Josna Rege

339. It’s the Way That You Do It

In Food, Music, Stories on July 18, 2015 at 9:53 am
from Babies (2010)

from Babies (2010)

‘Tain’t What You Do
(It’s the Way That You Do It)
                                        sung here by Ella Fitzgerald (1939)

Of course the taste of our food is critically important to our enjoyment of it, but, as we all know, so is the texture; and it’s not only the texture, but the way we eat the food, and even the way we prepare to eat it, that makes all the difference.

Take bananas, for instance. There’s a scene in the documentary film, Babies (2010), in which a nearly-one-year-old baby takes great pride in peeling her first banana entirely on her own. What struck me as I watched it was the way that, after peeling back the skin strip by strip, she took hold of one of the stringy bits that run up and down the length of the banana (phloem bundles) and fastidiously picked that off as well. Mastery!

I had a similar thrill when I found out that a banana naturally splits in thirds lengthwise and learned how to do it. Preparing it this way changed my whole experience of eating it.

There are dozens of instructions and videos on the Internet describing and demonstrating different ways to peel a banana. Here’s one, and here’s another. Each of these is someone’s preferred method and gives that person his or her particular pleasure in the eating.

Just as the way that a person prepares to eat a particular food is unique, so is the way in which she eats it. It’s also a pleasure that is best experienced alone. When I eat a nearly-overripe mango by, first, rolling it around in my hands to pulp the flesh inside, then, making a hole at the top and, finally, squeezing and sucking out the sweet pulp, I don’t want anyone watching me while I commune with the essence of mango.



The last time I was in our family hometown of Ratnagiri with my son, he filmed our visit to the fish market. Later, when I watched the footage, I found that, while I had been watching my cousin bargaining with the canny fishwives, he had been filming a toothless old woman sucking the pulp out of a mango. She was thoroughly and unself-consciously enjoying the experience until she started to have a funny feeling that she was being watched. She kept pausing to look around suspiciously, then returning to her deliciously messy work, mango juice dribbling down her chin and an expression of bliss on her face. This part of the video became the most popular entertainment in the neighborhood for a couple of days, as all the children in the compound kept coming and asking to see it. I must say that I felt a little guilty at the pleasure that we all took from voyeuristically intruding on an experience that really ought to have been had completely alone, but told myself that it was a home video that would never be shown publicly.

In his youth my husband used to scoff at foodies (not that that term was yet in circulation), maintaining that he didn’t live to eat, but merely ate to live. However, the delight that he took in the art of opening a pomegranate belied his words.

We human beings are a ritualistic lot, however we may seek to deny it. A large part of our pleasure derives, not just from what we do, but the way that we do it.



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338. Self-doubt

In blogs and blogging, Books, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work, writing on July 9, 2015 at 2:09 pm


A talented artist-friend once said to me, during a conversation about our creative aspirations and our best selves, “Would you want, ‘She wrote a good blog’, inscribed on your tombstone?”

Boy, did that hurt! I knew that she hadn’t meant to hurt me, though, and was wrestling with unfulfilled aspirations herself, so I tried to take it as it was intended: that is, to invite me to explore what I really wanted for myself.

Another friend, a prolific writer and a mentor whom I honor and admire, put it this way: “I too turned to small personal pieces during a dry period. I found that they got my creative juices flowing again and helped me return to my scholarly writing with renewed energy.”

This too was hurtful because it dismissed the blog as a means to a higher end rather than something of value in itself. And, of course, because it reminded me of what I was not doing—as if I needed reminding!

A last anecdote, this one from literature. In Shashi Deshpande’s Sahitya Akademi Prize-winning novel, That Long Silence (1988), the protagonist Jaya retreats to an empty apartment while going through a family crisis. The time away from her workaday life precipitates a period of self-examination, in which she realizes, among other things, that she has been selling herself short in writing little pieces for a women’s magazine, “light, humorous pieces about the travails of a middle-class housewife (148-9, Virago edition). She has been afraid to take her writing seriously, so, instead, has created herself in the image of the “little woman.”

I often ask myself whether this is what I am doing in Tell Me Another. It is easier to write these short pieces, and I get instant gratification in the responses of readers all over the world. And then, in part because this is a public blog written under my own name and read by family and friends, and—who knows—employers and enemies alike, I must of necessity keep it relatively light, humorous. Is it self-deprecating? Ingratiatingly feminine? Or is it simply written from another part of myself?

Of course, it isn’t a question of either/or, but and/and. The blog is a kind of writing unto itself, and because it is a new medium, it gives me the opportunity to experiment, to develop a new voice and perhaps a new genre, in which I communicate critical concepts and issues of concern in a reflective, narrative form. Human beings are story-telling animals. We define, create, and understand ourselves through stories, and the art of storytelling is one that we neglect at our peril. At its best, this new form and personal voice is every bit as valuable, creative, and fulfilling for me as my scholarly writing, and reaches a much wider audience to boot.

At its worst, though, it is my equivalent of Jaya’s “little woman” column, something I resort to because it’s safe and easy, and because it sidesteps the arenas of publishing and scholarly judgement. If, year after year, I simply keep churning out the same kinds of stories without finding new ways to make them inform and enliven my scholarly writing (and vice-versa), then I am being driven, not by a joyful creativity, but by self-doubt.

Thankfully, at the moment, joy is winning.

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337. Lessons from a Historian

In 1970s, Books, Education, Family, history, parenting, people, Stories, United States on July 4, 2015 at 9:49 am
Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Howard Zinn addressing an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, 1971 (Boston Globe)

Years ago, around 1978, I participated in an anti-nuclear rally on the Boston Common where Howard Zinn spoke. I can’t remember the exact occasion of the rally or the main thrust of his talk, but one piece of advice in it stuck. Zinn’s words of wisdom have since come back to me in numerous very different situations involving negotiations with those in power.

“Always ask for what you want,” he told us, “never what you think you can get.”

He went on to explain what we have all experienced in one setting or another, but I had never quite articulated to myself as a political principle.

If an employee asks for a pay increase, for instance, probability is that the employer will come back with a lower offer rather than meeting the demand—that is, if he entertains it at all. People who feel themselves to be powerless start negotiations timidly and self-defeatingly by asking for less than they really want; but this guarantees that they will never get it, since the rules of power dictate that the powerful will always drive it down.

Power is (almost) never relinquished voluntarily, only under pressure, and of course a group of people can collectively exert more pressure than most individuals could ever hope to do. Another reason to articulate what you want, then, is to inspire other people. An individual going up against Power alone may gain something for him/herself, but the gain will be individual and limited; it cannot spark a movement for lasting social change.


When I heard Howard Zinn speak all those years ago, he must have been in the process of writing A People’s History of the United States (first published in 1980, most recent edition, 2005), which sets out to present American history through the eyes of the common people rather than political and economic elites. Of course, historiography—and the book’s title—tells us that this is one of many approaches to telling a story, and not the dominant one; Zinn’s popular and influential book has been challenged by many who question his political perspective. It is axiomatic that history is written by the powerful, so his approach is an important corrective to the history that most of us have been taught in school.

(from Occupy Oakland)

(from Occupy Oakland)

Children become masters in dealing with power in the persons of their parents. So it is no wonder that our son had internalized Zinn’s lesson long before he even learned to read; in fact, he went one better. His strategy was to make an outrageous demand, asking for much more than he knew was possible and then bargaining us down to what he really wanted. He invariably ended up with much more than his parents, putty in his hands, ever intended. So at bedtime, for example, he might ask me to finish reading the book and then bargain me down to “just” three chapters. (Come to think of it,  that doesn’t make a good analogy, since what he really wanted was usually what I wanted too.)

I write this on July 4th, Independence Day in the United States. Yesterday, a public radio station was asking listeners to share what it was that made them feel patriotic. I started making a mental list, which included national parks and public libraries. Add to that list the late Howard Zinn. howardzinnreadin

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