Josna Rege

53. Sucking Lemons and Quoting Shaw

In 1930s, 1940s, Books, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories on June 20, 2010 at 10:48 am

In my mother’s stories of her childhood, when the Salvation Army band marched into her working-class neighborhood of Kentish Town, she and the other children would hasten to find half a lemon and suck it noisily right in front of the horn players, bold as brass. One by one, the musicians would salivate and pucker up, and “Onward Christian Soldiers” would come a cropper.

Mum hadn’t read (George Bernard) Shaw’s Major Barbara then, of course, but she and the Fabian Shaw would have got on with each other. When she got older, other visitors toured the slums of London, among them Paul Robeson, who made a powerful impression on her. She became deeply concerned with justice for all, not just her own small corner of the world; barely out of the War and her teens, and still some time before she would meet my father, she marched for India’s Independence.

Now Dad had read Shaw by then, all of Shaw, and many times over.  His father had The Complete Plays in two volumes in his library in Ratnagiri, and Dad used to sneak in to read them and another voluminous (and racy) work, Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. All through my childhood Dad quoted Shaw (“As Shaw would say…”) in just about equal measure as he pronounced sonorous Sanskrit slokas and pithy Marathi sayings. Remembering the brilliant, if lengthy, editorializing in Shaw’s stage directions, it occurs to me that he was a combination of my father and mother—the liberal intellectual and the bohemian socialist. Faced with self-righteous do-gooders, my father would quote Shaw and my mother, suck lemons.

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  1. what parents to have! the lemons cum shaw startled me into wondering how much indeed one’s life is the longterm result of one’s parents’ prefiguring, and how little we are aware of that, pace freud et.al. so one cannot help asking oneself what irreverent food habits and verbal ramblings will my child remember? thanks for the juice. greetings from bremen.

    • Sabine, Lovely to receive your reflections. Yes indeed, what idiosyncratic traits will our sons adopt? Probably a happy combination of both their parents’ qualities and quirks. Yet they will surely bring something of themselves to the mix as well. Love. J

  2. hehehhehhe 🙂
    This was such a fast-paced read :)… lovely!

  3. Grinned as I read this. I wasn’t familiar with the phrase “would come a cropper,” but I like it. xo -Mary

    • Glad it made you smile, Mary. If you haven’t already, you can check out the origins of “to come a cropper” and other British idioms at The Phrase Finder , phrases.org.uk. I enjoy using some of these terms one doesn’t hear much anymore, but that are rich in meaning.

  4. You say so much in so few words! My mouth is puckering with the thought of lemons, and I feel I know your parents better from this little piece. I want more!

    • Thanks, Allie! I wish I could be as spare in more of my stories; I do tend to go on. This one may be the very shortest of them all, and yet it may be one of the more evocative.

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