Josna Rege

279. Raking, or In Praise of Puttering

In 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories, travel, Work on July 22, 2014 at 2:55 pm

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After a long period of international travel and intense activity, perhaps it is only natural to have a period of retreat and reflection. Work of all kinds beckons, in the office, the kitchen, the yard, but day after day I stay put and just putter (or potter, in British English). One day, reading Hesse’s Siddhartha, for possible inclusion in my World Literature course; another, sorting through a closetful of clothes to take to the thrift store; yet another, weeding, pruning, raking leaves and pine cones; today, taking a disk of digital photos to be made into prints. Day after day slips away as I read, write emails, run errands, rendezvous with friends, watch each new episode of EastEnders on BBC iPlayer; all these exertions accompanied by copious cups of tea. Meanwhile the big tasks loom all around me; I nibble at their edges.

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If I have learned anything these past few years, though, it is that excoriating myself on this account is worse than useless. It only lowers the morale and raises a wall of resistance. Instead, I try to find pleasure in the tasks I must perform, and accept my need for periods of relative inactivity. After all, it won’t be long before I must perforce galvanize into action once again. Now, as mid-summer stretches inexorably towards late summer, now is that golden moment when the simple task of raking pine cones slows treacherous time to a standstill, and shores up treasures against the bitter winds of winter.

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It occurs to me that, in fact, everything I have been doing these past three weeks, since returning from my travels, has been a kind of raking: raking up, raking over, raking in, simply raking. Raking over takes oneself or someone else to task for things done and un-done; raking up exposes the buried past to view and enables one to confront it; raking in harvests the fruit of one’s labors in the past; and raking clears the ground to permit new growth. In this light, puttering is not occupying oneself “in a leisurely, casual, or ineffective manner,” with “little energy or purpose” (though the British definition is kinder to potterers): puttering is—or can be—an essential activity, akin to what Doris Lessing used to call woolgathering, “indulging in aimless thought and dreamy imagining,” which was the daily pre-requisite to her tireless and prolific writing.

Soon enough I will re-enter the fray and tackle the big items on the To Do list, trusting that I will be rested and ready for them. But for now I am content to keep on raking: a little bit of this, a little bit of that, punctuated by tea breaks. Here’s to puttering, aimless thought, and dreamy imagining!

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Chronological Table of Contents

278. Going Back, Coming Home

In 2010s, Family, Food, India, Inter/Transnational, people, places, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases, Work on July 8, 2014 at 1:44 pm

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Even though I have lived in the United States for more than forty-four years, when it has been more than a few years since I last managed to get back to India and England I always start to go a little crazy. Crazy as in scattered, ungrounded, unsure of the rightness of my feelings and responses. Of necessity, my return visits to the countries of my birth and childhood have been irregular and infrequent (by my best count, thirteen to England and only six to India), so I can’t pretend that I am meaningfully part of the everyday lives of my friends and relatives there. And yet I still feel a strong need to reconnect as often as I can, to recalibrate my life, cool my fevered brow, take the pulse of people and places dear to me, and return home on a firmer footing, with renewed clarity and sense of purpose.

Coming home has the effect, albeit short-lived, of turning me into a model housewife. On Sunday morning, as my father settled down to watch Wimbledon’s nail-biting Men’s Final, I set about preparing that favorite Maharashtrian breakfast specialty, poha. It was in the States, not in India, that I first learned how to make poha, but a month of loving aunts and cousins in India cooking for me and waiting on me hand and foot inspired me to make it myself for the first time in many moons—duly garnished with wedges of lime, shredded coconut, and fresh coriander leaves. Before I get swept up again in the frantic pace of life, I will take pleasure in preparing slow food, in grating ginger, chopping fresh cilantro, sitting under the fan on the front porch, enjoying a second, then a third, cup of tea.

Of course, coming home also returns me to my habitual sloth. For the last five consecutive nights since I have returned from India I have settled down to watch a British TV serial and nodded off mid-stream, waking past midnight only to totter upstairs to bed. After nearly a week I have only just begun to unpack the suitcases and to make a dent in the stack of unpaid bills. I haven’t even dared to open my work email account for fear of what I’ll find, but must face it soon, before inertia takes hold (see TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself).

If you asked me to discourse on the concept of Home you’d be in for a long bout of fairly predictable philosophizing—how postcoloniality and diaspora, conditions of multiple displacements wherein there is no fixed Center, make Home unheimliche (uncanny; lit. un-homely); and so on—you get the idea. But after a month away—despite the stack of unpaid bills, the terrifyingly overgrown garden, the un-done To Do list that stretches right through to Labor Day and beyond—actually coming home is a blessed relief. A mess, no doubt, but it’s my mess, mine to address, mine to redress. Simple household tasks, like sweeping the floor, emptying the compost bucket, washing my new Indian salwar-kameezes by hand and hanging them out to dry, take on a sacred quality that makes me warble Home Sweet Home, cliché-ridden as it is, entirely without irony. (Or almost entirely: it is impossible to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved without developing a whole new perspective on Sweet Home, which, in that novel, “wasn’t sweet, and . . . sure wasn’t home.”)

As much as I was inspired by my cousins’ and aunts’ cooking (and I’m still re-living that tall, cold glass of panha (thank you, Yashodhara), that succession of wholesome, wholly satisfying lunches, that perfect Sunday roast (thank you, Neil)), it was our conversations that are helping to guide me upon my return, and my observations of their life choices and how they have been following them through. My generation, many now entering their sixties, and even members of my father’s generation in their seventies and eighties, were looking after elderly relatives and energetic grandchildren with both love and frustration; nurturing relationships with their adult children in which they continued to give them their loving support while respecting their independence; pursuing new interests and aspirations as retirement approached; facing their own health challenges with fortitude; and finding the inner resources to grapple with change and loss. Both generations were finding ways to hold on to what mattered to them and letting go of what they didn’t need and to make their way in a rapidly-changing society without losing touch with their most deeply-held values. They showed me the spirit of service without martyrdom, of balancing battle in the world with a quiet center, of developing household routines that made their homes abodes of peace. And I have carried these shared experiences home with me to help me face my own choices and challenges.

All too soon the rosy soft-focus surrounding this old house will dissipate, exposing the cobwebs and dust bunnies to the cold light of day. But for now, I see the ordinary in a new light. While hand-washing my clothes still feels like a hallowed ritual, while emptying the compost bucket elevates me to ecological glory, while my once-tedious workaday routine feels so right, let me celebrate the love, the labor, and all the tangled threads of my life, past and present, that have led me to claim this particular place, be it ever so humble, as Home. If you want an inventory of my life, it can all be found here. Put down the clutter to having too many roots,” as Salman Rushdie has termed it. But if this is the postcolonial condition, I don’t want a cure.

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277. Waiting for Some Time

In 2010s, Family, health, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, travel, writing on June 26, 2014 at 10:48 pm

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Mumbai, June 2014: It’s early morning in the tree-lined Western suburb of Vile Parle. The only sounds are birdcalls, the clanking of a metal bucket handle, and the swish-swishing of the ceiling fan. Soon the bell of the little temple on the corner will start clanging insistently, accompanied by chants, but now it is blessedly cool and quiet. (I spoke too soon: here it comes now.) To date the rains have been sparse  in Mumbai, so much so that they can hardly be said to have begun, and the monsoon forecasters predict that they will fall short this year. Very soon the rising heat will force me to get up and start my day: cleaning teeth, preparing tea, making phone calls, and running errands; for these are my last few precious days in India, and there is more to do than I can possibly fit into them.

My last post was on Day 5 of my visit, and it is now Day 29: my longest time ever without writing a TMA story. Perhaps it is because living in the moment has taken up all my energy this past month and I haven’t had the time to sit and reflect; or when I have had time, I have called home or simply fallen gratefully into bed. Even now I’m only writing because I have fallen sick with a summer flu and have had to spend most of the last two days in bed, under strict orders—enforced by the family—not to stir out of doors.

I’ve always been an impatient person, but in India one will continually tear one’s hair out in frustration if one is not prepared to “wait for some time.” How many times have I been given that infuriating advice, delivered in equally infuriatingly mild tones! I remember paying a visit to the post office with Andrew in Pune years ago with the intention of buying some stamps and mailing some books back to the States. Sending the package was a production in itself, a saga for another day, but when it was all packed and sealed and we finally approached the counter to purchase the stamps, it was closed. When would it reopen? After some time. How long? Why not sit, have a cup of tea, and wait for some time?

Once, on the road from Aurangabad to Pune on a blisteringly hot March day, the so-called luxury bus Nikhil and I were in overheated. Nikhil had fallen ill with worryingly high fever and Andrew put us on an air-conditioned businessmen’s coach back to our family in Pune while I insisted that he stay and see the Ajanta caves, since at least one member of the family ought to do so. But everything proceeded to go wrong. The coach was not air-conditioned, and just as the sun was mounting into the sky, the breakdown happened. We all bundled out of the vehicle, two businessmen with uncomfortably hot-looking suits helping to carry Nikhil, since he was too weak to walk, and depositing him on the side of the road in what looked lie the middle of nowhere. While the driver and his assistant looked under the hood (bonnet), the rest of us just waited, and I tried to quell feelings of panic. There was one American woman on the bus, who strode over the group and demanded to know what was wrong.

The engine appears to have overheated.

           So what is being done?

They have called the headquarters for help.

            So what do we do now?

Wait for some time.

What else could we do? Eventually word came from HQ that we would not be getting a replacement coach and so would have to flag down a passing State Transport bus and ask to be taken on board. Which eventually we did, and the kind passengers of that hot and crowded vehicle made room for Nikhil when they saw how ill he was.

Some of the waiting one is made to do in India is completely unnecessary, the result of bureaucratic or corporate sloth, ineptitude, or corruption; this does not call for patient acceptance but rather, decisive action. Much of the time, though, waiting is all that can be done. Take my current bout of flu, for example: naturally I am anxious to get back to normal before my upcoming international flight, and to have the energy for all the shopping, packing, and farewells. My cousin, who is a doctor, naturally prescribed what she could: a short course of antibiotics; something to bring down the fever; antihistamines to cope with the cold symptoms. But as she said in rueful humor last night: “With treatment it runs its course in seven days; and without treatment it runs its course in one week.” I may feel as if all that I’m doing is hastening my recovery but in fact, resting, taking plenty of fluids (my atya has prepared rice water, which I am drinking with black salt and ghee), and just waiting is the best course of action.

Time heals all wounds, they say, and when tragedy strikes, as it has dear friends of ours this month, we can only offer our love and hope that, with time, their pain and grief will subside, or at least, recede. I am acutely aware of the passage of time as I visit India after six long years and witness all the changes that they have wrought. Although I have visited with dozens of family members, time has not permitted me to meet everyone. But for now, in these last three days, I must somehow make myself slow down, take everything in—including that temple bell, which is clanging yet again—and simply trust that whatever I have not managed to do can wait for some time.

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