Josna Rege

443. An Ill Wind (or, A portent and two strange things)

In Food, health, Nature, seasons, Stories on October 19, 2019 at 12:18 am

Two straight days of rain and powerful northeasterly wind gusts have followed hard upon Indigenous Peoples’ Day, traditionally the time of year when the fall colors are at their peak in this part of the world. The winds subsided somewhat today and gave way to watery sunlight, but not before large tree limbs, branches, and thick masses of sodden leaves had been flung across our garden and throughout our neighborhood. Hoisting the shades after returning from work yesterday, I was horrified by the carnage outside. One or more large tree limbs seemed to have been felled in our neighbor’s garden and then driven through the bordering trees into ours, knocking down the bird feeder but thankfully, missing the house. On the other side, a massive pine-tree limb with many side branches and needles had snapped off from somewhere so high that I couldn’t locate the source, and lodged itself spike down into our back lawn. It took me quite a long time to drag all the branches down into the little copse at the bottom of the garden, retrieve the bird feeder from underneath the pile, and break off and wheelbarrow away the smaller branches from the massive pine-tree carcass, which I eventually managed to heave off the lawn to the edge of our lot.

The night before had been a harrowing one, with a brief power outage followed by rapidly fibrillating lights, howling winds so strong that I was afraid to open the door, and one crash that was so ear-splitting that I withdrew from the living area and into the inmost recesses of the house with a failing flashlight in one hand and candles in the other. On the way to work there were signs of the storm everywhere, with a downed powerline threatening death by electrocution to all who ventured near it  and fallen trees on the main road forcing a slow, circuitous detour through scenic country roads. I was nearly late for Climate Emergency, a teach-in my students were attending as part of our annual Sustainability Fair. Fittingly, one of the faculty scheduled to give the presentation was unable to make it to the teach-in because his route to work was impassable. Later, I read that what had hit us had been a bomb cyclone or ‘explosive cyclogenesis.’ and that it had wreaked havoc throughout the Northeast United States.

Today was a new day, dawning sunny and dry, as I have already mentioned, with only a light breeze punctuated from time to time with residual gusts. I washed and filled the birdfeeder, cleaned out the mass of leaves from the bird bath, went for a little walk around the neighborhood, and set up my laptop at the kitchen table with a nice cup of Darjeeling tea. On a short outing to mail a letter I had stopped in at my favorite thrift shop and found an L.L. Bean jacket for Andrew and a set of six oval dinner plates, ideal for tortillas and chiles rellenos, dosas and crepes, and the German apple pancake (so delicious that we have made it three times in the past 10 days). Before it got dark I popped over to our elderly next-door neighbor’s, whose pawpaw trees had lost almost all their fruit in the storm. It turned out that he had already picked a large bagful of them yesterday, so he sent most of my two trays back with me.

Home again with plates and pawpaws I gloated over my prizes. The pawpaws went in the fridge until we could work out what to do with them, but a little internet search promised a pawpaw meringue pie in our near future. Then I turned the dishes upside down and looked them up: “HLC fiesta USA,” soon translated as the Homer Laughlin Corporation’s fiesta line of dishes manufactured between 1936 and 1969, then between 1969 and 1973 with new colors, and, after 1986, a line of reproductions. What fun! I was about to look up whether ours were the vintage line, but thankfully an early dinner intervened, looking a treat on the new plates. This mellow fall Friday was just what the doctor ordered after a hectic, sleep-deprived workweek, and slowly (slowly is the operative word) preparing me to get back down to work with my batteries recharged.

But the mood was about to change.

As Andrew and I were sitting peacefully at the dinner table savoring the tortillas, black beans, and guacamole arrayed fetchingly on our new dinner plates and watching the late afternoon shafts of sunlight sloping through the trees and the last few birds swooping down on the feeder, the neighborhood tomcat loped along the slate walkway past the birdbath, carrying something shadowy in his mouth. Now this cat is a nuisance—massively marmalade, perpetually and extravagantly bedraggled, with a reputation for aggression continually reinforced by the stories that circulate about his exploits. When we first moved into this house a year or so ago it had lain empty for three months, and this fellow had moved onto the back terrace and claimed it as his own, stretching his body luxuriously against the sun-warmed wall like a feline Jabba the Hutt, eyes glinting menacingly at all who dared enter his peripheral vision. I kept well away, and it was a long time before the terrace was ours—or at least, ours when it wasn’t his.

This afternoon we did a double-take as this fellow crossed our field of vision, intent on his bloody business, which turned out to be the disposal of a limp, freshly-killed gray squirrel so large that his tail swept the ground as the tomcat carried him away. Now squirrels are a bit of a nuisance, and we go to considerable lengths to keep them away from the bird-feeder, but they don’t do anybody any harm. Used to seeing the squirrel as the largest creatures in our garden’s microhabitat, it was shocking to see its lifeless body being carried off by a much larger predator. I stared, frozen in place, then jumped up to try to get a photograph, but it had slunk out of sight and I spotted it just in time to see its tail and motheaten hindquarters disappearing through a gap between the overgrown holly bushes.

That put a bit of a damper on the day. We finished our meal in silence, and repaired to the living room, where Andrew stretched out on the couch in his new jacket and I tried to cheer myself up by slicing and eating the ripest of the pawpaws (a bit of an acquired taste, perhaps, but it reminded me of the custard-apples in our garden in India) and returning to my internet search of Fiestaware. But everything seemed to have taken a strange turn.

radioactive Fiestaware

The first thing I found out was that my Fiestaware might be worth thousands of dollars, especially the vintage line. Apparently Andy Warhol had collected the red and blue Fiestaware, and though ours were plain-Jane ivory, I hoped that they might be a find. I scrolled down the search results, looking for the Old Ivory plates and more information on how to date them, but instead I came upon a deeply disturbing webpage from Oak Ridge Associated University entitled Radioctive Consumer Products. The connection to Fiestaware? Clicking on an icon depicting brightly colored dishes I was taken to an article of the same name which revealed that  between 1936 and 1943 the glaze on the original five colors of Chinese red (aka Fiesta red) and blue, green, ivory, and yellow dishes contained uranium oxide made from natural uranium. Uranium? It has been estimated that a single plate contains 4.5 grams of uranium (Buckley et al, cited in “Fiestaware ca. 1930s”). Apparently, the article said, in 1943 Homer Laughlin’s natural uranium was commandeered for the war effort and the company suspended the use of Fiesta red (now going by Mango red) until 1959, when they found that they could substitute depleted uranium; which was used until 1973, when it was discontinued.

What***?!?! At first I hoped that the Fiesta red dishes were the only dangerous ones; but no, it seems, easily detectable amounts of radiation emanate from all of the dishes in that era, my only consolation being that the levels from the Fiesta red are “head and shoulders above the ivory.” Small comfort, given that there is no safe level of radiation and the article took pains to explain that the radiation exposure associated with this dinnerware targeted consumers via “three principal pathways”: gamma rays to the body emitted by the dishes, beta particles from the glaze striking the hands, and “ingestion of uranium that has leached into food that has been in contact with the ceramic glaze.” Gulp.

Now my only hope was that the dishes gleaming malevolently on my kitchen counter were part of the post-1986 line, with no resale value but also no radioactivity.

Feeling suddenly rather bilious, whether from thoughts of the uranium or the pawpaw I had just ingested, I returned to my web browser to close the window; but not before my eye fell upon a set of results from my earlier search for information on pawpaws; in particular a Wikipedia article on Annonaceae,  commonly known as the custard apple or soursop family, which includes the American pawpaw. At the very bottom of the article was a section entitled Toxicology, consisting of three sentences:

The compound annonacin in the seeds and leaves of many Annonaceae including soursop (Annona muricata), is a neurotoxin and it seems to be the cause of a neurodegenerative disease. The disorder is a so-called tauopathy associated with a pathologic accumulation of tau protein in the brain. Experimental results demonstrate that the plant neurotoxin annonacin is responsible for this accumulation.

What***?!?! I couldn’t stop at Wikipedia so I looked further, hoping for reassurance. It was not forthcoming. I found a 2012 article on PubMed from the journal Neurotoxicology, entitled Annonacin in Asimina triloba fruit: implication for neurotoxicity. You can read it for yourself; I’m no scientist, but it doesn’t look good. I finished up with a series of posts on a fruit-growing site in which horrified horticulturalists were responding to this news. One of them vowed, perhaps a bit histrionically, “no pawpaw shall henceforth pass my lips.”

But what about those two trays of pawpaws chilling in our refrigerator? Andrew suggested hopefully that perhaps we could put them in the deep freeze until we could definitively confirm their safety or toxicity. But we had done that for years with a large biscuit tin full of Jelly Babies during the mad cow disease crisis in Britain around the turn of the millennium in the hopes that cow-based British gelatin would be pronounced safe. (Sadly, they eventually had to be thrown away, not because we had a definitive answer, but because they were well and truly old. And nothing is more disappointing than stale Jelly Babies. Well, almost nothing.)

My finds had left a decidedly bad taste in the mouth. No doubt I ought to have stayed indoors all day and buckled down to my unfinished work. Hope springs eternal, though. The British say, It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. When you work your way out of those double negatives, it could suggest that something positive might yet emerge from my wasted afternoon. Perhaps the winds will have changed direction by tomorrow. But they are more likely to be portents of still stronger winds to come. Returning from distractions to the very real climate emergency, there’s no time to lose.

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442. Rest In Peace, Kumud Rege (June 29, 1922 to October 5, 2019)

In Family, India, travel, women & gender, Work, writing on October 5, 2019 at 10:45 pm

My dear Mai-atya, my father’s elder sister Kumud Rege, is no more. She passed away in Mumbai on October 5th, and the cremation rites are taking place as I write this.  She spent her life serving others in the Gandhian spirit of local self-reliance, and was especially beloved in her hometown of Ratnagiri on the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra. She lived in and looked after the family home until it was sold, after which she moved to Mumbai with her younger sister, who cared for her lovingly in the last years of her life. The last time I saw her was in June, 2014, when I had just turned sixty and she, ninety-two. Although she appeared to have dementia by then, when we arrived she immediately insisted on speaking exclusively in English. When Nikhil asked to take a short video of her sending a message to his grandfather—her brother—she spoke movingly and articulately, looking directly into the camera. In an elegant Marathi I cannot fully understand or reproduce, she said, “Bapu (as she called Dad), we are enjoying here with Josna and Nikhil. It is almost as if you were here with us.”

Rest In Peace, dear Mai-atya. You have been a good and faithful servant, devoted to the education of women, and a role model for us all. So grateful for your well-lived life. In my heart, it is almost as if you were here with us.

I am copying below a short oral history of Mai-atya that was published in the SPARROW (Sound and Picture ARchives for Research on Women) Newsletter in 2006.

O R A L   H I S T O R Y

Interviewing Kumud Rege

In May 2006 I had the opportunity to interview Kumud Rege, who is a social worker in Ratnagiri District, on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. At 84, Kumud has been a doer all her life. She speaks rapidly, as if she has no time to waste. In a June 2000 SPARROW interview with fellow-Ratnagiri native Urmila Pawar, she acknowledged,“I’m not really fond of writing. I like to work rather than write about it.” While writing her memoir, Vegalya Vatene Jatana, or Traveling by a Different Path, she dictated it to a scribe, in-between meetings with a steady stream of people whose lives she has touched, either seeking her advice or simply coming to pay their respects, even though she has officially been retired for many years. Kumud was born in the district headquarters town of Ratnagiri, and lives very simply in the family home where she grew up with her parents and seven siblings (she was the fourth of eight children, and the second of three girls). In adulthood, she was the only one among her siblings who stayed in Ratnagiri and carried out her life’s work there. Kumudtai is well-known and beloved in the whole district, where she has worked and remained active with almost every social institution, including mahila mandals and balwadis, schools and colleges, the juvenile court, the remand home, the mental home, and particularly the Smt. Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram in Lanja.

Kumudtai began her vocation of Gandhian social work in 1942 when, as one of only 10 female students living in the hostel at Willingdon College, Sangli, she participated in the Quit India Movement. Her father had written to her giving her permission to take part in the movement if she so desired, and also wrote a letter to her college principal to that effect. Her father wore khadi and it was at that time that Kumud started wearing khadi herself, a practice she continues to this day. She told Urmila Pawar light-heartedly that over the years her family members have tried to persuade her to wear colored blouses or printed saris, but to no avail. Speaking with her nieces Shubha Desai and me in May 2006, she explained her attraction to khadi as something beautiful made entirely by hand and most often by women. Although khadi is associated with politicians, she distanced herself from khadi-wearing as a symbolic political statement.

In 1945, after completing her B.A. in sociology, Kumud participated in an intensive 6-month workshop in Saswad run by the newly-established Kasturba Gandhi trust fund for development of village women and children in Maharashtra under the leadership of one of her mentors and role models, Prematai Kantak. The daily programme consisted of lessons in environmental cleanliness (including cleaning around toilets), ayurvedic medicine, spinning, and agricultural skills, as well as prayers and other subjects such as psychology. In 1946 Kumud and Akka Tendulkar co-founded a Village Service Center in Lanja Taluka, Ratnagiri, and soon began to focus on the many interrelated needs of women and children. This center developed into the Lanje Mahilashram, which for the past 60 years has continuously served women of all ages with a wide variety of programs.

In 1950, after completing a second Bachelor’s Degree in Teaching in Pune, Kumudtai went to Bordi in Thane District to complete a diploma in Basic Education, following which she lived and worked for four years in a village development program in Gopuri (Kankavali taluka) with Appasaheb Tendulkar, popularly known as the Konkan Gandhi. For the next seven years, Kumudtai directed the Kasturba Gramsevika Vidyalaya in Saswad, where she ran a women’s social worker training college and inspected village development efforts carried out all over Maharashtra. During this time, while Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement was in full swing, she received a Central Government scholarship for doctoral study at Mouni University in Gargoti, where the subject of her research and dissertation was “Mutual Relationship between Primary Schools and Village Social Institutions.” In keeping with her hands-on approach, this was no library-based study, but one that required her to travel through many villages and schools to investigate how they worked.

In 1961, at the invitation of then-Chief Minister P.K. Sawant on behalf of the Jotiba Phule Education Society, Kumud returned to Ratnagiri as Principal of Desai Teacher’s Training College. She has continued to live and work in her hometown ever since, heading the college for two decades, serving as Honorary Magistrate of the Children’s Court, on the Board of the Remand Home, and, since 1982, as President of the Janakibai (Akka) Tendulkar Mahilashram. When asked to look back on all her different activities, Kumudtai considers the mahilashram to be her greatest achievement.

The mahilashram in Lanja serves many different aspects of women’s needs at different stages of their lives: it takes in teenage mothers, runaways, referrals from juvenile courts or abusive homes; offers a range of education and training for self-sufficiency; helps to arrange marriages for the women if returning to their families is not an option for them, and allows them to stay on and contribute to the work of the ashram if they so desire. It also finds shelters and raises orphaned children, runs a balmandir for older children, and arranges adoptions. The ashram received very limited government funding, and relies for its support on donations and fund drives.

Starting in 1993, the mahilashram added another wing, Shantisadan, for women over 60. There is space for ten women in Shantisadan, and it has never yet had more than a handful in residence. Reflecting on this, Kumudtai notes that any woman who leaves her home to come there, comes somewhat unwillingly, either because she has no family or because she cannot live with them. The women who adjust and settle in best are those who enter into the life of the ashram as a whole, serving as teachers, telling stories, being grandmothers to the children, participating in weddings at the ashram, singing or leading prayers at various functions. Kumud does not call Shantisadan an old-age home, with the stigma of social isolation attached to that term, but rather a place within the ashram where elderly women can live, or simply come to stay for a while. At the conclusion of her memoir Kumud has written movingly about what the mahilashram means to her in her own old age. “The idea that children are a stick to lean on in old age has been shaken. Just to speak for myself, the stick of the ashram has become the main support for my later life. This is my stick and these are my children.”

Kumudtai speaks about her various activities unassumingly, never volunteering information on the many awards she has been given over the years. Like many other women, she tends to downplay the significance of her own role in a project, emphasizing instead the collective nature of the work. When I asked her if she would donate her documents and photographs to SPARROW’s archives, she replied with some surprise that she didn’t have any such records. Because she is a doer, one gains the best insights into her work through observation. In my intermittent visits to Ratnagiri over the years I have observed her steady work with Dalits and the poor, especially women and children, her thriftiness (she uses less cooking oil in a month than I use in one meal), her emphasis on service and giving rather than consumption (she asks all her family members to contribute to her various projects and gives away her award shawls to her nieces), her egalitarianism (she refuses to have servants, but rather lives with young companions, whom she educates and trains toward self-sufficiency), her experimentation with energy-saving technologies (her simple solar cooker cooked her rice, dal, and vegetables while she was away at work). I invariably find her arranging a marriage for a man left widowed with small children, giving advice to a woman whose second husband is mistreating her child from her previous marriage, inaugurating a balwadi for Dalit children, or taking long, hot state transport bus trips to speak to village women on a job training course.

At the end of our interview my cousin Shubha and I asked our aunt about the title of her book, Traveling by a Different Path. We wanted to know how she had made the decision to do so, and what she thought about that choice now. However, she replied that at the time she did not think in these terms. Participating in the Quit India Movement of 1942 had influenced her, particularly the principles underlying Gandhi’s idea of individual satyagraha, but it was only later on that she realized that she had in fact taken a different path in life. When we asked about her choice not to marry, she similarly insisted that she had not made a decision as such, either to marry or not to marry, but rather that she did what felt right at the time. Asked about whether she has had the support of her family, she replied unhesitatingly, “Not the slightest resistance from anyone. They used to buy me cloth for colored blouses. They said, Why must you wear white all the time? Use some printed stuff….They do that out of their love for me. But nobody asked me, Why don’t you wear ornaments? or Why don’t you get married? They know that I have done what I wanted to do.”

Urmila Pawar’s June 2000 SPARROW interview with Kumud Rege is available in audiotape and Marathi transcription and has been translated into English by Kumud Rege’s sister and my aunt, Mrs. Suneeta Kulkarni. The May 2006 SPARROW interview with her is in the process of transcription. Some information for this piece was also drawn from Kumudtai’s autobiography, Vegalya Vatene Jatana (Traveling by a Different Path, Ratnagiri: Konkan Marathi Sahitya Parishad, 2000) which is available in the SPARROW library. Thanks also to my late father, Madhukar Rege, who was responsible for most of the translation from Marathi, and to my cousin, Dr. Shubha Desai, who helped me with the recent interview with our aunt.


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441. Mere Customers

In Britain, Politics, Teaching, travel, United States, Words & phrases, Work on September 21, 2019 at 6:49 pm

My first-year students have been reading and writing about citizenship, considering definitions that broaden the notion beyond a strictly legal one. I’ve been pleased that even when students have not previously encountered the idea of being a citizen of communities both smaller and larger than the nation, they have welcomed it. Recognizing that many residents of a given community are not voting members, most of them feel that they should nonetheless be considered citizens if they are active participants in it. They particularly like definitions that include working for the common good or for equal access to amenities for all the residents of a community, whether it is a college campus, a city, or a nation. And they love the definition of citizenship as a sense of belonging. But one thing almost all of them have reacted against is the narrowing of the definition of citizenship to the bottom line, reducing citizens with hard-won, inalienable rights to mere consumers or cash cows, where shopping (famously advocated by President Bush Jr. as national service after the September 11th attacks) and paying taxes mark the extent to which they can exercise those precious rights.

Toronto Transit Commission

Of all the articles and videoclips I posted on the course website, the students have cited two in particular. They were both Tedx talks, the first, Redefining Citizenship (2011) by David Miller, former mayor of Toronto, and the second, Modern Citizenship (2012), delivered in Sydney by Tim Soutphommasane, who was to serve as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2013-2018. I haven’t looked closely at their record of service when they held their respective offices and neither had my students, but they were taken with what Mayor Miller said about why he chose to emigrate from the United States to live and work in Canada: “because of our shared values. . . we judge our society by how well we treat those with the least, not by how many millionnaires we create.” Torontonians, he said, “wanted to live in a city that was marked by social justice…where no one was left behind.” To illustrate this he talked about the rapid-transit network collectively fought for and built by the citizens that served all the city’s neighborhoods, not just the wealthy ones.

Commissioner Soutphommasane, who immigrated to Australia as a toddler with his Laotian parents, sought to define citizenship by including all Australia’s ethnicities in its cultural identity, and not just superficially. Having grown up in Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney that is home to its Southeast Asian community, Soutphommasane asserts that promoting it as a food and holiday destination, as amply illustrated in this Destination NSW site, is not meaningful inclusion. The site presents Cabramatta as a “delicious day trip” with a market “revered for Vietnamese food and other Asian cuisines,” but this is Soutphommasane’s case in point. The community remains an “enticing,” “exotic” destination where the (white) Australian visitor might want to do something daring like signing up for a food tour, but it is not described as an integral part of the country, whose citizens bring to the table cultural, moral, and philosophical perspectives that could transform Australian society for the better.

Forgive me, I have digressed; aging academics often forget that they are not in the classroom and get locked tediously into lecture mode. Where was I? Oh yes; what I really wanted to say was something that I noticed for the first time (albeit belatedly) when I was traveling to a conference in England last week: whether I was on British Airways, which was in the midst of a pilots’ strike (or “industrial action” as BA quaintly called it) or British Rail, which I used to travel up north from London and back, there were no longer any passengers, only “customers.”

I know why, of course: over the past 20 years these modes of transportation in the U.K. have become thoroughly privatized, and their services are no longer to be seen as a public good, but rather as products that the user “chooses” to purchase. No longer did I have that warm fuzzy feeling of belonging, that of a returning citizen whose well-being is the country’s raison d’être, but rather, as one of my students put it in her critical reading response, a mere product of commodification.

I see that the British Airways pilots have called off their next projected strike day, citing a period of reflection before the dispute “escalates further and irreparable damage is done to the brand.” On the day I traveled to England, British Airways apologized profusely for any inconvenience to their customers. Because I tend to support striking workers on principle and in any case, think it’s generally unwise to have disgruntled pilots bearing your life aloft, I tried hard not to be a disgruntled customer. But I’m sorry, for me, “customer” just doesn’t have a ring to it. As a customer, you get what you pay for, if you’re lucky; and you only have the right to demand decent service if you’ve paid top dollar—or pound.

I stubbornly persist in demanding more of citizenship, more than being a mere customer demanding services in return for payment. At its core, citizenship is membership in a community, as I see it, one that is collectively created and maintained by all its members. Like my students, I want to have a real sense of belonging, not just a responsibility to shop.

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