Josna Rege

21. The Highlanders

In 1970s, 1990s, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, United States on March 15, 2010 at 11:08 am

Navajo Indian Reservation, Arizona, 1979: We’re here for a meeting of regional anti-nuclear activists, staying for the weekend with a young schoolteacher. On Sunday morning I wake early, claustrophobic in the trailer, and venture out into the still-cool desert air.

As I wander aimlessly, I hear a strange droning and am drawn in its direction. It takes me down into the steeply sloping gully of an arroyo, with young tamarisks scattered thinly along its banks.  And down by the dry creekbed,  I come upon its source: a lone bagpiper, practicing his pipes in the morning.

Who was he and how had he taken up this particular instrument? If I asked, I do not remember his reply. Perhaps I just listened for a while and stole away unnoticed, so as not to disturb; or perhaps I introduced myself, apologized briefly for the interruption, and returned to the trailer, still marvelling at the wonderful incongruity of this chance encounter.

Ratnagiri, Konkan Coast, 1993:  Staying with my Aunt Kumud at my father’s childhood home, we walk along the beach in the relative cool of the late afternoon, collecting shells washed up by the Arabian Sea. It is a blistering day in May, and we have waited until late to venture out (not being mad dogs or Englishmen). Still several weeks to go before the welcome relief of the monsoon rains.  A small object catches my eye and I bend over to pick it up from the damp sand. It is a toy soldier, a plastic Highlander, playing the bagpipes. I bring it home to America and stand it on our bathroom dresser, along with the other treasures from the sea.

Nearly fifty years after Independence, a child in India was still playing with a soldier from the Highland Regiments, and Indian army regimental bands still proudly feature bagpipes today. These reedy goatskin airbags with their haunting tones, one of many weird legacies of the British Empire. Circling the globe on currents of sound, they continue to wash up on shores far, far from their native Scotland.

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  1. Speaking of British Legacy; do you know that kids who go to The Bombay Scottish High School still wear kilts and play Bagpipes on Fridays?

    • Unbelievable–except that I do believe it! (I do like the sound of bagpipes,though, and kilts are very cool.) And at the convent school in Kharagpur we had to dance around maypoles for May Day.

  2. I probably have told you this already: My father played the pipes, and my brother plays today with a pipe band in Denver. My sister and I both did Scottish Highland dancing as children. She was much more interested in it than I was (and a lot better). I had lessons mostly because she did. My brother didn’t usually come, but the rest of the family spent every Tuesday evening in the YWCA basement in downtown Cleveland. My parents sat along the wall with the other parents while my sister and I danced with the other girls (only two boys that I ever remember).

    I found it athletically hard yet boring: it’s quite a regimented form (although they’ve gotten looser and more balletic these days), and I wanted to do jazz or tap, something with imagination. It’s also competitive: the whole point seems to be going to the Highland Games to win medals for your fling, sword dance, Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, sailor’s hornpipe, or a jig called The Irish Washerwomen, which consists mostly of stomping in a circle, grimacing and shaking your fists. Despite the dancing, I loved the pipes and going to the Games a couple of times a summer. The games would last the weekend. The best parts were Friday night, when our band would practice outside at the motel (we took over the whole place), and Sunday around noon, when the Games were over and the Massed Bands would play. All the competing bands would play in harmony, which meant at least 50-60 and often well over 100 pipers in the hills of Pennsylvania or North Carolina, perfect settings for pipes, as the hills are much like Scotland’s and the sound would reverberate among them. Driving back to Cleveland later in the day, we would all distinctly hear bagpipes in our heads, as if they were really there. We’d say, “My pipes are playing Scotland the Brave. What about yours?” “Oh, mine are playing the Skye Boat Song.”

    I’ll have to tell my brother about the bagpipe playing Navajo (or whatever tribe). Heck, he’ll probably say, “Oh, that must have been So-and-So, I met him up at Fort Collins in 1988!”

    So my comment is longer than your blog, if not quite as elegant. Lovely memories, really. Do you keep a diary or notes of some sort? Or do you have that sharp a memory?

    • I love this, Sarah! I’d love to hear a recording of your brother’s playing and see photos (or home movies) of you in your full regalia. The nearest I’ve come to the Highland dancing is lessons in the Highland Fling at school–in England, I think, but it might as easily have been India. I wasn’t very good at it, but certainly much better than I was at maypole dancing. One May Day my entire maypole group had to come to a standstill because I went the wrong way and got the ribbons all tangled up. So humiliating!

      I can hear pipes playing The Skye Boat Song, which, along with The Road to the Isles, became part of my regular bedtime repertoire for Nikhil after our trip to Skye. No, my memories are pretty indistinct. I remember some details vividly, and find myself composing a story around them which is as accurate as I can make it and has the ring of truth for me, but must surely be incorrect in many factual details. I love your parallel, criss-crossing memories. xx J

      • PS Full disclosure: even though my memory stubbornly refuses to supply details about the piper on the reservation and he might have been a Navajo, I suspect that he was not Indian, but one of the idealistic young “Anglo” volunteers who worked at reservation schools and health clinics.

  3. Josna, the podcast is splendid. I really enjoy having the stories told in your distinctive voice. Not that I had felt anything was lacking before as I read these tales, which certainly stand on their own. But I do hope you might be inspired to make more podcasts in future.

    I have a bagpiper uncle (by marriage) who pipes in Arizona. He just retired from a long career as a ranger in the national parks. I wonder if he, like Sarah’s brother, would know your piper from 1979.

  4. Thank you, Mary. This is especially encouraging coming from a radio stories aficionado like you. The process was so much fun, and I could see getting totally addicted to it. Time-consuming, though, especially editing the mistakes, and synching the music with the voice, so I probably won’t be able to do much once the academic year begins. It’ll be hard enough to keep up with the writing.
    I do think my voice sounds rather too stiff and unnatural in this, but suppose I’ll ease into it with time.

    And your uncle–what is it with all these bagpipers in the Southwest?! I suppose they’re everywhere. x J

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