Kathmandu—Ford also had homes in Crete, Paris and New York. And later in the 1980s he was approached by Indra’s brother Saroj, who also lives on the property, if he’d like to rent Charles’ rooms upstairs.

Dennis gives us a tour of the damp house which could be a farm house on the Mediterranean somewhere. After snapping some photos, I drop my camera on the concrete floor and its black plastic body shatters like a mirror. Later, my companion’s digital camera also malfunctions so we’re left to wonder if we aren’t being jinxed by some ghost.