Josna Rege

292. No Returns

In Books, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on December 13, 2014 at 12:56 pm
The White Rabbit (John Tenniel, 1865)

The White Rabbit (John Tenniel, 1865)

As children—and it’s still something we do from time to time—we always aimed to be the first to say A pinch and a punch for the first of the month! This had to be followed up swiftly with White Rabbits and No Returns! so that the unfortunate recipient of the former, who had also failed to secure an entire month’s worth of good luck, would be prevented from retaliating in kind with A slap and a kick for being so quick! Come to think of it, it was quite a nifty one-two punch: the first part securing one’s personal fortunes by violent means and the second ensuring that no negative consequences redounded upon oneself.

imagesThat childhood magic spell would come in handy right now. Looking at my To Do list, I have quite a number of returns to deal with. There are the literal returns, liabilities all, items I purchased or ordered but didn’t fit or suit me, or broke immediately, and sit around taking up space until I get around to finding the original receipt or warranty, re-packing them to ship back to the company, or sallying forth to do battle at the store where I bought them.

Then there are the more complicated returns, also consequences of my actions and decisions. Some of them are less tangible, but no less necessary to dispatch. There are the Incompletes granted to delinquent students in a moment of weakness, which always result in late work being submitted, sometimes months after the course is over, requiring me to locate the records, inevitably buried under piles of papers, and to take time out from my current teaching tasks to recalculate the final grade and resubmit it to the Registrar’s Office. There are favors to return and long-overdue promises to fulfill. Inevitably, postponements come due again at some later point in time, knocking ever more insistently at one’s door. Oh, for “White Rabbits and No Returns” and a clean slate!

In Vedanta philosophy this world of name and form is ruled by the Law of Cause and Effect. It is a simple law of nature and there is no sidestepping it: one acts, and results ensue. Wisdom may give one deeper insight into what constitutes right action at a given time, but no wisdom in the world can control the results. In other words, there is no such thing as No Returns.

Even this eminently rational philosophy has an escape clause: transcending the dualities of the world allows one to override cause and effect. But that is a trick involving a magic I know not how to invoke. For all my desire to defer, I must deal with returns; I know no other way.

© Norman Taylor

© Norman Taylor

But wait: there are other Returns, ones that we welcome. As each successive birthday circles back around, we wish our friends and family members Many Happy Returns. Even as we know that this world must involve sadness and loss, we never stop wishing that Love will make it all worthwhile. When Nikhil was a teenager and final exams loomed, he and his friends would cram themselves on the couch in the den to watch and re-watch Moulin Rouge!, a classic romantic story of unrequited, followed by fully-requited love, and finally, tragic loss, redeemed only by love. But the line that recurs in it is:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return.

All the lesser returns are a pain, nuisances we simply have to deal with; but the greatest is this freely-given and received Gift, with no expectations of return.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

291. Stone Root Lane

In 1970s, blogs and blogging, history, Nature, places, Stories, United States on November 30, 2014 at 12:21 pm
Estabrook Woods, Concord, Massachusetts

Estabrook Woods, Concord, Massachusetts

Yesterday I read a post on undercovermole, an epistolary blog that I follow avidly. In it, Ralph, one of the three main characters, writes of a tedious planning committee meeting he has sat through in which a street name in a new development is discussed ad nauseam. The property developers wanted to call it Blossom Drive, but the council objected on the grounds that there is no species of tree called “Blossom.” Eventually, when Ralph was about to explode, they reached a compromise with Cherry Blossom Drive.

Street names are palimpsests of history. In Palimpsest, I’ve discussed the multilayered street names in India, renamed by the British during the colonial era and then re-renamed after Independence. Elsewhere I’ve also mentioned the delightfully named Old Road to Nine Acre Corner in Concord, Massachusetts, protected as a treasured part of the town’s heritage landscape. But Ralph’s planning committee ordeal reminded me of another street name in Concord, one whose origins lie in a less glorious history.

Nine Acre Corner, Concord, Massachusetts © Mark Rainey (butterfliesofamerica.com)

Nine Acre Corner, Concord, Massachusetts  (butterfliesofamerica.com)

Andrew’s family had owned a summer cottage on White Pond in Concord since the mid-1960s. His mother would take the children mushrooming and berry-picking in the woods just up the bank and across the railroad tracks. When I visited Andrew there and, later still, lived there with him for a time, we would ramble through those woods as well. It never occurred to me that they might have been privately owned.

(blog.aps.com)

(blog.aps.com)

And then we started hearing loud noises from the woods. New noises, not the rumblings of the lone freight train that rattled down the little-used tracks twice a day. When we investigated, we found bulldozers and Private Property signs: “our” woods were being cleared to make way for a housing development.

A clear-cut section of forest (homepower.com)

A clear-cut section of forest (homepower.com)

As the days went by, it became difficult to go up there and witness the devastation. A large clear-cut area emerged, criss-crossed with tire tracks, nothing but mud, rocks, mangled tree roots, and earth-moving equipment. By and by they pulled out the rocks and set up one or two of the biggest boulders at the entrance to the construction site. And one day we found a freshly planted street sign bearing the name Stone Root Lane.

Stone Root Lane—how apt! I laughed out loud. The name would fix forever in my mind the carnage of the construction site. I imagined the developers casting about for a name, and hitting upon this idea as their eyes fell on the tumble of rocks and stones pitting the clearing and the tangle of hacked and exposed roots that were all that remained of the old woods.

Steadily, inexorably, the foundations were laid and the houses built. Now we approached the site with caution for fear of trespassing. I don’t remember the day when the first family moved in. We had stopped going in that direction on our walks.

I just looked it up to see whether I had remembered the name correctly: I had. The area is now a settled development, more than 40 years old, with the houses in it being sold in the vicinity of nine hundred thousand dollars each. No doubt, given how often Americans move, a succession of families has come and gone in that time. But there are children, now with children of their own, who call Stone Root Lane their birthplace and have hallowed it with treasured memories of their own.

People have to live somewhere, I suppose, and the March of Progress must go on, so they say. When I think of Concord now, I think of our White Pond and Thoreau’s Walden, of the Old North Bridge celebrated in Emerson’s Concord Hymn, of the historic Old Road to Nine Acre Corner, and of that Johnny-come-lately, Stone Root Lane.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

290. Krishna’s Butterball

In Childhood, Family, India, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases on November 21, 2014 at 11:22 am

photo

You wouldn’t guess it looking at him now, but when Nikhil was a baby he was delightfully chubby (as babies should be)—moon-faced, roly-poly, and altogether round, except for his chubby little feet, which were as close to square as feet can be, almost as wide as they were long. Like most babies he had many lovingly bestowed pet names, and each of our friends called him something different. Some of my favorites were—from Dr. Harrington, our family doctor—”my little block of granite” (situated as we were on the southern border of New Hampshire, The Granite State), from our old friend Reva, Nanook of the North, and—from our friend Jim—Krishna’s Butterball.

Krishna's Butterball (© Procsilas Moscas, Wikimedia Commons)

Krishna’s Butterball (© Procsilas Moscas, Wikimedia Commons)

Now, to many Americans, particularly as Thanksgiving approaches, “butterball” probably conjures up the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving feast, but put that image right out of your mind and replace it with this one. Andrew and I had visited Krishna’s Butterball at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, in January, 1984, on our honeymoon trip to India. Jim, who had lived in India, no doubt had in mind the well-known story from Lord Krishna’s childhood, when his own mother first realized who he really was. You will find the story frequently retold, represented, and re-enacted in India, a favorite in children’s books, in bharatanatyam dance performances throughout India and the diaspora, and on wall hangings for the home. The one above, made from inlaid wood, is on the bedroom wall in our house.

It is said that Krishna was a mischievous child, delightfully roly-poly, and fond of butter. He often tiptoed over to his mother Yashoda’s store of it and helped himself liberally when her head was turned the other way. One day she caught him in the act, scooping a ball of freshly-churned butter into his mouth. When she admonished him and asked him to open his mouth, he refused to incriminate himself and kept it firmly shut. So Yashoda took his chin in her hand and opened it herself. What she saw completely blew her mind. Inside her little boy’s open mouth was not the stolen butter, but the entire universe.

For me, all babies evoke the same awe as Lord Krishna’s mother felt that day. In their wide-eyed innocence, still trailing clouds of glory, they remind us of what human beings are capable of, and fill us with protective tenderness and the resolve to live up to our best selves. That is why so many cultures tell stories like those of Krishna’s childhood, and celebrate the newborn child, as we do at Christmas. For me, this time of year has a personal dimension, since Nikhil was born just before Christmas. (The hospital even sent him home in a large, white-felt-trimmed, red corduroy stocking, with just his shining moon-face sticking out over the top.) My baby will turn 30 this year, and is now, as always, my rock; but he will also always be my little block of granite, Nanook of the North, and Krishna’s Butterball, filling me with awe and inspiring me to be my best self.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 291 other followers

%d bloggers like this: