Josna Rege

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399. East of What?

In Stories on May 18, 2022 at 10:59 pm

With the doubling-down on Cold War rhetoric since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “East” and “West” are being rehabilitated all over again. Although I wrote this piece five years ago, the need to resist the illogic of these terms is as urgent as ever. And so I ask again: East of what?

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Illuminated Meridian Line (Royal Museums Greenwich)

People’s faces sometimes register impatience when I insist on putting the terms “East” and “West” in quotation marks. Okay, I see them thinking, we get it: you’re flagging them as fictions, or as intellectual shorthand, but there’s no need to be pedantic; everyone knows what they stand for.

Do they really? What is it then, that the West stands for? Liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry? As Anthony Appiah points out, these ideals are certainly not exclusive to Western civilization, and in any case the “West,” however it is defined, has spectacularly failed as a beacon of such enlightened principles.

What about the East? The late Edward Said argued that the East, or “Orient,” through the impressive body of 18th-19th-century Orientalist scholarship,  has been created as Europe’s Other, serving to justify and facilitate the ends of Empire. In European colonial thought, the East stands for everything that the West is…

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154. Saraswati and Sari-wearing

In Stories on May 13, 2022 at 10:51 am

As summer comes in again, my old cotton saris beckon. Sharing this post from the TMA archives.

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the goddess Saraswati

These summer heatwaves in New England put me in mind of the hot season in India before the arrival of the rains, and awaken in me the urge to wear a sari again. Not an elegant silk, slid out carefully from its zippered bag for weddings and festivals, or a heat-trapping chiffon or polyester, but a simple cotton handloom sari, soft with repeated washings and cooler and more comfortable than anything else one could wear at this time of year.

I didn’t always feel comfortable in a sari. In fact, for years I was traumatized by a major wardrobe malfunction that had taken place when I was ten, during Saraswati Puja. It was the festival of the veena-playing goddess, divine patron of learning and creativity, one of the most important  events of the year in West Bengal, and a procession of people took to the street on…

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511. Start as you mean to go on.

In Aging, Books, reading, Stories, storytelling, Words & phrases, Work, writing on May 11, 2022 at 12:43 pm

It’s going on 11 am and here I am sitting up in bed with end-of-term grades to submit, two outings to dress for, my daily walk still ahead of me, and a To Do list as long as my arm. One is supposed to get the grades in before starting in on the summer proper, but as usual I have allowed life to flow in and utterly derail me. I had resolved that because I have a lot on next week, I would get down to grading single-mindedly and submit the final grades for my classes early—for the first time ever, mind you. But here I am again, doing everything but, and with every hour that passes, dooming myself to an inevitable all-nighter a week from tomorrow.

But this is all very tedious. Let me tell it differently, with reference to literature. In R.K. Narayan’s delightful second novel, The Bachelor of Arts (1937), the wayward college student Chandran finds himself “face to face with November”, and the realization that half the college year is “already spent.” His B.A. examinations are looming and he has done nothing to prepare for them. “What one ought to do in a full year must now be done in just half the time.” So in a grand gesture that I well recognize, Chandran resolves to begin a rigorous programme of right living: to rise early, bathe in cold water, and give up smoking—just for starters. Then he draws up an ambitious programme of study.

He took out a sheet of paper and noted down all his subjects. He calculated the total number of preparation hours that were available from November the first to March. He had before him over a thousand hours, including the twelve-hour preparations on holidays. Of these thousand hours a just allotment of so many hundred hours was to be made for Modern History, Ancient History, Political Theories, Greek Drama, Eighteenth-century Prose, and Shakespeare. He then drew up a very complicated time-table which would enable one to pay equal attention to all subjects…Out of the daily six hours, three were to be devoted to the Optional Subjects and three to the Compulsory. In the morning the compulsory subjects and Literature at night.

Chandran duly arises at 5 am the next day; but from the very outset, the comedy of life begins getting in the way of his elaborate schedule. Something of great urgency turns up and utterly consumes his time for a fortnight. He has no option but to revise his initial programme to make up for the lost time.

He consoled himself with the fact that he had wasted several months so far, and a fortnight more, added to that account, should not matter…The time wasted in a fortnight could…be made up by half an hour’s earlier rising every day. He would also return home at seven in the evening instead of at seven-thirty. This would give him a clear gain of an hour a day over his previous programme. He hoped to make up the ninety study hours, at six hours a day, lost between the first of November and the fifteenth, in the course of ninety days.

But, notes the narrator wryly, “Man can only propose.” Chandran is inevitably drawn into other escapades that threaten to derail his programme yet again. And as it was with R.K. Narayan’s protagonist, so it was with me. As a junior faculty member facing the deadline for the submission of my book manuscript, I too drew up a rigorous—and altogether unrealistic—timetable with a certain number of hours per day and week allotted to the preparations. When, inevitably, I found myself a few weeks down the line having made no progress to speak of, I too sat down to revise my schedule by increasing the required number of hours of work per day. I consoled myself with the thought that I was not the first to have to revise my programme in this way. After all, the wildly prolific R.K. Narayan’s protagonist had had to do the same thing, hadn’t he?

But a few weeks soon became a few months, and, like Chandran’s, life had broken in and steamrolled over my best intentions. Once again, I found myself re-calculating the number of hours remaining until the hard—and fast-approaching—deadline and once again revising upward the number of hours per day that I would have to apply myself to the increasingly daunting task. I’m ashamed to say that this happened yet again, and yet again, I consoled myself with the example of my fickle—and, I neglected to acknowledge, entirely fictional—literary predecessor.

Somehow I muddled through, and the materials were duly submitted, though not before I had put my family to a lot of unnecessary heartache. For they were packed and ready to set out on our cross-country road trip with the motor running while I assembled the final manuscript and revised the cover note for the umpteenth time. We mailed the package Priority Mail on our way out of town. But this is not my point.

Some time later I returned to The Bachelor of Arts to revisit my hilarious and reassuring fellow-procrastinator who had had to revise his unrealistic timetable repeatedly. But although I went through the text with a fine-tooth comb, I couldn’t find it. Eventually, I had to accept that it wasn’t there. Sure enough, in chapters two through five, Chandran had drawn up his programme and then had had to revise it after events in his life overtook it. But he had only had to do so once. After that initial two-week delay, he had in fact stuck to his punishing schedule of rising at 4:30 am and not retiring to bed until 11:00 pm. He had not lapsed again.  He had not had to ratchet up his hours per day yet again. I, on the other hand, had fallen away from my initial resolve repeatedly and had to revise and re-revise my daily timetable. My consolation, that the great R.K. Narayan’s comic hero had done the same, turned out to have been an utter fiction.

The realization shook me, but I managed to shake it off and soon returned to my bad habits, though now without the reassurance of fiction. Now I just hated myself.

So here it is, past noon now, and, as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers used to say on National Public Radio, “you’ve done it again, you’ve just wasted another perfectly good hour.“ As retirement sets in, I am inevitably making resolutions. It is important to start as you mean to go on, I tell myself—and not for the first time. I am at the other end of life from the young Chandran, who was just starting out. But I recognize his feelings as his college career came to a close:

As they dispersed and went home, Chandran was aware that he had passed the very last moments in his college life, which had filled the major portion of his waking hours for the last four years. There would be no more college for him from tomorrow. He would return a fortnight hence for the examination and (hoping for the best) pass it, and pass out into the world, for ever out of Albert College. He felt very tender and depressed.

Chandran does pass his exams and another, very poignant, chapter of his life begins. If you haven’t read R.K. Narayan’s early trilogy—Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher—you have a treat in store. For my part, I still intend to start as I mean to go on. Stay tuned.

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107. Kalo Paska

In Stories on April 23, 2022 at 1:40 pm

As Orthodox Easter approaches, sharing this from the TMA archives. Kalo Paska and Peace for Ukraine!

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In Greece in the 1960s Easter was the biggest holiday of the year, bigger than Christmas and much more eagerly anticipated. The blessings of Easter, or Paska, lasted all year long. Although we weren’t a religious family, in the spirit of Indian secularism and my mother’s unitarian socialist agnosticism (“God is all the Goodness in the world,” she told us), we celebrated every holiday there was, and the Greeks knew how to celebrate. All through Lent people had been fasting, denying themselves meat, fish, dairy products, wine, and even the ubiquitous olive oil that seemed to form the basis of every dish. They had also been cleaning and whitewashing their houses, purifying themselves inside and out.

Holy Friday was the most sombre day of Holy Week, one of deep mourning. All the lights of Athens were turned out, plunging even the Acropolis into darkness. Late on Saturday night, people bundled…

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510. School’s (Nearly) Out

In Aging, Education, Stories, Teaching, Work on April 9, 2022 at 1:56 am

As retirement looms—why does that sound ominous?—I’ve found myself thinking back over all the jobs I’ve done over the years. Counting them up, I’ve remembered at least twenty-five, from waitress, house-cleaner, and gas-station attendant to teaching assistant, research assistant, college professor; and everything in-between. It has always irked me that people outside the teaching profession think that college professors have a cushy life when, in fact, we’re always on the job, the classroom hours being just the tip of the iceberg. As I prepare to retire I’m still feeling defensive about the work I’ve done because to my mind it will never have been enough. I think the praise I value most came when, at age 21, I’d put in a day of hard labor on a farm and the manager (Pete Hill, our friend Michael’s dear father), said—with some surprise—that I certainly knew how to work. How much I’ve put that knowledge into action since then is one of the things I find nagging at me as the countdown begins.

I’ve already written about the paper round, Godine Press, the Merit gas station and the Blue Parrot, house-cleaning, the Posh Bagel, and Whetstone Press. There were so many more jobs in my early, checquered career: shop assistant at Party Favors in Coolidge Corner, circulation assistant, Widener Library, caterer in Belmont, free-lance laddu-maker, greenhouse worker, technical editor, Environmental Research & Technology, first employee of an (anti-)nuclear information and resource service (NIRS), newspaper editor and board secretary at a food co-op federation (NEFCO), newspaper stringer, The Winchendon Courier, medical receptionist (for a week), substitute teacher (for two whole days). And none of the above counts my unpaid or volunteer work. 

Teaching was a profession I came to late, in my thirties, and have been at for the past 35 years, in different capacities and at five different colleges and universities. Strangely enough, I haven’t written much about it—the so-called life of the mind.

I wonder why not? Something about not telling tales out of school, perhaps. Something to revisit after retirement?  In my current state of exhaustion I think, not bloody likely. For now, here’s a handful of teaching stories—one set in the 1980s and the rest between 2017 and 2020:

Reaganomics 101
teaching in the 80s

Why Should Not Old Women Be Mad?
an end-of-semester rant or, I’m so old that. . .

Scattergram, April 2017
teaching in the age of Trump

Free from Thought
still in the age of Trump

Zoom
during the pandemic 

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372. Real Country

In Stories on April 7, 2022 at 6:10 pm

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Kentucky, Route 80 (Wikipedia) Kentucky, Route 80 (Wikipedia)

Blogging from A to Z
  Theme: Bringing Me Joy

RListening to Radiolab the other day, I happened to catch a show called Songs That Cross Borders, on songs that stick in our heads, and why they have such wide appeal. My ears pricked up with the third segment (starting around 12:40, if you click on the show’s link) which was about country music. Apparently, country music officially began with Jimmie Rodgers’ first recording, in 1927 (the year of my mother’s birth). Interestingly, it was also the year when, for the first time, the urban population in the United States exceeded the rural population.

What is country music about, at heart? A deep longing for a country home left behind. This note of longing resonates deeply with people around the world whose homes have been transformed out of all recognition, or who have been driven from…

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245. Welcome Home

In Stories on March 21, 2022 at 1:17 am

From the TMA Archives–I need this tonight.

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Some five or six years ago I had a dream that left with me a feeling of comfort and reassurance that I had not felt since I was a child and have not felt since. I tried to capture it in writing before it slipped away forever, but where that piece of writing is now I cannot say and the details remain shadowy in my mind’s eye. Let me try once more to approximate the atmosphere, to conjure up even the contours of the scene.

il_340x270.337978823It was a dreary day, late afternoon, and I was out on an interminable round of errands. The row of small, independent storefronts told me that I was in neighboring Northampton, though the daunting prospect of crossing the Connecticut River and finding a place to park usually deters me from going there to shop.  Tired of traipsing, I found myself pausing and lingering at one…

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509. Proceeding by Indirection

In Aging, Books, reflections, Stories on March 17, 2022 at 5:53 am

Samuel L. Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray (AppleTV)

I have just watched the first two episodes of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a collaboration between Samuel L. Jackson and Walter Mosley based on Mosley’s 2010 novel of the same name. In it, an old man with Alzheimer’s Disease and unfinished business gets a chance to emerge from the brain fog and recover his memory, but only for a limited time. I recognized and appreciated all the little details that Mosley, who also wrote the teleplay, gets just right. Both he and Jackson have lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s, and it shows.

Given my dear mother’s history with the disease, I suppose it’s natural that I’d be anxious about developing it myself. I can’t help but notice the frequent long pauses when a name escapes me—sometimes in the classroom—and the number of times I mislay my phone. And there is something else I’ve noticed that may or may not be a sign of impending dementia but is nonetheless disturbing: as an idea takes shape in my mind, rather than attending to it until it fully reveals itself, I notice my mind sliding away from it. The idea remains unformed, as when one wakes from a dream one can’t recapture, except for a lingering feeling that refuses to coalesce into anything discrete.

Rather than straining again and again in vain to capture a nebulous idea and give shape to it, I find it works better to simply float with it. As the mind shies away from what is difficult, gently bring it back. Instead of forcing it, play tricks on it. I’m no Freudian but have lived long enough to know the number of times I’ve said exactly the opposite of what I intended to do, put my foot in my mouth enough times that it was clearly no accident. So rather than recapturing a memory by head-on attack, why not do it by stealth, by association, like Freud’s methods that reveal memories the conscious mind prefers to keep buried.

Rather than labeling my tendency to go off on a tangent as an attention deficit, perhaps I can re-frame it an asset. For my mind has always worked best by digression. Take The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey: there’s a character in it named Coydog. The very day before we watched the first episode, Andrew was out walking with a dear friend who is an old Vermonter and the conversation turned to—what? Coydogs. Apparently this is the name Vermonters give to Eastern coyotes, who have interbred with both dogs and wolves. Not having read the novel yet, I don’t know how well the character fits his name, but it’s interesting that the word cropped up twice in two days when I don’t recall ever having heard it before.

Ptolemy Gray has stacks of old magazines all over his cluttered apartment, magazines that used to delight the children who would come over to the house decades earlier, but now are piled so high that they are taking over the living space and making it difficult to navigate. Boy, do I ever recognize this!

As I said earlier, Ptolemy Gray has reasons to clear his head, unfinished business that haunts him. Coydog is one of those warning voices in his head, a figure from his past who keeps showing up with an admonition, though what it is has not yet been revealed. Then there is Sensia, a beautiful woman who is dead but also keeps showing up everywhere. These two will not let Ptolemy go gently into oblivion. They keep making demands of him, demands that he cannot meet in his current condition.

Coming back to my aging brain, and how I might rethink its characteristic functioning in my favor, I remember something I once read to the effect that as we age we may grow fewer new brain cells but the branching of dentrites and connections between different areas of the brain increase. Our reflexes may not be as rapid, our cognitive function not as sharp, but we do have different kinds of intelligence to contribute: insights, structures of feeling, compassion for our younger selves, even something we might venture to call wisdom. After all, we are now the elders, and both individually and collectively we carry the experiences of our generation and of the ones who came before and entrusted theirs to us.

Doris Lessing as an old woman

No one sees the world quite as I do, and that vision is what I have to contribute. This is true for us all, of course, not just me. There is plenty of detritus in amongst the treasure, and that we must clear away. But the treasure is there, and it is the rest of our lives’ work to enable it to be revealed. The dangerously teetering piles of old magazines, the wakings from half-remembered dreams in which someone is trying to tell me I know not what, the haunting howls of coydogs may all just be my own voice reminding me that there is work to be done. But the old means of powering on through will no longer work for me. Henceforth I must proceed crabwise, by indirection.

 

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Twelve Years!

In Notes on February 28, 2022 at 2:42 am

WordPress has just sent me a notice congratulating me on the 12th anniversary of Tell Me Another. Twelve years!  In that time I’ve found myself telling more than 500 stories here. Decided to share two from each year below, plus one for good measure—and good luck. Thank you for your indulgence.

The Horn Player in the Cupboard
1974: Living in London with old high-school friends

My Grandmother
Mum’s memories, 1930s-1950

Sucking Lemons and Quoting Shaw
My parents in 1930s England, 1930s/1940s India

Trouble
Empty-nesters

Victory V’s
In my youth the slogan for the Victory V lozenge was, “It’s got a kick like a mule!” One look at the ingredients shows why.

No, It’s Not Political Incorrectness
Calling a spade a spade

Oh, to be in England
Decolonizing “Home”

It’s Only Temporary
At least, one thinks so, until

Krishna’s Butterball
Grant me a little nostalgia

Whetstone Press
1980s and 1990s: Our job printing business

Time’s Wingèd Chariot
Time, again

Real Country
Music to my ears

It Wants To Be Found
Guns

Colo(u)rs
Dad loved them

 E is for Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile
Self-explanatory

Householder
Remembering that noble stage in life

The Sitting Tenant
A pandemic companion

Notting Hill Bedsitter, 1950s
A storied place

Britishisms
They date me

Farewell, Old House!
On the eve of the closing

 

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104. Untangling

In Stories on February 19, 2022 at 1:14 am

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When I was about seven, I was presented with some beautifully crafted wooden marionettes. I can’t remember exactly how many, perhaps three. Although I never mastered the puppeteer’s art, they gave me many hours of pleasure (and simultaneously exercised my subtle motor skills and hand-eye coordination) as I tried to work out how to make them sit, or walk, or interact with each other, one in each hand. But what I remember most of all is the untangling.

As many hours as I spent performing delicate operations with my loose-limbed dancers, I spent far more simply untangling and disentangling them; for not only did the strings attached to each marionette’s arms and legs get into horrible snarls, but the puppets also got tied up with one another, until setting them to rights seemed like one of those impossible trials from a Grimm’s fairy tale, a recipe for temper tantrums and…

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