Josna Rege

82. What’s Your Bag?

In 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Britain, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on November 10, 2010 at 11:09 am

One day in 1974, as a 19-year-old student living alone in London and floating from one friend or relation’s house to another, I suddenly didn’t know who I was. Rushing upstairs, I rummaged through the contents of my handbag (or pocketbook, as it was quaintly called in America) until I found a letter addressed to me. Confirmation of my existence, and that I was myself!

When one has no fixed abode, especially when one is mingling with people living a settled existence, one’s sense of self needs to rely on internal rather than external markers. But for me at least, however self-defined I would like to think I am, the bag I carry helps to shore up that self.  Much as I like to think that I travel light and shun the material trappings of consumerism, my succession of bags, sometimes several of them at once, would suggest otherwise.

As children in Greece we carried the traditional woven shoulder bags with thin shoulder straps of braided wool. When we returned from Greece we brought several of them with us as gifts. My cousins Jacky and Carol took to them with delight, naming them Handy Pots, after Winnie-the-Pooh’s gift to Eeyore of an empty honey pot he called “a Useful Pot to put things in.”

photo from The Hindu

Like everyone else I knew, the schoolbag that I carried as a girl in India was a satchel—not the space-age gore-tex backpacks of today, but a lumbering leather contraption with a handle instead of shoulder straps and buckles instead of zippers for the compartments. It was heavy enough, but fortunately I went to school in the era before Indian students had to carry a camel’s hump of heavy textbooks back and forth with them every day, a burden that the writer R. K. Narayan spoke out against  in the early 1990s, and whom studies have now vindicated, proving that children carrying heavy schoolbags develop chronic back pain. We had less homework then than do children today, so we carried just our exercise books, two or three paperback textbooks, and a pencil-cum-geometry box in our satchels, with our tiffin in a separate lunchbox or tiffin carrier.  We wore our bags lightly, and threw them off along with our school uniforms the moment we arrived home, free.

As I grew older, fashions in schoolbags changed. There was a time in school in England in 1969 when, restricted to a regulation uniform, and expressing their individuality and their fashion sense through their accessories, the girls carried open straw baskets to school on their arms as if they were country maids of yore tripping to the market. That same year, when I took a trip to Carnaby Street, the commercial center of Swinging London, I couldn’t afford much with my limited pocket money, but I did manage to come away with a little fringed suede bag, my piece of hippie paraphernalia. I never really used it, because it was too small for the jumbled contents of my life that I always seem to carry on my shoulder. Still, somewhere in a cupboard I have that memento of Austin Powers-style London. (Yeah, Baby!)

I honestly don’t remember what I used to carry my books in college. It may have  been then that I started carrying an Indian khadi bag on my shoulder, a badge of identity, and much more useful than a traditional women’s handbag—which, in any case, we eschewed as feminists of the 1970s—in that it could hold books and papers as well as wallet and hairbrush.

In the late 1970s my father took up leatherwork as a hobby. He started by purchasing a set of awls and heavy needles and repairing all his shoes, and as he got more ambitious, he bought an industrial sewing machine and started making each of us a leather bag to our own taste and specifications. For me he made a beautiful, simple-but-elegant shoulder bag with a large inner compartment designed to hold legal-size papers and a smaller outer pocket large enough to hold  pens and a wallet. It was made to last, and I still use it now and then, although it is heavy even when empty and rather too hard on my shoulders when full.

In the anti-nuclear movement of the late 1970s and 1980s we used army surplus gas-mask bags as handbags. Cheap, compact, spacious, and sturdy, they made a statement about our political convictions and—although we would never have admitted it—a fashion statement as well.

As a married woman in the 1980s and 1990s, I took to carrying the jute shopping bags in which I bought my 5 kg. of Basmati Rice. These came free with the rice and had a certain exotic aura about them. Again, especially while I was living in Winchendon, where there was not another Indian for miles around, they were a small sign of my ethnic identity as well as my commitment to reusing and recycling.

It’s interesting how things come full circle. When I first went back to India with Andrew as a newlywed, we had to carry our own cloth shopping bags with us to the bazaar, because plastic carrier bags were precious and rare. It always delighted me when the vendors threw in a complimentary handful of fresh coriander leaves and bright green chillies after we had filled our bags with vegetables. Then, with economic liberalization in the late 1990s, came a proliferation of plastic bags, so much so that Indian cities became clogged and choked with them and had to start banning their use. So now, both in India and in the United States, the environmentally conscious shopper brings her own carrier bag with her to the supermarket. At Trader Joe’s, every time we bring our own bag we get the chance to enter a raffle for a free shopping trip; not bad, though I’d prefer fresh dhaniya-patta and chillies.

N.B. If anyone from a younger generation needs a translation, “What’s your bag?” is Sixties’ slang, meaning What interests you? or What are you into? (as in “Ain’t my bag, man”).

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  1. hi jo,
    i always remember those lovely greek bags you gave carol and i. we called them Jojo bags and used to bring them with us on our country walks around hoddesdon and rural hertfordshire and collect ‘nature’ items to bring home. i used mine until it literally fell apart.
    reading about the school satchel evoked memories of the new leather smell of my satchel bought for me for grammar school, i was so proud of the satchel, but that did not save it from being displaced to the attic by one of the straw baskets and associated sense of freedom from the yoke of statutory school encumbrances!
    now whenever shopping for handbags am forever, and sadly fruitlessly, searching for the tardis version!

    • Dear Jacky, thank you for your eloquent comments. I love the thought of you rambling over the countryside collecting treasures to bring home in those bags. (I got it wrong: if you called them Jojo bags, then it must have been we who called them Handy Pots.) I also love your memory of your spanking-new leather satchel, and am pleased that you too remember the baskets. That fad didn’t catch on in America–perhaps it was only a Broxbourne thing. I laughed at your endless quest for a Tardis handbag; does that mean that it looks compact from the outside but is massively capacious on the inside?

  2. exactly that!
    the mission to discover the the holy grail of handbags also involves finding one in which the full complement of items, required for all eventualities, can be stored, yet look compact and neat. sadly so far anything that can accomplish that tends to resemble an expensive bin bag.
    other criteria for the perfect handbag are multiple compartments for organising and rapid retreival by myself but inaccessabilty to unauthorised users
    wish on ……..

  3. I loved your story and creativity of using bags! Indeed, if you look around and use your imagination you CAN find inexpensive sources that are also re-usable/ recyclable. I currently bought a few bags from for my personal use and in my office, as well as offering gifts to my best clients. They all thought it was a great idea. Ditching plastic bags is always a good idea!

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