Josna Rege

168. The Fast-Wind Backwards

In 1960s, 2010s, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, Stories, writing on January 12, 2013 at 11:16 am
reel-to-reel tape recorder (

reel-to-reel tape recorder (

But that was a long time
And no matter how I try
The years just flow by
Like a broken-down dam.
                                                           John Prine, Angel from Montgomery

From August 1968 to February 1970, en route from India to the United States, my mother, my sister, and I lived in England while we waited for our immigration visas, most of that time with my Uncle Ted and my cousins Jacky and Carol. It was a transitional and sometimes difficult time, during which I missed my old life in India, especially my old schoolfriends, and wondered about our new life in America. But now I see that sojourn as a time that prepared me for what was to come, gave me a taste of Swinging London in the Sixties (although we languished in the not-so-swinging suburbs), and most importantly, gave me the opportunity to get to know the English side of my family.

As teenagers, we were always looking for new ways to make our ordinary lives extraordinary. One afternoon, Cousin Jacky and I devised a writing exercise. Our idea was—and I have no clue where we came up with this—to sit and meditate for five minutes, after which one of us would say the first thing that came into her head and we would both write about that topic then and there and share what we had written with each other. We decided that Jacky would be the first to go.

I can picture the solemnity with which a not-quite-fourteen and an only-just-fifteen girl sat cross-legged on the floor of our shared bedroom, trying to enter a deep, altered state of consciousness through meditation. Five minutes must have seemed interminable, and I don’t remember how we timed it or how we conceived of meditation. It’s likely, though, that our lack of preconceptions about how it ought to be done enabled us to go ahead and do it. When we emerged, Jacky said, with only few heartbeats’ hesitation, “the tape recorder on the fast-wind backwards.”*

For a moment I was flummoxed: it seemed such a technical topic, not at all the kind I would have thought conducive to creative flights of fancy.  But this was the assignment we had set ourselves, and so we put pen to paper dutifully. I wish I still had what we both came up with, but I remember mine clearly to this day. Here’s the gist of it.

I looked back at my childhood, still fresh in my mind at fifteen, and remembered a time when, at seven, I prided myself on being able to remember every single day of my life from age four on. It seemed to me that each of those days was a leisurely lifetime, slow and full. I set down a couple of them that suburban afternoon, one being the day in Athens when my mother took me out to eat (for the first time ever) and broke the news to me about Father Christmas so that the children in my new school wouldn’t tease me. Over the years since, time had speeded up, imperceptibly at first, but then faster and faster, until it was the present that seemed a flimsy, fleeting thing and the past, solid and stable.

It would be more than two decades before I would read Salman Rushdie’s meditation on this subject in his evocative essay, Imaginary Homelands, in which he writes, both as a migrant and as a human being, “it’s my present that is foreign and. . . the past. . . home.” Nowadays I use this essay regularly as a writing prompt for my first-year students struggling with the newness of life at university and longing for the lost homelands of their childhoods; it is as if it had been written just for them.

In my yoga class the other day, my teacher dwelt on the concept of the madhya, or the in-between, evoking and inhabiting it in our practice as a strategy for slowing down and creating space where there may appear to be none. Now that each successive year seems, in the devastating words of John Prine, to flow by like a broken-down dam, it is high time for me to return to the practice that Jacky and I began that sunny suburban afternoon almost half a century ago.

* N.B. It may be necessary to remind young readers that in those days we had reel-to-reel tape recorders, which actually used tape. When the machine was switched on, the spool of tape on one reel grew smaller and smaller while the other grew correspondingly larger. Re-wind, of course, reversed the process.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. This is a provocative piece, Josna. Time, past and memory are all intertwined. And the present almost disappears. Yet, I find that my awareness of the ‘madhya’ changes my experience of time. Noticing those small gaps as I move from one action or one breath to another, I do feel time and space expand. About a year ago, I wrote about it here:


  2. “Time Found” is a beautiful story, Karen. Instead of working yourself up into a stew when your friend didn’t arrive as expected, you shifted your attention to something else, stepped right out of time, and discovered a new spaciousness. I loved your instruction in yoga last week to notice those gaps, to find the space and time in/of the in-between. And yes, I notice that my last two stories on TMA have been backward-looking (well, many of them are, but many also connect my past to my present in some way). I think that what is implicit but unstated in this story is the idea that what one might have experienced as temporary at the time was, simply, life. It’s clear to me that this is something I need to recognize now, in another period of my life that feels transitional. Thank you for your insightful response.

  3. Another of our path-crossings, Josna: As you were ending your time in England, I was just beginning mine. My parents and I landed at Heathrow around midnight on New Year’s Eve 1970. I remember celebrants in the streets at Trafalgar Square. We stayed at a hotel on Jermyn St. (I remember this only because of the spelling). We were hungry when we arrived but the kitchen was closed (What?! In a hotel?! – I soon got used to English hours), so they served us dry little cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. Thus, my introduction to English food — and coming from a family of their descendants, it still was a surprise!

    Your meditation on time is fascinating, and your memory always astounds me. You must have been one of those diligent diary-keepers, which I attempted but never kept up for long. Now you are sending me off to be mindful of madhya and to read “Imaginary Homelands.” Thank you, as always.

    • On the contrary, Sarah, I was an extremely erratic diary-keeper,”keeping” them only in the sense that I held onto the books themselves. (See my recent story of the same name: So, we overlapped by just a few weeks! We even have a photo of my mother, sister, and I in Trafalgar Square feeding the pigeons one wintry day not long before we left. It’s easy to forget how dismal England was in those days. I wonder if that hotel where they served you the miserable bread-and-cheese sandwiches on dry white bread even had centrally heated bedrooms?!
      P.S. What a treat to get three comments from you all at once–thank you! Congrats for having got the grants submitted and wishing you the best possible outcomes.

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