Josna Rege

275. Doing it Themselves

In Stories on May 29, 2014 at 3:57 pm

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After going through Mum and Dad’s old suitcases to see whether any of them were still in good enough condition for my trip to India, and choosing one that was sturdy but reasonably light, I noticed something on a lower corner and took a closer look. It was strong, even stitching right through several thick layers of cotton canvas, an unmistakable sign of Dad’s cobbler’s awl. He had repaired this cheap American product, made to be discarded at the first sign of wear.

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My parents have always been like this: when work needs to be done, they do it themselves. They do not let difficulty daunt them, but simply go about acquiring the necessary skills. Engaging someone else to do it is always the last resort. In my childhood and youth, wherever we moved, Dad made our furniture, Mum our clothes; Mum made dolls for us, Dad built us dolls’ houses and other toys, most memorably a pair of stilts and an acrobat that did somersaults between two sticks (a toy, he would claim, that had been being made in exactly the same way for time immemorial); Dad always had a big vegetable and flower garden, and was out mowing on the lawn tractor until just a couple of years ago, in his late eighties; Mum cooked our food from scratch—never any frozen or processed meals—and cleaned the house from top to bottom entirely on her own. As a child in Kharagpur in the Sixties the only time I remember our getting take-out food was the rare occasion when Mum and Dad ordered delicious masala dosas from a little shop on the Salua Road. In the U.S. it was no different; in fact, I can’t remember our ever having take-out the whole time I was in my teens.

It was sometime in the late Seventies, when he was already in his fifties, that Dad took up leatherwork. He went about it in the same characteristically systematic way in which he goes about everything, from making his kites as a boy to making his own frames for his paintings in adulthood: reading up on the subject, locating and purchasing all the tools and raw materials. Starting with simple tasks (with his triple-E shoe width that required expensive special orders from the Hitchcock shoes catalog, I suspect that shoe repair was uppermost in his mind), he worked his way up to making beautiful, useful gifts for each and every one of us. When I look at their design and craftsmanship now, I am filled with awe. Mine was a handsome leather book bag (see above), custom-made to accommodate legal-size paper, since I was always lugging great quantities of documents around. It is completely indestructible and I would still be using it today but for my iffy shoulder and its considerable weight even when empty.

I have never been a patient person and, although I’m not afraid of hard work, have not had the confidence or the perseverance to plunge into the skilled work that Mum and Dad tackled as a matter of course. Back in the Eighties they made beautiful sets of curtains for the living room and den, going to great lengths to stitch the pleats in place and attach the stiff backing along the top edge into which the pronged ends of the curtain hooks slid. For my part I have had a large quantity of beautiful cloth, ideal for curtains, in a bag in our linen closet these last twenty years because I haven’t been able to face the prospect of measuring, cutting, and hemming it.

In the United States of course, people typically don’t make things anymore, they hire other people to make them. When they get ready to redecorate their houses they will even hire designers to make the decisions for them. (Not everyone, of course—I exaggerate.) I go one worse; I can neither bring myself to do these things for myself nor part with the money to hire someone else to do them for me. I seem to have inherited my parents’ thriftiness but not their initiative.

One of the few areas where I have inherited my parents’ drive (some might call it restlessness) is in my need to travel. While I will go for years without buying a new piece of furniture or household appliance, I think nothing of forking out what for me is a considerable sum of money for airline tickets. To me, travel doesn’t feel like a choice: it is a necessity. If I go too long without it, I start to lose all perspective and quite literally, to go a little crazy. This spring I am getting six sedentary years out of my system by taking two long trips, to England and India respectively, where I reconnect with my respective families and reflect on the changes since my last visit. I return to participate, if only fleetingly, in the settled culture that my parents forsook when they  struck out on their own, away from the familiar paths that had been set out for each of them. It can be a strange feeling, this periodic looking-in on a life that one might have lived.

As I sit on this first of two long aeroplane flights, legs aching, on the verge of delirium from extreme lack of sleep these past couple of weeks and quite beside myself with a mix of anxiety and anticipation, it comes to me that foremost among the different things my parents have had the chutzpah to make has not been the furniture or the picture frames but—each on his or her own and both of them together—their very lives. Having made their own, different choices, they had to live the often-lonely, often-difficult consequences of those choices. And they did so with courage and style.

What about me? I certainly haven’t mastered a skilled craft or wreaked the DIY miracles that I see in my friends’ homes. As I shuttle, Kissinger-like, between worlds, what is it that I am doing? I see my life as through a glass, darkly, as I peer into its murky shallows. Perhaps this is why I travel, to gain a little insight into these questions. Perhaps it is also why I teach, to take settled people into these shifting worlds whose overlapping peripheries I inhabit. Like Dad with his old leather shoes, I can’t throw my pasts away; instead, I repair them, like the cholis that need to be altered as I age, like the tarnished silver necklaces with broken clasps that I am bringing to India with me to be made new.

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  1. Really appreciate the way you so openly talk( in many of your posts) about events/circumstances in life and relate them to their impact on your own personal philosophy.Your parents DIY inclination is particularly indicative of a strong independent streak in the family since in the subcontinent, the middle class has had the option of cheap outsourcing of domestic services, Mochi, darzi, carpenter,electrician,, etc, due to the low cost and abundance of providers.My dad was an exceptional natural manager/organiser and where ever we went found people to provide services. He even found a house painter who could produce paintings based on the poems of Omar Khayyam which were hung around the house.
    I fully understand your travel urges which I inherited from my dad.I don’t like holiday travel but prefer to live and work in countries of interest which fueled my professional life.I found that every new environment produced some new elements of thought/behavior in me that I had not previously uncovered. But it is an addiction for which there is no cure. Thank God I have a wife who understands and supports this virus.

    • Love your comment, Asghar. You are right about the tendency in the South Asian middle classes to get others to do the work due to the ready availability of cheap labor (although, as you say, it is quite an art to find and manage that labor). And yes, then there is also the tendency of some among the middle classes to look down on manual labor, even if it is very skilled work; my father never shared that outlook.
      My parents also shared your preference of living and working in the places they visited, not just going as tourists. I feel the same way, although I haven’t lived and worked in anywhere close to as many places as you seem to have! A worthy and worthwhile addiction, though you are also right to thank your wife–not everyone would participate so willingly.

  2. This is such a beautiful piece. We have the do it yourself thing but lately, I’ve been falling down on the job. Haven’t traveled further than the beach for almost 10 years. I seem to be closing in on myself. Time to shake it up a bit. Maybe.

    • Kristin, from your descriptions of life on the farm with several young children you certainly did it all yourselves! I think you have earned the right to give yourself a little bit of a break so that your family can have the benefit of your genealogical research and chronicling of history. This too is work that you are doing yourself, not just waiting for the historians to tell the story–because they will never tell it in the way you do.
      And yes, by all means, do travel! Moving always shakes things up, as you put it, and I for one needed that after having been pretty sedentary these past several years.

  3. “i seem to have inherited my parents’ thriftiness but not their initiative” describes me, too. Raised in the ’60s in the US with parents who were resourceful and self-sufficient. I am self-sustaining financially, but I certainly don’t have their practical skills as you so aptly describe about your parents. Very well-written. Safe journeys!

    • Thanks so much for your comment and your good wishes. Yes, our parents’ generation certainly worked to gain practical skills. Still, from your website it seems clear that you have no shortage of skills yourself, in a number of different areas! It is incumbent on us to keep at least some of these skills alive, so that they can be passed on to the next generation–or, if not the skills themselves, the spirit of discovery and the do-it-yourself ethic.

  4. Your gift is what you bring to the many people you connect with in your life, and what you bring into their lives in friendship, sharing with your writing and being yourself ! The comments you make about your parents hard work, I am sure you bring that same thoughtfulness and persistence and determination and kindness with words and relationship. No wonder there Is limited time and energy left for the some of the more physical types of projects you describe. I also seem to remember enjoying a lot of wonderful home cooking at your house including home grown or hand picked produce. Of course I have also shared some wonderful travels with you too, locally to you on the river in MA , further afield in New Mexico, and nearer to my home, walks and exploring the countryside of Worcester
    Shire, and Scotland. Looking forward to our next travels when oppurtunity arises. Meanwhile happy travels in India and no time to fret about DIY !, Love. Jacky

    • Thank you, Jacky, for your good wishes and sweet words of appreciation. I didn’t mean to fish for compliments. Just reflecting on our parents’ amazing work made me wheel that I was falling down on the job! But you are right, I think each generation brings different kinds of work and skills to the table. It’s been lovely to be able to share some travels together over the years, and I’ve so appreciated that you’ve taken the time out of your busy life to make them possible. Love, Jo

  5. What a lovely post Josna – you’ve really made me think and put stuff into perspective …. I’ve always felt guilty for not measuring up to the ingenuity of my parents, particularly my mother But I realised, when reading your reflections, that we have inherited that same spark in different ways – we’ve learned how to fix the computer, write a press release, run a business, learn a new programme on the computer when something new has to be produced, figure out how to a lot of things when the money wasn’t available to get someone else to do it … And it’s their influence that has taught us that ingenuity.
    Enjoy your travels. Fil x

    • Thank you, Fil, for your thoughtful comment. I think you’re quite right, we too have shown our parents’ ingenuity, developing skills that draw upon the media and resources of our own times. Ive just visited your website and am amazed by your programme on the six singers–talk about resourcefulness! I wonder if one can somehow gain access to it online–such as through something like BBC iPlayer? Congratulations and I hope it’s a great success!

  6. How you can write such a thoughtful piece on an airplane is amazing. There must be a connection to your parents in there somewhere. Too much to put into a comment, but this provoked a lot of thoughts, probably because I’ve been mulling along these lines lately, too.

    I hope your trip to India is as gratifying as Germany and England were.

  7. I’m late getting here and whoa!, you’re traveling again? Mercy, I’d be in knots, but you like it so, cool! Certainly, I like the thought of “looking in on a life that one might have lived” and I know what you mean about insight. I used to get insights and lovely, endless-possibilities feelings on the actual flight in my very early days of flying a lot so—not at first being prepared for that rush of inspiration—I would end up filling the blank spaces of the inflight magazines with writing of the self-discovery kind!
    I identified with your parents’ philosophy, which is similar to that of my parents. I used to make all manner of things as a kid, but I’ve lost most of my patience along the way to Now. All that work is not for everyone, for sure. But it’s wonderful that so many quality things came from all your parents’ hard work, like your awesome book bag. So really, that book bag is basically a one-of-a-kind designer item, worth something in the high hundreds!
    Well, Josna, I wish you easy travels and much insight while enjoying your visits!

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