Josna Rege

History with a Small ‘h’

In Notes on June 6, 2013 at 1:02 pm

An esteemed reader (see her terrific epistolary fiction blog, undercovermole) has suggested that I add a History category to  Tell Me Another. Looking back, I realize that TMA has been about documenting history from the beginning—personal history, of course, but personal history as it has intersected with national and transnational cultural-political movements and flows of my lifetime. This is history with a small ‘h’, the cultural historians’ History from Below. It is history represented by many people’s stories rather than just one official narrative, as expressed beautifully by John Berger in his 1972 novel G: “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one” (a quote used by Arundhati Roy as the epigraph to her 1997 novel The God of Small Things).

I once gave my first-year students an assignment to write a story in which their own personal history (with a small ‘h’) had intersected with national or international History (with a big ‘H’) or in which they or a member of their family had participated in making History. It was interesting how, initially, they all protested that their lives had never intersected with History, let alone risen to the significance of making it. And yet as we brainstormed, we found that not only had they or their families been shaped by major historical movements and events, but they had all shaped history in one way or another—in fact, collectively, they were History. In the end they produced a fascinating set of research papers—and, I hope, gained a feeling of empowerment.

In the same spirit, I’ve selected and annotated 50-odd TMA stories, listed here in the order I wrote them, that could fall into the broad category of h/History. Thank you, ‘Evangeline’!

10. Ghosts of New Boston

The Hurricane of 1938, Birch Hill Dam, New Boston, Massachusetts (USA)

13. Paradise Lost

1980s Scottish practice sites, low-flying planes, RAF, NATO (UK)

17. Chickens on the Pot

Evacuation to St. Albans, Second World War (UK)

20. The Bay of Biscay and the Gully Gully Man

P&O ocean liners, UK-India 1950s, Suez canal, gully-gully man

25. British TV, Fall of ‘63

British TV: adverts, The Beatles, Assassination of JFK, Dr. Who

29. Incident at the Donner Pass

Donner Pass 1977, Donner Party 1846, Living Love Center Berkeley (USA)

35. The Nation

Nation/nationalism 1960s, Tribals, land rights (India)

37. Grandpa Victor and the Story of the Tomatoes

Ukrainian immigration to New York, bringing tomatoes to the Old World, 1890s/early 1900s (USA/Ukraine)

42. The Times Tables

Old and new methods for learning the multiplication tables 1920s/1960s/1990s (India/USA)

43. From a Railway Carriage

Train travel in the 1960s, 1990s (India)

44. Greece in the 60s: Expats and Other Animals

Expatriate life in Athens, 1960s, Doxiadis (Greece)

46. My Ink-Smudged Youth

Writing with fountain pens, 1960s

53. Sucking Lemons and Quoting Shaw

My parents in 1930s London, 1930s/1940s India

61. Burma-Shave Signs

Anti-nuclear protest, 1970s (USA)

62. Regulation Underwear

Educational reform, primary schools 1960s (UK)

63. Secrecy and Velvet Bugs

Communication, pre-electronic media, 1960s (India)

70. Party Pieces

Self-entertainment vs. goggling the TV (UK/India/US)

74. Three Towers, Three Coincidences

Remembering World Trade Center Attacks, 9/11/01 (USA)

75. The Long Journey

Traveling to Ratnagiri, 1950s/1960s (India)

79. Baths, Bathing, and Hot Water Bottles

Cultural history of baths & bathing (UK/India)

84. Feasting or Fasting?

November 26, 1970, Native American National Day of Mourning, Thanksgiving (USA)

87. Thanda Thanda Pani or, You Never Miss Your Water…

Daily rituals, water use, 1960s/1990s (India)

88. Sisters, Pick Up Your Sisters

Women’s Movement, hitchhiking, 1970s (USA)

92. Cookbooks, Immigrants, and Improvisation

Indian Americans, Indian immigrants, 1970s (USA)

94. My Uncrowned Queens

Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation, 1953, Royal Weddings 1981, 2011 (UK)

99. Paharganj, January 1984

1984 massacre of Sikhs, Delhi (India)

101. The Japan Syndrome

Fukushima 2011, Chernobyl 1986, Three Mile Island 1979, Vermont Yankee 2011 (Japan/Ukraine/USA)

102. No Nuclear News

Anti-nuclear movement 1970s/1980s (USA)

109 Hindi Lessons

Hindi, post-Independence (India)

111. Strawberry-Picking Camp

Student farm camp, NUS 1940s (UK)

112. Хоттабыч in India

Russian books in India, 1960s (India)

113. Riding Like the Wind

Bicycles & bicycle culture, 1950s/1960s (India)

114. Food for People, Not for Profit

The Food Cooperative Movement, 1970s (USA)

115. An Immigrant’s Reflections on Independence Day (G)

Meanings and practice of Independence Day, Indian, Indian American, American 1960s/1980s/2010s (India/USA)

119. Top of the Pops, 1968-69

Top of the Pops, BBC television, pop music charts,1960s (UK)

125. My Autograph Book

Autograph books, history and use, 1960s (India/UK)

127. Going Up the Country

Back-to-the-land movement 1970s/1980s (USA)

131. Across the Miles

Declining practice of sending Christmas/New Year cards, 1960s, 2010s (India/UK/USA)

133. So Many Things Have Disappeared

Disappearing cultural practices, trades, institutions 1930s/1960s/1990s (India)

134. Darshan, or You Never Can Tell

Fonteyn & Nureyev, Athens 1962, Halley’s Comet 1986, Edward Said 1999 (Greece/USA)

136. The Shame of Self-Censorship

Dangerous Reading, Harry Potter, The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie, 1980s/1990s/2010s (UK/USA, India)

137. A Victorian Frame of Mind

Old-school pedagogy, 1970s (USA)

139. Sealed with a Kiss

Changing practices, Valentine’s Day, 1960s/1990s (India/Greece/USA)

141. The Yogi of Beals Street

Yoga, Indian immigrant, 1970s (USA)

142. Route 66

Traveling that historic route 1970s, 2000s (USA)

148. Avoiding the Plague

Plague outbreak Ratnagiri 1939/40, Vaccination, diphtheria, smallpox, polio (India/UK/USA/Greece)

160. Dogfight

Indo-Pak War of 1967 (India)

170. Sighting in New Mexico

UFOs, Roswell Incident 1947, Area 51, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Stealth Bomber 1970s (USA)

174. Con Men, Card Sharks, and Playing a Different Game

Con-men, Richard Canfield, The Sting, Paul Newman and Robert Redford (USA)

178. Talkin’ ’bout My Generation

Culture, values of 1950s-born generation (India/UK/USA)

180. The Magic of Found Objects

Bicentennial of American Revolution, People’s Bicentennial Commission, Concord 1976 (USA)

186. Drive-ins

Culture, decline of an institution 1970s/1980s/2000s (USA)

189. Goodness Gracious Me!

British Asian community, TV comedy, 1990s (UK)

192. Jam Today

Anti-nuclear movement, 1970s/1980s (USA)

198. The Post Office

Efficiency, importance, defunding, and decline of the Post Office 19th Century, 1950s/1960s/1980s/2010s (UK/USA)

200. Roots, Rock, Reggae

The rise of reggae music, 1960s/1970s (UK/USA)

212. ¡Viva La Literatura!

Mexico Olympics, Tlatelolco Massacre (October 2, 1968), Black Power Salute/Human Rights Protest, 1968 Olympics, Howl Festival, New York (Mexico/USA/UK)

233. Rest In Peace, Doris Lessing

235. December 5th, 2013

Remembering the global influence of Nelson Mandela on the sad occasion of his death

240. Heaven’s Gate: Two Degrees of Separation

242. Gratitude
On hearing of Pete Seeger’s death

243. On Making Things Up

246. On Not Knowing the Signs

259. London without Lily

260. Monuments

267. U and Non-U
A visit to Sandringham

284. Step by Step

  1. Stone Root Lane

298. On TP Rolls and Responsibility

337. Lessons from a Historian

343. European Border Crossings

345. Reaganomics 101

346. Keeping Up with The Times

347. Free Speech: Goodbye to All That?

  1. Lest We Forget
  1. The Guardian
  1. Jai Jagat!
  1. Unions
  1. Young People
  1. What’s Wrong with “Oriental”?
  1. When the Law Breaks the Law
  1. Flying Those Flags
  1. Exposing Whose Perversity?
  1. East of What?
  1. Why Pay Those Union Dues?



  1. Josna, I found your comment in your last paragraph about the students being unable to connect their personal histories with History. So many feel that way. I remember feeling that way until I began to read Studs Terkel’s books on the histories or stories with a small s of every day people and how in the end these stories shape and define history with a big H. In fact I’d like to switch it around. I think the personal stories or histories should be history with a big H and the other with a small h.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Don, which I agree with. I wasn’t satisfied with the wording of that part of the paragraph you comment on, so have gone back to it and worded it more strongly along the lines you have suggested. I would agree with you that the personal stories should be seen as the big H History. My only modification might be that it’s everyone’s stories collectively that intertwine to make up living History. And, on the less optimistic side, I would also add that many people’s lives are damages and destroyed by historical events over which they have no control, like wars or oppression. That’s History with a big H, and while we can certainly take the perspective of history from below (as does a book like The God of Small Things, we can’t discount or underestimate the destruction wreaked by the “Big God” (as Arundhati Roy refers to the power of the nation-state and the dominant groups in society).But, sorry, here I go again, I don’t need to tell you all this! Thanks again for your gentle and necessary corrective—and for invoking Studs Terkel.

      • Really like what you say here Josna. You can’t discount the destruction of history with a big H. Sorry I came across as being corrective. I was just thinking out aloud. So enjoy your posts.

        • No no, you didn’t at all, Don. I wasn’t satisfied with that paragraph and needed to have the back-and-forth to help think it through. Always a pleasure, J

  2. Thank you Josna. It should surely be possible to find a publisher for a collection of your essays.

  3. History with a small h and big H really intrigues me. Interesting post with lots of fabulous links…

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you found the ideas engaging and enjoyed the links. I had fun with them, too. I have just visited your site and will return to it. Best wishes, J

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