Josna Rege

454. Cooperation

In blogs and blogging, culture, Food, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on April 3, 2020 at 11:26 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Cooperation. The United States is proud to be an emblem of capitalism. It believes religiously in capitalist ideology, and sees the spirit of competition as its engine, associating competitiveness with good health and individualism with freedom. When Americans speak of fostering “healthy competition” I’m never quite sure whether they mean that there is a healthy and an unhealthy way to compete or whether they consider competition to be inherently healthy. Most of the time, it seems quite clear that they mean the latter: that competition itself is healthy, and any other way of engaging with the business of living is suspect.

What of competition’s opposite, cooperation? Despite the lip service given to cooperation, I find that in the U.S. it tends to be thought of as a sign of weakness or passivity, certainly not a leadership quality or a source of creativity. When someone is labeled “uncooperative,” it really means that they aren’t a “team player”—that they aren’t willing to shut up and do what they’re told. Funny, that contradictory message: you are supposed to be a self-motivated individualist, but only when carrying out the orders of your superiors. If you’re a maverick, as John McCain called himself in his 2008 presidential campaign, is that a good thing? It depends who you ask or what you’re refusing to fall in line with.

Is she ever going to stop this rambling, you may well ask. Sorry, I digress. I want to tell you about how I discovered various kinds of cooperatives in the 1970s, my first decade in the United States, and how they changed my life. To varying degrees, they all sprang from dissatisfaction with the dominant modus operandi—which is, Get the best deal for yourself and screw the rest.

at a Co-op reunion

I was introduced to cooperatives as an undergraduate, when I decided to move into a cooperative  house in the Spring semester of my senior year in college. Had I discovered it much earlier, I would have had a much happier college experience. What was the difference between living in the co-op house and living in the college dorms?

First, we saved money by cutting down the college’s profit margin, cutting out middlemen, and doing much of the work ourselves. Although the two houses that made up the Co-op were owned by the college, they were relatively autonomous in that while we rented them, we were relatively autonomous. We lived in a residential neighborhood a bit of a walk from campus. We didn’t have custodians cleaning and making repairs, neither did we have to purchase a college meal plan; instead, we bought our food in bulk from the local food cooperative federation and did all our own cooking and cleaning. We did have a resident advisor based in the house, a graduate student, but his presence was low-key and he maintained a strict hands-off policy with regard to just about everything. One of the college’s main deterrents to students trying to save money by moving out of the dorms was a hefty Off-Campus Fee that wiped out all possible savings; but if one moved to the co-op house, the Off-Campus Fee did not apply. Perhaps they saw us as a necessary safety valve for misfits and malcontents.

Second, because the college removed itself from our lives at the Co-op House, we had a much more interesting group of housemates, students who, for a wide variety of reasons, wanted to put a little distance between themselves and the prevailing culture on campus. Boyfriends and girlfriends who didn’t attend our college were embraced by the community as well. We had a resident Elder, a homeless man who moved in one night and never left (see TMA 158, The Pagli and the Tramp. Co-opers generally eschewed displays of class status, intellectual arrogance, or academic competitiveness; tended to be less politically conservative than the average student; accepted everyone, regardless of their personal idiosyncracies; and even tolerated a wide range of culinary skills on the part of the self-selected cooks.

I signed up to make dinner once a week because not many people ventured to prepare meals for 40 people, so cooks were in demand. A bonus for me was that if you cooked at least once a week you never had to perform any of the onerous house-cleaning duties, which were decidedly not my strong suit. An endearing Co-op custom was to cheer for the cook at every meal, and people did so religiously no matter what fare had been served up, though they would cheer more full-throatedly for meals they really loved. The trick was to keep both the meat-eaters and the vegetarians happy, which I could reliably do with Indian food, which was universally liked, even when it was all-vegetarian. In contrast, living in the college dorms as a vegetarian in the mid-1970s was miserable.

The third difference was the feeling of family, best exemplified one evening when the phone on the landing rang for a housemate. Now, even though we were close, I didn’t know all the co-opers equally well; but I was able to tell that caller exactly where the person they were trying to reach had gone and when she would be home, realizing in that moment that I could have done the same for just about everyone in the house. We listened to music, attended concerts, and took trips together, enlisted each other in improvement projects and contributed to murals for the house, enrolled in some of the same courses, helping each other with assignments and deadlines, created and tended a garden, compost heap and all, and played group volleyball every evening, all the while having the delicacy not to pry into each other’s private or family lives unless our housemates chose to share them with us.

It’s hard to how explain exactly how co-op house culture differed from life in the college dorms. The Good Old Boy, secret-society, prep-school, legacy ethos was entirely absent. We had a dartboard with the images of notorious dictators like the Shah of Iran and President Marcos of the Philippines, and took bets on who would be the first to be bumped off. We had a Workers of the World Unite! mural with that slogan in numerous languages—my contribution was Hindi. We held periodic multi-course banquets to which we invited non-Co-oper friends. We had a housemate whose sole duty it was to cultivate and maintain our supply of yoghurt. It was a gentle, nonjudgmental space where I never felt out of place as I regularly had in the dorms.

That early experience of cooperative living set a standard for me in my life after college, where I went on to live in a series of group houses with like-minded friends who shared the cooking and cleaning and much else besides. Even after our marriage, Andrew and I lived for seven years in a group house in the country where our son Nikhil was born and lived until age five. When we moved into our first home as a nuclear family, we did appreciate the new experience of privacy, but missed the company. For Nikhil, group living was the norm; he had never known anything else. When someone he liked came over for dinner, he would regularly ask them if they were going to stay over; if he really liked them he would ask hopefully if they were moving in.

I have not discussed the many other kinds of cooperatives and cooperation that have been so important to my life, and only have time to mention them here: participating in unions at work (TMA 375, 400) co-founding a cooperative news service (TMA 102), and engaging with food cooperatives at a number of levels (see TMA 114). They all had a spirit of egalitarianism, sought to reduce profit margins and eliminate the profit motive, and emphasized the sharing of knowledge and working for the common good rather than seeing others as an obstacle to one’s own individual advancement. Fundamentally, I believe, competition is inherently unhealthy and cooperation is eminently sane. Don’t mean to be pompous or polemical; cooperation has been a lot of fun.

I realize that after 50 years in the United States, I am fundamentally out of step with it in my beliefs about the unhealthiness of competition. However, I also know that there is a strong and perhaps growing minority of Americans who are sick of what rampant U.S. capitalism has brought us and, in this time of the Coronavirus pandemic, who know that the system itself is just plain sick.

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453. Bangladesh

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, postcolonial, Stories, United States on April 2, 2020 at 11:48 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Bangladesh.

We had been in the United States for little more than a year when the news from the subcontinent started to get dire. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League had won the regional elections in East Pakistan (as it was called in 1947 after the British Partition of India), previously Eastern Bengal (after the British Partition of Bengal in 1905), previously still part of an undivided Bengal, but the Pakistani military ruler General Yahya Khan had refused to recognize the results of the election. Instead, he launched Operation Searchlight, a brutal military campaign of mass killings and rape designed to crush the resistance and resolve of the people of East Pakistan, a campaign that many, including the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared to be a genocide. The Awami League’s popular movement for recognition and eventually for autonomy had turned into a full-fledged war of independence as West Pakistan refused to acquiesce to any of its demands, and on March 26th, 1971, it declared its independence from Pakistan and a nine-month war of liberation ensued.

Bengalis fleeing for a safe refuge. PHOTO: (Mark Godfret/Muktijuddho e-Archive)

By the summer of 1971, millions of Bangladeshis had fled from the East into neighboring India,, which had been forced to set up dozens of makeshift refugee camps. Rape was deliberately used as major weapon of the war, and West Pakistani troops were under orders to rape Bangladeshi women. It is was estimated that more than 200,000 women were held in rape camps by the West Pakistani army. On December 3rd India stepped into the conflict and fought a short and decisive war, forcing the West Pakistani Army to surrender in Dhaka on December 16th, 1971, which today is celebrated in Bangladesh as Bijoy Dibas, or Victory Day.

But why does the bloody formation of Bangladesh loom large in the year after my immigration to the United States? For three main reasons: as preoccupied as I was with my own teenage concerns: my boyfriend, graduation from high school and the imminent start of university, a growing feminist consciousness sparked by the women’s liberation movement, and the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I was also aware that a war was raging in my part of the world, among people who spoke the same language as our Indian state of West Bengal, but that no one in the United States seemed to know or care. As the situation grew to crisis proportions, an even more disturbing truth emerged: the United States was supporting West Pakistan, building up its military and entirely complicit in the genocidal war. Why? For strategic Cold War purposes, to strengthen Pakistan’s hand and, through Pakistan, to build a diplomatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China. And then there was the Concert for Bangladesh.

Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned sitar player under whom George Harrison had studied and who had famously performed at both the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California and the 1969 Woodstock music festival in upstate New York, approached George Harrison for his help in raising awareness of and funds for the refugee crisis in Bengal, where there were some 10 million refugees from the terror of Operation Searchlight. George, who had not played in public since the Beatles had broken up, galvanized into action, called in favors from friends, and in a matter of weeks, put on the first-ever big fundraising rock concert on August 1st, 1971, with a star-studded line-up including Ravi Shankar and sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, George Harrison himself and Ringo Starr, formerly of the Beatles, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. A three-album boxed set was released just on December 20th, 1971, and I’m pretty sure it was my big Christmas present that year. I have it to this day, its outer box battered and well-used, but the vinyl discs inside still scratch-free.

To tell you the truth, the only three tracks I listen to again and again on that album are Ravi Shankar’s heartbreakingly beautiful Bangla Dhun, George Harrison’s call for empathy with  Bangladesh (and though I could not feel the pain I knew I had to try), and his moving rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The Concert for Bangladesh made Ravi Shankar the only artist to have performed at every one of the big three rock festivals. The clueless crowd cheered rapturously after the Indian musicians had finished their tuning, to which Ravi Shankar famously quipped, barely hiding his annoyance, “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the music more.” When I listen to old interviews and recordings now, I can never help cringing at what seems to me to be a willful mispronunciation of Ravi Shankar’s name, global superstar as he was, when there was no excuse not to know better. None of the musician save George, few among the crowds who bought the records or cheered wildly through the tuning at the concert, knew or cared about Bangladesh; it was only George and his rock-star friends they wanted. But as Ravi Shankar noted, at least by the end of the concert they recognized the name.

As I was starting to write this piece, I remembered that I still had the October 32st, 1971 issue of the New York Times Magazine, with its cover story about Bangladesh and what became an iconic cover that I had kept all these years, but had somehow never read. Amazingly, I was able to lay my hands on it in pretty short order, and there was the cover photograph, of a young Bangladeshi woman in a refugee camp nursing her baby, that was and remains so painful to look at that it felt, still feels like a violation; in fact, a second violation when the viewer knew from the evening news that this young woman was a rape survivor, her baby born of repeated acts of war upon her body. Here she was blown up, mass-produced, and exposed to the American gaze, as she had been to the perpetrators of Operation Searchlight before it. And this was the country that had systematically built up the Pakistani military for its own strategic purposes ever since Independence in 1947, precipitating between the two neighbors so recently one country, a devastating arms race which still shows no signs of abating.

I read the cover story, by none other than the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, close friend of John F. Kennedy, and his Ambassador to India (see what he writes about the U.S. role in the military build-up between India and Pakistan). It is necessary here to recall the role of then-President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Bangladesh war, discussed in The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget. Nixon had supported Pakistan throughout Operation Searchlight, in the midst of a world outcry and against all advice, even from his own appointees. After Nixon left office ignominiously in the wake of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, the notorious White House tapes that had revealed his guilt also revealed  a conversation between him and Kissinger at the time of the Concert for Bangladesh. In Unholy Alliances: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Bangladesh Genocide, journalist Pankaj Mishra describes Nixon shrugging off the mounting criticism of Pakistan’s military operation and the humanitarian concerns for the Bangladeshi refugees that were being inspired by the concert and by Ted Kennedy’s visit to the refugee camps in India as follows: “Biafra [the civil war in Nigeria] stirred up a few Catholics, … But you know, I think Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan, because Pakistan, they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Muslims.”

In contrast to the crude racism of Nixon and Kissinger, the piece of writing that has moved me the most about the Bangladesh war was a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri that captures poignantly the feelings shared by South Asians in the U.S. at that time. Funnily enough, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” my favorite story in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1999 collection, Interpreter of Maladies, is set at Halloween in 1971, the exact publication date of the New York Times Magazine I have kept all these years. It is narrated by a girl much younger than I was at the time, but old enough to sense that her Indian Bengali immigrant parents bond closely with their Bangladeshi dinner guest, Mr. Pirzada, who is a visiting professor stranded in Boston while his wife and family are in the midst of the violence unspooling in his country. Timidly joking, he says to his Indian hosts, “Another refugee, I’m afraid, on Indian territory.” Every night the narrator’s parents and Mr. Pirzada are glued to the television, anxiously waiting for news of home, a place which nobody in their neighborhood or in her school knows or cares of. While carefree Americans roam the neighborhood in the dark wearing menacing masks, Mr. Pirzada’s helpless fear for his family back home comes out in his concern for the little girl’s safety among the trick-or-treaters, and she in turn feels protective of him. Everything in that gem of a story is understated, but as a 16-year-old I shared the same tender feelings for Bangladesh, the other half of the Bengal I had grown up in, and followed it whenever it was on the news, keenly aware that most Americans didn’t know or care to know its name.

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452. America

In blogs and blogging, Family, history, Immigration, Politics, singing, Stories, United States on April 1, 2020 at 8:21 pm

This is the first entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

America.

So much in this word and yet nothing at all. Perhaps I risk arousing the (easily-arousable) ire of American nationalists, even decent American patriots, when I say this, but when I say the word America and wait, it ripples through the air and then pretty much sinks like a stone.

What, and you an immigrant?! Don’t you have a heart-warming coming-to-America story, in which your family came from a god-forsaken nowhere of a place in pursuit of the American Dream? And in achieving that dream haven’t you benefited from American freedom and generosity? What ingratitude! You disgust me.

Please, loyal American, hold your fire and hear me out.

Where to begin? First, let me tell you that I recently marked the fiftieth anniversary of my coming-to-America on February 6th, 1970, a date that my sister and I will never forget. My parents always remembered it with us, that brilliantly sunny, bitterly cold day when my mother, my sister, and I arrived at Logan airport to rejoin our father after a year-and-a-half of separation. But now both our parents have passed away and this country has become, as it is for millions of our fellow-Americans, the land where our fathers died. I arrived at 15 and am now 65; so most of my life has been here; but despite the fact that I’ve been pretty actively engaged with society throughout this past half-century, it has taken me a very long time to actually feel American; to be honest, I still don’t, though I feel a little guilty about it.

  Anti-Vietnam War Rally, Boston, 1970 (Spencer Grant)

My mother never wanted to come to this country. We were living in India and my father was restless, frustrated with Indian bureaucracy (he worked for a government institution), and wanted to move somewhere else. I think he thought of America as a wide-open place with a lot of scope for a city planner like him. (It didn’t turn out to be, but that’s a different story.) Mum was aghast: not America, I can hear her saying (not that I actually overheard their deliberations about this momentous move), Anywhere but America! If the Star Wars films had been out then–and it wouldn’t be for another decade, since my parents must have been discussing the move back in 1967–my deeply egalitarian, anti-imperialist mother would have considered the United States the equivalent of the Evil Empire. Why not stay in India but move to a different part of the country, or return to England and to her family? Australia was another option, so was Ghana, I learned later.

But in the end Dad got a gig in the U.S., and so, after a long and tortuous application process (which is infinitely longer and more tortuous today), we migrated here in the relatively secure possession of the coveted green card, which gave us the status of Permanent Resident Alien. And that is the status I retained for nearly 40 years, until I traded it in for naturalized U.S. citizenship.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I’ve been unhappy here, or that I haven’t had lots of opportunities that I might not have had elsewhere. I‘ve written elsewhere about the reasons for my long-held in-between status (TMA 282, It’s Only Temporary), so I’ll just say here that it took until I was in my mid-fifties, until the U.S. had been in post-9/11 mode for nearly a decade, for me to feel that I would gain more than I would lose by becoming a U.S. citizen.

Note that I didn’t say ‘American’ citizen. I always felt that it was arrogant to call the United States America, when the Americas are composed of 35 sovereign nations, with North America alone containing twenty three. So while it may seem stilted, even perverse, to insist on saying the United States rather than America, ask anyone from Central or South America what they think. Ask a Canadian. They’ll give you an earful, I guarantee.

  Kerry at an anti-war rally

Having been born in Britain, a former colonial power, and raised in India in the decade after its independence from British colonial rule, it’s probably not surprising that I was and still am passionately against the invasion and domination of one country by another. It didn’t help that I arrived in the United States at the height of the movement against the Vietnam War, at a time when many young Americans felt deep shame and sorrow at what their country was doing in their name, at home and abroad. Before I had a chance to get acclimatized I was plunged in at the deep end, as that Spring of 1970 the news broke of the secret invasion of Cambodia, and U.S. students protesting against the war were shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State and Jackson State. My new high school debated going on strike against the war, and a week of teach-ins followed, in which I got a crash course in American history and politics. (Among other events, I remember vividly the young John Kerry, on behalf of Vietnam Veterans against the War, coming to the school to show us a documentary about atrocities committed by Americans in Vietnam; I realize now that this was a year before he was to testify in the U.S. Congress on the same subject.) It wasn’t until 1973 that President Nixon was to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam, and not until 1975 that U.S. involvement in that war finally ended with the fall of Saigon. This was the America that was to be my new home.

A view of Pikes Peak from the Carroll Lakes, circa 1925. Katharine Lee Bates’ trip up the Colorado mountain inspired her poem “America,” later to become the song “America the Beautiful.” [Harry L. Standley/Courtesy of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum]

In high school in India we used to sing a beautiful song we called, “Oh India, Mother India.” It started,

Oh, beautiful for azure skies, for amber waves of grain
For snow-capped mountain majesties, above the fruited plain

And the chorus went,

Oh India, Mother India, God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

Americans will of course recognize that song. It didn’t take very long after I arrived in the United States for me to realize that we in India had changed a few words of America the Beautiful to make it ours. I’ve always thought that this national hymn (sung here by Ray Charles, who leads with one of the less-known verses), its words a poem by Wellesley College professor Katharine Lee Bates, composed in 1895 after gazing at the glory around her from Pike’s Peak in Colorado, would make a better national anthem than The Star-Spangled Banner (sung and played here by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, six months before my arrival in the U.S.). As Eric Westervelt wrote, in an article in the National Public Radio series American Anthem, “if ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ boldly proclaims the country’s greatness as fact, ‘America the Beautiful’ is more aspirational.” If you read all four verses of the poem, it will be abundantly clear that Bates wanted her beautiful country to fully live up to its ideals–to realize its promise and keep its promises.

But back to me, in my teenage alienation.

After two restless years in college, still feeling like a fish out of water in the United States, I took the 1973-74 academic year off to study in London, the city of my birth, and to live on my own for the first time. I had a wonderful year, all in all, and returned to the U.S. to finish my undergraduate education with a much greater sense of purpose. I love London and made it my own that year, as I walked for hours around the city on foot. But that return to England gave me a new appreciation of my adoptive country.

Not only was England permanently cloudy and grey, but it was socially restrictive in ways I hadn’t recognized before. I remember one day, traveling on the London Underground in rush hour wearing a men’s military surplus bomber’s jacket. If truth be told, it never suited me, and I didn’t bring it back to the U.S. when I left. But the point is, I started feeling extremely uncomfortable, and suddenly realized that it was because the entire subway car was radiating disapproval at me and my attire. In Boston at the time, a teenager in an army-surplus jacket would not have even raised an eyebrow.

I experienced the skies in England as oppressively close that day. A few months later, when I returned to Logan Airport in Boston, it was as gloriously cloudless a day as it was on the day of our very first arrival in the United States.

Oh, beautiful for spacious skies!

I remember raising my face to the heavens in celebration, for the first time, of the beauty and freedom of America’s spacious skies.

I want to close with another version of America the Beautiful by Buffy Sainte-Marie. (Here are her lyrics.) Like so many Americans who love this country, whether indigenous people or immigrants, this Native Canadian American singer and songwriter, composer of Universal Soldier back in the days of the Vietnam War, has spent the last fifty years working to make it better. (And by the way, she describes herself as someone “who keeps one foot firmly planted on either side of the North American border, in the unsurrendered territories that comprise Canada and the USA.”) I think that Katharine Lee Bates would have loved it.

 

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