Josna Rege

217. Regularity

In 1960s, 1970s, 2010s, Books, Family, Food, India, places, United States, women & gender on July 4, 2013 at 8:39 am
© K. L. Kamat/Kamat's Potpourri

© K. L. Kamat/Kamat’s Potpourri

Out in the cool of the evenings in Kharagpur of the Sixties, one would meet elderly couples quietly strolling, out for their evening constitutionals. Bengalis eat dinner late, but they are a highly civilized people and wouldn’t think of pigging out and dropping right into bed. Walking both before and after meals promotes healthy metabolic activity. A walk before dinner actually decreases both the appetite and the sugar and fats in the blood after one has eaten; a gentle stroll after dinner (best to wait 45 minutes) is good for both the metabolism and the heart. Sometimes the couples looked like a companionable pair; as often as not, though, the old gentleman would be walking a few paces ahead of his wife, intent on carrying out his accustomed daily routine. She would be following on behind, comfortably enough, though perhaps not involved in the movements of her intestines as much as  in her thoughts about what household chores had to be completed before bedtime. (Mansi Bhatia has described these couples in her blog post, In step or not?) But despite the patriarchal gender dynamics, these householders were sane, calm, and regular in their habits.

My father, who gave up smoking in his forties, told me of an old gentleman he knew when he was young. He used to smoke his tobacco in a hookah, and restrict himself to two deep puffs in the morning. Just two, no more. “But he thoroughly enjoyed those two puffs,” my father explained to me. Without moralizing he was cautioning me against excess, whether it was excess of  indulgence or excess of self-denial. (See TMA 145, Just a Little is Enough.) How different from the bingeing that seems to be the norm, especially among the youth, no matter what their chosen intoxicant.

cover illustration: Cynthia Maurice Garrett

cover illustration: Cynthia Maurice Garrett

Is excess an essential property of youth, something that naturally tends toward moderation with age? When I think back to my own youth, I’m not sure. I remember, as a teenager in Brookline, having a passionate argument with my father’s friend Richard, who used to come over for long, long evenings on the weekends with his wife Cynthia, and discuss art and literature; Buddhism, behaviorism, and Martin Buber; and politics, philosophy, and urban planning with my parents over late dinners and endless drinks and snacks. Their children came over in their pj’s and slept, Mum and Cynthia prepared and served feasts, joined in the discussion as long as they could keep their eyes open, and then snoozed on the sofa while Dad and Richard went at it until the wee hours of the morning. (When Richard published his book, Dialogues Concerning the Foundation of Ethics, Cynthia’s painting for the cover was a portrait of my father, in a tribute to the many conversations that had helped to develop his ideas.)

I had no patience with their endless and seemingly pointless philosophizing, talking just for the sake of talking, as I saw it then. Everything mattered to me at that age, mattered like life and death. I remember Richard saying to me affectionately—but I thought he was being patronizing—just wait until you’re a little older; you won’t care as deeply about all this as you do now.” Infuriated, I screamed, “I will always care, just as passionately as I do today!”

I must admit that while I still care deeply about the issues I cared about as a teenager, I do suffer from a numbing battle fatigue these days, and from a certain sense that I’ve seen it all before. The funny thing is that Richard has become, if anything, even more passionate than he was more than 40 years ago. The subject that he is so passionate about now is he Golden Rule: Love others as you love yourself.

Those middle-aged couples on their evening strolls—for they weren’t old, they just seemed old to me as a girl of ten—seemed to have discovered the Golden Mean, the desirable middle between two extremes. Older now than those couples were then, I still seek in vain the regularity I saw in them. How to maintain healthy habits without allowing them to rigidify into routine? How to achieve true freedom by living in harmony with dharma, the law that upholds the universe, to live by the golden rules without being entirely ruled by them?

Balance and Harmony would seem to be the key: keeping alert but also remaining calm. Those regular evening walks will be far more beneficial than erratic binges of exertion followed by collapse. There is no need to give up deep, passionate caring about the things that really matter. Hold on to them but maintain perspective, and know when to let go.

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  1. Those long evenings of discussion must have been quite something. There’s something wonderful about moments like those. We had so many of them when I was at university and all those people stick in my mind. One’s thinking is always shaped deeply in times of that kind of discussion. As always, such a great post.

    • It’s true, Don. Many people seem to be reticent about venturing into discussions of the big subjects like politics and religion. Dad and Richard had no such hesitation. In India people love to discuss and argue animatedly about everything under the sun. Discussions with friends where nothing is off the table are always so exhilarating and memorable. And they had an added dimension in our generation, with the Women’s Movement concept of the personal as political.

  2. You remind me of how poor my habits have become. If the dog isn’t here, I can go days without taking a real walk.

    I wish I could see that painting! I looked for it on line, but reissues of the book seem all to have no more than lettering on them. Alas.

    • I’m the same, Sarah. One summer I made a point of taking a short, brisk walk late every evening, and it made a big difference. This summer isn’t over yet, but I’m afraid to make a resolution in case I break it. Walking and swimming–still aiming for more of both.
      I wonder why you couldn’t see the photo of the cover? I included it in the post. Perhaps you were reading it as an email, or your computer’s settings don’t allow for it? Strange. . .

  3. Josna — a lovely, evocative post, as always. I love walking, though I usually don’t walk before the evening meal (too busy cooking) or after (often too dark in our latitude).

    I have a question and a correction for you. I am always very careful to refer to Bengalis as Bangladeshis, since they achieved their independence. Is this not really necessary?

    As for the correction, I think the proper spelling is “bingeing” (even though it violates the rule — this is English we’re talking about!). Otherwise, the “g” will have a hard sound instead of the “j” sound.

    However, this is mere nit-pickery on a hot and humid evening. Write on! xxoo

    • Dear McNance, as you no doubt know, “Bengali” refers to an ethnicity and a language, “Bangladeshi” to a nationality. (See I grew up in West Bengal, India and you lived in what is now Bangladesh when it was called East Pakistan, right? Most Bangladeshis, whether Muslim or Hindu, share the rich Bengali language and culture. I know, for example, a Bangladeshi Muslim married to an Indian Hindu, one from Dhaka, the other from Kolkata. After all, before the British partitioned Bengal into a predominantly Hindu West and a predominantly Muslim East in 1905, it was one. That was the action that really sparked the militant national liberation movement. Then the British turned East Bengal into East Pakistan when they partitioned India in 1947; which became Bangladesh in 1971 when the Bengalis declared their independence from Pakistan and were visited with extreme violence from the Pakistani Army. With the growth of Hindu and Muslim nationalisms, some have been anxious to distinguish between Bengalis (Hindus) and Bangladeshis (Muslims), but others (myself included) would rather point to the cultural commonalities across the “Shadow Lines” on maps. (You might enjoy Amitav Ghosh’s 1988 novel of the same name.)
      Not sure if I’ve answered your question, though, in spouting all of that above which you probably already know, since what people want to be called is such a tricky business—subjective, changeable, and very political.
      About “bingeing,” you are absolutely right, and I blush to have made the error. It both looks and sounds wrong (although it is listed as an acceptable spelling) and I have now corrected it. Keep cool! xxx J

  4. “I wonder why you couldn’t see the photo of the cover? I included it in the post.”

    Ooops. I’m an oblivious fool! Nice painting. I really can see your father in it, even at this size.

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