Jefe's House

On the Road

Contacting the Dead in West Bengal

by on Feb.18, 2015, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, The Truth Is In Here






A Shaheb’s Guide to India


I’ve traveled India a bunch in the past five years and have learned that almost no one in India seems to have heard of a Ouija board. I’ve also been in tons of stores ranging from rustic bazaars to gleaming shopping malls and have never seen a Ouija board for sale even though they have plenty of other Western toys and board games.

People there do, however, know what you’re talking about when you explain it, only they call it “doing planchette” and those who do it would only ever make their own. The idea of buying one seems foreign to them. Culturally, “doing planchette” seems to hold the same place as it does here: spooky, scary, forbidden, inviting doom, naughty, tempting, very real. Once I got my wife’s Hindu family elders talking about it, they recalled tons of stories that pretty much parallel the kinds of escapades you hear recalled in the US.

Her great uncle warned me against it, telling me there’s a reason God has created two separate dimensions for the living and the dead, and that to try and bridge the gap is inviting trouble. He then told me how once as a young man he and a bunch of friends were vacationing in a small shack in the jungle on a wildlife preserve (the Indian version of the “cabin in the woods” archetypal horror setting) and one evening they got bored and someone made a planchette board. They typically use a coin as the planchette. They soon were in touch with a man who said he was recently deceased. He said he was a Naxalite (Indian Marxist rebel) who had recently been killed by a rival Communist. At that moment the lights went out, engulfing them in darkness. Everybody freaked, they balled up the planchette board and threw it away and my great-uncle vowed never to do the planchette again.

He remains true to his word. I asked him if he would draw one for me exactly as they had drawn them back in the day, and he grimly said, “This is not possible.”

I dropped the subject but later that evening I approached my wife’s grandmother to ask the same question. She shrugged and said, “Why not?” I gave her a pen and a blank sheet of typing paper and she drew the following picture. As it was on the date of mine and my wife’s 5 year wedding anniversary I told her I considered it a cherished anniversary gift. I’ll never be able to use it because I don’t read Bangla (aka Bengali, the native language of West Bengal) but what you’re seeing is the Bangla alphabet across the top and the words Yes and No beneath that. The flower at bottom center is the starting place for the coin. I asked her about numbers and she said they never included them but that she could add them if I wanted. I declined, telling her I wanted it to be authentic.

So…if you’d like a genuine Bengali planchette board just print this out on a sheet of 8.5 x 11 paper. Ideally a rupee coin would do the trick but you’ll have to improvise.

Be warned: a few days later she remorsefully called to warn me not to use it, as everyone she knew who had “done planchette” regularly throughout her life had met unhappy fates. I assured her that I rarely actually use them except in my show Boneyards once in awhile and that mainly I appreciate them as art and folklore. I think that put her at ease.


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A Magical Child

by on Feb.07, 2015, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe






A Shaheb’s Guide to India

shaheb – (India; also saheb, sahib; from the Hindi and Urdu sāhab, master; from Arabic ṣāḥib, companion; participle of ṣaḥiba, to become friends) 
1. formerly, a term of respect for any  male landowner
2. formerly, a term of respect for white European men during the British colonial era
3. (modern) any white man

A talented young street magician I shot in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India after she approached us shouting “Magic? Magic?”  My 3-year-old son has recently discovered magic so we gave her the nod. She dropped to the ground, emptied the contents of her bag and went to town. Soon a small crowd formed to watch.  My son’s mind was blown, especially when she made money disappear from my wife’s hand and come out of my son’s ear and nose.  I am extremely envious of her sleight of hand skills.  Apologies for the wind noise.


I realize there is perhaps, potentially, a darker side to this, like where are her parents? I didn’t see them, but I didn’t see a Fagin lurking about (continue reading…)

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Remnants of Jewish Kolkata

by on Jan.31, 2015, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe






A Shaheb’s Guide to India

shaheb – (India; also saheb, sahib; from the Hindi and Urdu sāhab, master; from Arabic ṣāḥib, companion; participle of ṣaḥiba, to become friends) 
1. formerly, a term of respect for any  male landowner
2. formerly, a term of respect for white European men during the British colonial era
3. (modern) any white man
Temple Beth-El built in 1856.

Kolkata’s oldest synagogue, Beth-El, built in 1856.

There only 25 Jews left in Kolkata but three large, old synagogues speak to their former vast numbers. They were Baghdadi Jews from the Middle East. Getting into these synagogues as an outsider is no easy feat. The Kolkata cabbies haven’t a clue nor do most native Kolkatans you ask.

You have to go to a certain bakery on the first floor of the historic New Market bazaar, get a phone number and call it, speak to a certain Jewish woman who’ll give you directions, then you go to the sites and mention her name to the groundskeepers so they know you’re legit, then they let you inside where you must be accompanied by a guide at all times. Suggested donation is 100 rupees (about $2.00).  I jumped through all of these hoops and it was well worth it.

We first step inside the Magen David (slideshow) synagogue built in 1884 and the guide, a slight Indian in his 30′s with a boyish face, sticks a yarmulke on my head. He barely speaks English. I barely speak Bangla. It goes like this: (continue reading…)

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Neveh Shalome Synagogue, Kolkata

by on Jan.31, 2015, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe

Next door to the Magen David Synagogue is the “Old Synagogue,” official name Neveh Shalome. In 1825 a house was bought on this site and made into Kolkata’s first synagogue. It was demolished and rebuilt as the present one in 1911.

Full story here on Kolkata’s handful of remaining Baghdadi Jews. Photos taken January, 2015–>>

(continue reading…)

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The Magen David Synagogue, Kolkata

by on Jan.30, 2015, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe

Built in 1884.  Full story here on Kolkata’s handful of remaining Baghdadi Jews. Photos taken January, 2015.–>>

(continue reading…)

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by on Dec.06, 2014, under NYC, On the Road, Shaheb Cafe, The Press

indiaabroad“Soon after I took a seat all hell broke loose.”  

Har har, I sent a news tip to India Abroad about a debacle in the New York visa office run by Cox & Kings and they instead ran it as a full page piece with the header “Nightmare.” I know some of you will feel my pain.

London-based Cox & Kings is one of the world’s oldest travel agencies and has offices around the world.  Increasingly India and other countries outsource their entire visa application process to companies like this one, with results that are often a Kafkaesque exercise in frustration but on my final visit — it took me a record 4 visits to New York from Philly to get mine and my family’s visas approved — I watched a near-riot ensue.

Obviously there are larger issues in the world to complain about (to wit, this week’s cover story pictured above) but chronic problems with Cox & Kings have been an ongoing saga in this paper, so perhaps my recent tirade will help in some small way with the many thousands of people who travel from the US to India each year.  Here’s to the power of the press.

Full article here>>

To add insult to injury, I got outta there with visa in hand and made the long trek back to Philly, but the next morning they sent me an email telling me my visa was ready and had been Fedexed to me! They even included a tracking number!  I thought maybe it would be one of the many lost passports they’re notorious for but fortunately nothing ever arrived.




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Mystery Train: the Amtrak Residency

by on Sep.24, 2014, under Film/TV, On the Road, Theatre

The what? You heard me.  I’m thrilled beyond recognition — thrilled to a crisp, in fact — to share the exciting news that I’m one of 24 writers selected out of 16,100 entries in the first ever Amtrak Residency.  Not without its fascination and controversies, the residency has been covered microscopically in the New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and HuffPo over the past 8 months.  For my money, Boris Kachka wrote the best overview in New York Magazine.   Basically, we each get to travel for a week in a private cabin on the Amtrak routes of our choosing during the next year as kind of a moving residency, as opposed to being at a cabin in the woods or artists colony like Yaddo where I have also stayed.

Alexander Chee, the writer who started it all.

This unique residency program started because last year in a PEN interview novelist Alexander Chee said that he did a lot of writing on trains and that he wished Amtrak had writers residencies. He was joking but Amtrak got wind of his remark and decided to heed his call and launch such a program for established writers. One of the writing samples I submitted was my Washington Post story from last year about my crazy spiritual experience aboard a commuter train between Penn Station and Philly.  However, my primary writing sample was an excerpt from my award-winning, yet unproduced (anyone?) screenplay Lords of Light, an historical drama about Nikola Tesla and his rivalry with Thomas Edison, written while I was a graduate student at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Speaking of this, I can’t help but proudly mention that (continue reading…)

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Stingey Severance Package

by on Sep.17, 2014, under On the Road

Why does my new Amazon Chase Visa credit card’s travel accident insurance policy only cover the amputation and reattachment of selected fingers?

finger loss

I’m American, they should at least offer to protect my middle finger.


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Finally. Relief for my sweat itch-induced intertrigo.

by on Aug.14, 2014, under On the Road, Shaheb Cafe

“Relieves sweat itch due to intertrigo.”

When it comes to humidity-induced itching, a monsoon country like India don’t mess around when it comes to quick, potent, no-nonsense remedies.

I'm not even gonna ask about "dhobi itch."

I ain’t even gonna ask about “dhobi itch.”

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