Josna Rege

290. Krishna’s Butterball

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


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.

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289. Only So Much

In reflections, Stories on November 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm
Gentle Awakening (c) Kavita (

Gentle Awakening (c) Kavita (

This morning, in that hypnopompic state between sleeping and waking, a snatch of conversation came to me as if in a dream. And like a dream remembered vividly for only a few moments upon waking, it has already faded beyond recall. I can no longer remember the details, but I still have the drift. So I must try to set it down quickly before it blows away altogether.

I can’t even remember whom I had been talking with, although I’m sure that it was a dear friend, that it took place recently, and that the subject was important to me. But what came to me this morning with such clarity was not the main body of the conversation in which we had been intensely engaged. It was a question asked by my friend, and one that I never answered. Alas! Unless she asks it again, it may remain forever unanswered.

It is not the content of the question that is the most important here, but the realizations that came with it as I re-remembered. Clearly I had heard it on some level, since it registered somewhere in my brain; and clearly it needed to resurface, even though it has sunk once more beneath the clutter. But as it came back to me this morning I realized that my failure to answer this question had not been intentional. I was engaged in a rapid-fire back-and-forth with my friend at the time, and experienced it as coming out of left field, entirely unrelated to the subject at hand. So although this morning I remembered my friend having asked it, at the time I must have unconsciously swept it out of the way, so as not to interrupt the forward thrust of the conversation.

Several possible explanations come to mind at this point; and I suspect that all of them are correct to varying degrees. Perhaps it raised an issue I did not wish to entertain, so I repressed it as soon as the sound reached my ears. Perhaps, in my impatience to drive home my own point, I brushed this seemingly irrelevant question aside. Or perhaps I was one hundred percent taken up with the urgency of the main conversation and simply could not take it in.

The Return of the Repressed, by Louise Bourgeois

The Return of the Repressed, by Louise Bourgeois

It occurs to me that when the shoe is on the other foot, when a friend fails to answer a question I have asked them (in an email message, for instance), I tend to interpret it as an act of passive-aggression, jumping to the conclusion that they are deliberately ignoring me. And, taking offense at the assumed brush-off, I nurse my hurt without considering other possible reasons for their lack of response, foremost among which may be that they are simply overloaded.

TMImost users of social media know the meaning of this acronym: Too Much Information. In this information-drenched age, we all know what it means to be told more than we know what to do with. I receive many unwanted commercial email messages that I delete without even opening and personal emails that I mean to answer but do not have the time or emotional energy at the moment of receipt to give the attention they require. And of course this phenomenon is not restricted to the cybersphere; we are bombarded with a constant barrage of information, information that makes sometimes-overwhelming demands upon us and makes mincemeat of our concentration. It is no wonder that we go into information overload.



Of course, it’s important to make distinctions between information and information. There’s intrusive commercial solicitation—advertising—that one should have no qualms about dismissing, dispelling, deleting altogether; and then there’s critically important personal information. But they can both be experienced as overwhelming and unwanted if they come at the wrong time or in the wrong way. When the phone rings at dinnertime, my first impulse is to rush to answer it. It’s probably a sales call, but what if it’s not, what if it’s a family member or friend with an important message? I have to remind myself that if it’s important, they’ll call back. And that’s what I’ll have to hope that my friend will do, if the question she asked me the other day was important enough.

As an inveterate motormouth, but also—despite much evidence to the contrary—someone who cares about two-way communication, I must take the next step and turn this morning’s fleeting insight into action. I may never have the opportunity to answer my friend’s unanswered question; a second chance came this morning, it too now gone. But I do have the opportunity to take it as a sign to slow down, listen more carefully, and develop ways to circumvent the mind’s own tendency to sweep inconvenient truths under the rug. When it’s my own question that is not being answered, I can learn not to assume that the non-reply is deliberate, but instead to develop more effective ways of asking questions that do not overwhelm the recipient. And when I am asked a question that, for whatever the reason, I cannot deal with at the moment, I can learn to do what I sometimes do in class when a student interrupts the flow of a discussion with a completely different question: acknowledge it, but remind myself and ask the questioner to hold the thought so that we can come back to it later. After all, there’s only so much information we can take in at one time. We can only hope that it will keep on coming back, until we wake up and really understand.


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288. Bless Them

In 2010s, Inter/Transnational, people, Stories, United States on November 7, 2014 at 3:34 pm
An old hardware store (Neal Pasricha,

An old hardware store (not mine) Neal Pasricha,

Bright and early this morning, still bleary-eyed, I pulled into the parking lot of our local hardware store, the only remaining one in town given the proliferation of all the big-box chain stores in the neighboring town, more business–friendly than ours. I needed to get some keys copied, and wanted to support a local business.

The moment I stepped in I felt myself to be on foreign ground. There was not a single woman to be found—just men, men as far as the eye could see: men behind the counter, men making purchases, men out in in the warehouse stocking the shelves. Of the three who seemed to work there, one didn’t seem to be helping customers, though he didn’t look up and meet my eye, so I couldn’t be sure whether he was free or whether he was engaged in some important business. I found myself addressing him tentatively, in an almost apologetic tone, as if I feared disturbing his concentration.

Although I already knew the answer, having called ahead to inquire, I asked him if they made copies of keys. He replied laconically in the affirmative, in such a quiet voice that I had to strain to hear him, and with an enigmatic expression that could have reflected either reluctance to serve me or extreme shyness bordering on some form of autism. I had already started to take the master key off my key ring when he told me that I needn’t, so I handed it to him, unaccountably overcome with awkwardness, and while he went off to do the job, wandered up and down the aisles of the store, marveling at the fascinating variety of items on its well-stocked shelves.

championIt was a different world from the one I usually inhabit. Every display and every aisle had a specialized purpose, with an orderly but bewildering variety of tools and supplies with obscure names—some of which I recognize, thanks to my husband and his grandfather, but few that I come across in my daily round. There were emergency supplies in case of a power outage during a storm: hurricane lamps, firelighters, boxes of wooden strike-anywhere matches, and thick, utilitarian-looking candles; energy-saving light bulbs and batteries of every size and shape, both throw-away and rechargeable; all sorts of paints and stains and sealants; and building supplies with evocative names, from stud magnets to shims.

As my reticent counter-clerk rang up my order—coming out of his shell long enough to tell me that I could bring the copies back to be fine-tuned if they stuck in the lock—I listened with half an ear to two or three guys shooting the breeze with the clerk at the other register. They were engaged in easy banter, two of them gently teasing the other, who it seemed had a little hideaway in the woods up in one of the surrounding towns, a hippie haven for the past fifty years. From the snatches of conversation I overheard, they seemed to be commenting on the changing character of the area with rural gentrification. While I was pocketing the new keys and taking my receipt, one of them was telling the others that Lake Wyola (in the town to the north of ours) “used to be called Lost Pond, but they wanted to upmarket it.”

As I left the store, far from noting to myself in pedantic English-teacherly fashion that I had never before heard upmarket used as a verb, I found myself filled with gratitude and affection for this community of men, tight-lipped, taciturn though some might be, even a little uncomfortable in mixed company, with whole areas of expertise I had only the vaguest idea about, and an altogether different way of using language and being in the world. Bless them.

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